Silencing the left brain

Last week’s post on the ‘Upstairs & Downstairs Brain’ attracted considerable attention, and elicited a number of responses – some favourable, some challenging. It appears that the implications of neuroplasticity are still very much at the early stage of consideration for many people, and, just how the new knowledge being generated can be put to use by coaches is not yet clear.

Last week, I spoke about the limbic system (or old brain) as being ‘downstairs’, and the pre-frontal cortex (or new brain) as being ‘upstairs’. Today, let’s look at the brain from a different perspective – left and right.

It has long been known that the left & right hemispheres of the human brain specialise in different areas of cognition, memory and reasoning. Put simplistically, the left side of the brain tends to be associated with more logical and analytical thinking, while the right hemisphere is linked to more creative pursuits and expressions of emotion, for example, through art and music.


Furthermore, Dr. Jordan Grafman, of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), puts forward evidence that the left-frontal lobe in a normal brain is specialized in storing of individual events, while the right-frontal lobe draws out themes and connections. People who have suffered damage or lesions to their right-frontal area often find it difficult to understand the point of a story, or a movie that they watch, and find the use of metaphor and simile extremely challenging. They understand the words spoken, and can make literal sense of things, but they lose the ability to interpret, extrapolate, find abstract meaning and so on.

But, from studying these unfortunate cases of people who have suffered brain damage, neuroscience has also discovered something fascinating about the way the hemispheres of the brain operate together. Some people who suffer damage or wastage in the left side of their brain, thereby losing their ability to understand the meaning of words, have been known to almost spontaneously develop unusual artistic and musical skills. In other words, skills that are typically processed in the right side of the brain. What is going on here?  Well, Dr. Bruce Miller, a neurology professor at UC, San Francisco, argues that the left hemisphere would normally Continue reading

The Upstairs & Downstairs Brain

Advances in neurosciences continue to inform our understanding of what makes us human, and perhaps even more importantly, how we interact with each other. In this week’s post I recommend two excellent speakers and experts in the field of neuroscience to you, Dan Siegel and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.

We have passed through many periods of popular assumptions about the brain and the mind, including the tabula rasa (blank slate) theory that humans are born void of knowledge and acquire ideas and wisdom over time from the world in which they operate. And, until a few years ago, we believed that the wiring of our brains was pretty much determined and complete within the first few years of life. Advances in techniques for studying the brain, in recent years, have shown that development continues well into adolescence (and beyond), particularly in the pre-frontal cortex.  During this period of development an especially important process takes place. Synaptic pruning. Underused synapses and connections in the brain are pruned, just like weak or dead branches on a rose bush are cut away.  This is a vital phase of development of the brain, during which connections that are used are strengthened and those which are not are lost. Neurons that fire together wire together. (See also previous post on this subject: The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain – March 2012) Continue reading

The “white stuff”, and what it means for your brain

I love this snow metaphor of how our ‘plastic’ brain works….(attributed to Pascual-Leone).

Neuroplasticity is like fresh pliable snow on a hill. When you go down the hill on a sled for the first time, you can be flexible in that you can choose whatever route to take. You can take different paths on your second and subsequent trips too if you like. However, if you choose to take the same path each time, a deeper and more permanent track will develop, and soon it will be difficult to sled down the hill without being ‘stuck in the rut’ you have created. Your route will now be quite rigid, and it will take some effort to break out of the rut and establish new pathways.

In a similar way, neural circuits, once established, tend to become self-sustaining. As Doidge puts it in his book “The Brain that Changes Itself”, neuroplasticity works both ways, it gives rise not only to mental flexibility and growth, but can also lead to mental rigidity and stagnation.    Continue reading

“Coaching is like Brain Surgery”. So, how sharp is your scalpel?

For a long time the received wisdom within the world of brain science has been about structure, fixed neural connections, localization of function and other related concepts. This view was largely influenced by some of the pioneering work of people like Hubel & Wiesel, Nobel Prize winners in 1981.

The idea that the brain may actually be ‘plastic’ in some way, that it may continue to make new connections, and that regions of the brain may actually be able to adapt and become responsible for function that it was not originally ‘mapped’ for, was dismissed until very recently.

The great news is Continue reading