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  • Lemuel Tan

Left Brain & Right Brain

In my previous blog post, we explored about the triune brain and how I liked the model for its simplicity. In the spirit of ‘keeping things simple’, I would like to introduce another brain base model that only talks about the 2 parts of the brain. It is called – The Left Brain and The Right Brain. The model was coined by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson in their book “The Whole-Brain Child” that explores how the developing brain impacts how we should approach being parents to our children.

Even though we call them the left brain & right brain, they are technically not individual brains but called hemispheres, lobes or parts. Connecting the two hemispheres is what we called the Corpus Callosum, which are a bunch of nerve fibers that connect both left & right hemispheres. Much like the concept of the triune brain, the goal is for whole brain integration. We want a healthy communication between both left-right brains.

The Left Brain

The left brain loves order. As Siegel and Bryson put it, “it is

re. It interprets meanings and the felt sense. It interprets non-verbal, emotions and experiences.

For example: If an individual starts thinking about his stressful personal finance, the “left brain” will start making a list of things it can do. It starts thinking about much money do I have left in the bank account, how long will it last, etc. The “right brain” on the other hand may make you feel like crying due to the unbearable stress, you may feel overwhelmed and may want to reach out to a friend or love one. The right brain may activate the sense of dread, worry and uncertainty.

However, sometimes when we experience a major stressor, the communication between the parts become less effective, it almost feels like we become stuck and only the left or right brain is working. When the left brain dominates the brain communication, we feel like an emotional desert or go into “problem solving” modes. On the other hand, we may feel like an emotional flood when the right brain takes control. We may feel overwhelmed by emotions and react.

We also know that the brain grows sequentially. It grows from the inside then outwards, from the back to the front and from the right to the left. This is why we do not expect a toddler to say, “Mummy, when things go wrong, I will cry out to you. Please do not get anxious, it is just me wanting some milk”. All we hear is the Whhhhhaaaaaaa…… which appears to be random and unannounced. The right brain is literary communicating its needs as the left brain is still developing logic & language.

In terms of communicating with children, it would therefore make sense that we communicate with children using a more right-brain approach. This is not scientifically new, most parents and care givers have it hardwired in us to be more expressive so we naturally talk to a child, using a “sing-song” voice, “higher pitch” or using body language as an additional gesture to add to the “big picture” and “felt sense”.

However, sometimes as adults we do get it wrong and we start communicating only using a left-brain approach. Example: “I want you to listen to me. You will clean up your room and brush your teeth before you go to bed”. Notice the logical, literal, linguistic and linear conversation? A right-brain communication would be something like a parent going down on his/her knees with an open armed expression saying, “You really enjoying playing there and want to keep going. You do not want to pack your toys. Having fun is nice! …… *pause*…… I am wondering if we could continue fun later? The fun will not go away. But we do need to move to the next thing now. We can come back to fun later.” As you can imagine, this is by no means an easy conversation to have or develop as adults are prone to communicate using a left-brain approach. In the whole-brain child book, there are strategies to help develop these styles of communication.

How does this translate to us as adults?

I think it is important to acknowledge the state that we are in regardless of whether we are in an emotional flood or emotional desert. This means allowing yourself to intentionally accept and acknowledge that one hemisphere is currently stronger or louder than the other. For example: If we are more left-brain dominant, it can be helpful to write down a list of things that is bothering you and to take a good look at it. We do not want to be quick in dismissing it. We acknowledge and accept what is happening within our brains. Next, you may want to write down how you feel about it, naming the emotions, the fears of what may happen, etc. This may take a while as the left brain is in control and you may struggle with the right words for the feeling. By acknowledging the right brain and attempting to build a connection with the left brain, we are effectively allowing ourselves to experience an integrative process. When integration happens, people would often find that things start to make better sense and there is a felt sense of increased ease and comfort. This does not mean that the problems have gone away or the stress is no longer there but the issue becomes less thorny and more bearable.

The human brain is an amazing and magnificent part of our human body. There is so much that we do not know about our brain and its complexities.

Disclaimer: The material on this blog is not to be used by any commercial or personal entity without expressed written consent of the blog's author. The article above is an opinion of an individual clinician and should not be taken as full clinical advice. The statements on this blog are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any mental health or mental illnesses. Always consult your doctor for medical advice or seek professional therapy.

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