By Mary Meador MD
I am going to be teaching a course next month at Portland State University entitled The Science of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). IPNB can be characterized as the scientific study of what it means to be human. It considers all fields of science, from physics and mathematics to psychology and anthropology, and explores the overlapping truths among them. This field aims to grasp the objective reality of subjective experience. Pretty cool, eh?
The Science of IPNB course involves teaching a lot about neuroscience and the brain. Our knowledge base in this area is exploding which is both exciting and also challenging. We are learning so much, and yet we don’t necessarily know what it all means. It seems that as we gain more knowledge we inevitably discover that the understanding we thought we had falls short. For example, when I was in medical school, we learned that the brain’s growth stopped when our bodies matured. Now we know that neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to both repair and grow new neurons) is possible for our entire lifespan!
In studying IPNB and working with individuals and couples in my office, I am aware that one of the many challenges we all face is parallel to the expanding realm of neuroscience: that is the concept of understanding the difference between what it is that we “know” and what we think we “know.” We must learn to appreciate that we can only know the world as we have shaped it as a result of our experiences. It is vital that we consider this when we interact with each other, be it our partner, our children, our co-workers, or anyone else for that matter.
I am not trying to say that reality is all in our heads. Rather, that we each have our own reality, one that is comprised of the “known” world in addition to the world as you “know” it, based on how you pay attention and what are your past experiences. How and where you pay attention will determine what you find, and what you find will determine how you further pay attention. This is a process that can inevitably harden things up into certainty. Eventually, you will see what you expect to find and you won’t see what you do not expect to find, even if it is right there in front of you.
This concept describes precisely how our brains become wired in the way that they do: experience and paying attention is the same thing as neural firing. Fortunately, as humans we have the capacity to reflect and to become self-aware. Even with only a basic understanding of how our brains work, we can begin to make sense of ourselves and intentionally pay attention in alternate ways. We can begin creating experiences within ourselves and with our partner (for example), allowing us to see each other and our relationship differently.
Learning about the differences between the left and right hemisphere in our brain is one place to start exploring how our brains work. In an over-simplified explanation, the left hemisphere is poised to narrow things down to what seems like a certainty and then allowing us to manipulate it. Our right hemisphere is aiming to open things up to into possibility and to grasp an understanding. Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, delves deeply into the importance of the division of the brain into two hemispheres.
The right hemisphere seems to be involved more with new experience, novelty, and a fresh presentation to the mind. The left hemisphere, in contrast, takes over once it is represented – literally re-presented; once it is a concept, a known entity. You can actually see this process happening in brain imaging. The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran calls the right hemisphere the devil’s advocate, because it is always interested in the actual, upsetting the left hemisphere’s tendency to see only what it is expecting to see. The left hemisphere can be likened to a road map, representing the route one needs to take to get from point A to point B. The right hemisphere, in contrast, will be concerned with the trees and the houses we pass, as well as the interests of the communities along the way.
To me, it is clear that the contributions of both hemispheres are essential to our full experience of life. I also see how the left hemisphere, in its linear, logical, linguistic and list-making way of re-presenting life to us may be persuading us to believe it is of more value than the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is decisive; it asks us to choose either/or, and tells us it is black or white. The right hemisphere is perfectly happy with both/and, which in fact, includes both the left and the right hemispheres!
As you go about your day and interact with your loved ones, indeed with the world around you, be mindful of the importance of understanding, rather than concluding. Experience the value in interacting rather than reacting. Meaning will emerge from your engagement with the world around you. Appreciate the different ways that your left and right hemispheres view their surroundings. They are both worthy, just as the differences among us all are worthy of being honored.