My Brain’s War With Itself

By the end of the drawing class I take on Saturdays, my left and right brains have been wrestling for hours, and a mild headache has set in. Despite my cerebral irritation, however, I see more vividly. The world’s skeletal lines and angles cry for flattening into two dimensions. When I tell my hand it’s time to write, it insists on having its own way. These interludes aren’t enjoyable exactly, but I think they’re good for me. My right brain needs prodding to get some exercise. My left brain needs shutting up.

The bicameral theory of the brain has been around since the 1860s but began its popular life with Roger Sperry in late seventies. He published research revealing that, when he cut the corpus collosum between the two halves of epileptics’ brains, he reduced seizures and also created changes in patients’ processing. Sperry could isolate functions centered in one half and the other. Soon everyone found answers in this revelation. Left-handed people were more creative because they were “right-brained.” Some people even speculated that early humans with much more bicameral brains couldn’t access the right brain effectively and that “Sing Heavenly Muse” was Homer’s left brain calling on his right.

Science discredits much of this theory now. People solve math problems best when they use both halves, and the left brain can be quite creative when it comes to certain tasks.

Nonetheless, taking this art class makes a believer of me. I’m clearly doing something new when I try to draw accurately, and it feels like spending time with my brain’s shadier half. My art teacher tricks my left brain into disengaging its judgment and good sense. We do contour drawings without looking at the page or recopy a line drawing upside down to make it harder to adjust a shape to make it resemble a nose or a tie or a fan. “If you want the image to look ‘correct,’” he says, “your left brain is in the driver’s seat.” He endlessly reminds us, “Draw what you see,” as if we had no brains at all.

And sometimes it feels as though my right brain really is that atrophied. My right brain watches my left brain grading papers or answering e-mail. My left brain is bossy, likes to hear its own voice, and asserts its solutions everywhere. But my right brain doesn’t do much to stop it. It doesn’t seem to care and sits contently idle, daydreaming and eating whatever mental bon-bons drift its way. My right brain is a slacker, a man child. He hates regular hours and regulations.

My left brain doesn’t like giving up control and my right brain doesn’t like taking it, hence the headache.

Oddly, I don’t get headaches when I doodle or do abstract work. In that context, there’s no question my left brain is useless. These lines and shapes and colors are silly, not worth my left brain’s attention, and, so, when I go to a meeting I often doodle to keep my right brain busy while I concentrate on listening.

That’s how I explain my doodles anyway. The truth is, occasionally my left brain abandons the thread of talk—it’s all so familiar after all—and lurks at my right brain’s shoulder watching the work. It’s a huge relief when that happens. Then I wish I could give my left brain more regular rest because, though it doesn’t seem to want it, it so deserves it.

And that’s what I want. I want my right brain to say, confidently, “I got this.” That’s the main reason for taking this drawing class—trying to boost my right brain’s confidence in every area of art, to convince it (and that meddling left brain) that each half has a responsibility to take control every once in a while.

Who knows if it will work. Even as I write this, I hear my right brain grouse. The heightened awareness of the world is nice and all, but what about those headaches? Neither side seems to enjoy them much, and they don’t like fighting. More than that, they sense their uneasy peace shifting. All negotiations are new again. My left brain says everything is fine as it is. My right brain says my effort to reeducate it is much too sensible to be true.

Sometimes, neither side seems to listen at all.

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9 Comments

Filed under Ambition, Art, Doubt, Education, Essays, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Play, Thoughts, Visual Art, Work

9 responses to “My Brain’s War With Itself

  1. I loved this post David. Thanks.

    • dmarshall58

      Thank you. I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve taken drawing, but I can’t believe what a stretch it is. You wouldn’t expect an artistic person to be so taxed, but I am. My hopes are that some of it will bleed somehow into my work, which could use more dimension and technical expertise! –D

  2. I can really relate. I tend to be slightly more left-brained and understand your conflict. Right-brain exercises do help, so good for you for doing the class.

    • dmarshall58

      I guess I’ll see! I can’t say I’ve been proud of much of the work I’ve done, but I’m encouraged that I haven’t hated it and have accepted that everyone starts out being bad at it. It’s always hard for me to struggle through those first horrible phases of new endeavors, but maybe this time it’ll be better. Thanks so much for commenting! –D

  3. To be perfectly honest, this is why I am *afraid* to take art classes again– not so much because of the knock-down, drag-out I’m afraid my right and left brain will have, but because it’s been so long since I’ve navigated specifically with the right brain, I think I’ve forgotten how to properly be at the helm. These days, when (if) I sit down to draw, I am alone and judgement-free and rule-free, and it’s a completely different experience than taking a class. I *let* my right brain be at the helm, and the rest of me just wanders to wherever it is that it wanders…I am not sure I would even be able to benefit from a drawing class now– not that I couldn’t improve my drawing skills, because I most definitely could– but because I’m just not used to thinking that way anymore I suppose. Though, writing must somehow fit in here somewhere, and partially at least, be a function of the right brain’s creativity, although I am struck by the thought that creative writing, like math, must be a function of both sides of the brain– the left following and utilizing the rules of grammar etc., and the right, well, being creative. I’ve studied enough Psych that I should probably know the facts of this (which side of the brain is responsible for *forgetting*?), and I guess I could do a bit of research (which side of the brain is responsible for *laziness*?), but I’d rather just have a discussion about it here (which side of the brain is responsible for taking the easy way out? ).

    I am also a chronic doodler, so I can relate to the reasons you say you do it, but I LOVE the thought that the left brain “lurks at my right brain’s shoulder watching the work” — so great.

    • dmarshall58

      I decided to take a class only because I know how bad I am at representational drawing and thought I could handle coming face to face with it. And I have, over and over. One saving grace for me is that I’m really taking a class that is a little below my level–drawing for beginners. I’m not really a beginner because I took art all those years ago in college. The most interesting aspect of this class has been learning how people teach art–makes me think it might be fun to teach it someday.

      My drawing is improving too, even if only incrementally. I’ve got to think getting better is really a matter of practicing, practicing, practicing and putting aside my self-consciousness. They’re related probably. My son is an art-art history major in college and, with no fanfare or posturing, he draws incredibly well. He just doesn’t think about it. I wish that were me.

      But I like doodling. I won’t stop doing it, and, who knows, maybe this class will improve my doodling too.

      As I was composing this post I thought about where writing might reside on the brain, but maybe that’s another post. I’m with you, it seems to demand both sides, and I’m always trying to invite the right side in more… with mixed results, clearly. Thanks for visiting. I enjoy our exchanges! –D

  4. I always thought it would be fun to teach art as well….but I was thinking more for kids– not sure if I could handle teaching a bunch of adults who all turned out to be more talented than I am. Ha ha. It’s neat that you are looking at the class from different perspectives– maybe watching and learning how the teacher teaches is natural for a fellow teacher though?

    Like you, I also took art in college, and that is my only experience with art classes, and art history. I desperately wanted to learn about art and artists, and to be able to have that knowledge at my fingertips, but the history part of art just didn’t take. I think I was just too young. I admire anyone who loves art so much as to major in art history….and that amazing ability to draw “incredibly well” that comes so easily. Your son sounds great.

    I think that yes, ability is inherent , but drawing is most definitely something that takes practice. I go so long without drawing anything, that I have to re-learn each time I attempt to do it. I probably will never draw as well as I did in college, or as well as I’d like, ever.

    By the way, I happen to think that doodling is a perfectly valid art form! Your doodle drawings are wonderfully beautiful actually. I was lurking around your poetry site the other day, and I couldn’t stop looking at one of your drawings– it was the one titled “Bivalves”, and it’s just fabulous. I see they are for sale….but not sure this “starving artist” could afford to buy art. (Maybe you could send me an email with the info? Thanks!) Your poetry is equally as wonderful, and I’m really glad I found both of your blogs!

    • dmarshall58

      Oh, I would want to teach kids too. I certainly wouldn’t want to try to teach ossified people like me. I’ll contact you about that pen and ink. I’m sure we could reach some agreement. I’d love for you to have it. –D

      • val dering rojas

        Ha ha. You couldn’t be much more ossified than I am myself, but yep, the sentiment is the same, and love your use of the word “ossified” !

        RE: Pen and ink– thank you! That would be great! I really, really love it!

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