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.