In part 1 we looked briefly at the essential nature of our brain, why we have 2 hemispheres (instead of one big brain mass!) and their different takes on the world in and around us.
I should say at this point, I have only just started investigating the hemispheres and I have to say, the field is huge and much of the fascinating research still in infancy. So this post and any that follow on this subject are more a reflection on the possibilities and the questions I would like answered, rather than an overview of the field. But as I learn more, I will share it in the blog.
So why does it matter if one hemisphere dominates? What is being lost to us in this left-hemisphere centric world we live in? And is a better balance still within our reach?
It is believed that over generations, our changing cultural norms, beliefs and practices began to shift the hemisphere balance. The ways of seeing the world and being in the world generally favour one or other of the forms of ‘attention’ provided by the 2 hemispheres and if the bias is designed to suit the needs of the culture, the shift might become more permanent if these brain changes are in some way replicated epigenetically (the term used to describe inheritance by mechanisms other than through the DNA sequence of genes) and passed onto the next generation.
If this is indeed the case, certain beliefs and perspectives are being entrenched and actively encouraged in us all, despite the fact that they aren’t necessarily truly ours. This active cultural biasing has removed the beautifully balanced view our divided brain was initially designed for. So instead of being free to choose our own values and ideals, our own take on the world around us, all our thoughts and drives are being filtered through a cultural viewpoint that mirrors the left hemisphere-heavy bias we were born with, without us even realising it.
From this perspective, the movements towards more conscious ways of thinking and investigating theories of conspiracy, start to really make a lot of sense.
The use of tools and practices such as mindfulness, breath work, ceremonies that help reactivate our right hemisphere, also give us some space away from our autopilot to really focus on what is important to us, think about our own thoughts (not just what we are told by the media) and possibly start to nudge the bias back the other way.
Evidence suggests serotonin and norepinephrine are more dominant in the right hemisphere, essentially ‘feeding’ it and left hemisphere dominance in our current culture suggests a depletion in it. So if looking at ways to try and recapture the intended workings of the hemispheres, taking a look at serotonin and its importance in our life might be a good place to start.
Our brain cells use chemicals called neurotransmitters, to communicate with each other. Serotonin, known as the happy chemical, plays a large role in mood and sleep, amongst many other things. Let’s choose an area that affects all of us most of the time; managing stress.
Stress is your body’s way of responding to any kind of threat and the stress/sympathetic nervous system response, known as ‘fight or flight’, is the body’s way of protecting you and saving your life. It is predominantly controlled by the left hemisphere- this makes sense as a life or death situation would need the focus to be on ‘self’. When you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which rouse the body for emergency action.
But unfortunately, your nervous system isn’t very good at distinguishing between emotional and physical threats. If you’re super stressed over an argument with a friend, a work deadline, or a mountain of bills, your body can react just as strongly as if you’re facing a lion or about to get run over!
Cortisol is thought to depletes serotonin levels but also, stress generally triggers bad habits like poor diet, lack of exercise, not getting out into fresh air and sunlight, all of which contributes to not making any more.
The parasympathetic nervous system response (the opposite response to fight or flight) known as ‘rest, relax and digest’ is predominantly controlled by the right hemisphere and as we know, serotonin preferentially activates the right hemisphere. So is it fair to say that increasing your natural serotonin levels could reduce your stress? I say ‘naturally’ as evidence shows drug-induced high levels of serotonin can have adverse effects.
So how to increase serotonin naturally?
This is a little more complicated than it seems as although serotonin can be found in a variety of foods, serotonin cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier. To be used inside the brain, it must be produced within it. So, eating foods high in tryptophan (the amino-acid precursor for serotonin) with a serving of healthy carbohydrates (brown rice, oatmeal, whole-grain bread) is a good way to naturally boost your serotonin levels. Some other foods that increase serotonin production through other mechanisms are dark chocolate, cold-water fatty fish, fermented foods, turmeric and TEA, yes TEA. L-Theanine (an amino acid in tea) can cross the blood-brain barrier and is thought to not only elevate levels of serotonin but also reduces levels of cortisol- win win!
2. Healthy behaviour
Such as regular exercise, adequate sleep and daily de-stress (as we have mentioned cortisol interferes with serotonin), you regulate your energy optimally and promote serotonin synthesis in your body
Vitamin B complex especially thiamine (B1), pyridoxine (B6), niacin (B3) and folic acid help in production of serotonin.
Sunshine Vitamin “D” Research suggests a strong connection between sunlight and serotonin levels. When your skin absorbs UV rays it promotes production of vitamin D and serotonin.
So to bring this back to the hemispheres and whether we should be trying our best to reestablish the healthy balance between the two, Iain McGilchrist clarifies it by saying;
“Ultimately, the principle of division (that of the left hemisphere) and the principle of union (that of the right hemisphere) need to be unified.”
He goes on to explain that generating the greatest feats of the human spirit (such as imagination and creativity) requires integration of both hemispheric worlds. The right hemisphere needs the left hemisphere to ‘unpack’ experience’ but it is the right hemisphere that is in direct contact with the embodied, lived world. Interestingly because of the compartmentalised way the left hemisphere processes, its world is ‘lifeless’ and it’s ‘life’ comes from the right hemisphere. Left to its own devices, the left would try and bring life to its way of attending by appealing to aspects it sees as attributes of a living thing- novelty, stimulation, excitement (sound familiar in our current lives?!), but it is only the right hemisphere that can make the world truly ‘live’ again.
Part 3 ...of this blog post will begin to pull the threads of this together into a more tangible daily practice supporting this idea of whole brain synchronisation, namely encouraging both hemispheres to work once more in harmony. Based on the relatively recent discovery of the brain’s ‘neuroplastic’ nature, such practices over time help rewire your brain and change your world....