Sunday, September 13, 2009

Left brain, Right brain, and the other half of the story

In my head, this post and yesterday's post on risk and opportunity are deeply connected, but logically they needed to be split apart.

The theory of the left-brain / right-brain split is that the left hemisphere of our brain handles linear, logical processing (cold logic) while the right hemisphere is more emotional, intuitive, and holistic (evaluating the whole picture instead of considering things one component at a time). Naturally, some people are more left-brain dominant while others are more right-brain dominant. This divide is discussed quite a bit elsewhere -- I recommend starting with the TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist whose left hemisphere was damaged by a stroke, causing her to become right-brain dominant.

I'm actually somewhat skeptical that the left-brain / right-brain split is as real as people assume, however it seems to be metaphorically correct, so for my non-surgical purposes, it's "good enough".

To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this right/left divide is that many people seem to identify strongly with one side or the other, and actually despise the other half of their brain (see here for a few examples, and even Jill Taylor seems to be doing it to some extent). This seems kind of dumb. My theory is that both halves of our brain are useful, and that for maximum benefit and happiness, we should learn how to use each half to its maximum potential.

This is where I link in to yesterday's post on Risk and Opportunity. My suggestion was to simultaneously seek big, exciting opportunities ("dream big"), while carefully avoiding unacceptable risks ("don't be stupid"). In my mind, that is the right/left divide.

The left-brain ability to carefully double-check logic and evaluate the risks is very important because it helps to protect us from bad decisions. When we imagine the kind of person who believes things that are obviously false, falls for scams, ends up joining a cult, etc, we probably picture a stereotypically right-brain person.

However, what the left brain has in cold, efficient logic, it lacks in passion and grandiosity.

When I wrote about evaluating risks and opportunities, it was as though we use a logical process when make decisions, but of course that's not actually true, nor should it be. Our actual decision making is much more emotional (and emotions are just another mental process).

The right-brain utility is in integrating millions of facts (more than the left brain can logically combine) and producing a unified output. However, that output is in the form of an intuition, "gut feeling", or just plain excitement, which can sometimes be difficult to communicate or justify ("it seems like a good idea" isn't always convincing). Nevertheless, these intuitions are crucial for making big conceptual leaps, and ultimately providing direction and meaning in our lives.

So to reformulate yesterday's advice, I think we do best when using our right-brain skills to discover opportunity and excitement, while also engaging our left-brain abilities to avoid disasters, find tactical advantages, and rationalize our actions to the world. Left and Right are both stuck in the same skull, but not by accident -- they actually need each other. (the same could probably be said for politics, but that would be another post)

Coincidentally, I just saw another good TED talk that mentions these right-brain/left-brain issues in the context of managing and incentivizing creative people. It's worth watching.