We’ve all heard the phrase, “I don’t know if I’m coming or going.” I’ve certainly thought that, and felt it, too. It is an experience of (hopefully) temporary confusion and internal conflict. For me, it is often reflected in a moment when I feel pulled in two directions making it a personal struggle to decide what to do next. While this feeling can arise when I’m simply tired and “brain drained,” operating in a sort of mental fog, I can also experience this mental tug-of-war when there are compelling reasons for two equal but opposing options and I can’t for the life of me figure out which is best.
Approach or Avoid - Our Brain's Basic Moment-to-Moment Choice
Surprisingly, this common conflict may be rooted in the different roles that the left and right sides of our brains play in guiding the direction our behavior takes – and this all happens outside of our conscious awareness. You see, “coming” or “going” is really about “approaching” or “avoiding.” Approaching reflects perceiving something as safe, as interesting and as potentially useful, like eating or mating, which is where the approach instinct originates. Avoiding reflects perceiving something as dangerous, risky and as potentially self-destructive, like being eaten as some creature’s dinner, which is where the avoid instinct originates.
Approach and avoidance behaviors are closely linked to our brain’s motivation or drive circuits. We would get absolutely nothing done if we couldn’t connect a thought, an intention or a plan to this biological transmission that acts like a clutch deep in our brain that kicks us into gear. New research finds our left brain is more tuned into whether to avoid a situation, while our right brain tunes into situational features that signal it is safe and even desirable to approach. In effect, our left brain is the cautious conservative, telling us, “stick with what you know,” “don’t rock the boat,” “never run with scissors,” or “wait an hour after eating before you go swimming.” Our right brain, on the other hand, wants to, “seize the moment,” “go for it,” “go somewhere different tonight,” or “there’s no time like the present.”
Exercising our "Right" Brain to be Right with the World
Two different ways of being in the world. Two different orientations toward risk and reward. Both are necessary. Both are active all the time and both contribute their “best thinking” as a situation is rapidly assessed by our unconscious mind. Most of the time, the result is a rapidly calculated assessment of a situation based on our history of current options, acquired preferences, past choices and outcomes. In short, our history shapes our risk tolerance, transforming it into deeply ingrained habits that can grow stronger with time.
Most current evidence says that lifelong learning coupled with a hardy appetite for novelty are two ingredients for living a longer life with a healthier brain. Therefore, when we become locked into left brain thinking, with its risk avoidance affinity, our current and future health is at risk. The risk is not only brain atrophy as we under-exercise the right brain’s ability to pick out potential rewards in curiously delicious novel experiences. Excessively left-brain-based people also risk lifestyle atrophy. Their lives can become routine, overly predictable and stagnant. Their risk of depression, loss of focus and aimless living increases significantly.
5 Right Brain Exercises
Just as walking requires alternating between our left and right leg, we have to exercise our left and right brain to be able to get where we want to go. Here are 5 simple steps you can take to get your brain “right” and position your daily and future life for more reward and fulfilment.
1. Consider investing time and energy in a new interest, hobby, class or activity. These are not one-time experiences, like going to a new restaurant. Lasting brain change requires repeated practice and short list of options above require recurring investment on your part.
2. To avoid mental stagnation, seek activities that are physically and/or cognitively challenging. When challenged, our brains become widely activated as different brain regions work together to come up with solutions that work and transform them into new, youthful brain habits.
3. Remain playful. People who are deliberately playful are people who are exercising their abilities to see things in unusual ways and are also able to turn what is boring and routine into something pleasurable. Playful people report a higher quality of life, no matter their circumstances. They also report a more optimistic outlook on their future.
4. Add spice. Looking for new restaurants, movies, concerts, travel destinations, walking paths, and new exercise routines are all examples of adding spice to your life. While repeated practice is necessary for new skill building, simply seeking out new and different things to do keeps your brain flexible and stimulates your right brain to find the pleasure, the opportunity and the reward to motivate you to actually experiment with what is new and different on a longer-term basis.
5. Emotional risk-taking. One of the most powerful brain fertilizers is to grow your empathy skills. Greater empathy leads to a willingness to approach and engage others, and a greater tolerance for awkwardness or discomfort that can develop when we deliberately take emotional risks with others. Still, research clearly shows that the more we exercise this fundamental social skill, the more resilient we become in the face of life’s unpredictability. There’s a reason Mother Nature said there’s safety and security in numbers. Growing our empathy skills strengthens not only our social networks but grows a more resilient and flexible brain, too!
Inviting You to Grow a New You in 2017 ...and its FREE
There is still plenty of time to get on board and begin exercising your mind and body as you create a more youthful, resilient brain along with an enlarged and enriched life in 2017. Here is the link to my FREE 7-Day Challenge. http://bit.ly/7DayBrainChange