What’s neuroscience telling us about how we communicate with each other? August. Blue skies; hot; and I’ve got my head down to finish my latest book for an October deadline. Yesterday, I reviewed some material on the neuropsychologist Roger Sperry, who won the Nobel Prize for his research on split-brain patients — i.e. hospital patients whose corpus callosum has been severed for medical reasons so that the two hemispheres cannot connect in the normal way. He showed how patients functioned when they had access to only one hemisphere of the brain, and the results were startling.
Left hemisphere of the brain
Though every thought and action lights up cells on both sides of the brain, Sperry demonstrated that the two hemispheres have very different ways of attending. The left-brain accumulates evidence piece by piece to build a picture. It excels at logical thinking, abstraction and generalisation – great for business plans and financial models. However, without the balance of the right brain, it ignores evidence that it doesn’t like or understand and even invents what’s missing to make things fit. It is sure of its rightness, and becomes angry if challenged. It can only hold a view that excludes its opposite – if I’m right, you’re wrong.
Left brain pre-eminence
Sperry worried that both science and our education system neglect and discriminate against the right brain’s nonverbal form of intellect. You certainly don’t have to look far today to see the left-brain’s pre-eminence.
It’s there in legal language – a barrister accumulates proof and builds a case. S/he brings under scrutiny evidence that makes the case and leaves aside information that doesn’t support the case.
Left-brain thinking is usually in charge when countries come into conflict. Influencers build up evidence against another country or people, piece by piece, sifting for negative information, maybe even inventing when information is missing, until they reach a tipping point in public perception and the case is made for war.
It happens too with groups — immigrants for instance. They are marginalised bit by bit, especially in the media, the case against them moving from unwanted foreign customs and beliefs to jobs usurped, drugs imported, crimes committed, piling negative on negative.
It’s the path to divorce too. The person you loved and married starts to display faults and commit unwelcome actions after a while, and so you begin to notice their failings, and then only their failings, and you build a dossier against them piece by piece, until nothing remains but anger and disdain.
It’s even the perfect way to increase your own unhappiness. Something unfortunate happens to you – perhaps you break your arm … and it’s on the very day you were selected for a prestigious football team; which makes you remember how jealous your lucky substitute has always been of you — and how mean to you … which come to think of it is a characteristic of your boss who has never given you the credit you deserve … let alone the promotion…. And so you accumulate negative items of evidence one by one, till you are thoroughly unhappy and almost savouring the addition of further reasons for feeling so wretched.
I’m aware that I’m doing the same with Brexit and Trump. I feed my opinions and feelings with articles from my favourite newspaper and TV programmes and sort for negatives. Algorithms accentuate this effect, as social media brings me only information that reinforces and strengthens my existing viewpoint. I can feel myself becoming less and less understanding of people who have opposing views; angry almost that they can be so — what? ignorant? stupid? callous? — to think as they do…
Travels in Trumpland
… which is why the programme, Travels in Trumpland with Ed Balls, unsettled me when I eventually caught up with it last night. Ed visits various venues in Trump heartlands and attempts to discover what is at the heart of people’s voting choices.
He takes part in a wrestling match, and the organiser shows just how easy it is to build up an act – it’s all an act – so that the good guys from the US win (“U-S-A!! U-S-A!!”) and the bad guy loses (“Booooo!! Ed Balls character from the UK, “Booooo!!”). The sight of 400 people all screaming insults in the same direction after such a short build-up is a scary reminder of how easy it is to sway a crowd with simple messages against a bogeyman.
But the reason the programme disturbed me wasn’t that. It was the authenticity of people who voted for Trump. Ed Balls was moved almost to tears by some of his experiences with the people he met. They had their own reasons for voting the way they did — reasons that showed something of the complexity of familiarity, story, passion, fear, feeling and thinking that informs life choices. It made me uneasy to be forced to remember that a situation is never as black and white as I’d like it to be. Seeing the fuller picture, I couldn’t quite convince myself that – had I their situation, knowledge, history etc. – I wouldn’t have voted as they did. It made me expand my frame of reference, and shift a little from certainty towards doubt.
And here, we’re in right-brain territory. Unlike the left hemisphere with its manipulation of pieces of data and generalisation, the right hemisphere has a more holistic comprehension of this messy reality here and now. It comes at the truth by means of intuition, imagination and a feel for context, with an awareness of complexity and nuance, and appreciation of metaphor, symbol, paradox and humour. It has a deeper understanding than the left hemisphere, but at the same time, since life is never neat, it is more open to doubt.
I get the feeling that a bit of travelling in Trumpland or similar with the right hemisphere of our brain awake and aware wouldn’t be a bad thing.
So here are my thoughts for you and me:
When you find yourself mentally building evidence against someone, stop. Tell your left-brain to hold off. Invite your right-brain to the party. Notice positive characteristics in this person – any tiny ones will do. Imagine the history that has brought them to this point. Visualise a different future for your relationship. Create a mental comic strip of you and the other person in the same frame and capture its humour.
Your left-brain won’t like it; it takes the world seriously and at face value; AND it believes very strongly that it’s right and should be in charge. But the right-brain in its heart of hearts (and the right-brain is the expert here) knows that the certainty of the left-brain is an illusion. The right-brain understands the complementary roles of the two hemispheres and unlike the left knows our need for both.
So let’s listen to the intuition of our right-brain. Many times at work or at home, we’ll achieve a better outcome by getting a holistic view of the situation,
- By shifting — stepping into the others’ shoes and seeing it from their point of view
- By imagining — asking ourselves what our most inspiring hero – or our mother or a child or the divine — would say about the situation
- By looking down on the situation from a distance and describing what we see
- And by realising that humour, counter-intuition and paradox all have a place in our whole-mind (head, body, heart and soul) brain
“The common eye sees only the outside of things, and judges by that, but the seeing eye pierces through and reads the heart and the soul.” Mark Twain
Right, back to writing. The Masterclass on 17 October (see below) is based on my new book, so I hope you’ll sign up below and be one of the first to enjoy some fascinating material and experience.
Book NOW for my
One-day Masterclass on 17 October
Coaching and the HeART of Conversation
in Guildford, (courtesy of Guildford Coaches Group)
for coaches and all who are interested in real communication
What does the different attention of the two hemispheres of the brain tell us about our communication with each other? And how do we bring the full presence of our humanity into our coaching and conversation to create something genuinely new.
* How different qualities of attention achieve different results and how the
attention of the right brain is essential for meaningful conversation
* With fresh understanding what it means to be real in communication – even if
we think we already know J
* How to be fully empathetic without being dragged into the other person’s mire
* How to run with the unpredictability and natural spontaneity of a coaching
conversation and catch deeper insights on the wing?
A rich day of lively exploration and personal experience with the aim of allowing something new to emerge in each of us. I do hope you can join me for this special one-day event.
Book here – https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/coaching-and-the-heart-of-conversation-tickets-47400353734 (Note special prices for Guildford Coach Group Members)
Ian read English at Oxford and then retrained in medicine as a psychiatrist and he brings this broad perspective to his writing. His book, The Master and His Emissary, is a brilliant exposition of the roles of the two hemispheres of the brain. The webpage link I’ve given you also displays a great RSA short animation of the ideas in the book. The book is long, so if you want the taster-version, try his The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning on Kindle.
My latest book comes out next spring. The others are:
The Art of Conversation – Change Your Life with Confident Communication (Capstone)
Butterflies and Sweaty Palms – 25 Sure-Fire Ways to Speak and Present with Confidence (Crown House)
Voice of Influence – How to Get People to Love to Listen to You (Crown House)
Download an E-course
(I never share your email with anyone. I’ve updated the links, so if you’ve been unable to download an e-course in the past, they work now!)
Edwin Markham’s lovely short poem, Outwitted, is about having a heart large enough to make space for you and another.
Right-brain attention, definitely:
He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !