When Different Parts of the Brain Conflict with Each Other

Recently I read the book Whole Brain Living by Jill Bolte-Taylor. In it, she discusses the “four characters,” or personified aspects of our left and right brain functioning that reside within us all. She points out that we have an emotion center (amygdala) on the left and right side of our brain, as well as a thinking center (frontal cortex) on the left and right side of our brain. These four parts each have a distinct viewpoint and perception, and after reading through each character’s tendencies, you can come to easily identify which character you are inhabiting in any given moment. The goal of Dr. Bolte-Taylor’s work is to help us learn how we can better have each of these parts communicate with one another, offering ourselves more peace, clarity, love, acceptance, and joy.

I imagine that most people are interested in developing more clarity of how your brain functions and how it impacts your daily perceptions and decisions, and I would highly recommend reading this book for that reason. I took what she wrote and will do my best to summarize some concepts and express how it seems to relate to my own life and experience.

One of the concepts that Dr. Bolte-Taylor highlighted in this book was that the right side of our brain is more tuned in to our present moment experience, while the left side is keen on taking us out of the present moment. Why would we want to be ever taken out of the present moment? Well, while being fully in the present moment can be awe-inspiring and wonderful, we also have to think about grocery shopping, laundry, that presentation for work, saving for my child’s college education, etc. Part of living in this world as a human necessitates that we can plan, reflect, and identify ourselves as a being with a past and a future.

I think we often fall into a trap of believing that if I can just “figure out” how to “get things right,” then I can find the peace, safety, calm, and connection that I long for. What Dr. Bolte-Taylor identified is that, while the left emotional side of our brain really does believe that happiness lies in getting all our ducks in a row, we also have an emotional center on the right side of our brain that can fully delight in the nature of aliveness, the overwhelming okayness of existing, and the beauty of our supported interconnectedness. What’s more is that we can access this feeling at any given moment.

Seeing these two avenues to peace (one being the left side strategy of getting everything I need to feel safe and secure, and the other right side’s strategy of present-focused delight and awe), is a useful distinction to make. We have both and need both and don’t have to rely upon just one of them. What often happens, I believe, is that we come to rely on the part of us that says, “If you just had _________, you would be okay,” (fill in the blank: money, house, car, kids, partner, 2 vacations per year, organic blueberries, more phone calls, less phone calls, more shoes, less shoes, etc.) and neglect the side of us that pulls okayness into this present moment.

There is nothing wrong with projecting goals, making plans, and setting boundaries, but if we only exist in that world, we will always feel a wanting. The other side of the brain might say, “This moment is perfect. You are whole, beautiful, alive, and complete.” Yet if we are only feeling at peace with the here-and-now, unable to conceptualize a past and a future, we might wonder if we’d become complacent, unprepared, taken advantage of, and ineffective. We probably would!

Throughout high school and college, I struggled with feelings of anxiety and depression. My anxiety was mostly in social situations, as I found being around people stressful because I was overly self-conscious and often filled with thoughts of self-doubt. In my early 20’s I started to practice meditation and study Buddhist philosophy. I loved meditation from the beginning. I finally had found a way to calm my nervous system, feel connected to myself, and feel relaxed enough to be fully engaged with my present-moment experience. From this calm place I was able to access a sense of acceptance, okayness, and even my thoughts changed. I could have thoughts about the beauty of the world rather than my normal internal tapes of “doing it right,” or “getting it wrong,” or “not being enough.”

During one of my first meditation retreats, after 10 days of silence and meditating for 10 hours each day, I had a beautiful and overwhelming experience where my whole body felt completely energized. I could no longer feel the boundaries of my body, and instead I felt pulses of energy pressing through me and expanding around me. It was a blissful experience, and it ended, as all experiences do, and I left the retreat and was back into my same life. As in, back into my same thoughts of self-doubt and social anxieties. My beautiful moment seemed to exist in a parallel universe to my anxiety, and have little effect on changing it.

Though I continued to meditate, I had a hard time understanding how these two states of being could exist simultaneously – was one “real” and the other one “not real”? How was it that I could meditate or spend time by myself and access a feeling of being okay, accepted, loved, and connected, and yet when I moved through the world, I found myself at battle, self-critical, defensive, fearful, and alone?

What I believe happens is that sometimes we find ourselves in situations where it feels very unsafe and uncomfortable to be in the present moment. Maybe we are told we’re no good, or that we’re not enough, or we’re made to feel shame. So we come to overly rely on the part of us that can predict the future, plan ahead, project what is going to happen and what people will think, so that we can avoid ever being put in those situations again. We disconnect from allowing ourselves to be fully present, because we weren’t taught that this was a safe and loving place to exist.

But this doesn’t mean that our ability to delight in the present moment is gone, we just have learned over time to not trust it as much. And this can change with practice and purposefully shifting our attention. What I have learned is that through mindfulness, meditation, and any practice which aims to cultivate present-moment awareness and compassionate focus, I am not trying to erase the part of me that has preferences, a past and a future, a history of successes and failures, fears, pains, unfulfilled longing, and desire. Rather, what I am doing is practicing giving voice to the part of me that can exist when all of that chatter is silenced. Who and what is there, and how does she feel when she simply is aware of being alive?

Dr. Bolte-Taylor has illustrated that we always have access to these different perspectives, and our job is to listen to each of them and get them speaking to one another. What has been most helpful for me is to cultivate a greater, trusting relationship with the part of me that is loving, accepting, and delighted by what is. Rather than relying solely on my left brain emotion center which wants to identify a “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” “with me or against me,” I can now more easily speak with my right brain emotion center that says, “Being here right now is so cool! It’s wild! Just feel it, feel it all! It’s all okay!They are both true and real, both are valuable, both are me.

  • Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
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