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Narrow and Broad Attention: Valuing Different Realities.

Narrow and Broad Attention: Valuing Different Realities.

The differences between the two hemispheres of the brain give birth to different types of attention that humans use to make sense of their world. According to psychiatrist McGHilschrist the brain houses two types of distinct attention:

The right hemisphere is seemingly responsible for sustained, broad, open, vigilant and alert type of attention while the left hemisphere is used for narrow sharply focused attention to detail. We need both of these types of attention to exist in the world. (…)

With our left hemisphere we are able to make tools, to grasp thing, to learn new languages we need details. To do so we need a simplified version of reality, it works with a map that represents the world but is much simpler. While the right hemisphere is on the look out for things that may be different from our expectations, it sees things in context, it understand implicit meaning, metaphor, body language, emotional expression in the face, it deals with an embodied world in which we stand embodied in relation to a world that is concrete, it understand individual not just categories, it has a disposition for the living not just the mechanical.

The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are the know, fixed, static, isolated, de-contextualized, explicit, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, incarnate, living beings embodied within the context of the lived world. But in the nature of never fully graspable, never perfectly known.”[i]

The division of the brain into two hemispheres makes possible incompatible versions of the world with quite different priorities and values. Interestingly their differences start with the sensory input used to make sense of the world which in turn are reflected in very different learning and cognitive abilities.

If the two hemispheres seem to influence our value systems, other systems in the brain play a crucial role in how we behave. Children, like adults, respond to sensory input using three branches of the nervous system: The Central Nervous System consists of the brain and the spinal cord. The Peripheral Nervous System is a group of nerves looping messages from the body to the brain and back again. And the last branch is the Autonomic Nervous System that controls out-of-awareness body functions. (Laney, 2005)[ii]. Depending on a child’s dominant temperamental tendencies, the parasympathetic or sympathetic system will be triggered.

These two systems differ drastically on how they process sensory input. Still according to Laney depending on temperament:

“ … the brain can either collect sensory data that flows in from the outside world and transform this data into perceptions by selecting, encoding and comparing the new data to old feelings and memories. These actions are involuntary automatic reactions, based on quickly developed perceptions initiated from the back of the brain. Or, the brain kicks the new perception to the front brain, the most evolved part of the brain and the most complex part of the brain (..) [that] reflects and plans. Patterns are created, reflected on, balanced, and verified before, during, and after action. This affords the ability to anticipate, or project oneself into the future, and reflect on what has already happen.”

The front and back of the brain work in conjunction with the right and left sides of the brain to form what we are. Normally, the two hemispheres should be working in a unified manner. Of course none of us are all of one type. Each individual exists on a spectrum, which marries right/left hemisphere and front/back lobes dominant tendencies. Lancey gives a sense of what some of these tendencies may look like behavior wise:

“every child will be dominant in one of the hemispheres. If your innie is more left-brained she may be logical and serious; she may find words easily, have more energy, be more judgmental, and she may not have many social skills. A right brain innie may be more playful, have better developed social skills and artistic talents, but may have trouble speaking confidently, and often have the experience of feeling flooded and overwhelmed”

A healthy mental life means creating equilibrium between all these parts to insure we move out of our comfort zones and grow. But our world has gradually promoted serious imbalances, promoting the domination of left hemispheres values and ways of understanding the world and turning many of the skills and abilities related to broad attention into pathologies: defining as healthy the ways of extroverts temperaments and ill those of introverts; considering visual perceptions as normal and experience as illness; defining the self as a disciplined ordered image or mad chaotic spatial senses.

In his book “Overcoming ADHD. Helping Children Become Calm, Engaged and Focused- Without a pill”[iii], M.D. Stanley I. Greenspan considers that attention is a learned process with many components. He and his colleagues who work with children prefer to think about attention as a dynamic, active process involving many parts of the nervous system at the same time:

“ Attention involves taking in sights and sounds; it involves processing information; it involves planning and executing actions” (Greenspan, 2009, p.5)

Attention is based in bodily activities and the senses. These activities are the domain of the right brain. According to Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in their book “ the whole-brain child”[iv], the right brain regulates and reacts to emotional and bodily input.

Highly sensitive children are much more sensitive to emotional, environmental input, in other words their senses are predominant. Hyperactive behaviors shift could be the sign that a strong or extra emotional or sensory input is affecting a child who, not knowing how to regulate this input, acts out or gets distracted.

Why, with all this knowledge, are we not finding solutions for these hyperactive behaviors? I suspect our cultural and scientific approaches to what it means to be well are part of the problem.

Previous: The mind: A Malleable, Dynamic, Adaptable System

Next: Conclusion: The invisible Senses


[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI

[ii] Laney, Marti Olsen (2005) The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child: Helping Your Child Thrive in an Extroverted World (eBook)

[iii] Greenspan, Stanley (2009). Overcoming ADHD: Helping Your Child Become Calm, Engaged, and FocusedWithout a Pill (Merloyd Lawrence Books)

[iv]Siegel, Daniel and Bryson, Tyna Payne (2012). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Bantam



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