During the millennia in which the brain of homo sapiens has been aware of its internal and external experience, it has reflected two dramatically different sets of perception. On the one hand, human beings express ideals of connectedness, peacefulness, harmony, unity, and aesthetic integration. On the other hand, human history is marked by competition, conflict, disagreement, separatism, and pragmatic materialism.
Dual faculties, such as the simultaneous generation of thought and intuition, logic and sensation, words and images, represent diametrically opposed methods of experiencing and describing the worlds of our experience. The widespread phenomenon of philosophical dualism is a pivotal component in virtually all human speculation on the ultimate nature of things.
And of course, when we describe the world, we are describing ourselves.
Recent advances in neuroscience and brain imaging techniques have made it abundantly clear that there is a powerful physiological basis for our dual-mindedness. The morphology of the human brain reveals two nearly separate hemispheres that function in quite different – one might say quite opposite – ways. The left brain hemisphere creates our rational, judgmental, analytical, mathematical, and verbal mind. The right hemisphere intuits an aesthetically unified, seamless, connected gestalt in which our very self is one with all that enfolds it. The right brain feels the harmonious interaction of trillions of cells acting in unison with their environment. And both hemispheres operate independently and simultaneously upon our experience.
In her revelatory book, My Stroke of Insight, neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor tells of her own descent into the deepest recesses of both sides of her brain. As a result of a hemorrhagic stroke – and the concomitant shutting down of her left hemisphere, she experienced the fullness of right-brain consciousness. In the subsequent reclamation of her left-brain functioning, she came to know its singular nature, as well.
My Stroke of Insight offers a rare view into how and why we so often feel conflict within ourselves. The author reveals clashes between the culturally reinforced rational/verbal mind which works effortlessly to dominate our consciousness and the naturally aesthetic, cooperative, and unifying mind of our right brain. And she urges us to consider making conscious choices regarding which modality we want to emphasize in the here and now.
Teaching art, I find it crucial to discuss with my students the differences in the way the two hemispheres of the human brain apprehend, structure, and express experience. My classes begin with moments of relaxation and reflection. By employing techniques ranging from traditional meditation to self-hypnosis and neuro-linguistic programming, students become more capable of switching on and off neural circuitry that promotes both analytical and aesthetic modes in contexts most appropriate for productive creative experience.
Art is a perfect reflection of the processes of being, apprehending, experiencing, behaving, and effecting change both in the world and within oneself. It can be the means whereby one creates very personal – yet effectively universal – vision and action.
By studying ourselves we come to know not simply ourselves but, more broadly, the world at large. The better we can come to understand the inner processes of our experience the more conscious we can be of our own central role in creating this experience. By learning to effect change in ourselves, we learn to change our world. And by sharing these inner and outer visions, we strengthen the ties connecting us to all life, all energy, to the infinite universe, and to each other.
You Tube Video: Jill Bolte Taylor at TED conference 2008