Sunday, July 25, 2010

gut level, left-right sense of inexplicable self

The following is out on a limb, brain storming, responding to conversations and readings and should be considered speculative dialog which you are welcome to join.

While a person may be either left or right handed, there are many activities in which the left and right hand work together. Carving offers one example. In chip carving, the right hand may hold and direct the motions of the knife while the left hand steadies the right. In some forms of carving, the right hand may hold the knife, while the left holds the wood. In either case, effective skilled use requires partnership between the hands. We think of course that the hand holding the knife is the important one, and we are described as left or right handed based on the ease with which one side or the other holds the tool, ignoring the essential relationship between the two.

There are similar things going on the the brain, with two distinct forms of attention associated with the left and right hemispheres. The left brain brings attention to specifics, while the right brain attention is focused on security and wholeness within surroundings, thus steadying and supporting the activities of the left.

Some of my readers may have read Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, describing gut-level, instantaneous reactions to things that proved to be right. Gladwell described a piece of artwork, and a museum curator's inexplicable gut-level sense that it was a forgery. His sense contrasted strongly with available evidence, and the rational conclusions reached by others with equal credentials. While the left brain would be looking for and examining specific details, the right brain would be looking for the overall fit, the relationship of the object to the big picture, examining things that may lie outside the realm of reasonable discourse. Because of the dominance of the left brain, and the inability of the right brain to formulate the dialog for discursive analysis, it's argument of last resort may be made on the level of defensive hormones released in the body and affecting "the gut".

Last week I described the ways left and right bird brains have specific areas of attention, with the left focusing on feeding, being able to select seed from a field of sand, while the right maintains surveillance on the overall environment. The right brain's attention would require rapid engagement of the "flight or fight" mechanism that engages the neuro-hormones involved in self-defense. Can you see how, when the right brain demands our attention and has difficulty quieting left brain chatter long enough to do so, it's only response will be through strong feelings in the gut as the body prepares for either fight or flight?

You may also see the gut-level response as kids make their end-of-the-day escape from institutions of learning. Have you ever sat at a desk while feeling the impulse to flee, or even fight? Even those of us having passed through education relatively unscathed may have experienced it.

In schools we need to pay attention to the needs of both the left and right brain, the one that can be addressed through discourse and logic, and the one that is beyond discourse.

And so, what happens when we bring both the left and right hands into education? Do the hands offer the means through which to strategically engage both hemispheres of the brain in equal measure? At the moment, there seem to be only a few of us talking about it. But there do seem to be thousands of students fleeing education. Perhaps they are voting with their feet because we have failed to engage their hands. Which shall it be, fight or flight, or make beautiful and useful objects?

One thing you will notice about the left and right brains is that the left brain has greater facility for language, while the right brain, unless it has the cooperation of the left brain in formulating thought into shared language remains mute. That means we are often arriving at conclusions that we cannot express in common school form, unless within that school we are given the opportunities of music, physical education and the arts. And in your gut, I suspect you know I am right.


  1. I just finished a week at our county fair working the blacksmith shop. I'm right handed, so all the hammering is done with my right hand, but it's the left hand that really controls the forging process. The left hand moves the iron to draw a taper,fuller (reduce the section), bend a curve over the horn or hold it for cutting or riveting. This applies whether it's a very basic object or something very artistic. When creating an item from scratch, like your woodworking, you use right and left hands as well as right and left brains and as you have pointed out on many an occasion, shop teachers have known this to be true for years. When college deans start wearing uniforms with their names stitched over the pocket instead of white shirts and pinstriped suits, then we'll start seeing some real change in education. There aren't too many PhD's willing to admit that a craftsman such as yourself has a better skill set than they do and the fact you don't have a PhD yourself is merely a matter of choice not ability.

    You also mention the word forgery as applied to a fake piece of art work. I forged pieces for a week straight - would each of these be a forgery?

  2. Etymology: forge
    Date: 14th century

    1 : one that forges metals
    2 a : a person who falsifies; especially : a creator of false tales b : a person guilty of forgery

    I'm not sure how to get academics to understand the wisdom of the hands. I keep thinking that I can present a left-brain argument that could be persuasive. I've not given up. But until one knows in the gut, it is kind of hard to fully grasp the implications of the hands.

  3. Anonymous11:09 PM

    Hi Bob & Doug,

    Anthropologists - those who would call themselves "cognitive anthropologists" or "activity theorists" - are all very interested in "intelligent activity." In fact, here's one reference to a book (which I haven't read) entirely on blacksmithing:


    Anthropologists Janet and Charles Keller provide an account of human accomplishment based on ethnographic study. Blacksmithing - the transformation of glowing iron into artistic and utilitarian products - is the activity they chose to develop a study of situated learning. This domain, permeated by visual imagery and physical virtuosity rather than verbal logic, appears antithetical to the usual realms of cognitive study. For this reason, it provides a new entrée to human thought and an empirical test for an anthropology of knowledge.

    You might also want to look at the series Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive, and Computational Perspectives. Some of the books there might provide interesting leads, but mainly I want to point out that there is a community of scholars who would be quite receptive to knowing about your work. Keep it up!

  4. Anonymous11:20 PM

    PS. In my last comment, I suspect many of the books in the series I cited are really off the mark from this discussion. I read a chapter by Charles and Janet Keller on blacksmithing, though (I suspect it's what eventually became the book I listed) and they're practitioners who "get it."

    Another down-to-earth scholar I've enjoyed is Ed Hutchins. A former pilot and veteran, he's done some interesting work in documenting how people and their tools combine to do things that none of the "components" could do separately. For example, one of his famous papers is "how a cockpit remembers its speed." His book "cognition in the wild" is about how a navy ship full of 20 year olds is able to execute exquisitely complicated operations.

  5. Larry,
    That is a very long reading list! And tells us that there IS an academic interest in what we do. The challenge perhaps isn't to get academic interest, but to get the American people to wake up.

    It is interesting that when the left brain does its thing, convincing us with logic, discourse, etc, and then the right brain steps in with poetry, music, and gut level response, we do have the capacity of listening and being moved in response.

    I have had a list of 7 things that hands do for cognitive processing, and now I have expanded it to eight, in that the use of left and right integrate the halves of the brain, making accessible a unified, wholisitic processing power. It may be the key to JJ Rousseau's statement, "put a young man in a workshop, his hands work to the benefit of his brain, and he becomes a scientist/philosopher while thinking himself only a craftsman."

    The humility of the craftsman is what I think Bob is referring to in wanting to see names on pockets. The more you actually know, the more you know that you don't know, and somehow that doesn't interfere with the level of self-importance that can inhabit the halls of learning institutions... It is hard to have pomp and ceremony without the pomp and pompous. But we can chisel away with tools and poetry, and there will be a breakthrough.