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The Devil on Your Shoulder

Whole Brain, Mind Thinking

An excerpt from The Art and Science of Light Bulb Moments
by Tom Evans | Updated September 9, 2018

Angel DevilThe functions of our left and right brains are pretty much entrenched in popular psychology. In many a Tom and Jerry cartoon you see a devil appearing on one shoulder and an angel on the other. You may not have noticed but it is common urban mythology for the devil to be on the left shoulder and the angel on the right shoulder.

If you get a great idea, the devil might whisper things like, "Don't be silly, it will never work" and "Isn't this just like every other invention you've come up with?"

We are brought up with seemingly intrinsic knowledge that left brained thinkers are logical and even cold and calculating. Yet the right brained amongst us who are creative and intuitive are almost dismissed as dreamers having their heads in the clouds. Clearly this division and rough functional classification for the brain hemispheres isn't fruitful and reeks of a 'glass half full' mentality.

Great art, music and literature have been produced by right brained artists, musicians, and writers. It is thought that all those amazing scientific advances and leaps of understanding of our physical world have been made by those left brained thinkers.

In actual fact, it is a safe bet that all significant works of art, discoveries and inventions came into being when the progenitor was using both hemispheres in harmony. This is a mode referred to as Whole Brain Thinking.

More specifically, if your 'thinking' is biased to one side or the other, it has the tendency to block light bulb moments and their subsequent development.

The brain is just not so simple a structure for such a broad classification to be applied. The human brain contains about the same number of neurons as the stars in our galaxy — about 100 billion.

This statistic in itself triggered a light bulb moment in me that it's too coincidental not to deserve some further study.

Much of the understanding of our brain's functions comes from the study of damaged brains or the mentally ill. There are numerous research papers on the performance and capabilities of people suffering from strokes, psychosis, accidental trauma or degenerative diseases.

As a result, neurologists have a pretty good idea of what most regions of the brain process in terms based on all types of external sensory stimuli we receive through our senses. They can also see from magnetic resonance imaging which areas run the subsequent 'thought processes'. Then based on these 'thoughts' it can be deduced which other areas of the brain control our bodily movement and vocal chords.

At the same time, our unconscious mind regulates our biochemistry to keep us alive without our conscious awareness. We also have a good idea which parts of the brain are involved in these processes.

The Mind Map below shows the conventional model of how our brains interact with our environment and our bodies.

Mind Map

In this simplistic model, everything we do is predicated on an external stimulus. There is no space for random, unrequited thought to appear, as might happen in meditation, while having a shower or when you are out for a walk — these being typical of the types of conditions from where light bulb moments appear.

Based on one of these random thoughts, you might want to go and make a cup of coffee or write a musical masterpiece. All on the whim of a thought.

In Iain McGilchrist's excellent book, The Master and His Emissary, he gives an incredibly detailed account of how the two halves of our brain interact, intercommunicate and indeed suppress each other so that the other can better function in differently appropriate situations.

He cites the function of a chicken's brain where the right eye is looking for individual grains to eat on the ground (processed by the left brain). Meanwhile at the same time, the right brain (fed by the left eye) is scanning for predators.

Note that neuroscientists can now anesthetise (or switch off) one of our hemispheres (or individual regions) temporarily to see how we then perform.

For you reading this article, for example, your left brain will be processing individual words while simultaneously the right brain works out the overall context. If anything you read makes you stop and think, or confuses you, what happens is that both hemispheres have a little debate and discussion. It is remarkable that all of this can happen without us giving it a second thought.

Note that there is a lot of intercommunication between the front and back of each hemisphere too. What is also of interest and note is that the relative use of our left and right hemispheres has changed over our history and varies in different societies. Much of this bias gets programmed in through our education and culture. For example, it has been shown that where language is depicted in pictograms, a right brain bias is detectable.

The right brain also tends to process new information and when it is learnt and ingrained, it gets passed to the left hemisphere of the brain to process. Driving a car or typing on a keyboard being two classic examples. Try driving on the other side of the road or using a keyboard with a different layout and you will get thrust back into that right brained mode of learning.

Our education system, which tends to favour learning by rote, repetition and example, biases us to a left brained existence. Especially if, as happened to me when I was 13, you were forced to choose between studying science or art and music. I've made some amends since.

In the context of experiencing light bulb moments, it is vital that both hemispheres are working in concert. Over the course of processing the idea, the different hemispheres will take on their respective roles. For example, when working on the detail of your invention, the left side may be dominant. When brainstorming all the possible spin offs, the right side may take precedence.

You can imagine the internal dialog between the hemispheres when you are Mind Mapping.

The left brain says to the right brain, "Aha, a map! I do the map reading around here, leave this to me."

The right brain, seeing that the left brain is busying itself in the detail says, "Great, now I can be truly creative."

The same type of dialog occurs when we are painting or writing — especially when we're typing on a computer or using a mouse or tablet.

So most of our days are spent flipping from one hemisphere to another. It used to be thought that the structure called the corpus callosum mainly passed information between both sides of the brain. Current wisdom is that it actually suppresses one side while the other carries out a task.

To foster the generation of light bulb moments on demand, the suppression mechanism itself has to be suppressed. When you do this, your brain truly lights up.

You then enter a state of Whole Brain and indeed Whole Mind Thinking permanently which in turn leads to a new way of being.

Next: Collective Thoughts

©2012 Tom Evans. All rights reserved.