Ever feel like you just can’t make up your mind? Or that you just can’t figure out what to do or say or think or feel? Just as soon as you decide something and put one internal debate to rest, another idea pops into your head and it feels like you’re starting all over again. You start to wonder:
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Why can’t I make up my mind?”
“Why do I keep going over the same thing again and again?”
“Why can’t I stop drinking or eating or getting into bad relationships over and over?”
If any of this sounds familiar to you, scientific research involving the dichotomy of the human brain is beginning to help us understand why this cycle of stressful indecision may be going on in our heads.
This dual brain system (a right and left brain) has been understood from a physiological stand point for hundreds of years. In very basic terms, the left brain governs the functions of the right side of the body and the right brain governs the left. For example, when we want to raise our right arm (or right leg or foot or finger), the message to do so emanates from the left brain. The reverse is true for the right brain and the left side of the body. We also know that there are language and even emotional processing differences associated with either one hemisphere or the other. Observations of stroke patients and brain injury individuals have given us evidence of that. And, of course, most of us are familiar with the popular belief of a right and left brain personality type; right brain people are creative and emotional and left brain people are logical and unemotional.
But until the 60’s we had no way to truly study the different functions of our two very different brain hemispheres. All of that changed, however, when Dr. Joseph Bogen and Dr. Phillip Vogel discovered that if the bundle of nerves (the corpus callosum) that connects our two brains was severed, it would eliminate life threatening seizures in individuals suffering from a severe form of epilepsy. Actually they would no longer have seizures at all. But because it was also known that this surgery would eliminate communication between the right and left hemisphere of the person, it was only as a last resort that this surgery (a commisurotomy) was implemented. It was spectacularly successful. It saved lives. And at first it appeared as though the patients, after some rehabilitation for language and movement, functioned much the same as they had before the surgery. However, some strange differences in behavior began to appear. They were not life threatening. They were just odd.
The patients began to report that it was as though the right side of their body and the left side of their body simply did not agree, and even more importantly, they appeared to behave in opposition to each other. The following are but a few of the many examples of behavior changes that were reported by patients who had undergone this surgery:
- One patient reported that every time he wanted to smoke a cigarette, his right hand (his left brain) would reach for it, but his left hand (his right brain) would grab the cigarette and throw it away. He stated that he had no desire to quit smoking and he didn’t know why his left hand seemed to be acting all on its own. It would not let him smoke.
- A female patient was getting dressed for a party. Every time her right hand (her left brain) would reach into her closet for her favorite dress, the one she wanted to wear, her left hand (right brain) would grab it and put it back. She didn’t understand why her left hand would not let her wear the dress she wanted to wear.
- A patient reported that prior to his surgery he had no history of discord in his marital relationship, that in fact he and his wife rarely argued. But somehow, as he and his wife were discussing some difficult issues his left hand (right brain) attempted to strike his wife and his right hand (his left brain) grabbed it and prevented him from doing so. This patient reported that he had no conscious feelings of anger toward his wife and was frightened that his hand had tried to do such a terrible thing.
- A post-operative patient reported that one morning she was awaked by her own hand. Her left hand (right brain) slapped her across the face. Her alarm clock had failed to go off; she had over slept for an appointment that she needed to keep. She could not understand why she had hit her own face. However, because she had awakened herself, she was able to get to her appointment on time.
These actions may sound somewhat bizarre. They are, however, documented events. The ones presented here are only a few examples that illustrate that our two brains each have a mind of their own. In these examples individuals did things they believed they had no desire to do. They had no conscious awareness of the opposition in their thoughts that their body was acting out. The individual lighting the cigarette didn’t think he wanted his left hand to grab the cigarette and throw it away. The woman reaching for a dress to wear didn’t think she wanted to put it back in the closet. The man who tried to strike his wife didn’t think he wanted to hit anyone, anymore than the woman who struck herself in the morning in order to wake up thought she wanted to slap herself in the face.
All of these individuals were unconsciously performing actions that prevented them from doing things that they consciously believed they wanted to do. They had no control over what each side of their head had in mind for them to do and they did not understand why they were doing it.
Dr. Roger Sperry and his associates at Cal Tech saw this phenomenon as an opportunity for further scientific understanding regarding the various functions of each half of the brain. Sperry discovered, “…each hemisphere of the human brain contains a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing and emoting …vastly different aspects of thought and action.”
He won the Nobel Prize for his work. He had found that two autonomous minds, each reasonably intact and intelligent, existed in his research patients. His discoveries are now legend.
Of course, it is fascinating to think that people who have had the communication pathway between their brain’s hemispheres eliminated can be locked in such an oppositional, emotional tug-of-war. It’s also interesting to wonder how anyone could be so equally invested in two different outcomes at the same time. But how does it all work in an individual with an intact corpus callosum? Someone whose brain messaging system is working as it is supposed to? What possible significance could it have for the rest of us?
And though Sperry discovered this scientific fact over 50 years ago, its psychological impact has only in the last ten years or so been empirically tested.
One research project designed to investigate this dual-brain question was conducted in 1996 by Dr. Fredric Schiffer, a psychiatrist who holds positions at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital. His objective was to understand how each half of our brain stores emotional memories. One of his participants was an individual who had undergone split brain surgery and had been a subject in Sperry’s research in 1964. His test results were particularly interesting.
Schiffer found that this client had two distinct, separate emotional memories of a personal, traumatic event that occurred in his childhood. When questioned about how he felt about being bullied on his schoolyard in elementary school, his left brain answered that it really didn’t bother him very much. However, his right brain registered an entirely different memory of the same event. It remembered being terribly frightened. It was as if two opposing memories of the event, without connection to or resolution from each other resided one mind.
The results with another research participant offered another dimension to this dual mind theory. His right and left brain had dramatically different opinions of his positive and negative attributes. One side’s view was self approving and one side was self-disapproving.
There is profound psychological significance that can be drawn from this research. If, we understand that within an individual there resides two distinct parts, one adversely affected by past trauma and one basically unaware that any trauma occurred, or even more specifically, one part that still suffers emotional pain and one part that is indifferent to that pain, it can broaden our understanding of the difficulty in understanding our own internal conflicts. It explains why we have trouble making up our minds. It explains why one part of us may be saying or doing one thing and another part equally sure of itself may be saying or doing another.
The dual brain model of psychology (developed by Fredric Schiffer) revolves around the hypothesis that each hemisphere of our brain has a mind of its own. And, that although these two autonomous minds work together, often, they simply disagree. The resulting ‘neurological’ conflict presents in an individual as some form of mental, emotional and or physical distress. It can show up as depression, anxiety, psychosis, obsessive compulsion, bipolar, addiction, and/or any other number of mental or emotional problems.
Many theories about why our two minds disagree have been proposed and although there may be some disagreement about how it all works, Schiffer’s empirical research clarifies one thing; each hemisphere stores memories of traumatic, life shaping events with different emotional perception. They can disagree on what happened, how it felt and what needs to be done in order to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
It is as if our two minds develop at different rates and have different perceptions of time passing. Because of that difference, psychological injuries of the past can influence choices, beliefs, and behaviors in the present. In a sense, we try to protect ourselves from the threat of harm that no longer exists. The bullies on the schoolyard just are not there anymore, but we sometimes make decisions as if they are just around the corner, especially when fear, worry, or doubt are invested in the process.
Psychopathology viewed through this neurobiological system asserts that each hemisphere of the brain exists as a specific, overt personality and that when this system becomes unbalanced and the struggle for dominance and control between them escalates, it creates distress. Schiffer clarifies his theory by asserting that no matter what name is given to the mind’s dual functions, inner child or mature adult, conscious memories or unconscious drives, the language of logic or the expression of creativity, it works the same in all of us. The effects of significant events we have experienced in the past and the ways we have learned to deal with those events influence our perception of and response to real life events in the present, whether those incidents have anything to directly do with the original event/trauma or not.
In other words, the fear and urgency with which we experienced events in our childhood (or at any time through our life when trauma may have occurred) keeps driving our behavior today, into and throughout our adulthood. It becomes inexorably linked with a fight for survival of self. We have those interminable internal dialogues for a very clear neuropsychological reason; one part of our brain is trying to convince the other part of our brain what to think or do or say. They both think that they are right and that we have to follow their advice not only for our own best interest, but actually for our very survival.
So now that we know all this, what do we do? How does all this knowledge about having two brains do us any good? How, for example, can it help us with anxiety or depression or even addiction?
Most people have experienced one or the other of those emotions. We know what its like to feel scared; that sickening feeling in the gut, the feeling that you can’t breath, or even a feeling of being frozen in time. It is also part of the human condition to know what its like to feel down; to just want to give up, to just not be able to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning because the future seems so hopeless. Most of us also know what its like to experience addiction, whether it’s to a person, a substance or an unwanted behavior. But most of us attribute our anxiety, depression, or even addiction to our nature, some kind of personal, moral, chemical, or genetic weakness. We simply forget or ignore the fact that anxiety, depression, and addiction are biological responses to a significant threat of danger. Those emotions are there for a reason. The reason is survival. In a bottom line, extremely simplistic analogy, it’s as though part of our psyche screams, “Run for your life!” while the other part whispers, “Freeze, or you’re dead!”
Research has demonstrated that an individual may have very different and sometimes contradictory memories of the experience of trauma (generated by an experience of intense fear). When we understand that each part of our brain perceives fear (or the possibility of fear) with different urgency and import, internal stress makes a lot of sense. The perception of threat challenges us to find resolution. But when one part of us reacts from the terror of the past and another part of us tries to deal with it logically in the present, distress shows up in the form of anxiety and or depression or even a pattern of avoidance through substance abuse. It is the interaction of these different brain states of the right and left that create conflict. They get locked in a struggle for control, and we get stuck in the middle of it all.
Dual-Brain Therapy applies the knowledge of hemispherically based intrapsychic differences to clinical practice. A therapist can work with a client, through using dialogue and various techniques (art expression, psychodrama, visual stimulation or inhibition, specific meditations, and journaling to mention a few) that enhance access to the right or left brain to help that person identify the internal conflicts that have them stuck. The client learns how their emotionally healthier side can convince the more troubled side that the need to exert such fear driven thoughts and behaviors just isn’t there anymore.
Empirical evidence indicates that when an individual is in therapy for emotional distress, learning about a two brain system of perception can help provide relief and reassurance. Schiffer reports statistically significant success with the patients who learn about this physiological dichotomy. He has even worked with clients who have found relief from psychotic episodes, as well as severe obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar.
There are several ways that psychological distress is alleviated with individuals who engage in duel-brain psychotherapy session work. First of all, they stop thinking they’re crazy, or that there is something very wrong with them. It makes sense, this internal conflict. So understanding the mechanism of a dual brain protective function is the first step. Another step in the process of healing is to begin to identify the feelings of unease, feelings that something is wrong. Sometimes those feelings can be identified as triggers. Once an individual identifies the feeling or feelings they can begin a process of identifying when the feeling or feelings first appeared. What event or environment precipitated those feelings? What happened? How was it resolved? Or, was it ever resolved? Then they can learn new ways to think about them, new ways to comfort them, new ways to let them feel heard.
Dual Brain Therapy holds that each hemisphere of the brain exists as a specific, overt personality and that when this system becomes unbalanced and the struggle for dominance and control escalates, it creates psychological distress. When the knowledge of hemispherically based intrapsychic differences is applied in clinical practice, it enables an individual to help his emotionally healthier side convince the more troubled side to stop exerting such fear driven thoughts that create unwanted behaviors and unbalanced states of mind. Also, significantly, it helps remove a lot of the counterproductive guilt associated with internal conflict.
In any case, this theory makes a lot of sense. When we don’t know why we do or say or think or feel the way we do, this just might be the reason for it. And, understanding it, paying attention to it and developing a more balanced way of solving the things that puzzle us, may be a very good way to get better. Dr. Fredric Schiffer certainly knows that it has helped his patients. And, so do I.
- Edwards, B. (1979). Drawing on the right side of the brain. Los Angeles, CA: J. P. Tarcher, Inc.
- Matsakis, A. (1994). Post-traumatic stress disorder: A complete treatment guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
- Nelson, L. (2008) Art expression: Psychological benefits of right brain processing. Irvine, CA: California Graduate Institute.
- Schiffer, F. (1998). Different psychological status in the two hemispheres of two split brain patients. Neuropsychiatry, Neuropsychology and Behavioral Neurology, 11 (3), 151-156.
- Schiffer, F. (1998). Of two minds: The revolutionary sciences of dual brain psychology. New York: The Free Press.
- Sperry, R. W. (1968). Hemisphere disconnection and unity in conscious awareness. American Psychologist, 23, 723-33.
- Sperry, R. W. (1973). Lateral specialization of cerebral function in the surgically separated hemispheres in F. J. McGuigan and R. A. Schoonover, eds., The Psychophysiology of Thinking, Academic Press, N.Y., 209-29.
© Copyright 2009 by Lu Moss Nelson, Ph.D., therapist in Laguna Hills, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.