Right-Brain Thinking

By Mark E. Smith

When considering the human brain, most picture a single, sponge-like structure, all within a protective housing – the cranium – that’s little more than the size of a melon.

However, what many don’t realize is that the brain isn’t singular, but literally plural – that is, two distinctly separate halves (known as the left and right hemispheres), that communicate with each other to the totality of 1,000 trillion synaptic connections, but, in fact, think very differently from one another. And, when we understand how the two hemispheres of our brain think – that is, the very distinct lateralization of brain function – we better understand how we process events and live our lives, disability and all.

The left hemisphere is our memory bank, you might say. It thinks in a linear, analytical fashion, putting together the past and imagining the future to form methodical thoughts. When we dwell on the past or ponder the future, it’s our left hemisphere at work.

To the contrary, the right hemisphere doesn’t concern itself much with the past or the future, but is about the present, the here and now, the inspired moments in our lives (though, there is evidence that clinical depression is based on a hyperactive right hemisphere that distorts the way the mind intakes information, inherently turning to pessimistic, negative, nonconstructive thinking styles). When we are caught up in a moment, where our sole focus is what’s happening in the present, our right hemisphere is in affect.

In many ways, then, our left hemisphere is the weight of the world on us, with all of our past and future concerns flying around in trillions of stress-filled synaptic connections, whereas our right hemisphere is just glad to be here, taking in the moment.

When it comes to disability – and much of life, really – the right hemisphere is truly what we should primarily run on, the single cylinder that’s about the here and now. After all, when we hear of others’ discouragement with disability and life, so much of it is based on pain of the past, and fear of the future – it’s the left hemisphere tying one’s stomach in knots. Therefore, shifting from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking frees us of many of the emotional burdens holding us back in life, keeping us centered and inspired in the present.

Interestingly, most clinical treatment of psychological or emotional trauma (both common elements in disability experience, as well), strives to move us from holding on and constantly reliving the past, to truly living in the present, where the original trauma no longer impacts our daily lives. That is, moving beyond trauma involves a shift from left-brain to right-brain thinking, where we’re not haunted by the past or dreading the future, but truly living in the present – our lives liberated, all baggage left at the door.

And, we do obtain striking clarity and room to breathe when we shift to right-brain thinking, where with the exception of being in the midst of a freak accident or trauma in the immediate, life in the present is a whole lot more relevant and comfortable than dwelling on the past or fearing the future.

Now, the fact is, it is hard for us as humans to make the shift from left-brain to right-brain thinking, especially when we’ve experienced trauma. We’re statistically prone to left-brain thinking after having experienced many forms of trauma, where we seek left-hemisphere life paths that lead us to dysfunctional behavior (a clinical basis of “post traumatic stress disorders,”), that causes us to indirectly relive the trauma over and over. We know that women who were abused as children are more likely to be in abusive spousal relationships as adults. We know that men who had alcoholic fathers are far more likely to be alcoholics as adults. And, we know that many with disabilities can get caught up dwelling on the origin and impact of their conditions or illnesses, frozen in time. In plain language, although we know that the traumas in our pasts are over, our left-brain thinking keeps us stuck reliving the experience – often literally recreating it through life choices.

The true magic of shifting to right-brain thinking, however, is that it proves that our traumatic pasts can be just that – our pasts – having little effect on our present (where distressing memories are essentially updated with more relevant thoughts in the here and now). In my late teens and early 20s, I was haunted by my father’s having walked out on my brother and me when we were kids, where I desperately wanted answers – my left-brain thinking was torturing me. However, the birth of my daughter was a wake-up call, where in a very cognizant way, I recognized that I had to shift from my left-brain anxiety about not having a father, to my right-brain focus of being a father. And, it was at that moment – where I made the decision to stop living in the past, and focus on the present – that my life changed, that a weight was lifted from my shoulders. My father died without any sort of closure for me – there wasn’t the happy ending or clear-cut answers I’d long wished. However, I was – and remain – at peace with that because my adult life isn’t about my father, but is wholly about my being a father, where my right brain is in full affect, having cherished every day of the past 14 years with my daughter.

The question as a whole, though, remains: How do people realistically shift from left-brain, stress-filled thinking to right-brain, content-in-the-moment thinking? After all, many of our careers and lives demand that we live very left-brain lives, where reminders of the past and objectives for the future are intrinsic to our lives. And, in cases of trauma like an accident that’s caused disability, the disability in itself can be a constant trigger, reminding us of the past or raising questions for the future.

Researchers know that right-brain thinking is both kinetic and holistic – it’s what’s fully engaging our bodies and minds at this moment. The reason why adrenalin-based activities like exercise or sports are so stress-relieving is because they’re right-brain oriented – you’re not concerned about the past or future when you’re simply trying to bench press one more rep. Similarly, creative endeavors require right-brain thinking – as I write this, I can’t be plagued by the past or future, as I’m in this moment, creating this sentence. Therefore, finding areas in our lives that inherently require using our right brain – simply listening to music is a great one! – are invaluable toward relieving stress, and keeping us in the present.

In my own life, where my career is left-brain based – where I can often feel like everyone’s mobility issues are on my shoulders, where the emails and such never stop – I’ve evolved aspects of my life toward right-brain activities, where they naturally balance my life. My daughter and dogs are constant sources of right-brain, in-the-moment focus, as is working out, boating, and reading. As one living in a left-brain world, so to speak, I’m able to find great reward and relief in the right-brain parts of my life.

Indeed, we can hold on to that left-brain thinking, where its catalog of memories – especially the traumatic – fill our lives with anxiety, fear, and destructive paths, leading us no where fast. Yet, we’re presented with a miracle of the mind, where our capacity to use right-brain thinking liberates us from the past, and places us in the present, where we don’t just survive, but thrive.

Listen to your right brain, where the past truly is the past, and the present has all the potential to be whatever you make it. After all, living in the here and now, making the most of this day, is the most rewarding place to be.