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The way you think

The human mind is a very complex thing. It can however be divided into two main parts, which correspond to the two sides of the brain. The two sides or hemispheres are imaginatively called the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. These two sides of the brain think in two different ways.

The left side of the brain thinks in logical, rational ways. This is what some people call our intellect. It breaks problems down into parts (called reductionism) and seeks to solve problems by examining the parts. It thinks in black and white terms, right and wrong, good and bad (called dualism). Left-brain thinking is called rational thinking (this is also known as linear thinking).

The right side of the brain thinks intuitively, in wholes, in systems (called holism). It thinks creatively, laterally, imaginatively. Right-brain thinking is called intuitive thinking (also known as non-linear thinking) and it is not logical.

The left side thinks mainly in words and numbers, the right mainly in pictures and patterns and symbols. So language is primarily a left-brain concept while pictures and symbols are right brain territory.

Our thinking appears to be done by our left brain; we think in words, we have a train of thought expressed in words and sentences. These thoughts lead onto other thoughts in a linear fashion and we reach a conclusion. Or the thoughts go round in circles and we get confused. This is all left-brain thinking (of course this is an oversimplification).

Our right brain thinks in a different way. The right brain seems to come up with an answer suddenly. It doesn’t use the left brain’s linear processing to find the answer methodically and logically. Rather, it synthesises all the information in a different way and seems to then suddenly know the answer to a problem, or it suddenly grasps an issue and understands it. As the right brain doesn’t use words and sentences to think, we often assume it is silent, but it just uses a different process to the left brain.

Neither hemisphere can think in isolation; they are joined primarily by a structure called the corpus callosum, a network of connections that link both hemispheres. The distinction between the two sides is partly academic but it helps us understand the two different processes that occur in our brains. Where they occur anatomically isn’t very important for most of us.

Conventional scientific thought uses both sides of the brain but believes that the left side is superior. Science and medicine believe that reductionism and dualism are a superior way of thinking and working out problems compared to holism. They believe truth is to be found in logic and rational analysis.

As individuals and as a society (which includes medicine), what is needed is not a greater reliance on either side of the brain but the ability to use both sides together and also to use either side in the way it works best.

The left side works best for analysing and logically sorting out problems, by reducing the problem into parts and analysing the parts. The left brain can’t conceptualise the whole thing except by looking at the parts.

The right side works best when looking at the whole picture, establishing patterns, and intuitive thinking and creativity. The right brain can’t understand how the parts fit together except by looking at the whole.

Most of us in Western society are out of balance (too left brained) and the reason for this is because it is what we have learnt. We have learnt, in the past few centuries, to use our logical rational brain over our intuitive non-rational brain.

Neither the left-brain process of rational thinking nor the right brain’s intuitive thinking process is right or wrong. They are just different ways of reaching answers.

It is important to understand this difference between linear (left brain) and non-linear (right brain) thinking processes because it is where we often repeat our mistakes and get stuck in the same patterns of behaviour.

Many problems can be solved with linear thinking, but they have to be linear problems. Most of our problems, and certainly those we usually get stuck in, are non-linear or chaotic. No-one can work them out with their left brain. Many people think they are stupid because they can’t work out their problems. They go to a doctor or counsellor because they think such people are smarter.

The problem isn’t smartness or lack of it; it is due to our reliance on a part of the brain that simply cannot solve these problems. The left brain cannot under any circumstances solve a non-linear problem. It is like trying to use a calculator for word processing, or a screwdriver to knock in a nail. It’s just the wrong tool.

Our life is always trying to teach us this. When we find our brain going round and round in circles and not getting anywhere, we can be pretty sure our left brain is trying to sort out a non-linear problem. It goes in circles but it never gets anywhere because the problem is not solvable through linear thought. The left brain can play a part in helping us through such problems but it cannot reach a solution by itself; it needs the help of the right brain.

Once we have learnt this lesson then we can turn to the part of our brain specifically designed for these non-linear problems, the right brain.

This is where we really enter the culture of the holistic because it is here that we change our belief system. We begin to believe that this process of right-brain thinking is the way to solve our non-linear problems. When I say solve I don’t mean in a left-brain way, I mean in a holistic way.

The right brain helps us get to a different place. It helps us understand in an intuitive sense what is going on, what we have to learn, how we have to proceed. The problem is not linear or logical, therefore the process of solving it is not linear or logical, therefore the answer is not linear or logical. Intuitive answers do not always help us reach a predetermined outcome. Instead, they teach us more about ourselves, about reality, about how to be whole and how to live the cycles of life.

The answers from our right brain will not come to us by sitting down and thinking about the problem. Thinking, as we have come to know it, is how we define left-brain processing. Right-brain answers will usually come to us out of the blue, sometimes in a dream or as a sign or symbol. The beauty of right-brain thinking is that it doesn’t make our head hurt like left-brain thinking can. Our lives would be easier if we would just leave a lot of our problems with our right brain and know that it can answer them for us.

The process by which our intuition solves problems is non-linear. This means it doesn’t make logical sense; you can’t follow a line of thought from the problem to the solution. It is as if the right brain gathers all the available information (some of which is not available to our conscious thinking brain), puts it in a container, shakes it all up and then extracts the answer. The answer appears to have just popped into our heads but it popped in there because the right brain’s intuitive non-linear processes made it available. We can’t make logical sense of intuitive processes because this is the essence of non-linear thinking – it’s not logical.

Ultimately, we need to use both sides of our brain. The left side tries to take a problem apart and solve the parts, and the right side looks at the problem as a whole and tries to come up with a way forward. The left side needs the right side to see how the parts fit into the whole picture and the right side needs the left to see how the whole picture can be broken down into parts that are more manageable.