Frontal lobe or midbrain? How to take control.

EDIT: I no longer endorse the content of this article, nor the veracity of any of Dispenza’s claims. His models, and those presented below, seem grossly oversimplified. I appreciate all of the commenters who have brought this to my attention, although my first warning sign was the ridiculous stuff he cites in another book I won’t even link to.

One of the popular pseudo-scientific questions people like to ask is “Are you left-brained or right-brained?” or if they have a slightly better understanding of nuance, then maybe “Do you favour the left or right side of brain?”.

An image of the brain, with the left half depicted as a chessboard and city, in black and white, and the right half in vibrant red with swirls of paint and symbols of emotion like a bull and a couple embracing. The image is an ad for Mercedes Benz.

The difference is really not this vast.

While this question can be seen as just a figurative way of asking someone if they consider themselves more analytical or creative, it perpetuates the myth that our brain is rigidly divided into two halves that only do certain things. This is not quite accurate. While the left-half of the brain is indeed more active while reasoning and the right-half while creating, both sides of the brain engage in most activities, just in different ways. This TED Talk explores how musical improvisation (which would probably be called right-brain) relates to communication (usually thought of as left-brain).

A better dichotomy

Instead of thinking about left-vs-right, a more pertinent question that we should ask of ourselves on a regular basis, is “Am I thinking more with my frontal lobe or midbrain?”. I’ve been working my way through a book called Evolve your Brain by Joe Dispenza and some of the later chapters are so cool I just had to talk about them.

The cover of Evolve Your Brain by Joe Dispenza. Depicts a brain and the head of Da Vinci's painting Vitruvian man.

This book will blow your mind.

A quick refresher on parts of the brain: the midbrain, located of course roughly in the center of the brain, is in charge of processes like sensory perception and motor coordination; the frontal lobe, just behind our forehead, is what processes higher thought and engages in complex reasoning. The relative size of our frontal lobe is also one of the clearest distinctions between us and other creatures, representing 30-40% of our brain mass versus 11-17% in primates and about 7% in dogs[Dispenza, p346-347].

Chapters 10 and 11 talk about the frontal lobe and how to use it to take control of our lives and become who we want to be. Essentially, the frontal lobe is the seat of our consciousness. When we live life habitually, going through the same motions, we are not taking full advantage of our frontal lobe and instead are being controlled by the midbrain and the other more primitive parts of our mind. Evolve your Brain proposes that in order to achieve our goals we must focus on using our frontal cortex. How do we do this? By focusing. Just as athletes or musicians can improve their performance by mentally rehearsing exactly what they want to do and how to respond to certain stimuli, we can do that with our day-to-day activities and interactions as well.

Focusing on Focus

I’m going to work on practising the techniques outlined in the book over the next few months, and I’ll report back with my progress and suggestions on how to use it in your own life. My primary focus is actually going to be focus itself. I’m going to mentally rehearse being focused on the work I do and single-tasking, and my hope is that while the rehearsing may take time, my increased level of discipline will give me more time. It seems like a worthy investment. A very introspective friend of mine once said “Discipline is actually the path to freedom. Otherwise, you’re a slave to your urges and impulses.” He spoke the first part of that, and I paused, internalized it, and figured out the second part. Nobody wants to be a slave, hence the argument for discipline. It’s really empowering, ultimately, to put it like that, because it separates the person from the urges. It is easy to justify acting out the impulses by saying “they’re part of me that I have to honour.” While the first half is true, the second is most certainly not. For more on intercepting urges, see this post on The Pause at ZenHabits.

The unfortunate victims of frontal lobotomies (destruction/removal of the frontal lobe) in mid-20th-century became lazy and obsessively driven to experience sameness constantly. To a lesser degree, this is what anyone can experience when we constantly reenact the same behaviours. Since the brain is plastic, neural networks that are unused will gradually wither and die, replaced by the features that are active. I’m going to make a point of asking myself on a day to day basis:

Am I thinking more with my frontal lobe or midbrain?
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