L-brain for analysis; R-brain for synthesis
As mentioned earlier, the cerebrum is divided into a left-cerebral hemisphere (L-brain) and a right-cerebral hemisphere (R-brain). The convention is that the L- and R-brains are located on your left- and right-sides of your head respectively.
In his book, Mind Skills: Giving Your Child a Brighter Future, Dr David Lewis, a psychologist from the University of Sussex, England, wrote a tentative description of what he thought were the basic functions of the L- and R-brain:
"The right brain is good at seeing the forest but bad at spotting the individual trees; the left brain excels at finding the trees but, in doing so, sometimes overlooks the forest." (1)
Generally speaking, the L-brain is your rational or analytical brain. The word analysis means quite literally to break apart. Therefore, the L-brain breaks information apart by (i) recording very specific pieces of information called patterns; (i) comparing very specific pieces of simplified information gathered from the sensors of the body or from memory with known specific information in memory; or if there are no familiar patterns, (ii) extracting and recording what it considers to be important and well-simplified specific 'survival-based' patterns for storing into memory (both short-term and long-term).
The R-brain, however, utilises all this highly specific pieces of information held in memory or derived from the sensors of the body to reproduce or create new or familiar but much larger, more holistic pattern(s) that best represent (or describe) the large chunks of experience and knowledge gathered in memory throughout life and which we interpret as reality. For example, the L-brain may record specific information like the sharp teeth, eyes, colour, a growl, smell of fur, and other specific behaviours of something we see with our eyes, ears and nose. But it takes the R-brain to bring the pieces together to form the pattern of a particular predator (or a friendly creature if the delayed behaviour response kicks in and we discover what the reality is for the thing we are observing).
In fact, the R-brain provides the essential tool for the creation of human thought (i.e. our basic representations and interpretation of true reality created from very specific patterns stored in the brain) that is eventually brought to our consciousness with the help of the frontal cortex, hippocampus and thalamus areas of the brain as a form of indirect experience, and this ultimately shapes our individuality. The word holistic means to see many things as one.
Brain specialist Dr Richard Restak had this to say about the functions of the L- and R-brains:
"Instead of thinking that the left hemisphere is specialised for language, it may, more accurately, be specialised for symbolic representation. The right hemisphere, by contrast, seems to deal with representations that mirror reality more directly, those large chunks of experience that don't employ language." (2)
In summary, the L-brain is primarily your fine pattern-recognition and recording centre, and the R-brain is primarily your broad pattern-creation centre. Thus the cerebrum is both a problem-creating tool and a problem-solving tool which may either create or alleviate stress in one's life respectively, depending on how it is used.
For example, our L-brain can help us to record many fine details, even the most irrelevant ones. For some R-brain people, this can be stressful. So the R-brain can reduce the stress by seeing the overall pattern behind the individual patterns and so make it easier to forget the irrelevant patterns. This is why some people find learning several languages difficult because their L-brain focuses too deeply on the individual patterns of words and their meanings and having to remember them all whereas the R-brain wants to focus on the large-scale pattern in all the detail which it finds difficult to uncover. Other people who find it easy to remember many different languages can do so because they can see a general pattern in all the languages with the help of their R-brain, but is able to use their L-brain to record the specific patterns easily.
Another way to understand the functions of your R- and L-brain
Here is another way to understand the functions of the L- and R-brains. The R-brain is good at linking pieces of information. Once you have the big picture, you tend to skip over or ignore the specific details to the point where you may not notice any mistakes. For example, you might read the following familiar proverb:
"The grass is
always greener on
on the other side
of the park"
If your R-brain is good, you would have read this phrase quickly and have recognised the familiar proverb. But, in so doing, may not have noticed the mistake of the extra "on". You are likely to skip over it to recognise the familiar pattern of the proverb.
But if you are not familiar with the proverb or you can somehow reduce the R-brain functions in some way, you are likely to read it slowly as the L-brain takes over and starts to record everything it sees in all the details to the point where you will notice the extra "on".
NOTE: The L-brain is kind of designed to help us see very specific and basic patterns and have them recorded into memory in a very precise way in order for us to later discriminate those key patterns of importance to our survival. The R-brain, on ther other hand, needs to see the bigger pattern by bringing together these smaller patterns held in memory (or other sources) and link them together in such a way so as to form a larger pattern. The R-brain likes to combine images, sounds and other patterns and string them together to help show a variety of new patterns. The L-brain will accept everything it sees in glorious details. The frontal cortex, however, likes to control the outpouring of these new patterns derived from experience and our R-brain and recorded into the L-brain by choosing what are the important patterns worth remembering.
Why do we need the L- and R-brain?
We need the L- and R-brain to constantly extract and create the right kinds of patterns from the information we gather through our eyes, ears and other sensors as well as the patterns already stored in our minds until we fully understand our purpose and aim and to perform an appropriate behavioural response. These patterns are vital to the proper functioning of the brain. We need relevant patterns to help us survive and understand the environment we live in.
Think of the L- and R-brain as vital to our survival and, if we are not preoccupied with surviving, can ultimate solve the great question of "Why we are here?"
How do we use the L- and R-brains?
The brain naturally picks out the essential patterns through a problem-creating process and links the patterns together through the process of problem-solving or learning. For humans, we are accustomed to problem-creating and solving process more extensively that the brain has literally expanded over millions of years the two most fundamental patterns of life known as the L- and R-brains.
These tools/patterns have helped humans solve problems so quickly that they appear as two massive lobes of brain tissue coming off the brain stem.
Why do we need these tools of the cerebrum?
Throughout evolution, there has always been a need for animals to solve problems. Usually those problems are of a survival nature considered critical for an animal's existence. For curious humans, the problems have extended to other areas.
In the case of surviving, the tools are necessary to recognise, say, a predator. Hence you need a L-brain to record something of the key or critical patterns making up the predator you have seen (and hopefully have survived before) and have it stored into memory. But once in memory, you don't need the L-brain to get in the way and notice any other differences to slow down your response. Unless the differences are important and could determine an alternative behavioural response, you only need to record a number of key or critical pieces of information.
Now comes the power of the R-brain. Here, the R-brain can help you to recreate the important picture (i.e. the predator) you need after the L-brain has picked up key pieces of information from the information received through your senses and compared it with what's stored in memory. Once the image of a predator is created by the R-brain and recognised by the L-brain, an immediate (or delayed) response can take place depending on the situation and what you have at hand to solve it.
In essence, to recognise a seemingly simple pattern like that of a predator requires some effort by the brain to break down this information so that critical patterns can be extracted, simplified and stored in memory. Then these patterns have to be later recombined holistically to reveal the all-important main pattern (i.e. the predator) as well as to show all of its interrelationships with all other patterns of experience and knowledge stored in memory (e.g. was it a bad experience? etc).
Our cerebral hemispheres are designed to carry out this function of breaking down, simplifying and symbolising, storing, recognising and resynthesising (or rebuilding) patterns before we are made aware of the key patterns needed for us to act upon for our survival or other goals.
Hence our cerebral hemispheres are our fundamental problem-creating and problem-solving tools. They have evolved over millions of years because there has been, and still is, so many different types of problems for us to acknowledge and solve and thus so many changes that we had to adapt. But the brain is incredibly smart enough to look beyond all of those changeable patterns and problems of life and extract the two main underlying patterns that has never changed for millions of years when handling these problems of supposed change. Those two underlying patterns - breaking apart and recombining patterns - are what has developed within our cerebral hemispheres. We have the tools to solve any problem set before us.
Does the size of the cerebrum indicate extensive problem-solving and thinking?
To a certain extent yes and especially if the size is seen as a common characteristic of the species. In other words, the size of the cerebral hemispheres in humans, for instance, compared to the rest of the human body is an indication of how much problem-solving, learning and adaptation to change our species had to endure for a long time.
However, a bigger brain on its own does not necessarily imply you will solve problems more quickly and better than anyone else. A larger cerebrum simply means you have more potential to record a greater range of patterns in memory, more potential to create new "holistic" patterns never seen before or to recreate previously unrecorded past patterns from memory, and ultimately the potential to solve any problems set before you. But this requires both sides of the brain to be applied in a balanced way. And as we shall see in the next few sections, balancing the mind is important for producing a truly effective problem-solving brain.
What happens if my brain is not balanced?
In a nutshell, if your brain is not balanced, you will either be very good at either recording or picking up in detail something you see, hear or other sensory information, or be very good at creating new ideas. However, making the ideas work in reality or using the wealth of patterns stored in memory to solve other problems will be limited unless you have good range of specific patterns telling you how to implement the ideas.
A balanced brain is considered critical for the cerebrum to perform its problem-solving functions in an optimum sense.
The human brain tells us that the more we change, the more stable we become so long as the change has a definite purpose behind it and we allow our brain to soft out the stable pattern lying at the heart of the changes. If it does not have a purpose and there is no stable underlying pattern, then the change will promote further changes and this will eventually have negative consequences on human behaviour after a period of time. One negative consequence is the development of an "imbalanced" mind and behaviour as we shall see later.
The process of change must have a purpose. And the change must lead to greater stability in life. It is this purpose which makes for a healthier and more balanced, stable, larger and efficient brain.
The brain needs to simplify information
However, in order for our problem-creating and problem-solving tools to work efficiently and effectively so we may finally create the ultimate "holistic" symbol (or pattern) that matches reality (and is stable), as well as to rapidly recognise other specific patterns from this ultimate symbol, we need to simplify the information we gather everyday. By simplifying, we mean breaking main patterns into smaller patterns, recombining the smaller patterns to form a simpler version of the original main patterns, and filtering the incredibly vast amount of information that enters the brain for easier processing and recording of patterns.
The brain must simplify information because there is so much information in the environment that the brain does not need for doing its job properly and also because many neurons in the brain find it easier and quicker to respond to very specific information that has been simplified. Such simplification and specialisation is vital for proper recognition, adaptation and survival for a living organism.
Fortunately, the nervous system has developed ways of simplifying information.
The cerebrum, for example, is a powerful tool for simplifying information it receives from the sensors of the body and in its memory storage areas. It does this by physically shuttling information back and forth (hopefully in a roughly balanced way) between the L- and R-brains across the bundle of nerve fibres of the corpus callosum until a new and/or simple pattern is recognised, extracted or synthesised. In the more abstract world of the human mind where our thoughts reign supreme, the process of simplifying information involves visualising, analysing and using one's imagination. And sometimes you have to make choices of which patterns are important as part of the simplification process. This process is called thinking.
Cambridge philosopher Dr C. D. Broad said:
"Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe. The function of the brain and nervous system is to protect us from being overwhelmed and confused by this mass of largely useless and irrelevant knowledge, by shutting out most of what we should otherwise perceive or remember at any moment, and leaving only that very small and special selection which is likely to be practically useful." (3)
This is one of the reasons why our recollections of past events are never entirely precise and highly detailed in every sense of the word and why we slowly forget things. Another reason is the way new and more relevant experiences and knowledge slowly weaken or override older memories in what is known as the interference theory.
While we may not like to forget things, it is all part of the simplification process and getting to the more relevant patterns. Because the mind is searching for the essence of all our experiences and knowledge by forming the ultimate and fully unified pattern of life and the universe. Then, once we have a unified pattern that is virtually unchangeable no matter what we encounter in life to change us, we can use the pattern to quickly understand our environment, greatly increase our lifespan, learn new ideas more quickly knowing where they fit into the scheme of things etc.
We need the simplification process in our brain if we are to ever reach a sense of true stability and balance as individuals and eventually for the rest of society. (4)