There are two paragraphs in Jill Bolte Taylor’s book My Stroke of Insight that simply refuse to leave me alone. I wake up in the middle of the night and find myself mulling them over. They arrive unbidden and unexpectedly and show up almost daily in conversations and interactions with friends and colleagues. They are these two paragraphs I’ve written about previously where Jill describes the process of bringing her left-brain language centers back online:
One of the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories. This story-teller portion of our left mind’s language center is specifically designed to make sense of the world outside us, based upon minimal amounts of information (my italics). It functions by taking whatever details it has to work with, and then weaves them together in the form of a story. Most impressively our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data. In addition, during its process of generating a story line, our left mind is quite the genius in its ability to manufacture alternative scenarios. And if it’s a subject you really feel passionate about, either good or awful, it’s particularly effective at hooking into those circuits of emotion and exhausting all the “what if” possibilities.
As my left brain language centers recovered and became functional again, I spent a lot of time observing how my story-teller would draw conclusions based upon minimal information. For the longest time I found these antics of my story-teller to be rather comical. At least until I realized that my left mind full-heartedly expected the rest of my brain to believe the stories it was making up!. . . .I need to remember however, that there are enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know (again, my italics). I learned I need to be very wary of my storyteller’s potential for stirring up trauma and drama.
A Cacophony of Competing Voices
Jill Taylor isn’t the first neuroscientist to recognize this lying, domineering capacity of yours and my left brain (not to mention, our children’s). Here’s a recent NY Times article by Benedict Carey describing the work of neuro-ethicist, Michael Gazzaniga:
In studies in the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Michael Gazzaniga and others showed that the pattern was consistent: The left hemisphere takes what information it has and delivers a coherent tale to conscious awareness. It happens continually in daily life, and most everyone has caught himself or herself in the act — overhearing a fragment of gossip, for instance, and filling in the blanks with assumptions.
The brain’s cacophony of competing voices feels coherent because some module or network somewhere in the left hemisphere is providing a running narration.
Gazzaniga decided to call the left-brain narrating system “the interpreter.” Knowing the breed well, he also understood its power. The interpreter creates the illusion of a meaningful script, as well as a coherent self. Working on the fly, it furiously reconstructs not only what happened but why, inserting motives here, intentions there — based on limited, (often) flawed information.
One implication of this is a familiar staple of psychotherapy and literature: We are not who we think we are. We narrate our lives, shading every last detail, and even changing the script retrospectively, depending on the event, most of the time subconsciously. The storyteller never stops, except perhaps during deep sleep.
A Brain Divided Cannot Stand
And if Michael and Jill are not authority enough, here’s Iain McGilchrist offering a very fun RSA animation describing pretty much the same process concerning the dictator that lives in the left brain: The Divided Brain.
To me, the implications of these anecdotal and research accounts hold the potential for personal revelation and revolution. If parents could model, and children could learn at an early age exactly how their left brain is constantly making up stories that seem to be absolutely true, and more often than we realize, simply are not true, the world would be quite different. That the process of narration creations is mostly a necessary by-product of having a split brain. Imagine what children’s worlds would be like as adults when they learned only to rarely believe what they think, especially when such thoughts “stir up trauma and drama” that results in great suffering. For one thing, kids would learn not to believe and not become so easily emotionally high-jacked by the things other kids (and kids in adult bodies) say and do around them.
Another implication: on any day we might deeply understand that we simply can’t readily believe or trust what we think and/or feel, good or bad, about other people. Especially if we’re worked up about what we think. Any time any of us are feeling fearful or emotionally disturbed in any way, there’s a high probability that the Inner Dictator in the brain’s left hemisphere is busy making stuff up. That’s enough of a challenge in and of itself. The real dilemma arises out of the fact that the left hemisphere is SO adept at getting us to A: take the BS it makes up seriously; and B. absolutely believe it to be true! How does one deal with an Inner Dictator as crafty as that?
I put a question mark in the title of this essay because … suggestions we can readily apply are not only welcome, but desperately needed in each of our personal worlds!