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Left & Right Brain: Which Side Are You On?

The power in using Mind Mapping techniques.

By Tom Evans | Posted 3/15/11 | Updated 11/22/20

When you learn to ride a bike, you don't give a second thought to how you are doing it. In fact, if you did you would probably wobble a bit. Unless you are unfortunate enough to suffer brain damage or a form of dementia, it is also nearly impossible to un-learn how to ride that bike.

This curious ability we possess is a testament and indicator as to the function of the different sides of our brain. It's entered common myth that the left brain is logical and the right creative. It is no surprise that this is both a gross simplification and not true in all cases. Some peoples' brains are completely wired the other way around — or just differently in the case of savants.

The brain is not only one of the most complex objects in the known Universe but it has an ability to rewire itself upon a thought or when encountering a new experience. It is plastic, dynamic and self-programmable. Unlike other organs of the body, it evolves and can perform new and different functions — some of which are quite literally out of this world and not really accepted or understood by mainstream science or society. I will leave discussion of such different-abilities for another time.

Did you know that Tony Buzan invented mind mapping?

One of the most curious aspects of our brain is how it operates without us having to give a second thought to how we think. This ability is a clue to the real functions of the different hemispheres. It appears we quite literally in two minds about the world around us.

I've been reading a fabulous book by Iain McGilchrist called The Master and His Emissary. In it he describes how our left brain seems to handle repetitive tasks once learned. Our right brain, conversely, looks more holistically at a task and passes it to the left brain once it becomes engrained.

McGilchrist also describes how our brains are bilateral and how a chicken's left eye feeds the right brain which holistically scans for predators. Its right eye is focused on the ground, scanning for the detail of the next grain to peck at. Techniques are now available that allow the temporary numbing of areas of brain in healthy creatures so the effects can be observed by function becomes impaired — or enhanced.

What is more striking is that the right brain seems to sit outside of time and, to some degree, space. It is Everywhere and 'Everywhen' else to the left brain which sits inside space and inside time. You can imagine that the left brain's consciousness acts as a generator of what we think of as reality while the right brain's awareness acts as a receiver of what we perceive both inside and outside of our three dimensional world.

So a right brained thinker might have their head in the clouds and never get anything done. Conversely, the left brained thinking so prevalent in our culture and education system leads to the devil being in the detail and perhaps not thinking outside the box.

It's now thought that the structure which connects the two hemispheres, the corpus callosum, doesn't so much act as a conduit between them but inhibits one while the other can get on with its preferred task.

So to get into a whole brain mode of thinking, what we need to do is give our brains a task that gives both sides something to do at the same time and effectively inhibit the inhibiting action of the corpus callosum.

One of the best tools to use to achieve this 'state of mind' is the Mind Map. In essence, Mind Maps are simple drawings or sketches of associations you hold between things in your mind. They normally start with a central topic, either in words or even better if expressed as an image. You then draw branches off from that image of the concepts that spawn from the central image.

So if you Mind Mapped something relatively trivial like a shopping list you might have a central image of a shopping trolley and branches such as fruit & veg, household, frozen food, beer & wine, dairy and desserts. You can see what my typical shopping list is like. To make it even more memorable, you can use images of products on each branch.

What makes such a trivial Mind Map so powerful is that with a little training, you can forget to take the shopping list along, yet easily memorise all of its contents. I always Mind Map any talk I give on a single sheet of paper and am then able to reproduce all the points I want to get across without any notes or slides.

Where Mind Maps really come into their own is in the area of creativity and especially free-flow brainstorming where previously hidden associations appear like magic.

Mind Mapping

Illustration: Our Two Minds by Tom Evans

The left brain is your navigator through life and says to the right brain, "Aha, a map! I like maps, leave this to me, I'll handle it."

While the left brain is thus kept busy, the right brain seizes the opportunity to sneak under the left's radar to unleash its full creativity. Note incidentally, although there are many good software-based Mind Mapping tools on the market, some of the best Mind Maps are done with just pen and paper. The reason being that if you are grappling with the details of how the software works (or doesn't) and which button or menu does what, you get thrown into left brained mode.

So what is happening with a Mind Map is that the left brain handles the detail, semantics and structure of the map while the right brain keeps the whole map 'in mind' and is able to comprehend it as a whole.

The Mind Map simply doesn't care what side you are on as it activates both halves of our brain simultaneously such that 1 + 1 equals 3 or more.

For a detailed exploration of how we are quite literally in two minds, read The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist.

©2011 Tom Evans. All rights reserved.