Hemispheric Exercises

This chapter discusses exercises that improve the function of the non-dominant hemisphere or help synchronize the hemispheres. Both forms of exercises can be useful in improving overall brain function.

Cerebral_lobesThe human brain is divided into two halves or hemispheres. Most brain functions are distributed across both hemispheres, but there is notable lateralization, particularly in relation to processing language. Both of the major areas involved in language skills, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are in the left hemisphere (for most people). The left hemisphere handles the linear reasoning functions of language, such as grammar and word selection, whereas the right hemisphere handles the intonation, accentuation, and context. Both hemispheres process numerical calculation and estimation, but the left is more exact, the right more approximate.

Both hemispheres process perceptual information, but information from each side of the body is sent to the opposite hemisphere. Both hemispheres, however, receive information from both eyes. One half of the pupil of each eye sends information to the left hemisphere, and one half goes to the right hemisphere.

In general (for over 90% of right-handed people and about 70% of left-handed people), the left hemisphere processes perceptions sequentially, perceives cause and effect, and is more logical and objective. The left hemisphere is analytical, perceiving the parts of things, and it processes normal speech.

The right hemisphere perceives things as a whole, processing information less sequentially and in a more subjective fashion. The right hemisphere is better at visual processing, determining spatial relationships, pattern recognition, and is typically used for hunches and intuition.

The two sides of the brain are connected by the corpus callosum, which transfers information back and forth between left and right hemispheres, allowing the brain to function as a whole unit.
The two hemispheres cooperate by alternating which side is in charge, depending on the task. This is called hemispheric dominance. In a very general sense, hemispheric dominance shifts about every 90 minutes. You can easily observe hemispheric dominance by noticing which nostril is most open. Generally, one nostril breathes more easily while the other is somewhat more constricted. If you pay close attention to this process, you may discover that your state of mind and mood vary according to nostril is most open.
You can deliberately shift hemispheric dominance by closing one nostril and focusing the attention on breathing through the other nostril. For example, to relax or to facilitate sleep, try laying on your right side and breathing slowly through your left nostril.

Use the thumb or index finger of your right hand to close your right nostril. Breathe slowly and deeply for three minutes or until you fall asleep. Lying on your right side will help open the left nostril. If the left nostril remains congested, you can try rubbing a tiny bit of Tiger Balm around the nostril and sinus area. Nostril breathing is discussed more fully in the chapter on breathing.

The following exercises can be used to increase hemispheric integration and to become more aware of and alter hemispheric dominance. Doing any sort of cross-lateral exercise will tend to increase connections in the cerebellum. Increasing hemispheric integration can improve timing, creativity, and general emotional and physical awareness.

Physical Exercises

Most physical exercises that work with balance and bi-lateral movement will improve hemispheric integration. For example, practice marching, moving the same side arm and leg together, and then switch to moving one arm and the opposite leg at the same time. You can also practice other cross-motor patterns such as swinging both arms to one side while lifting one leg to the opposite side. As you do this, turn your head from side to side. Repeat this exercise daily until they feel automatic and natural.

Here are some other exercises that can be useful:

Balance Pose

While this exercise improves hemispheric integration, not surprisingly, it will also improve your balance.
Stand relaxed with your feet together. As you breathe in, bend one leg behind you (raising your foot towards your buttocks) and grasp your foot behind you with your hand. That is, if you raise your right foot, grasp it with your right hand. (Be careful not to strain – it’s a good idea to stretch a bit before starting this exercise.) While you are raising your foot, raise your opposite arm until it is over your head and stretch it backwards a bit, so that your entire body, from the foot on the floor to the arm above your head, forms a gentle curve. Try to synchronize your movement with your breath. While you do this pose, focus your attention on your solar plexus. By the time you have fully breathed in, one foot should be in the hand on the same side and the opposite arm should be raised above your head. Your body should form a slight bow shape with your solar plexus at the peak of the curve.
Hold the breath as long as it is comfortable, then lower your foot back to floor while lowering the opposite arm to your side. Repeat this with the opposite foot. In other words, if you raised your right foot first, repeat the exercise raising your left foot. When practicing the balance pose, perform at least two or three pairs.

Cross-Squats

Start with your feet pointing straight ahead, spread apart at about shoulder width. Grasp your right earlobe with the thumb and finger of your left hand. Cross your right arm over your left arm and grasp your left earlobe with the thumb and forefinger of your right hand.
Still holding both earlobes, breathe in and squat (as far down as you are able), then breathe out as you stand up.
Now, cross your left arm over your right arm and repeat the exercise. Repeat this for about three minutes, continuing to hold your earlobes and synchronizing your breathing with squatting down and standing up. Remember to switch which arm is crossed over which each time you do the exercise. As you get used to this exercise, extend the time to about five minutes.

Tree Pose

Stand with feet apart at shoulder width. Relax and spend a few moments just feeling the weight of your body pressing your feet into the ground. Become aware of your breathing. Fix you gaze on something in the distance in front of you.
Begin to lean onto your left foot. Slowly bring your right foot over to the left and then slide the bottom of your right foot up the inside of your left leg, stopping at your left calf (or, if you are limber enough, the inside of your left thigh). Do not rest your foot on the inside of your left knee since you could easily injure your knee – stop either above or below the knee.
Feel your connection to the ground and slowly reach your arms overhead, keeping your shoulders relaxed (and not hunched up towards your ears). Hold this pose steady for several breaths, then lower your arms and move your right foot back to its original position.
Repeat the exercise on the other side, raising your left foot on the inside of your right leg. As with most exercises that affect one side, always practice in pairs, so that you exercise both sides of the body.

Eagle Pose

Start just as you would to practice the tree pose. Stand with feet apart at shoulder width, relax, become aware of your breath, and fix your gaze.
Bend your knees. Raise one leg and cross it over the other leg. If you have trouble balancing, you can plant your toes on the ground across your other foot. Alternatively, if you are limber enough, hook your foot behind the leg you are standing on.
At the same time, cross your opposite arm over your other arm, past the elbows, and place your palms together. That is, if you crossed your left leg over your right leg, then cross your right arm over your left arm. If you can’t place your palms together, get as close as you can. Hold this pose for several breaths, and then return your limbs to the starting position.
Rest for a few seconds and then repeat the exercise with the opposite arm and leg.

Brain Juggling

Researchers at Oxford University discovered the learning to juggle builds new connections in the brain. After studying a group practicing juggling for 30 minutes a day over a six-week period, researchers found changes in regions of the brain’s white matter related to reaching, grasping and peripheral vision. The following exercise is excellent for improving concentration and hemispheric integration.
First, get a tennis ball and cut a small slit in it. Squeeze the tennis ball so that the slit puckers open and take about two ounces (about 50 grams) of BBs and put them inside the ball. The ball should end up weighing about 100 grams and should make a pleasing sound when tossed. This exercise can be performed either standing, with feet apart at about shoulder width, or sitting in a straight back chair without arms.
Bend your elbows, placing your arms at 90 degrees in front of your body, as if you were holding a tray in front of you and rest the ball in one hand.
Begin tossing the ball from one hand to the other, throwing the ball about four two six inches above your hands. Take your time and stay relaxed. As you get used to tossing the ball from hand to hand, slowly look up toward the ceiling. Finally, close your eyes and return your head to its normal position.
Once you get used to it, toss the ball about once a second or so (or between 30 to 50 times a minute). A metronome can help keep the timing if you have one available.
Continue tossing the ball back and forth for about 10 to 20 minutes. If you happen to drop the ball, do not worry – just retrieve it and continue juggling. During this time you should drop the ball, retrieve it and resume juggling.
As you become more comfortable with the exercise, you can make the exercise more difficult by moving your hands farther apart or throwing the ball higher. It is important to keep the exercise difficult enough to require your attention. The main thing is to keep up a slow, steady rhythm and to keep your eyes closed.
Hemispheric Dominance Exercise
The following exercise allows you to observe hemispheric dominance and to learn to control it.

2_circles

As you look at this illustration, cross your eyes so you see a third circle between the black circle and the grey circle. When you get your eyes focused right, the middle circle will seem to have a cross on it.
The farther back you sit, the less eyestrain you’ll feel. Sitting anywhere from 1 to 3 feet in front of the picture usually works best.
Watch the cross on the third circle. Every few seconds, it will change from a horizontal line to a vertical line and back. This is because the hemispheres of your brain are alternating in dominance for this activity. When the right hemisphere is dominant you see the black circle and vertical line on top; when the left hemisphere is dominant, the grey circle and horizontal line are on top.
Look at the illustration again, but this time, try to see just the cross, not a horizontal or vertical line.
Some people’s eyes bother them when they do this exercise. If you find this exercise uncomfortable, you can try this alternate method. Get two toilet paper tubes and look through them at some distant object (as if you were using binoculars) while holding a finger over the far end of each tube so that your fingers make a cross in your field of vision.
Switching Hands
Try using your non-dominant hand to do simple tasks for a few minutes every day. Try this with any movement that you can switch safely, such as holding a fork and knife. If you use a computer, try switching which hand uses your mouse. It can be particularly interesting to spend some time each day writing with your non-dominant hand. Likewise, try drawing with your non-dominant hand. At least initially, be careful driving or using other heavy machinery for a little while after these exercises.
Left-Brain/Right Brain Tasks
For most people, one hemisphere is a bit more dominant than the other hemisphere, and they will tend to excel at what are typically left-brain or right brain tasks. If you are a verbal person, try to spend some time each day drawing. If you are a visual person, try spending some time writing each day.
As with most generalizations, you should take this with a grain of salt (after all, nearly every task uses both sides of the brain to some extent), but here is a list of typical left-brain and right-brain tasks:

Left-Brain
Working with Language
Recognizing cause and effect
critical thinking
Working with numbers
Judging time and sequence
Retrieving facts and naming things
Perceiving details

Right-Brain
Understanding metaphors
Recognizing faces, reading and expressing emotions
Working with color and images
Guessing and using intuition
Singing and playing music*
Perceiving wholes, spatial orientation

* Note that tasks like listening with both ears or judging position are shared with both hemispheres.
For most of us in the modern world, we spend the vast majority of our time on verbal, left-brain tasks. There are excellent exercises available in Betty Edwards’ well-known book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which we can hardly recommend strongly enough. A representative exercise can be found on Betty Edwards’ website here; http://drawright.com/vaceface.htm.

Reading and Writing Mirror Language

A paragraph of mirrored text is shown below. Hold the mirrored text towards the right side of your field of vision. Read the mirrored text as fast as you can and record the time below.

quote_1

Right side reading time____
Now hold the mirrored text directly in front of you. Read it again as fast as you can and record your time below.
Front reading time________
Finally, hold the mirrored text to the left side of your field of vision. Read the mirrored text as fast as you can and record your time below.
Left side reading time______
In general, language is processed by the left hemisphere, but reading and writing mirrored text is a right brain skill. As one might expect, practicing writing mirrored text also improves your ability to read mirrored text.
For the next exercise, get out two sheets of paper and hold a pen or pencil in each hand. Begin by placing both sheets together in the center of your vision and printing the alphabet from A to Z in block letters with each hand. Focus your attention on your dominant hand as you write on one sheet, while your non-dominant hand writes the same thing on the other sheet of paper.
Keep practicing. After a while, you’ll probably notice that your non-dominant hand will begin to naturally write mirror text as you write regular text with your dominant hand. As you begin to be comfortable writing mirrored text, start practicing writing upper and lower case letters. Next, practice writing cursive script in upper and lower case.
Continue practicing until you are able to write mirror text with your non-dominant hand without writing normal text with your dominant hand. After you are comfortable writing the mirror text, read the following paragraph three times just as you did in this first part of this exercise. Hold the mirrored text towards the right side of your field of vision. Read the mirrored text as fast as you can and record the time below.

quote_2

Right side reading time____
Now hold the mirrored text directly in front of you. Read it again as fast as you can and record your time below.
Front reading time________
Finally, hold the mirrored text to the left side of your field of vision. Read the mirrored text as fast as you can and record your time below.
Left side reading time______
You will probably find that, at least on the left side of your visual field, your reading speed is significantly improved.

Becoming Ambidextrous

If you can learn to be more ambidextrous, it will promote both hemispheric synchronization and overall brain growth. Studies have indicated that ambidextrous people are, on the average, more adaptable, more emotionally resilient, and more determined in solving difficult problems.
As you go through your regular day, try to use your left hand more (or your right hand, if you are left-handed) when you pick something up, unlock your door, brush your hair or your teeth, pour a drink, butter bread, open a package, stir your coffee, or do whatever else you do. As much as you can (while not endangering yourself), when you would normally use one hand, use the other. Begin to pay more attention to how you perform movement with your dominant hand and try to mirror those movements with your other hand.
When you have become more comfortable using your non-dominant hand, begin practicing using both hands simultaneously. Try stirring two cups of coffee or tea simultaneously. First, stir both clockwise, then stir both counterclockwise. Try picking up objects with both hands. Try bouncing a ball with both hands or catching two balls at the same time.
As you begin to feel more comfortable, try throwing two darts at a board simultaneously. Try throwing two wads of paper at a waste basket – toss one overhand and the other underhand, and then try reversing it.
Get out two sheets of paper and experiment with drawing two pictures at once, one with each hand. Start with simple geometric shapes and then move on to pictures. Similarly, use two sheets of paper and try to write with both hands at the same time. These last two exercises will probably take quite a bit of practice, but they are well worth practicing on a regular basis.
Throw 2 paper wads at the same time into the same paper basket — one underhand and the other overhand. Throw 2 darts simultaneously at a dart board with both hands. Write with both hands at the same time (review “Exercise — Writing Mirror Language”). Draw a butterfly, a vase or a geometric figure using both hands simultaneously, but keep practicing these exercises.

Bibliography

The Other Mind’s Eye: The Gateway to the Hidden Treasures of Your Mind, Allen C. Sargent, Success Design International Publications, 1999
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Daniel J. Siegel, Bantam 2010
Juggling Boosts the Brain, Rachel Jones, Nature Reviews Neuroscience, March 2004
Training induces changes in white-matter architecture, Jan Scholz, Miriam C Klein, Timothy E J Behrens & Heidi Johansen-Berg, Nature Neuroscience, published online October 2009.
Changes in Gray Matter Induced by Learning—Revisited. PLoS ONE, Driemeyer J, Boyke J, Gaser C, Büchel C, May A (2008)
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain: The Definitive, 4th Edition, Betty Edwards, Tarcher, 2012
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Workbook: The Definitive, Updated 2nd Edition, Betty Edwards, Tarcher, 2012
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain website, http://www.drawright.com
The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres, Robert E. Ornstein,(Harcourt Brace & Company, 1997
The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist. Yale University Press, 2009
The 100% Brain Course, Melvin D. Saunders, Creative Alternatives Center, 2001

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All Content Copyright 2012 Bill Whitcomb and Taylor Ellwood
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