Know your left brain from your right brain for better relationships!

The task of the brain is quite simply the survival of the individual. Structurally the brain is formed in two halves, joined by a bridge of nerve tissue. The two halves are slightly different in size and shape, and very different in function, although they work together and communicate with each other across the bridge. It is worth knowing about their differences as they can cause missed communications in adult relationships. Where one partner is right brain dominant and the other is left brain dominant, it can feel as if they are speaking different language, and in a sense they are, right speak and left speak.

The right half of the brain is working at birth and grows rapidly connec tion with the care givers and the world around it, most importantly with eye contact and physical touch from the mother, or whoever the primary carer may be. Infants learn very quickly how to get their needs met, crying when hungry, lonely or uncomfortable, resting, digesting and playing when those needs are met. When infant needs are not met, they express rage and fear, if they are reassured and soothed then they calm down, if they are not soothed they give up and withdraw. This is normal behaviour.

The left brain develops more slowly than the right, as it learns how the world works, discovers language, world mapping, game playing, cataloging, organising a perception of the world. Play is an important part of developing the life skills that the left brain enjoys, reasons, consequences, factual knowledge. It learns control, reward for effort, it likes predictable outcomes, and linear explanations for things. The right brain is empathic, sensitive to the emotions of people around, uses mind mapping in relation to others, may have flights of fancy and imaginings, is artistic and creative, emotionally driven, dreams up stories and fantasies, likes surrealist and impressionist art as opposed to perhaps architectural drawings.

At different stages of childhood one or other hemisphere is in a phase of growth which can be interrupted by traumatic events, or enhanced by special attention, so that the individual favours one style over the other in some aspects. This is not to say that having a tendency one way or the other is always as a result of childhood trauma or special attention, it is not. In general humans have access to each side of the brain and its qualities, but some favour the left and others favour the right. They sometimes get into an intimate relationship with their exact opposite, which can be a strength in many ways, but can also lead to misunderstandings and problematic communication.

Imagine this scenario. Leftie says “We go right at the junction,” Rightie says “OK, but there is a wonderful view from the top of that hill if we turn left for a little detour.” They take the detour enjoy the view, Rightie feels the breeze and savours the beautiful space, Leftie critically observes the amount of land given over to farming as opposed to woodland, and soon they are back on the road (because Leftie remembered the route,) both feeling satisfied that the little detour was a good idea and they both appreciated it. An example of harmonious team work that brings satisfaction to their different perspectives.

For contrast, imagine the following scenario. Rightie says “I’m very upset, everything is going wrong today, it’s awful” and Leftie says “We are fine, you just need to stop fussing, work with me and be positive”. Leftie has not heard Rightie’s emotional distress, coming from the right brain, and has responded with reasons and suggestions coming from the left brain, they are talking different languages. This might not go well. Leftie dismissed Rightie’s feelings, maybe caused humiliation by implying that “fussing” is wrong, and asked for the opposite of what is being expressed, “be positive” is not an option when someone is feeling “awful”!

A better outcome requires recognition of the feelings and experience of each person, as both positions are only that, just different positions, one “upset”, the other “fine” and each position will have good reasons. So cannot be described as “wrong”, each is right from their own perspective. Instead of having an argument about WHO IS RIGHT, these two need to try to fully understand why the other one feels as they do. We argue because we do not feel heard, and the more we feel that, the louder our attempts to be heard become, or we give up and withdraw. Neither helps the emotional connection we all crave from our intimate relationships, or soothes the dissatisfaction in the relationship.

Once we really listen and “get” where the other person is coming from, we may not agree, but at least we understand and then we can deal with the difference. Sometimes we inhabit different planets, and if we can visit the other planet, walk around it a bit, it doesn’t feel so alien and we can ensure that differences don’t give rise to ruptures in the connection in our intimate relationships. And it is this connection that we need to thrive, just as when we were infants we needed connection with our care givers to grow and thrive.

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