Brain Sides

 Brain Sides

By Peter Galvin, MD

The human brain is a truly amazing organ, albeit two-faced. The right brain and the left brain are very different. Most people are either left or right brain dominant, but a small number of people can combine both sides, and those who can are usually leaders in their respective fields. As you can see from the diagram, the left brain is rigid, logical, and scientific, while the right brain is creative, artistic, and imaginative. To quote Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, while the rational mind is a faithful servant.” Those who are left-brain dominant tend to be scientists and rigid thinkers like surgeons, while right-brain dominant individuals tend to be artistic and creative people. If you place a left-brain dominant person in a situation that requires right brain skills, they are lost, and vice versa. A perfect example of this is a popular British-based television series, Doc Martin. Dr. Martin Ellingham, a brilliant, self-centered, and surly London surgeon suddenly develops hemophobia (fear of blood). No longer able to perform surgery, he is forced to relocate to a small fishing village in Cornwall, UK. Now functioning as a general practitioner, his dealings with the quirky town inhabitants are often hilarious, mostly due to his highly awkward social behavior, which seems to place him on the autism spectrum. But his real issue is that his left-brain dominant personality cannot adapt to a right-brain scenario.

Medical training is designed to provide deep levels of comprehension on the many aspects of pathological conditions and how best to treat them for optimal patient outcomes. This requires highly detailed thinking and pattern recognition, as well as critical analysis and decision-making based on algorithmic formulas, all very left-brain dominant activities. On the other hand, leadership often requires a different intellectual path of learning and knowledge processing, which, at times, relies heavily on intuition, imagination, and strong interpersonal skills, all very right-sided brain activities. Medical leadership requires a mix of both sides as medical leaders need both medical knowledge and good people skills. British psychiatrist and philosopher Ian McGilchrist wrote a book called The Master and His Emissary, which examines the typical manner of thinking between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Typically, the left brain perceives the world through details, reasoning, critical thinking, and logic while the right brain is best with creative, intuitive, and imaginative perception. Right-brain thinking, with its openness to experience, plays the more important part and is a better guide to reality than the narrowly viewed, rules-based way the left brain perceives the world. McGilchrist suggests “We have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to the awe-inspiring reality that is all around us.” He suggests that to understand ourselves in the world, “we need science and intuition, together with reason and imagination…” So, when both hemispheres are recognized as working together, we are better at perceiving things, especially the more beautiful and mysterious aspects of our everyday reality.

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