I love the brain. The three pound organ that controls everything we see, feel, think, hear, and understand is a masterpiece of creation. The typical brain consists of some 100 billion cells, each of which connects and communicates with up to 10,000 of its colleagues. Together they forge an elaborate network of some one quadrillion (1,000,000,000,000,000) connections that guides how we talk, eat, breathe, and move. It’s absolutely amazing!
When I did my doctoral work, I focused on emerging research on the brain, concepts such as neuroplasticity. But one area of the brain I did not consider was the impact of brain hemispheres. The brain has a right and left hemisphere that does not immediately affect behavior, but I believe it does affect understanding and interpretation of information.
Let me note, first, that when I speak of the activities and specializations of each side of the brain, I am not suggesting that one side shuts down and the other controls everything. Both halves play a role in everything we do and how we understand the world. It’s not either/or.
But before I get to how this can impact the church, let’s first look at what we know about the two sides of the brain.
1. The left hemisphere controls the right side of the body; the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body. For instance, turn your head slowly to the left. The right side of your brain largely guided that maneuver. If you turn your head slowly to the right, the left hemisphere controlled that action.
Is this important to the church? Think about how you read. In Western languages, reading and writing involve turning the head from left to right. This action is controlled by the left hemisphere. Written language, invented by the Greeks around 550 B.C.E., has helped reinforce left hemisphere dominance (at least in the West) and created what Harvard classicist Eric Havelock called “the alphabetic mind.” But what about those who read right to left? More about this in a moment.
2. The left hemisphere is sequential; the right hemisphere is simultaneous. The left part of the brain is particularly good at recognizing serial or linear events–events whose elements occur one after the other. The left hemisphere is also involved in controlling serial behaviors which include verbal activities, such as talking, understanding the speech of other people, reading, and writing.
The right side, however, doesn’t work this way. Its special talent is the ability to interpret things simultaneously. This side of our brain is “specialized in seeing many things at once: in seeing all the parts of a geometric shape and grasping its form, or in seeing all the elements of a situation and understanding what they mean.”
3. The left hemisphere specializes in text; the right hemisphere specializes in context. I know this is an oversimplification but the left hemisphere handles what is said while the right hemisphere focuses on how it’s said–the nonverbal, often emotional cues delivered through gaze, facial expression, and intonation.
For example, some written languages depend heavily on context. Languages such as Arabic and Hebrew are often written only in consonants, which means the reader must figure out what the vowel is by the surrounding concepts and ideas. In those languages, if you read the equivalent of “stmp n th bg,” you’d fill in different vowels depending on whether the phrase appeared in a pest control manual (“stomp on the bug”) or a short story about a trip to the post office (“stamp in the bag”). It is also interesting to note that these languages are read right to left and are thus controlled by the right side of the brain as opposed to the Western way of reading.
4. The left hemisphere analyzes the details; the right hemisphere synthesizes the big picture. In general, the left hemisphere participates in the analysis of information. On the other hand, the right hemisphere is specialized for synthesis; it is particularly good at putting isolated elements together to perceive things as a whole. The left side breaks everything down to a single answer. The right side of the brain integrates everything into one picture. The left focuses on categories, the right on relationships. The left can grasp the details, but only the right hemisphere can see the big picture.
5. The right side of the brain is the side that is more involved in the spiritual and transcendent. It would be what we might call the more “spiritual” side of the brain. As a result, when we function more out of the right side of our brain, we are more likely to have an encounter with the mysterious and the transcendent. The left side of the brain is the more rational and logical side.
Ok, what does this mean in relation to church, ministry, and the Bible?
1. How we read the Bible. Those that read from right to left are engaging more of the right side of their brain than the left. They interpret things more narratively and contextually as they read. They are not being analytical but are synthesizing information, looking for patterns. And they see the spiritual and transcendent and the mysterious. It should be noted that the Jews read from right to left and wrote from right to left. In a Western culture, we read from left to right, thus using more of the left side of our brain. In Western cultures, we may be interpreting the Old Testament with the wrong side of the brain! And the New Testament expresses a Jewish way of living and thinking so it may be that we need to also re-think our interpretive lens and attempt to understand it from a right-brained, synthesizing, transcendent-oriented lens.
I have contended for some time that much of the Bible is more descriptive than prescriptive, describing what is happening than prescribing it. It is the story of God’s people and God’s re-creative process. Too many interpreters try to deconstruct the text, breaking it down and dissecting words and phrases, and then try to reconstruct meaning, attempting to put it all back together. Have you ever been able to put a dissected animal back together just as it was before it was dissected? It can’t be done. It will be a different animal regardless.
It may be that we need to re-think our thinking about how we read and interpret the Scriptures. We need to consider an interpretive model that includes BOTH sides of the brain and not just the left side. Story AND words. Narrative AND logic.
2. The Spiritual and Transcendent. Do you know many Asian Christians? They tend to be more in tune with the spiritual side of life than us Westerners. I have a Asian pastor who has told me stories of interpreting dreams, spirits indwelling objects, and other, more intense and transcendent experiences with the mysterious God. They tend to be more in tune with the right side of their brain. On the flip side, we Western, left-side dominant Christians are more concerned with logic and reason than the mysterious, transcendent and the spiritual. Some could never say they have ever heard the voice of God, sensed an intensity of His presence so powerful it was palpable or even had dreams where they knew God was speaking.
The Old Testament and the New Testament are filled with instances of prophets hearing, literally, the voice of God. They had dreams where they were told to go to certain parts of the world by God or the Spirit. The inauguration of a king was transformed into the prophet seeing God and talking directly to him.
What if those who are more in tune with the right side of their brain, or who are more right-brain dominant, understood God differently those who are not? What if their encounters with Him were very real, because they were able to use their whole brain instead of the logical? And what if left-brained people were able to tap into the right side of the brain and thus experience God differently than through philosophy, logic, and dissection alone? How might that change our relationship with Him? How might that change our relationship with each other? How might we understand the Bible differently if this were the case?
I will confess that I am more right-brained that left-brained. I see things differently than others. I am able to integrate different ideas and concepts into a whole. I see in patterns. I have had dreams, visions, and encounters with God that were so real it was though I was literally hearing His voice. I have heard Him tell me something was going to happen and actually have it happen. And it has happened more than once.
But I do not discount the logical and the rational and the deconstructive tendencies of those who may be more left-brain oriented than I am. I learn from them and I hope they learn from me. We need both, not just one.
But more than anything, maybe we just need to be more open to that which we do not understand, and be more humble in our interpretive processes and our experiences with God. It could be that the uniqueness of our creation gives us a more holistic picture of how God works and things.
You think about that…