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In the 1960s, Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry studied patients in whom surgeons had cut certain connections between the two halves of the brain to try to reduce epileptic seizures. In those patients, the halves would develop specializations in different tasks. This led to an incorrect belief that the left and right halves of brain worked quite independently.
Modern fMRI research shows the whole brain's tremendous networking complexity. For normal brains, in which surgeons have not cut any connections, the two halves work closely together.
However, the flawed research of Gazzaniga and Sperry did lead to some practical discoveries. Even though the brain works as a whole to do its things, some types of things do go together. Certain types of brain activity happen quite naturally together.
We know that our muscles have some patterns that fit together easily and others that resist each other. It is much easier to circle both arms the same direction than in opposite directions. Our brains work the same way. Some patterns of thinking fit together easily and other patterns of thinking do not.
Most famously, our brains have what I nickname a Possibility Brain Personality and a Participatory Brain Personality. This is not because of the brain structure as two halves, but because of patterns of whole-brain activity.
|The Possibility Brain Personality||The Participatory Brain Personality|
|rapid pace, stimulated||mellow pace, relaxed|
|uses large-motor muscles consciously||uses metabolic and proprioceptive muscles unconsciously|
|ponders what might be||attentive to what is now|
|linguistic thoughts about relational information||pictoral and emotional thoughts about sensory information|
|focuses on complex possibilities—scenarios, comparisons, "if..." fictions||focuses simply on actual, individual stimuli|
|judgmentally categorizes things as good/bad or wanted/unwanted||curiously observes things as they are|
|selfishly prioritizes grasping pleasure and avoiding fear||compassionately prioritizes a mellow and joyful "energy in the room"|
|loves to create rules and ultimatums||loves to accept and experience possibilities|
|analytic external point of view—Cartesian dissection and Systems Theory networks||sensitive internal point of view—how do my components feel, and how do I feel as a component?|
The Possibility Brain Personality is not relaxed. It worries, plans, and makes up stories—usually pondering the past or future instead of dwelling in the present moment.
The Participatory Brain Personality is mellow and relaxed. It observes the present moment happily without adding commentary. (We are assuming you are someplace pleasant. It does feel the annoyance or pain of hurtful sensory stimulation!)
We can trick our bodies into relaxing by jump-starting the Participatory Brain Personality. If we do two of its types of brain activity, then its whole pattern of associated behaviors will soon happen. Also, the behaviors of the Possibility Brain Personality will shrink or pause because they do not fit the neurological pattern we are emphasizing.
First, we can focus on metabolic and proprioceptive muscle use (and minimize large-motor muscle use). Pay attention to something metabolic: our breathing, heartbeat, diaphragm, stomach, etc. Also pay attention to something proprioceptive: feel where our arms and legs are, how our scalp feels, how our clothes press against your skin, or the air pressure on the skin of our hands or face. Stand or sit as still as we can, to stop large-motor muscle use.
Second, we can focus on immediate sensory information (instead of abstract relational information). What colors can we see that we were too busy to notice a moment ago? What sounds and smells do we notice now that we are paying attention? Try to acknowledge this changing stream of sensory input wordlessly. If it helps, we can briefly accept how stimuli make us feel or what pictures they stir up. Now, we cannot stop linguistic thoughts from happening (stories, relationships, comparisons, judgments, "if..."). But we can also treat those as if they were sensory information! Instead of letting those lead us down a linguistic train of thought we again briefly accept how those make us feel or what pictures they stir up, and then turn our focus back to the actual stream of sensory input.
If we do those two things for a few minutes then the rest of the Participatory Brain Personality kicks in. We feel mellow and relaxed, compassionate and non-judgmental, sensitive to the unity of our body and also the sense that we are part of something bigger, and accepting of possibilities without worry.
This should sound familiar. Many, many religions and philosophies have developed their own ways of doing this. These traditions are called praying, meditating, communing, mindfulness, self-soothing, and many other names. They have different emphases. They do other things beyond this. But their relaxing commonality is that they jump-start the Participatory Brain Personality.
If this understanding of relaxation is new to you, try it! It is simple! Pick one kind of metabolic muscle use, one kind of proprioceptive muscle use, and be as still as you can while focusing on those and your stream of sensory input.
Let's not call it anything but relaxing. Saying it is meditating is dishonest. If we tell a wiggly toddler "go play outside" the child will be using his or her large-motor muscles more, but we do not say the toddler is practicing actual gymnastic routines. In the same way, we can exercise our relaxation habit without needing to claim it is anything formal with an official name. If you want to move onward to a more formal tradition, you certainly can. But that is a second step, like enrolling the toddler in an actual gymnastic class.