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When Right Was Wrong


Historically, most brain science came from studying people whose brains had been damaged. Depending on the injury's location, these patients had varying disabilities: If you lost one brain section, you might be unable to do long division; wipe out another patch, and your lace-tatting days were over. The famous Phineas Gage had an iron rod rammed all the way through his head, permanently losing the ability to be nice. One can hardly blame him.

People with left-hemisphere brain injuries may have trouble thinking analytically or making rational decisions. Many with damage to the right hemisphere, on the other hand, can still pass their SATs but become unable to connect parts into a meaningful whole. Oliver Sacks wrote about such a patient in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. This gentleman saw perfectly but could identify what he saw only by guessing. If you showed him a rose, he might say, "Well, it's red on top, green and prickly below, and it smells nice.... Is it a flower?" One day, while looking for a hat to put on, he reached for his wife instead, perhaps thinking: "It's familiar, and it goes with me everywhere.... Is it my hat?" I'm sure this was awful for his poor wife, though it could have been worse ("Well, it's the size of a small house and it needs cleaning...Is it my garage?"). But still.


For most of Western history the right side of the brain was short-shrifted by neurologists intent on helping people think "rationally." Only in recent years have experts begun to laud the creative, holistic right hemisphere. Interestingly, left-hemisphere strokes appear to be more common than right-hemisphere strokes. Perhaps we're overusing our left hemispheres to the point of blowout. Or perhaps illness is trying to nudge us back to the mysteries and gifts of the right brain. Fortunately, we now know we can effect this change deliberately, without having to survive neurological disaster.

In his fascinating book The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle describes how the brain reacts when a person develops a new skill. Performing an action involves firing an electrical signal through a neural pathway; each time this happens, it thickens the myelin sheath that surrounds nerve fibers like the rubber coating on electrical wires. The thicker the myelin sheath around a neural pathway, the more easily and effectively we use it. Heavily myelinated pathways equal mad skills.

Throughout your education, you myelinated the left-brain pathways for thinking logically. You were prepared for predictability and order, not today's constant flood of innovation and change. Now you need to build up myelin sheaths around new skill circuits, located in your right hemisphere. To do this, you need something Coyle calls deep practice.

Deep practice is the same no matter what the skill. First visualize an ability you'd like to acquire—swimming like Dara Torres, painting like Grandma Moses, handling iron rods like Uncle Phineas. Then try to replicate that behavior. Initially, you'll fail. That's good; failure is an essential element of deep practice. Next, analyze your errors, noting exactly where your performance didn't match your ideal. Now try again. You'll still probably fail (remember, that's a good thing), but in Samuel Beckett's words, you'll "fail better."

Examples of people engaged in deep practice are everywhere. Think of American Idol contestants improving their singing, or Tiger Woods perfecting his golf swing. I once saw a television interviewer present Toni Morrison with the original manuscript of one of her masterpieces. Morrison became slightly distracted, running critical eyes across the page, wanting to make changes. She clearly can't stop deep practicing. That's why she won the Nobel Prize.

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