2019 Yearly Review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing

My recent yearly reviews have gotten very long & complex. For 2019, I’m just going to reflect on a few major learning arcs I went through.

The post is structured as an expansion of the six-word story in the tweet above (“divided brain reconciled by meaningful sobbing”) which I’m first going to do in paragraph form before elaborating one layer deeper:

Essentially, I came to understand that the major oscillation I’ve had in my mindset learning process over the past few years can be characterized as being due to my right hemisphere understanding things that my left hemisphere doesn’t, and not knowing how to relate the two perspectives coherently. That produced major changes but there were still some core fears that kept driving me back into the old perspective. I then did some intense work illuminating & transforming those emotional schemas, using techniques from the Bio-Emotive Framework and other systems, and I feel a lot more spacious now.

Iain McGilchrist’s Brain Hemisphere Model

Back in February, I watched an interview of Iain McGilchrist talking about a new model of what’s going on with brain hemispheres. This is a topic that’s gone out of fashion since the misguided oversimplified models of the 1950s, so it took a psychiatrist being fascinated in his spare time for 2 decades, for someone to come up with an actually useful overall model (as opposed to just “well, these modules are in the left hemisphere, those modules are in the right.”).

The basic jist is a shift from asking “what do the hemispheres do?” to instead asking “how do they see the world? what kind of world is it, and what kind of relation do they have to that world?” This, not incidentally, is more of the sort of question a right hemisphere would tend to ask, as it orients in a naturally relational way vs the detached stance of the left hemisphere.

Much of my year has been spent understanding—both grasping & grokking—this framework for making sense of cognition (not just human cognition but animals too, include fish & ).

The grasping-grokking distinction I made above is in fact a way of pointing at the difference between left hemisphere & right-hemisphere understanding.

The left hemisphere’s language center is right next to the part that grasps tools—even in left-handers. When someone says “I grasp this idea” this metaphor means “I can control & manipulate the world with this idea that I am holding separate from myself”.

The term “grok” is a loanword from Martian whose original meaning was “drink”. When someone says “I grok this idea” this metaphor means “I have incorporated this idea into myself. It is part of me and I am made of it.”

If you want to read more examples of me jamming on McGilchrist’s hemisphere model, check out these twitter threads.

If you want to learn more from McGilchrist directly, I recommend starting with this podcast on learning and this video that talks about global conflict. Or his documentary, The Divided Brain. Some people also like this RSA animate. And if you’re ready to deep-dive, he has a book, The Master and his Emissary, which is amazing & very long.

This is my yearly review though, so I’m going to talk about how the model has affected me.

Here’s what I wrote to a friend in March, when I was about 15% of the way through his book:

Iain McGilchrist’s talk & book finally gave my left hemisphere a model to explain that there is more to thinking than it knows and that furthermore, it doesn’t have to handle everything.

There’s been this huge sense of relief from my left hemisphere as it realizes that it was never made for handling unknowns, complexities, and uncertainties, and that I do contain a part that is made for that and will activate automatically if my left hemisphere just. lets. go.

(Note that the “let go” phrasing is part of the same overarching metaphor about grasping. Most non-physical uses of the phrase “let go”, eg in a meditation context, are an instruction directed towards the left hemisphere.)

Learning more about the brain hemispheres produced a profound revelation for me: a ton of the frustration I’ve experienced over the last many years of trying to learn how to operate from a mindset that’s consistently samesided, collaborative, outward, growth-oriented… essentially was a result of me attempting to teach my left hemisphere how to be a right hemisphere. Rather than teaching it how to trust the right hemisphere.

Essentially, I was showing up to perform in an improv show, and asking for the script, then getting mad when people insisted that there wasn’t one. “They must be fucking with me! How can I possibly learn how to do this thing if there aren’t any rules for it?”

And from the left hemisphere’s perspective, learning how to do something without there being rules is indeed an impossible demand. And yet I also knew it wasn’t impossible because I’d had dozens of experiences of doing it. But the left hemisphere’s particular set of structural blindspots (that empower it to do what it needs to do) make it hard for it to recognize what the right hemisphere is doing when it’s running the show.

There’s something about the left hemisphere learning to trust the right hemisphere that is a little bit like someone trusting in God, as from the LH’s perspective the RH works in mysterious ways. And yet, even more obviously than with God, the reality is that your left hemisphere has to live with its partner, so you might as well learn to collaborate!

So then question is how to construct that trust in a non-naive way?

I don’t have an obvious segue here. Here’s the next section:

Bio-Emotive & Emotional Coherence

So there was a whole arc around integrating my left & right hemispheres, and that produced some of the most consistent flow in my relationships for awhile. Then in May I listened to this interview of Doug Tataryn on Emerge, and realized there was another dimension of human experience (and the brain) that I’d also not understood: emotions & trauma.

So I set a new goal called Digesting Blocks, inspired by a simple model I’d created that posited that no matter how much one learned there could still be blocks to letting that knowing really flow. I don’t know if I could have articulated it that clearly at the time, but the core of it was there, and it led me into the next arc of my learning in 2019.

The first major step of this was going to the Doug’s Bio-Emotive retreat at the Monastic Academy in Vermont, in June.

I had initially thought that when Doug was talking on the podcast about the “emotional brain”, that he was overlooking the right hemisphere, but I realized pretty quickly that no, there are multiple parts of the unconscious mind that I’d been overlooking prior to 2019. It’s now my impression that when people use terms like “system 1” and “system 2”, by “S2” they mean the verbal loop (roughly speaking, the left hemisphere neocortex?) and by “S1” they mean… everything else. But there’s a lot to differentiate in that “everything else”.

It makes sense to me that the left neocortex would treat everything else as a big blob, because it first & foremost makes a categorical distinction between its coherent articulable worldview (which it trusts at a level before awareness) and, well, everything else.

One oversimplified way to point at the difference would be to say that unconscious emotions are quite simple. They can be nuanced but they aren’t complex. They’re basic interpretations of what a situation means. By contrast, the unconscious perspective of the right neocortex contains a ton of wisdom that is often inarticulable, either inherently (“the dao that can be spoken is not the true dao) or because the person groks it at a level beyond words but doesn’t have adequate concepts to explain it. (More on this.)

The challenging thing about these unconscious emotional meanings is that it’s constantly shaping not just your conscious thoughts but even your actual perception of the world you live in. Depending on what sorts of schemas are active, the same behavior from a loved one might read as deeply caring or oppressive.

Anyway, this is all a bunch of theoretical stuff trying to integrate these different brain models, and I’m sure I’ll elaborate more on that later.

Put simply, the Bio-Emotive retreat blew my mind and my heart, and gave me a totally different sense of how to relate to emotions—mine and others. The basic technique is similar to Gendlin’s Focusing, but where Focusing orients towards the whole unconscious (including the right hemisphere) the NEDERA process from Bio-Emotive is very refined for diving directly into the emotional brain.

It does this partially by focusing on using limbic language (speaking in the present tense, in simple words, without caveats, and using lots of feeling words) and in particular by offering a palette of emotion words to try on, many of which are the sorts of things we would often consciously assume are not what we are feeling, but when we try them on anyway… we tear up, we cry, we sob.

The core idea here is that a lot of us are sitting with pent-up emotional meanings that have never had the chance to be expressed because we learned very young that it’s not okay to do so. This learning is unconscious—if you’d asked me a year ago if I grew up thinking it was okay to cry, I would have said “of course”, because from my conscious perspective I just thought I rarely needed to. Not all old emotional meanings need to be processed via crying or wailing or whatever, but tapping those wells provides a powerful source of energy & meaningful contact with the emotional brain.

So that’s what we did!

I sobbed about patterns of mine that had hurt people I cared about, about death & power, about my relationship with my body and my body odor, about my fear of losing my head if I opened my heart, about my sense of wanting to be done learning, and about my obsessive need to insist “my parents are good parents!” …a phrase that I resonated with by repeating it at my friend a few dozen times, with increasing speed & desperation yet quieter and more sad. Are my parents good parents? I now think that’s not a very useful question. There are many things I loved about my childhood, and many things I found frustrating. My parents had at most partial control of any of it. I like the adult relationships that I’m building with each of them now.

After the workshop, I continued this practice, although the experience of integrating back into the ecosystem here after the workshop was really challenging.

My understanding now of what created that challenge is that essentially the Bio-Emotive retreat created a really powerful experience for people of realizing that when they become emotionally activated it’s usually less about the person or situation or incident that sparked the activation, and more about whatever historical emotional meaning was getting activated. So where in a typical conversation someone might say “I’m irritated by that sound you’re making!” with a kind of pushing away quality… instead at the retreat people would tend to say something more like “huh, I’m finding that sound surprisingly irritating… not sure what that is but I guess that’s something for me to NEDER about!”

When I arrived back, it felt to me like people were seemed to be doing something more like the first thing. Broadly: having some sort of emotional activation and then speaking from it without clearly differentiating the old emotional schemas from the present situation & people.

In general, the culture we’ve created here has way more of this differentiation than any other context I’ve known, but somehow in that moment last summer it felt like not enough. I got scared of losing the spaciousness—and then I did the same thing! Instead of saying “huh, I guess this panic is something for me to NEDER about,” I tried controlling other people.

In part this took the form of trying to get other people to look more at their feelings rather than focusing on the leverage of recognizing & processing more of my own stuff. But in any case, update from 2019: trying to control others’ behavior… still doesn’t work 🤷

I’m leaving out a ton of details of the situation last summer, but for the moment I just wanted to point at what a powerful shift this is, culturally. We’ve been focused here for a long time on what we call “samesidedness”, which is hard to define exactly because the important bit is more of an embodied stance than a philosophical position. Essentially it’s a sense that whatever arises, we can look at it together and not turn against each other.

The relation to emotional activation that emerged at the Bio-Emotive retreat created a sense of samesidedness. Alas, it was fragile at that time, but in the months since we’ve built back up to new levels of this samesidedness, particularly with the introduction of the book Unlocking the Emotional Brain, which describes some of the underlying neurology & basic components of the therapeutic reconsolidation process, which is there term for psychological work that produces persistent transformations (as distinct from counteractive approaches, which involve engaging in an ongoing tug-of-war with the old meanings).

This gave us more shared language to talk about the Bio-Emotive system as well as explore other systems we could use to do this kind of unlearning.

Meta-Schemas & Nightmares

Finally, just a couple weeks before the end of the year, I took 2-3 days to do a retreat with a friend that was solely focused on my unlearning, particularly on unsticking the meta-schemas that were making it hard for me to integrate old structures with new ones because they wouldn’t really talk to each other and I was having trouble even looking at the old ones most of the time.

This retreat was incredibly powerful and produced multiple key breakthroughs, which I’ll broadly summarize as:

  • I discovered that despite years of learning a new post-judgmental culture, my emotional brain was still obsessed with the quest to be a “good person” (and had, in some cases, substituted its concept of “post-judgmental” in for “good”, which is quite a paradox!)
  • I recalled some memories of conversations & interactions from my childhood I hadn’t thought of in years, and saw even more clearly the impact that those were still having on my interpretations of situations with people now—and more generally, on my felt sense of what sort of thing a human being even is.
  • I recognized how much of my emotional brain was still stuck in school, unable to leave, and then I consciously acknowledged my own present freedom from each classroom & school building I’d ever felt trapped in.
  • I created a table of 4+ of these structures and how they show up at different levels of consciousness & unconsciousness, based on tables from the Coherence Therapy folks (who wrote Unlocking the Emotional Brain) and this taught me a lot about the nature of these emotional schemas themselves. I’m now better at recognizing them in myself & others. Here’s a template for this (with examples from the literature) although since most of the stuff there is initially unconscious, the challenge is surfacing it, not putting it in the table.
  • I developed a model of what’s going on when people are fooled into emotionally going into the past but thinking they’re still responding to the present, using a metaphor of the common experience of having a dream that merges two real places or two people together into some bizarre fictional combo, and this absurdity somehow going unnoticed until one awakes.
  • I did some specific creative work on how that nightmare structure was showing up in my relationship with Jean, where in my dream she was somehow cast as one of my teachers, and I was stuck in a rebel-submit oscillation. I found a new way to relate to that & break out (building on my new emotional recognition that I’m not stuck in school anymore)

I would highly encourage this kind of personal retreat to anyone who has:

  • the raw processing tech (eg Bio-Emotive, Coherence Therapy, Core Transformation, & other tools)
  • spare time (even one full weekend could be really powerful, if you have a 9-to-5… we did 2.5 days, and 3-5 would have clearly also been very valuable)
  • money (although the price of the house we Airbnb’d for a few days was way less than many weekend workshops would be, and this was 100% focused on me, so harder to hide)
  • a friend to hold space for you (ideally someone who can simultaneously both create deep safety for you as well as call you on places where your blindspots have you going in circles)

If you’re thinking of trying something like this, I’d be interested to think with you about the design of it, or to talk about impacts, particularly if you’re someone I know personally.

I still have lots of work to do to fully clear out these old emotional schemas and be able to consistently embody samesidedness on all levels, but now the work doesn’t feel like work. One way to point at this (which might be literally true) is that previously I had a feeling that I constantly needed to do more work to be okay or to graduate from school but I’m recognizing that I’m already okay and I’m already free from school.

So: there you have it: divided brain reconciled by meaningful sobbing.

Other life updates from 2019

This is the first year since 2012 that I haven’t spent any time in the SF Bay Area. I expect to visit again sometime in the next few months though. I did manage to see some of my Bay Area friends at the YC 120 event in Colorado though. That event was neat although not nearly as potent as it could have been (with the same people) for a variety of design reasons, mostly that it was too structured/busy, slightly too short, and lacked good nooks for long deep conversations.

I mentioned in my last yearly review that I had become an unusual sort of monk. Well, the ecosystem of people & ideas I’ve been part of for many years has now formally inaugurated itself as a Meta-Monastery.

I worked on a huge Complice-related project, creating an entirely separate instance of the app that had a research-experiment-management console and some custom gamification features, for a group that had a budget to do studies on to-do list gamification and wanted to use Complice as the basic platform for this. That was an interesting challenge, rewarding and frustrating at times, and now I have more money in my bank account than I’ve ever had at one time. An even more exciting result than that money though is that I asked a friend if he was interested in doing a bit of work on it, and it turned out he was interested in collaborating with me deeply on Complice as a whole, and he’s been a long-time user so there’s a powerful resonance there.

Speaking of design, I got much more in touch this year with my sense of wanting to do more designing of systems. I seem to have a deep knack for it, and the question of how to scale that capacity in a way that works smoothly for everyone involved is itself a human systems design question that I’m excited to explore this year.

In mid-2017 I got back on Twitter, but in early 2019 I really got back on Twitter. I went from about 1200 followers to 2100 followers, after barely any growth for years. Part of the magic here was that I introduced a few friends to Twitter, notably Conor White-Sullivan & Qiaochu Yuan. I directed them & others to look at @visakanv & other meta-threaders, and my sense is that this played a small but significant part of a shift among many people in how they viewed the platform. I also started creating a lot of my own threads (many about the topics in this post) and people found these fairly interesting I guess…!

And in 2020…

In my very first yearly review post (2012), I predicted what my following year would be about, and the prediction was so far off that I haven’t tried again since. But now I’m reflecting that maybe I just need more practice. And that also there’s a difference between predicting and setting an intention. I’ve learned a ton about that in the last 7 years.

So, this year, the theme I’m leaning into is:

Free To Dance

I want to give it space to grow into what it wants to grow into, so that’s all I’m going to say about it for now.


Further resources

If you want to read more examples of me jamming on McGilchrist’s hemisphere model, check out these twitter threads.

If you want to learn more from McGilchrist directly, I recommend starting with this podcast on learning and this video that talks about global conflict. Or his documentary, The Divided Brain. Some people also like this RSA animate. And if you’re ready to deep-dive, he has a book, The Master and his Emissary, which is amazing & very long.

To learn more about emotional work & the power of sobbing, check out:
• my friend Kaj’s excellent Summary of Unlocking the Emotional Brain
• Doug Tataryn interviews: Emerge: Emotions in Meditation & Human Development & ATTMind: A Crash Course In Emotional Intelligence
• these twitter threads about emotional work & sobbing

If you found this thought-provoking, I invite you to subscribe:    
About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

Personal Website



Have your say!

Have your say!

Message

Name *

Email *