Summer Camino – day 13 > excerpt 3 / the way our brain functions

The day was long and difficult and in the end I only did about twenty one kilometres and did not reach Sarria. A new albergue, not mentioned in my guidebook, showed up just in time. The facilities were modern: there were only eight beds per dormitory and a tiled bathroom was attached. We were four pilgrims in our room – a real luxury!

Months after the first draft of Journey of a Stickman was completed, inadvertently I came across ‘My Stroke of Insight’, a book written by Dr Jill Bolte Taylor, a teacher and researcher in the field of neurology at Harvard Medical School in Boston. As a scientist she is practical, factual and driven to perfection, until at the age of thirty six, she had a stroke and her book, published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2008, describes her initial trauma and related experiences.

During the process of her recovery, she consciously compared her healing process with her knowledge in neurology. Some of her findings contribute to, clarify and complement my views on human behaviour. In the comparison I largely describe these using my own words and metaphors.

Although the haemorrhage had seriously damaged her left brain and she was partially paralysed and speechless, her still-functioning right brain allowed her to clinically observe what happened during the various stages of her recovery and she realized that there are far more dimensions to life than factual science.

With her right brain fully intact, she experienced life intuitively and without the intrusion of any judgement from her left brain. She observed an intensely peaceful existence, although this one-sidedness distorted her comprehension to such an extent that she could no longer function practically. She discovered that her right and left brains needed to operate jointly and in harmony with one another to cope with everyday life.

For instance, with her right brain she come across peace and tranquillity and observed wonderful pictures. However, her body movements, logical thinking and all other left brain tasks failed. At the same time, constant ‘mind-chatter’, with its criticism, impatience, anger, frustration, fears, anxieties, moods and trepidations, discontinued and she came into contact with much calmer feelings and thoughts. She saw the value of this tranquil state and wanted to preserve it during the rehabilitation and recovery stages.

The right brain, she explains, is free to think intuitively and ‘outside the box’. It sees pictures of the present moment without being inhibited by any comparisons with the past or contemplations of the future – which are created by the left brain. Through the right brain we understand the here and now in an uncensored way – the naked truth ‒ facing the moment without distortion and discoloration. From this we can conclude that our creative right brain by its design is truthful, spontaneous and carefree. It has no burden of judgement and is liberated from complex analysis.

This means that if two persons could simultaneously think and respond to one another solely through their right-hand brains there would probably be no misunderstandings. Both would speak the relevant truth applicable to that moment – in that slice in time – without analysing what it means in the wider context of the past and the future. At the same time, the two would disclose whatever is in their right, intuitive brain and mind without considering the other persons’ feelings and this would, under these circumstances, be quite acceptable. There would be no negative emotions, no egos, no awkward feelings and the participants would not need to be considerate or apprehensive of saying the ‘wrong’ thing – tip-toeing around the other. The exchange would be bare of fear and prejudice and everybody would be perceived as an equal member of the human family. This might sound marvellous, but as Dr Bolte Taylor points out, both hemispheres are designed to complement one another, each fulfilling essential tasks without which we cannot survive. Both have their input on just about every action we undertake and every aspect of our intelligent comprehension. One of the functions of our left brain is to string the time slices of the right brain’s pictures together and in this way create a movie which adds meaning.

The interaction between the two halves of the brain can best be compared with the operation of now obsolete Super-8 movie camera systems. Similar to what the right brain does, the movie camera takes 18 individual pictures (frames) per second. Each frame on the celluloid film is visible as a still picture, representing a slice of time – taken in a particular moment during filming. When we view these movies, the projector, similar to the left brain, transfers each picture onto the screen and this again happens at a rate of 18 pictures per second. This sequence of frames offers an illusion that we are watching an uninterrupted scene ‒ whereas in reality what we see is a progression of still motives.

When only the right brain is active, without the functions of the left brain, this moving experience would not exist. There would be no continuous projection of pictures and we would see single frames – momentary slices.

With the left brain functioning in a normal way, it continually compares each new picture from the right brain with the previous one and strings the differences together. It then draws conclusions based on the ongoing momentary disparities. In other words, it allows us to compare and evaluate the experiences of the past with those of the present.  It provides us with depth-of-life occurrences, which are our memories as well as future desires. Maybe this can be compared with observing a 3-D movie: we can see valleys and hills of our past and future.

However, this would still be a picture in black and white, except that the left brain mixes emotional differences from the right brain into the picture sequences and these may be positive or negative. We now see the bright colours of love and happiness, the dark colours of fear, greed, resentment and despair and all colours between the two. We can see the total composition perfectly assembled by the left brain and are stimulated to be creative and passionate which may be advantageous or destructive.

Without having the left brain’s ability to draw comparisons and deriving at conclusions, we would miss out on all expressive pictures, including our positive and intensely loving emotions with its kaleidoscope of feelings. We would not want to be without these, nor would we want to be without sexual desires and its passionate actions.

With the left brain isolated, we might experience love, for instance, in a nebulous way, or rigid and with ups and downs that we are familiar with. Maybe love experienced purely through the right brain makes us exaltedly happy, but with the left brain dysfunctional, we could not act out this rose-tinted illusion in any practical way.

On arrival in Calvor I met Bruce, a retired restorer of historic architecture from Sussex, England. Bruce was seventy one years old and was the oldest pilgrim I had encountered so far. He had previously walked various short sections of the Camino and had enjoyed every one of them. Before retiring, Bruce was a consultant to the government and to the private sector in Britain, providing advice on the restoration of historic castles, country houses and mansions. He was responsible for work being carried out according to original practices and historically correct. We touched on history, shifted to music and spun a yarn about how the famous composers such as Bach or Mozart, for instance, earned their often meagre living, and how their music was ordered by high society and wealthy patrons. It provided a typical example of the way societies were and still are controlled by the elite and the well-to-do’s: Mr Average is just a foot soldier. Bruce and I contemplated and dreamt for a long while and I enjoyed just letting the mind paint pictures and bantering with someone of similar disposition. In the evening we joined the communal dinner

I was the first to leave the next morning and said goodbye to Bruce. I never saw him again and I now regret that we missed exchanging email addresses. The other two occupants in our room were Francine and Miguel, the French couple I had mentioned before and who always greeted me with a hearty hug.

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About Dieter Daehnke

Born in 1941 in Gdansk, Poland. In March 1945 the family fled the Russian army. Met my wife Uta in Hamburg and as she is South African, I followed her home. We live in Cape Town, have 3 children, and 2 wonderful grandchildren. I established an Engineering company and since its sale, I enjoy walking Caminos. I have recently completed my book 'Journey of a Stickman'.

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