Is Spirituality in the Right Brain?
In 1981, Robert Wolcott Sperry won the Nobel Prize for deciphering the different anatomies, organizations and neurological activities of the left and right halves of our brains.
I’d like to utilize some of Sperry’s work, some old teachings by Calvin Miller and some personal insights to answer your question.
The left and right hemispheres are not the same. They are connected by the corpus callosum that consists of neurons connecting one side of the brain to the other. Women have more connections between the two halves than do men. This often makes women generalists who are more likely to use both halves of the brain together. On the other hand, men have fewer connectors. They are more likely to be lateralized on one side of the brain or the other.
Interestingly enough, God designed it so that the left brain controls the right side of the body while the right brain controls the left side of the body.
The Left Brain is more logical, verbal, mathematical, structured and rational.
The Right Brain is more emotional, intuitive, creative, and thinks in pictures.
With great oversimplification, we may say that men may tend to be more left-brained. Women may tend to be more right-brained. This is why many men are engineers. This is why many women are more likely to choose creative and/or artistic professions. Before GPS came into common use, men frequently navigated with maps. They followed the lines. Many women navigated by looking for landmarks like buildings, service stations and restaurants.
Both brain hemispheres know reality; however, they know reality in very different ways. Many relationship problems in the church, or life in general, occur when a right-brain person tries to communicate with a left-brain person and both insist that their way is right.
The right and left brains fight for dominance.
One of the first split-brain patients was filmed doing a block arrangement test. The film shows the right hand (left brain) obviously in control. The left hand (right brain) is impatiently trying to help the right hand (left brain) do the work. The patient finally sits on his left hand (right brain) to keep it still. The Experimenter tells the patient to have both hands do the work and a battle ensues as both hands tear down the others’ work.
The left brain is verbal and contains all of the words. The right brain is nonverbal and knows no words. The experimenter puts a spoon in the patient’s right hand (left brain) and immediately the split-brain person says, “spoon”. When the experimenter puts a spoon in the left hand (right brain) the patient says, “I know what it is… But I can’t think of the word.”
The left brain makes plans for life. It decides what it wants to be and works to make it happen. The right brain has little input because of the left brain’s dominance.
In an intriguing experiment, researchers were able to isolate the right brain in such a way that they could ask it a question! When asked what it would like to be, with incredible awkwardness, the right brain scratched out the words, “a race car driver.”
The right brain plays ball much better than the left. The left brain thinks it plays better.
Imagine throwing a ball on a windy day on a side-hill slope to a friend. The left brain can certainly figure out how to make that happen. Using algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus the left brain can calculate angles, vectors and velocities to get the ball into your friend’s hands. Unfortunately, by the time the left brain computes all of that information, the ball is miles away.
The right brain pictures the wind, the slope, your friend’s speed and direction and throws the ball right to your friend.
I was having physical therapy for my knees. The trainer had me jumping rope. I got caught in the rope several times. Then I got angry. I told my left brain to stop talking and I began to picture myself jumping cleanly. Immediately, I cleared the rope ten times in a row.
Jesus used both brain hemispheres in perfect balance.
Jesus used his left brain to explain the rules and regulations for living in the Kingdom. He gave the proper procedures for fasting and prayer. He explained what to do about adultery. He listed the Beatitudes and detailed each segment of the Lord ’s Prayer (Matthew 5-7). He gave explicit instructions on what to do if you and your brother are at odds with each other (Matthew 18:15-17).
This is left brain activity.
Jesus used his right brain to feed the 5000. In John 6:1-15, Jesus declared Himself to be the bread of life. When He finished His sermon, He proceeded to make bread. Who planted the grain? No one. Who turned the grain into flour? No one. Who lit the oven? No one. Who baked the bread? No one. Jesus just created the bread in His hands. While the disciples were passing out bread, Jesus was creating fresh fish right in his hands. Who fished for fish? No one. Who caught the fish? No one.
This is right brain creativity.
Understanding the work of the left and right brains can give us a better overall picture of Christianity and produce oneness and unity instead of anger and division.
Let’s talk about the contrast between the right and left brain hemispheres and the implications for Christianity and spirituality.
1. THE LEFT BRAIN TAKES THINGS APART. THE RIGHT BRAIN LOOKS AT THE WHOLE.
Salvation can only be understood and implemented when we use both sides of the brain. If we only use the parts, or if we use the whole without the parts, we will miss the Truth.
We left-brained Evangelicals try to develop a formula for salvation. For example, if we follow the Roman Road we will be saved:
The left brain says, “I have believed the formula and I am saved!”
The right brain asks, “What does your Christian life look like?”
Left-brain people might say, “All Christ Followers should be able to relate the moment that they surrendered their lives to Jesus Christ as Lord.”
Right-brained people might say, “I can’t say for certain, but I began to sense the conviction of the Holy Spirit. Over time I began to realize that I needed Christ as my Savior. So, one day, I invited Him into my heart. My life has never been the same.”
Normally, the Greek word “belief” (pisteuo) is followed by the Greek particle “in.” (en). “Belief in” means to believe in something-like the teachings in a book.
However, in describing “belief in Jesus,” the New Testament writers break the rules of Greek grammar to follow the word “believe” with the particle “in.” “Eis,” in the English Bible, is also translated as “in”; however, a little study reveals that “into” means to believe in something so deeply that it changes your life!
It’s one thing to “believe” in the teachings in a book. It’s quite another thing to believe “into” a book so deeply that it changes your life (Acts 16:31).
It’s one thing to believe “in” Christ. However, it’s quite another thing to believe “into” Christ.
The difference is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant by describing the difference between cheap grace and costly grace. Cheap grace doesn’t cost much and leads to Hell. Costly grace will cost us everything we have and leads to Heaven.
2. THE LEFT BRAIN THINKS IN WORDS. THE RIGHT BRAIN THINKS IN PICTURES AND SYMBOLS.
Roman Catholics place the sacrificial altar in the middle of the building. It is a picture symbol of the death and burial of Christ. The priest taught from the side of the church so that the view of the table was unhindered. By doing so, experiencing the mass at a centered table is more important to them than the teaching and preaching.
During the Protestant Reformation, the Eucharist table was moved to the side. The preaching and teaching took place in the center to show the importance of the Word of God.
Teaching the Bible is left-brained. Experiencing the Lord’s table is right-brained.
When we have a profound experience with Christ, we often describe it as being beyond words. Paul wrote in Romans 8:26
In the gospels, Jesus says, “I am the Door.” “I am the Bread of Life.” “He is describing a picture of who He is. The Book of Mark is written from a left-brain perspective. It is focused on the earthly activities of Jesus. The Book of John is written from a right-brain perspective. It is full of metaphors and mystery.
Right brain poetry is really a collection of pictures which allow us to experience truth. Psalm 60:8 is a good example: “Moab is my wash pot, over Edom I have cast my shoe…” God intends to step all over Edom.
This is why Jesus Christ taught in parables (Matthew 13:35). Jesus was strongly right-brained (in perfect balance with his left brain). Why does Jesus Christ tell these silly little stories? What do you do with the story of a woman sweeping the floor to look for a dime? Left-brain Pharisees say, “We have built a great religious system, and Jesus is telling little stories!”
3. THE LEFT BRAIN IS “EITHER-OR.” THE RIGHT BRAIN IS “BOTH-AND.”
The left brain abhors paradox. The right brain treasures paradox. A paradox occurs when two things are polar opposites, both can’t be true, but they are.
Jesus used a paradox when he said to the Pharisees: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up again.” To reconcile both opposites means that both can’t be true. But they are.
This is sort of how God designed the world. Three Quarks make up a proton, except when they make a neutron. Light is a wave of energy, except when it is a particle.
Think about Calvinism and Arminianism. In its base form, Calvinism proposes that God specifically elects those who will be saved, and if you’re not chosen, you can never be saved.
They base their doctrine on verses like these:
On the other hand, Armenians teach, “Whosoever will may come.” While Calvinism emphasizes the sovereignty of God, Arminianism emphasizes the responsibility of man. These doctrines are much more complex than this, but this illustration is used in its simplest form.
Wisdom is when we can hold both extremes together (the Sovereignty of God and the free will of man) in creative tension. Fortunately, one day God in heaven will explain what’s going on. There are seven mysteries described in the New Testament. This is one of them.
These facts have great implications for church unity.
As soon as someone doesn’t say something our way, we tend to label them as heretics. “If you don’t say it with this particular word or phrase, then you are not saved.”
“Either-Or” does not unite. It tends to divide.
“Both-And” thinking builds bridges.
4. THE LEFT BRAIN IS ORDERED AND LOGICAL. THE RIGHT BRAIN IS CREATIVE.
In Luke 17:11-19, ten lepers came to Jesus for healing. Jesus told them to go to the Temple, and as they were on the way they were healed. The cause was Jesus; the effect was healing.
Nine of them rejoiced at what happened.
But there was another, a Samaritan, who looked for meaning and connection. He bowed down at Jesus’ feet and worshipped. He was healed like the others; that was left-brained. But he took it a step further in connecting himself to Christ. That was right brain.
Right-brained people are often artists, prophets, visionaries.
They know how to make connections. How do you understand life and eternity? How do you make sense of apocalyptic prophecy? These are right-brained mysteries of an inscrutable God.
Creative people make connections with pictures in the right brain.
Albert Einstein, a theoretical physicist, was an artist. He was a poor mathematician who discovered relativity by picturing it in his mind.
Mozart heard the melodies in his head: “How they got there, I don’t know.” He used to have his wife read to him while he composed: “I could hear the music in my head better that way.” He was a genius who kept his left brain occupied so that his right brain could work without interference.
The left brain is the source of order. The right brain is the source of creativity.
5. THE RIGHT BRAIN TAKES US INTO THE REALM OF THE SPIRIT.
Personally, I have a list of things that I pray for daily. When I hear of prayer needs, I lift up a prayer. There are people and situations that lead me to pray. This is praying in my mind.
On the other hand, there are times when I quiet my mind in order to better listen for God to speak. I then respond to those promptings. This is praying in the spirit.
The Left Brain has difficulty connecting with the spiritual world.
The Left Brain is effective in the external world, like tests in school, how to balance a checkbook, how to plan budgets, how to buy and drive a car, how to manage promotions by succeeding in a busy office, how to buy groceries for dinner, how to succeed at a job and how to memorize and study Bible verses. On and on goes the list of left brain activities that are effective in the external world.
Most Christians don’t know how to be spiritual. What we do know is how to be religious. We easily get caught up in a religious system. We’ve been fed a large dose of religion and not much spirituality.
But, if we want to succeed in the internal world, if we want to enjoy God and know him intimately, we had best develop our right brain.
Meditation is the key to developing our right brain. We begin by quieting our mind. Anyone can follow David’s advice in Psalm 131:1-2:
Here’s what meditation might look like:
•Quieting our left brain with its intrusive thoughts (“centering down”)
•Reciting again and again a biblical truth to settle our minds. A good example is: “Jesus Christ is Lord” (this was the cry of the first-century Christians when they refused to say, “Caesar is Lord.”
•Sitting quietly and waiting for God to speak
•Thinking about God’s great character and creative powers;
•Contemplating on a Bible verse or passage like, “The Lord is my shepherd.” (Imagine that you are one of Jesus’ sheep as you look up at your shepherd. Is this a beautiful experience or what!)
•Imagining a Bible type story (like how did the last Israelite feel as he raced for the far shore of the Red Sea as the Egyptians thundered behind him?) Meditate on the lessons you learn here.
Don’t be in a hurry.
“God never reveals the deep things of the spirit to the Christian who just stopped by for a little chat.
Like Christ, we need story-tellers, visionaries and prophets to lead us on to God. We need prophets who understand the soul.
Left Brain is teaching. Right Brain is prophecy.
Paul says prophecy is the most important gift; but most prophets have been burned at the stake. For thousands of years there has been no room for prophets in the church. If you didn’t speak the party line, you were kicked out.
How left-brained we have become…intolerant of mystery…Yet God is wholly mystery.
We cannot control this God. We can’t put Him in our catechetical boxes. We can only approach Him in humble prayer and adoration. And let Him be Yahweh.
We use left-brained words to lead us into the realm of of the right brain where we can begin to experience the mystery of God.