Right Brain Activation
A simple technique for reliably and rapidly putting your right hemisphere in the driver’s seat
The psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist makes a compelling point that our characteristic cognitive styles are profoundly influenced by which hemisphere of the brain we tend to let dominate our thought. In McGilchrist’s understanding the left hemisphere might be thought of as the ‘predator mind’: it focuses attention on the part or detail of interest; it is goal-oriented; it prefers to understand the world with maximally simplified schema; it tends towards binary, black and white thinking; and it perceives the world as things which are useful, and things which aren’t. The right hemisphere, by contrast, is the ‘prey mind’: it’s attention is on the whole, and it sees parts in relation to that whole; it does not require that a thing be ‘understood’ within the confines of some theory in order to acknowledge the existence of that thing; it is more comfortable with ambiguity; its understanding is holistic, rather than reductionist. If you’re interested in knowing more I had a go at explaining this view of cognition in an earlier essay, Left and Right, Brains and Politics. Winston Smith also has an ongoing series exploring these concepts, the latest of which can be found here.
McGilchrist’s diagnosis of our present societal everything crisis is that it is due to widespread left-brain hyperdominance. The primacy of a materialist, reductionist worldview at the same time as an ascendant obsession with abstraction1; the mania for hyper-regulating every aspect of human existence through the managerial class’s endlessly restrictive permissions system; the lack of psychological nuance in public discourse, which has largely degenerated into angry partisans shouting slogans at one another; the robotic implacability of state bureaucracy, which grinds through senseless policies long after it has become obvious that they are useless or even counterproductive; the refusal to reconsider theories in light of new evidence, and indeed the refusal to recognize that disconfirming evidence even exists; even the flattening of corporate icons and art into distorted, two-dimensional caricatures such as the odious Alegra style; all of these and more are exactly what one might expect if the left brain had shouted the right brain into silence.
This is a problem, because the left brain is supposed to be subordinate to the right brain. It is the right brain that maintains our awareness of reality as a whole; the left brain is merely a useful tool, whose job is not to understand things, but to instrumentalize the understanding of the right brain such that we can obtain what we need from the environment, or alter the environment to better suit our requirements. Without the guidance of the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere goes off the rails, like a coach pulled this way and that by a horse ignoring the coachman.
That raises the question – how can the right brain be activated, such that the brain as a whole regains its hemispheric balance?
The next several paragraphs are mostly an explanation of how I came across the technique I’m about to share. If you don’t care about the story but just want to skip right to the actionable intel, scroll below to The Preparation.
McGilchrist himself indicates that cold water dripped into the right ear can temporarily suppress the left brain. That sounds uncomfortable. He also notes that one can also use transcranial magnetic stimulation to achieve the same effect. That requires very expensive equipment that is not available outside of a few research laboratories. Since we’re talking about rebalancing something inside the body, presumably one should be able to do so without relying upon anything external. Besides, the goal here isn’t to shut down the left hemisphere, because the left hemisphere is useful. It’s to get the brain into its proper balance.
I spent some time poking around on the Internet, trying to glean some useful tips. Much of it was garbage, because much of what’s out there is based on nonsense like ‘the left brain is logical, the right brain is creative’, which is just a massive oversimplification. Some of it sounded plausible but also just kind of unwieldy, such as having a conversation with yourself in a notebook by writing alternately with the left and right hand (my handwriting is terrible enough with my dominant right hand, writing with my left just sounds awkward; in any case I can’t see myself doing that every day).
Then I realized I already had the answer, in the form of a practice I’d been engaging in for a couple of years now, without actually recognizing that its entire purpose is very likely precisely the balancing of the hemispheres. Indeed, the guy who originated the practice in the first place, about a century ago, probably didn’t understand this himself: he was a mystic, not a scientist.
The technique in question is Gurdjieff’s ‘Preparation’. I first heard about this during a MindMatters interview with the Gurdjieff disciple Father Joseph Azize, an Australian Catholic priest who had just published a book detailing various exercises that had apparently been passed down from Gurdjieff through his Fourth Way schools. This piqued my interest. I’d been aware of Gurdjieff for some time, and had read some of P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous in a failed attempt to understand the man’s system.
Gurdjieff’s basic thing is that man is asleep, and furthermore, that man’s ego is fractured into an innumerable number of what he called ‘little i’s’. We say things like ‘I did this’ or ‘I want that’, but at any given moment the ‘I’ that is speaking changes; it is not a consistent big ‘I’, which maintains its will from one moment to the next, but one of the many little ‘i’s that have nothing much in common with one another. Thus for instance, in the morning one little i says “i’m going to lose weight, so i’m going to eat less today and go to the gym”. Then when it’s lunchtime another i grabs control and says “i want a cheeseburger.” In order to wake up, it is necessary to fuse those little ‘i’s together and form a big ‘I’.
Traditionally, Gurdjieff said, this could be done via one of three paths: the path of the mind (the yogi), the path of the body (the fakir), and the path of the heart (the monk). The catch was that each of these paths developed only one part of the whole man, and therefore developing the whole man would take multiple lifetimes. Gurdjieff’s Fourth Way, which he called the path of the sly man2, was essentially a short-cut that relied upon simultaneous, integrated training of body, mind, and heart.
So far so good, but how is one to actually do this? And here Gurdjieff was maddeningly obscure. He seemed to take a similar view to Nietzsche, that it was necessary to cloak his thought it a mirrored hall of allusion, metaphor, and parable, in order that things that were too plainly stated did not get abused by those incapable of really understanding them. Worse, he avoided writing down any of the actual exercises he had his students perform, insisting that they had to be passed down in person from master to disciple. The result was that obtaining practical information on how to actually implement Gurdjieff’s system was, to say the least, difficult. Sure, one could join one of the existing Fourth Way schools, but frankly I’m wary of joining things that look like cults, and who knows how pure the teachings of any given school are? The result was that I basically gave up on it.
Hence why Azize’s book grabbed my attention. I purchased it, discovered the Preparation, and – since it seemed easy enough, and I like easy – I started doing it on a daily basis, just as an experiment. It seemed to work, so I kept at it (more or less, no one’s perfect).
The Preparation is essentially a somatic meditation that utilizes attention in order to rapidly and reliably produce a state of relaxed awareness in which all sensations – physical, auditory, visual, and so on – are simultaneously present in the conscious mind. When you get there it feels positively crystalline. It’s a great way to start the day, and from start to finish it only takes about 15 minutes.
Previously, I’d thought that the main thing the Preparation was doing was activating the vagus nerve. This is a part of the peripheral nervous system that is essentially responsible for connecting your central nervous system to the rest of your body. It’s implicated in immune regulation, digestion, and the fight/flight reflex. It runs through your face, down your neck and back, and then spreads all over – hence the common description as the wandering nerve. Quite a few meditative practices ultimately come down to vagus nerve stimulation.
Still, there was one part of it that struck me as curious. Azize is adamant that the Preparation move from the right side of the body to the left – no explanation for this was given, however, and it struck me as arbitrary. I experimented a bit with that, and indeed found that it seemed to make a difference which part of the body I started with, suggesting that there was indeed a good reason for it. As I was reading McGilchrist, it became obvious: this was because of cross-linking, the phenomenon whereby the left side of the body is controlled by the right hemisphere, and vice versa. Since the preparation starts on the right side of the body, its initial phases stimulate the left hemisphere; however, since the aim of the practice is simple global awareness (a right hemisphere function), this has the effect of bringing the left hemisphere under the control of the right hemisphere. Furthermore, since the practice relies upon focused attention (a left hemisphere function), it gives the left brain something to keep itself busy while the right hemisphere does its thing.
Without further ado, here’s the Preparation, more or less how Azize gives it (although I’ve probably modified it in a few ways, as I suspect anyone will if they keep at it long enough).
1. Sit in a chair, feet on the ground, back straight, head back, hands on the arms of the chair or resting on your legs. Azize says this is important and it probably is, but I also like to do this while basking in the Sun like a rock lizard after a swim, letting my mitochondria soak in that sweet solar infrared while my pores sweat out the toxins. Anyhow. The really key thing is that you’re motionless and comfortable.
2. Close your eyes.
3. Place your attention on your right visual field. Then on your left. Then on your right, then on your left, and so on. Flicker back and forth for a bit. This rapidly stimulates both hemispheres.
4. Put your attention on the muscles around your right eye. Let your attention wander over to the muscles around your left eye. Here, and elsewhere, as you place your attention on a given muscle group, you’ll start to feel it relax. Furthermore, when your attention is on a given body part, just feel it – whatever sensation is coming from it, heat or cold, wet or dry, rough or soft texture against your skin, or simply the air moving past it. As your attention rests in a given area, you’ll probably feel it tingle a bit.
5. Move your attention around the various muscles of your face and head: forehead, nose, cheeks, jaw, ears, gums, tongue. Relax each group as you go. The purpose of this is to initiate the process of vagus nerve relaxation, which is key to what follows. Your vagus can’t activate if you’re tense, and if your eyes and other facial muscles are all scrunched up, your body assumes you’re tense and your vagus slams shut. Once you’ve gone all over your head, briefly bring everything in your face and head into simultaneous awareness. Technically that’s sort of impossible, because attention is by its nature focused on one thing at a time; in practice this is basically very rapidly switching attention throughout the various body parts under consideration; but the effect is to bring all of your facial muscles into awareness as a whole, rather than a collection of parts, at the same time that you’re aware of them as parts.
6. With your face relaxed, move your attention to your neck. Let it wrap around, relaxing your vocal cords, moving down the back of your neck.
7. Move your attention to your right shoulder, then across your back to your left shoulder. Feel your shoulders relax.
8. Bring shoulders, neck, face, and head into simultaneous awareness. Check that your face, and especially your eyes, are still relaxed. Since the Preparation involves concentration, there’s a tendency for your eyes to tighten up like you’re squinting; don’t do this.
9. Let your attention move down your spine, around the muscles of your back to each side. When you reach the small of your back, bring your whole back into focus, then include shoulders, neck, head, and face.
10. Move your attention from the small of your back to your sex organs, then up through your crotch, to your belly, your sides, your solar plexus, your ribs, your chest. Then bring your trunk into focus, add your back, add your shoulders, add your neck, add your head and face. At this point your vagus nerve should be more or less fully relaxed.
11. Now begin with the right arm. Start at the shoulder, and start moving down. I find it’s helpful to sort of set your attention into a spiralling motion, such that it wraps around your limbs as it moves; that way you don’t just zip down in a straight line, but take the time to feel every inch of skin. When you reach your hand, feel each muscle in your palm, feel each finger, feel each segment of each digit, the side of each finger, the back, the tip, the web between them. You’ve got a lot of nerves in your hands so it will be natural to spend quite a bit of time there. When you’ve touched everything with your attention, reverse the motion: move your attention back up your arm (going a bit more quickly than you did before), then bring your entire arm into focus, then (you guessed it) your trunk, your sex organs, your back, etc. Check in with your eyes to make sure they’re still relaxed.
12. Do the same thing with your right leg. When you get to your feet, try to feel each toe individually. You don’t have as many nerves in your toes as you do in your fingers, so you’ll probably find this tricky at first – I know I did. Feeling your toes gets easier with time. Then, as with your right arm, move your attention back up your leg, then activate your right leg as a whole, then your right arm, then your trunk, etc. Check in with your eyes.
13. Do the same thing with the left leg.
14. Do the same thing with the left arm.
15. At this point, you’ve covered essentially your entire body, at least the external parts – your attention has mostly focused on the skin. But it should all be there, and you should be feeling pretty alert and relaxed already.
16. Move your attention to the tip of your nose. Hold it there until it tingles. Then feel the air as it enters your nostrils. Don’t try to control your breath – just breathe naturally. Only observe it. Your breaths will gradually become longer and deeper on their own.
17. Gradually move your attention through your airways. Go into your sinuses – inhale, exhale, feel the air moving through them. At each step, hold your attention on that area for a full breath. Move to the back of your throat, then to the inside of your throat, then to your chest, then to your diaphragm, then to your sex organs – which aren’t part of your airway per se, but you can still ‘breathe into’ it the same way they tell you to in yoga.
18. Once you’ve reached your genitalia, on an exhale let your attention follow the air out of your body, moving through diaphragm, chest, throat, sinuses, nose. Then follow another breath in, all the way back down, and all the way back out.
19. Bring your entire respiratory system into awareness at the same time. Do this for a few breaths. Then bring your left arm, left leg, right leg, right arm, trunk, sex organs, etc. back into awareness, until your whole body is simultaneously there. Check in with your eyes. At this point your entire body, both the surface and the inside, will be in your awareness as a complete, unified whole. You should also be feeling very relaxed.
20. This is the part where it moves from the practical to the slightly mystical, although personally I find this to be very helpful.
21. Bring your attention into a tight little ball in your solar plexus. Breathe in. As you inhale, with your inner voice say ‘I’. Observe whatever associations the concept ‘I’ elicits.
22. Spread your attention over your back. Breathe out. As you exhale, with your inner voice say ‘AM’. Observe the associations that get elicited by the concept ‘AM’.
23. Including the first, do nine ‘I AM’ cycles: ‘I’ with attention on the solar plexus while inhaling, ‘AM’ with attention on the back while exhaling. Counting can be a bit tricky; you can count inside your head if you like, but this seems to me to defeat the purpose of having your inner voice repeat the ‘I AM’ mantra, which has the effect of hijacking the left brain’s language centre with a right brain concept. I like to place a bit of my attention on my digits, keeping thumbs, then forefingers, then middle fingers, etc. in the attentional field with each successive breath, then reversing back to the thumbs after hitting the little finger. That way I don’t actually have to count. As to why nine is the magic number, I don’t really know. Gurdjieff probably had some silly numerological explanation for it, and the precise number probably doesn’t matter, but nine seems to work pretty well – enough repetitions to be meaningful, not so many as to become tedious.
24. After completing the ‘I AM’ cycles, open your eyes. Do this three times, as so: look to the right, inhale, open your eyes, and close your eyes on the exhale. Then do the same but looking to the left. Then look ahead, open your eyes on the inhale, and this time keep your eyes open. The reason you don’t want to open your eyes right away is that the sudden flood of visual information can destabilize the state you’ve placed yourself in; you want to ease your way into it.
25. Just sit for a bit, letting your gaze wander over the room, falling upon whatever it sees, not judging it, not thinking about it, just seeing it. Let the visual impressions mingle with the awareness of your body. Experience all the sensations as a unified whole – all of them sitting in your undifferentiated, but concentrated awareness.
26. Pop up out of your chair and plunge into your day.
That’s it. Looking at it, it seems complicated, but really it’s just sitting in a chair, moving your awareness around, and paying attention to your body. After a few tries it becomes a seamless flow – your awareness follows your attention around your body, while your attention wanders ahead of your awareness. It all proceeds quite naturally. That’s actually an important point to emphasize: the steps described above might make it sound like you’re making your attention move around as a rigid extension of your will. It’s not like that at all. It’s more like a dog on a leash: you indicate where you want your attention to go, but it has a mind of its own as it were, and while it goes more or less where you tell it, how it goes is really up to it. You’re following your attention as much as your attention is following you. No two Preparations are ever exactly alike for that reason. Each day you meet your body anew for the first time.
When you do it for a while, interesting things start to happen. Your mind gets accustomed to the sensation of that whole-body, whole-sensory awareness; it knows what it feels like, and it spontaneously slips into it more often and more easily. It often happens that I’ll be walking down the street, or sitting reading a book, or watching a movie, or dancing, and all of a sudden, with no warning, that whole-experience awareness just crystallizes all on its own. For an infinite instant, world, body, and mind crash together and interpenetrate. It’s like electricity sizzling through my nerves. It’s a difficult experience to explain, because it’s inherently pre-linguistic – it’s as right hemisphere as it gets, and the right brain doesn’t communicate in words.
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Which, when you think about it, is sort of contradictory on the surface level: why should a materialist philosophy correlate with a fetishization of the abstract?
Which if nothing else is an excellent description of Gurdjieff, who was a living embodiment of the trickster archetype.