The Divided Brain: How the Left and Right Hemispheres Work Differently


April 14, 2022
Filipe Bastos

Attention is a spectrum — it’s not as simple as the binaries we’re often taught when we’re young. While sometimes we need to practise focused attention, in other situations, different forms of awareness are necessary. But why is this?

To answer that question, it’s worth taking a look at the human brain, which inevitably shapes our conscious life in a major way. Mindfulness meditation practices aim to train the mind to cultivate healthy habits and styles of attention; but in order to do this, we first need to develop some basic knowledge about the brain’s structure.

In today’s article, we’ll be doing exactly that. However, we’ll be taking an approach that you may not be familiar with. In order to truly understand why our minds work the way they do, we’ll be exploring the concept of the divided brain, and explaining how our brain’s left and right hemispheres contribute to our daily interactions, decisions, and experiences. So what do we mean by the term “The Divided Brain”?

What is the Divided Brain?

Pretty much everyone can agree that our brains are split in two, although debates about what each side does have dominated pop culture for decades, and lots of misconceptions have arisen. Generally speaking, it’s understood that the brain’s right side, or right hemisphere, is more flexible, less certain, and more capable of empathy and abstraction, while the left hemisphere is more detail-oriented, literally-minded, and interested in mechanisms over living things.

The concept of the divided brain gained popularity during the 1960s and 70s, but during this time, lots of falsehoods regarding the two sides of the brain were also amplified. For instance, the idea that one side was responsible for emotion while the other side was responsible for reason is incorrect; in fact, the left and right hemispheres each contain elements that relate to both.

Psychiatrist and scholar Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World provided a ground-breaking study into this subject. The text explores the brain’s hemispheric differences and examines their effects on society, history, and culture, explaining how the types of attention we pay to the world dramatically impact how we perceive it. Taking advantage of a vast body of scientific research, The Master and His Emissary debunked the dangerous prioritisation of the left brain in popular culture and nailed down the most important hemispheric differences.

Much like the human mind itself, the book is divided into two parts. Part One focuses on asymmetry and the brain, the job of the two brain hemispheres, and the triumph of the left hemisphere. Part Two expands on that last point to examine the brain’s impact on the evolution of culture and society, from the ancient world, through the renaissance, enlightenment, and industrial revolution periods, to the present day. McGilchrist argues that human behaviour has been increasingly shaped by a focus on the left brain, which has made us blind to our errors and shortcomings, and unhealthily tied to a rational, less open mode of thinking which leads to disconnection and division. The left hemisphere is always competing for power, which can lead to imbalance — but why is that? Let’s explain the wide range of differences between the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the brain.

Differences between the Left Brain and the Right Brain

Human beings have two fundamentally opposed modes of experience, and the difference between them is rooted in the structure of the brain. When we talk about the divided brain, we’re referring to the brain’s left hemisphere and right hemisphere, which work together on a constant basis, but which have a few key functional differences.

The key distinction is the type of attention they pay to the world. The left brain yields narrow, targeted, focused attention, mainly for the purpose of fulfilling certain needs. The right brain operates with a broader, more vigilant form of attention. Within this, there are various other areas of hemispheric specialization. We’ll explore these various forms of attention in more detail later, but first, let’s take some time to discuss each side of the brain individually.

The Left Brain

Within the left brain, things are perceived in pieces, one by one. This mode of experiencing the world is analytical, logical, and preoccupied with categorising and defining things. The brain’s left hemisphere interprets things in a decontextualized way, identifying labels instead of context and creating a simplistic visual field that lacks realistic detail.

This fragmented form of attention helps us construct a practically-minded map of the world. This conceptual map allows us to set goals and formulate strategies, although it can hinder our ability to respond and react to the things our brain interprets. While the left hemisphere’s category-organising, scheme-devising, and understanding of the nitty-gritty of language helps us navigate life, it doesn’t allow us to fully understand human behaviour and appreciate the world around us. This is where the right brain comes into play.

The Right Brain

Instead of categorising and viewing things one by one, the right brain sees the whole picture and views things as connected to everything that surrounds them. Viewing things as one means the right hemisphere of the brain can pick up on direct and indirect contextual clues, understand contradiction, and focus on discovery, connectedness, implicit meaning, body language, and emotional expression.

When it comes to human speech and language, the right brain can understand things in a broader context, working with a pragmatic and contextual understanding of meaning and intertwining the literal and non-literal aspects of language. This reflects the broader truth that the right brain is more interested in the living, while the left brain is predisposed towards the mechanical.

In order to experience reality in a healthy and effective way, you need both hemispheres. For example, in order to practise mindful communication, you need to be able to follow the mechanical processes of a conversation, while also listening closely and responding with empathy and compassion. However, despite this need for cooperation, they often actually end up in conflict, particularly when the master/emissary dynamic is disrupted; according to McGilchrist, this has caused serious problems in modern Western society. So what does this master/emissary relationship mean?

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The Master and the Emissary

Albert Einstein once said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” This quotation perfectly sums up the ideal relationship between the left and right cerebral hemispheres. The left hemisphere’s focus on the question “what?” makes it a great servant, but a poor master, while the right hemisphere’s preoccupation with the more context-based question “how?” allows it to be a better master. A cooperative approach makes good use of these hemispheric differences.

Within this metaphor, the master (the right brain) recognises the need for an emissary, or servant (the left brain) to complete certain tasks and report back. However, the emissary, knowing less than the Master, thinks he knows everything and considers himself the real Master, which leads to a failure to report back properly. While the right brain understands the need for collaboration between cerebral hemispheres, the left hemisphere is unaware of what’s missing, and this can cause problems. McGilchrist argues that in the modern world, the rational mind is relied upon far too much, and a greater degree of appreciation for the world around us would allow us to access higher levels of happiness, empathy, compassion, and peace of mind.

It’s crucial for us humans to understand both aspects of the brain and how they help us function. We need certain modes of thinking to manipulate the world, for instance in the hunt for food or shelter, but we also need to be able to harness a more contextual vision of things, so we shouldn’t rely too heavily on the left brain’s narrow, goal-oriented attention mode. Doing so can lead to a state of chronic unhappiness, in which we’re always searching for gaps to close and tasks to complete. To cultivate real happiness, we must instead learn to practise the mindful quality of radical acceptance. But we’ll discuss that more later —first, let’s explore the science behind this theory of mind activity.

The Science Behind the Divided Brain

The concept of the divided brain explains the clearly visible reality that the human brain, despite the fact that its function is to make connections, is split into two halves. However, what might be less obvious is that the brain is also asymmetrical — it is broader at the back on the left, and broader on the right of the frontal lobes, and it also slightly juts forward and backward.

The brain’s shape allows humans to pay narrow attention to detail and grab hold of things we need for survival purposes, while simultaneously demonstrating broader awareness and keeping an eye out for everything else in our visual field. Understanding these hemispheric asymmetries is crucial to recognising the complexity of the relationship between brain hemispheres.

While it’s been known for a while that the brain is split into two parts that have very different roles, there are lots of misconceptions about our cerebral hemispheres. Many people believe that they are more left-sided or more right-sided, depending on how logical, rational, creative, imaginative, or practically-minded they are. But the truth is, it’s not as simple as reason vs imagination; both sides are needed in every kind of situation.

Paying Attention

As we’ve touched on, the key difference between the left and right hemispheres is the modes of attention they use to engage with the world. This is crucial, because attention isn’t just an ordinary cognitive function; it defines how we experience the world.

While the left hemisphere is only capable of applying narrow, focused attention to an immediate task or event, the right hemisphere can see things as one and take context into account. Our world has become overly dominated by a mode of attention that’s rooted in the left hemisphere and obsessed with completing task after task without ever being satisfied. Adjusting our mode of attention to a more open way of viewing the world can have far-reaching and profound effects.

So how do we do that? And what happens when your brain is more healthily balanced?

How Meditation Helps the Brain

Practising meditation is one of the best ways to boost empathy, communication, attention skills, and general brain health. Mindfulness and meditation allow us to experience the world non-judgementally, outside of the mental map which divides it into sections, concepts, and binary categories. This can stop us from seeing things in a mechanistic, fragmented manner, instead teaching us to appreciate the uniqueness of each moment and the connectedness of everything in the world. Using a more open form of attention can allow us to be less self-centred and more pragmatic when dealing with others and managing negative emotions.

Meditation also shows us the impact of changing the stance we adopt towards the things around us, or altering the type of attention we pay to them. Using different forms of attention changes the way the world is presented to us; we can utilise that to our advantage. Rather than constantly trying to manipulate our experience so it fits our desires, we can learn that a simple shift of attentional styles can help us feel more connected and fulfilled in life. A great example of this is the art of Beginner’s Mind, which encourages us to view the world with the awe, bewilderment and fascination of a child.

There are loads of meditation practices out there which can help change our sense of perception, including sympathetic joy practice and meditation for letting go. Our new membership plan explores a number of these techniques and demonstrates the power of mindfulness meditation using a wide range of game-changing online courses that you can do in your own time. Accessing these kinds of skills on a daily basis can have a super positive impact on your life.

If you want to find out more about the psychology behind mindfulness practice, check out our article on  Brainwaves During Meditation.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why are our brains divided?

Our cerebral hemispheres are divided in order to allow us to practise both focused attention and broader awareness at the same time. Being able to pay different types of attention in different moments is crucial to the human experience. This is one of the key themes explored in our free meditation taster course.

What’s the problem with the left hemisphere?

The problem isn’t so much with the left hemisphere, but more with the Western world’s promotion of it at the expense of its opposite. Overly left hemisphere-centred thinking can make us arrogant and less inclined to listen to others, and it can also stop us from appreciating the world.

What does mindfulness do to the brain?

Mindfulness meditation can boost our concentration skills, ground us in the present moment, make us more patient, and help us build more compassionate and empathetic relationships. Find out more about the benefits and how to access them in our article on quick mindfulness exercises.

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In times like this, mindfulness and self-awareness can be crucial in your ability to cope with fear. Here are 3 tips to help manage your climate anxiety:

🌍 Practice acceptance, not denial - accept you can't change the world on your own, only your tiny role within it
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