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Right Brain Problem Solving: On Insight and Being Still
Did you know there is a lot more to those “aha!” experiences of seemingly out-of-nowhere insight? You know, that time you couldn’t find your car keys, you searched high, you searched low, upended the couch cushions and interrogated the cat, and in exasperation eventually gave up, and once you moved on to something mundane like washing the dishes, “all of a sudden” you remember you left the car keys in the trunk?
There is something unique about the human brain that works smarter when we stop working harder. And by smarter that sometimes means stopping work entirely.
Numerous behavioral and neuroscience studies have connected “aha!” moments to activity in the right hemisphere of the brain.1 One explanation for this is the different ways in which the right and left hemispheres attend to reality. Left-hemisphere attention is inflexible and narrowly focused, whereas right-hemisphere is global and flexible. We shift into left-hemisphere attention when focusing on solving a problem analytically, eliminating extraneous stimuli and unrelated factors. At times this is strategic, but if you’re stumbling about in a dark basement with a small flashlight looking for your keys, you’ll probably be down there for a long time. Right-hemisphere attention is like flicking on the light switch and slowly scanning each room, taking in every detail no matter how irrelevant.
Or perhaps you’ve experienced these different modes of attention the way my daughter did recently. She has many wonderful and beautiful hobbies, but like most teenagers, sometimes boredom strikes and none of her usual activities sound fun. Occasionally we will problem-solve with her by brain-storming and naming off options. We tried this recently though, and it didn’t work. She was trying really hard to think of something to do and kept hitting a wall. Knowing a bit about this neuroscience, I went to her room, grabbed her colored pencils and a little mindfulness coloring book she got from her Mimi, and told her to start coloring. It’s a huge parenting win that she was willing to try my goofy solution which obviously didn’t sound like a solution at all. But guess what? It worked! I don’t know how long she was coloring, but long enough for her right brain to re-engage and broaden her attention, opening her mind to new ideas. (Of course, now I can’t remember what she finally decided to do; maybe I need to do some coloring in order to remember!)
In a fascinating conversation with Iain McGilchrist from just the other day, poet/priest Malcolm Guite quoted T. S. Eliot as saying “poetry is peripheral vision.” I haven’t been able to track down that quote, but Guite goes on to say,
“The thing that is off [at the edge of vision] that you just can’t see, if you turn and focus on it it disappears. But Eliot thought the poet could stay sufficiently still so as to woo the peripheral into [view] and give it voice.”
Here peripheral vision is used metaphorically, and I’m tempted to say this dynamic is also a metaphor for life. Indeed, it might not be a metaphor, it must just actually be life. So many problems are better solved indirectly. Great knowing is often the fruit of intentional unknowing. Whether it’s finding keys or trying to fall asleep or find an activity to stave off boredom, sometimes the solution lies in letting go of the problem.
Perhaps there is some of this dynamic at work in God’s command to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). While our left hemisphere dominated culture tells us to read books and listen to sermons and go to conferences to know God through active, focused attention (not bad in themselves, of course), God says: “Be still to know me. Rest. Cease. Let go. Quiet yourself long enough for the still, small voice of the Spirit to move from the periphery and into the center of your heart where you can more deeply hear God’s voice.”
Quote from Iain McGilchrist
Those things that cannot sustain the focus of conscious attention are often the same things that cannot be willed, that come only as a by-product of something else; they shrink from the glare of the left hemisphere’s world. Some things, like sleep, simply cannot be willed. The frame of mind required to strive for them is incompatible with the frame of mind that permits them to be experienced…What’s true of making love and going to sleep is also true of things less physical: for example, attempts to be natural, to love, to be wise, or to be innocent and self-unseeing and self-defeating. The best things in life hid from the full glare of focused attention. They refuse our will.2
Imagination and Truth. Iain McGilchrist, Malcolm Guite and Roger Wagner in conversation. I’m not normally one to watch/listen to many hour-long podcast type conversations, so I don’t normally have many to recommend, but this conversation was really fascinating.
Where do you get your best ideas, those “aha!” moments of insight? For some it might be the shower, or driving in the car, or doodling, or listening to music. For me, it happens most often when I’m going for a walk. Taking in the sights, smells, sounds and sensations, and the right-left-right-left rhythm of walking gets me out of my narrow inflexible left brain and into a mental space where novel ideas seemingly come out of nowhere.
For example, cf The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight and its Antecedents by John Kounios and Mark Beeman.
The Master and His Emissary, p. 180-181.