The Academic Brain and How Not to Fry Yours

in Articles from our Newsletter

“Argh! I feel brain dead! I know I have a point in my writing, but I’ve lost track of what it was. Maybe I don’t have an argument at all. Sigh.  I don’tknow how to write a dissertation.”

“Blech.  I had such good ideas last night, but now my brain feels like mud.  How will I ever write this article?”

Sound familiar?

There is a reason for this common situation. And it lies in your brain.

Because of my background in neuropsychology, I tend to think of the problems that academics struggle with in terms of the workings of the brain.


Many of you are familiar with the differences between the right and left hemispheres of the cerebral cortex. What follows is a highly simplified review of the roles of these halves of the brain, and how these roles impact the academic.

Before reading on, click on the picture below to get a visual glimpse of what I ’ll be talking about:



Is It a Tree or an Elephant?

The left hemisphere (in right handers and most left handers) is the verbal side, controlling not just verbal processes such as verbal memory, speech, reading, and writing, but also sequential, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other processes. Thus the left hemisphere likes to track one thing at a time. This makes sense, since we can only speak one word at a time.

elephant.jpgThe left hemisphere can only solve problems by looking at tiny parts of the problem, tracking them in order.

You know the story about the 3 blind men trying to figure out an elephant using their sense of touch? One feels the leg and thinks it’s a tree, one feels the trunk and thinks it’s a snake, and one feels it’s side and thinks it’s a wall. That’s how your left hemisphere works.

The right hemisphere is more specialized for visual or non-verbal processes, such as visual memory, and facial or pattern recognition. The right hemisphere is important in recognizing emotion in others and in social skills for this reason.

The right hemisphere, in contrast to the left, can process information wholistically. It can keep track of multiple strands of thought, comparing and searching for closely connected information or for more loosely connected thoughts and memories.

The right hemisphere can see patterns and configurations, and can think intuitively. It is able to think “outside of the box” to solve problems.



In order to perform well as an academic, you must be able to think creatively. The original contributions to your field that you make all depend on that ability.

One might think, and correctly so, that the right hemisphere is extremely important for much of the research and creative thinking that you engage in. The problem is that, unless you are in the creative/performing arts, your output is governed by the left hemisphere. So what you say, write, or even remember has to go through the final common pathway of the left hemisphere, our verbally communicative hemisphere. And the left hemisphere believes that its role is to shut out the right hemisphere.

How to Communicate With the Silent Hemisphere

Do you feel the most discouraged when you are ¾ of the way through a paper or chapter? You thought at the beginning that you had a point, but you’ve lost it. Or you can’t quite put your argument into words, although you have a sense that there’s something there.

That is the point where the right hemisphere hasn’t quite given its input to the left hemisphere.

So one of your tasks is finding a way for your left hemisphere to figure out what your right hemisphere is thinking. I believe that this difficulty in communication is the cause for the discomfort that scholars often feel just as they are about to “give birth” to some creative idea.

Here are some ideas for helping your left hemisphere find out what the right hemisphere is thinking. You’re trying to help the left side quiet down and listen to the right.

  • Brainstorm a list of ideas, allowing yourself to say or write some nonsensical or obviously incorrect ideas. This confuses your analytical left hemisphere enough that it might let the more creative ideas enter.
  • Make your idea more visual – putting words into a more non-linear representation allows the two parts of the brain to “talk.”
    • Make a diagram of how your sub-ideas are connected
    • Make a mind map
    • Put your ideas on post it notes and arrange them on a wall until the important ideas become clear

Don’t Fry Your Left Hemisphere

egg.jpgI was trained in neurofeedback or EEG biofeedback. It’s amazing that you can train your brain to increase certain frequencies in specific brain areas. This training allows you to attain those beneficial frequencies more easily while engaged in tasks or in a resting state.

What I realized is that much of what we do in life trains our brain. If you spend hours daily doing highly verbal, analytical activities such as, talking, reading or writing, you are training your left hemisphere to have lots of “beta” and “high beta” activity.

What does excess beta and high beta activity in the left hemisphere cause? It causes you to overthink, worry, obsess, and go around in circles. Sound like anyone you know?

This would be akin to working out your left bicep muscle for hours a day, and not using other muscles in your body. You would begin to look a little lobsided, your left bicep would be sore, and your other muscles would not be in good shape.

So make sure that you do some activities that make use of your right hemisphere:

  • If you must read or write for long periods, take breaks where you do non-verbal activities. Look at nature, take a walk, listen to music or work a visual puzzle. The Internet would not qualify as non-verbal most of the time.
  • Meditate or relax in a non-worrying state daily.
  • Take up hobbies that use your right hemisphere. Art, music, physical activities (which allow you to use your kinesthetic senses), or crafts allow your left hemisphere to rest a bit. Try to enjoy your hobby as often as possible.
  • Notice how many of your best ideas may occur in such odd places as the shower or the car. This is because your poor left hemisphere has been given a temporary reprieve, and is not monopolizing cerebral space. It then can listen to the right hemisphere.

Whether you’re writing a dissertation, or turning your dissertation into a book, always take care of your brain.  It’s the most important tool you’ve got.


Previous post:

Next post: