Turn on Your Right Brain

This morning I sat down to write about how we can all learn to better use the right hemispheres of our brains. For 30 minutes, I tapped restlessly at a laptop. Nothing much happened, idea-wise. Flat beer.

Finally I resorted to a strategy I call the Kitchen Sink. I read bits of eight books: four accounts of brain research, one novel about India, one study of bat behavior, one biography of Theodore Roosevelt, and one memoir of motherhood. Next I drove to my favorite Rollerblading location, listening en route to a stand-up comic, a mystery novel, and an Eckhart Tolle lecture. I yanked on my Rollerblades and skated around, squinting slack-jawed into the middle distance. After a while, a tiny lightbulb went on. “Well,” I thought, “I could write about this.”

Duh.

The Kitchen Sink, you see, is one way to activate your brain’s creative right hemisphere. Every writer I’ve ever met uses some version of it, as do Web designers, cartoonists, TV producers—all “content creators” who regularly face the terrifying thought, “Well, I’ve gotta come up with something.”

If you’re not a content creator, wait a while. The 21st century is to content creators what the Industrial Revolution was to factory workers: In a world where information is superabundant, unique and creative ideas are hot-ticket advantages both personally and professionally. More and more people are finding more and more ways to parent, make money, find friends, and generally live well by relying on creativity.  The demand for creative thinking is both a challenge and an opportunity. It requires us to use more than the logical left-brain skills we learned in school. These days, we all need to get back into our right minds.

Historically, most brain science came from studying people whose brains had been damaged. Depending on the injury’s location, these patients had varying disabilities: If you lost one brain section, you might be unable to do long division; wipe out another patch, and your lace-tatting days were over. The famous Phineas Gage had an iron rod rammed all the way through his head, permanently losing the ability to be nice. One can hardly blame him.

People with left-hemisphere brain injuries may have trouble thinking analytically or making rational decisions. Many with damage to the right hemisphere, on the other hand, can still pass their SATs but become unable to connect parts into a meaningful whole. Oliver Sacks wrote about such a patient in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. This gentleman saw perfectly but could identify what he saw only by guessing. If you showed him a rose, he might say, “Well, it’s red on top, green and prickly below, and it smells nice…. Is it a flower?” One day, while looking for a hat to put on, he reached for his wife instead, perhaps thinking: “It’s familiar, and it goes with me everywhere…. Is it my hat?” I’m sure this was awful for his poor wife, though it could have been worse (“Well, it’s the size of a small house and it needs cleaning…Is it my garage?”). But still.

For most of Western history the right side of the brain was short-shrifted by neurologists intent on helping people think “rationally.” Only in recent years have experts begun to laud the creative, holistic right hemisphere. Interestingly, left-hemisphere strokes appear to be more common than right-hemisphere strokes. Perhaps we’re overusing our left hemispheres to the point of blowout. Or perhaps illness is trying to nudge us back to the mysteries and gifts of the right brain. Fortunately, we now know we can effect this change deliberately, without having to survive neurological disaster.

In his fascinating book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes how the brain reacts when a person develops a new skill. Performing an action involves firing an electrical signal through a neural pathway; each time this happens, it thickens the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers like the rubber coating on electrical wires. The thicker the myelin sheath around a neural pathway, the more easily and effectively we use it. Heavily myelinated pathways equal mad skills.

Throughout your education, you myelinated the left-brain pathways for thinking logically. You were prepared for predictability and order, not today’s constant flood of innovation and change. Now you need to build up myelin sheaths around new skill circuits, located in your right hemisphere. To do this, you need something Coyle calls deep practice.

Deep practice is the same no matter what the skill. First visualize an ability you’d like to acquire—swimming like Dara Torres, painting like Grandma Moses, handling iron rods like Uncle Phineas. Then try to replicate that behavior. Initially, you’ll fail. That’s good; failure is an essential element of deep practice. Next, analyze your errors, noting exactly where your performance didn’t match your ideal. Now try again. You’ll still probably fail (remember, that’s a good thing), but in Samuel Beckett’s words, you’ll “fail better.”

Examples of people engaged in deep practice are everywhere. Think of American Idol contestants improving their singing, or Tiger Woods perfecting his golf swing. I once saw a television interviewer present Toni Morrison with the original manuscript of one of her masterpieces. Morrison became slightly distracted, running critical eyes across the page, wanting to make changes. She clearly can’t stop deep practicing. That’s why she won the Nobel Prize.

Deep practice is hard. It makes your brain feel like a piece of raw hamburger. It’s also weirdly rewarding, dropping you into rapt concentration, yielding quick improvement, and (if you’re lucky) producing good work. Here are some tricks you can deep practice to buff up your right hemisphere.

1. Sign your name every which way. My favorite teacher and artist, Will Reimann, was brilliant at getting his students to use the right side of their brains. There were many squinty eyes in Reimann’s studio, much neural myelination. Here’s one of his exercises:

Sign your name.

Done?

Okay, now things get gnarly. Sign again, but this time, do it in mirror writing—right to left, rather than left to right (just moving your hand backward fires the right brain hemisphere). Got that? Now sign upside down. Then backward and upside down. Repeat this until you can sign in all directions. Good luck.

2. Have a bilateral conversation. For this exercise, take a pencil in your right hand (even if you’re left-handed) and write the question: “How’s it going?” Then switch to your left hand, and write whatever pops up. Your nondominant hand’s writing will be shaky—that’s okay. The important thing isn’t tidiness; it’s noticing that your twin hemispheres have different personalities.

The right side of the brain, which controls the left hand, will say things you don’t know that you know. It specializes in assessing your physical and mental feelings, and it often offers solutions. “Take a nap,” your right hemisphere might say, or “Just do what feels right; we’ll be fine.” You’ll find there’s a little Zen master in that left hand of yours (not surprisingly, left-handed people are disproportionately represented in creative professions).

3. Learn new moves. You need your right hemisphere to move in an unfamiliar way, whether you’re learning a complicated dance step or holding a new yoga posture. Or cutting your own hair (actually, don’t—I speak from experience).

Try this: Walk a few steps, noticing how your arms swing opposite your legs. Now walk with your right arm and right foot going forward simultaneously, then the left hand and left foot. Is this difficult? No? Then do it backward, with your eyes closed—any variation that’s initially hard but ultimately learnable. You’ll master a new skill, sure; more important, you’ll build your overall right-brain facility.

4. Toss in the kitchen sink. Time to push your newly awakened right hemisphere into useful service. Think of a problem that’s had you stumped for a while: Your preschooler won’t nap, you can’t make yourself exercise, you need to cut expenses without sacrificing quality of life. With this challenge in your mind, read a few paragraphs in several totally unrelated books. Then relax. Play with your cat, wash the dishes, watch the neighbors through binoculars. Think of the problem periodically, then drop it again.

This process encourages eureka epiphanies, like those moments in TV dramas where the brilliant doctor or sleuth gets the “ping” of insight that solves the case. Your first few ideas may not be perfect—many will be awful—but there are more where they came from. Once you begin encouraging the right brain to churn out solutions, it will do so more and more abundantly.

Turning on your right brain is a skill, one that grows steadily stronger the more you work at it. Trigger the sensation of deep practice by mastering any unfamiliar task, feed challenges and stray information into your right brain’s database, and see new ideas begin to emerge. As they do, you’ll move more confidently and productively through an increasingly complex world. When I see you out Rollerblading, eyes locked in a vacant yet squinty stare, I’ll know you’re getting the hang of it.