Journal of American Indian Education
BRAIN HEMISPHERIC FUNCTIONS AND THE NATIVE AMERICAN
Allen Chuck Ross
TRADITIONAL Native American mode of thinking is uniquely different from modern man. This difference has intrigued scholars world wide for years. Now recent brain research has disclosed important evidence which explains how traditional Native Americans think. It is the hope of this author that this article may help mankind toward a better understanding of the Native American.
Until recently brain research was almost non-existent. Significant breakthroughs in brain research came in the 1960s at the California Institute of Technology. Dr. Roger Sperry isolated separate roles played by the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The specialized manifestations of the brain hemispheres are now well known and more manifestations are being discovered literally on a monthly basis.
Sperry's work began as a result of epileptic seizures. These seizures are like electrical storms in the brain. They begin in one hemisphere and cross over to the other on a thick band of nerve fibers (corpus callosum). A daring operation was performed to cut these fibers and localize the seizure to one side of the body. The results were so good that the operation was performed on dozens of patients. At this point some startling revelations came to light. As Sperry examined the patients whose brain hemispheres were isolated by severing the corpus callosum, he discovered that each hemisphere has a separate mode of thinking, each perceiving the world in a completely different way and communicating its perceptions to the other side via the corpus callosum circuitry.
As a result of Sperry's experiments a picture of how the brain divides its work has emerged.
The functions of the left brain are characterized by sequence and order while the functions of the right brain are holistic and diffused. The left brain can put parts together into an organized whole; the right brain instinctively sees the whole, then the parts. Left brain thinking is the essence of academic success as it is presently measured. Right brain thinking is the essence of creativity.
The following are right hemisphere functions which relate to the traditional Native American mode of thinking:
Ella Deloria, Native American historian, states that traditional Indian education was done by precept and example (learning by discovery). Blakeslee (see Note 1) states that creativity occurs in the learning process when a person is allowed to learn by discovery. Evidently, traditional Indian education is a right hemispheric process.
Many tribes used symbols to record their history. Dr. Boast (see Note 2) states that the right hemisphere cannot think in words, it only thinks in symbols.
Native American elders taught the youngsters to think twice before they spoke or acted on anything. Blakeslee states that thought incubation (mentally setting a problem aside, until an answer arises) allows the right hemispheric tasks to function.
Traditional Native Americans taught through the use of stories or story telling. Dr. Boast states that all learning occurs in Alpha (brain wave pattern of the right brain) and that Alpha exists in children when they are told stories.
Historically many tribes believed in and used dreams as a method to guide their lives. Dr. Jung (see Note 8) states that dreams are a function of the unconscious mind (the right hemisphere) and can be used as a method to guide one's life.
People acquainted with Native Americans are amazed at their ability to laugh about serious situations. Humor, states Blakeslee, is the right hemisphere's metaphoric ability.
Almost every school child has studied about the perceptiveness of the traditional Native American. Volumes of books have been written about the scouting, hunting, tracking techniques of the Native American. Perception is a unique ability of the right hemisphere states Dr. Boast.
Scholar after scholar has been impressed with the dominance of the verb in Native American sentences (Native American sentences are structured in reverse to English, and most commonly end with a verb). The fact that the verb may be more oriented to the object than to the subject in Native American sentences suggests they are interested in the result more than the cause. Dr. Sperry states that cause (a reason for an action, logic) is a function of the left hemisphere. It appears that Native American sentence structures allow the right hemisphere to function.
Lexical categories of Lakota language do not differentiate between time and space states Dr. Powers (see Note 11). All temporal statements are therefore spatial: Example-letan Pine Ridge tohan hwo? Translated into English it would read "When is Pine Ridge from here?" Dr. Sperry states that spatiality is a function of the right hemisphere. The Hopi language can verbalize non-linear ideas with ease, states Ferguson (see Note 5). Non-linear thinking is a function of the right hemisphere. Apparently Lakota and Hopi language would allow right hemispheric tasks to function.
Traditional Native Americans never developed a written language. Two reasons may be that the right hemisphere cannot think in words, it only thinks in symbols and the fact that when traditional people wanted knowledge all they needed to do was to participate in a ceremony to receive knowledge. In the field work that I have conducted in this area, I have arrived at the decision that Native American ceremonies allow a person to utilize his unconscious mind (the right hemisphere). Dr. Jung states that within the unconscious mind are latent memory traces from one's entire ancestral past.
Dr. Jung also stated that the archetype of the supreme being exists in the unconscious mind (the right hemisphere). Traditional Native American religious ceremonies utilize dance, artistic symbols, music--all functions of the right hemisphere. The Native American view of the supreme being is holistic (the seeing of whole things or overall patterns). Holistic is a function of the right hemisphere. This may be the reason why Native Americans do not have a single term for describing the supreme being.
The I Ching states that within the unconscious mind (the right hemisphere) exists the feminine principal. The hero archetype for Native American religion is a female (white buffalo calf woman-Dakota, deer mother-Taos, corn mother-Hopi, changing woman-Navajo). For the Native American the mother or woman is first, all other things or persons follow.
The right hemisphere hasn't a good sense of time and doesn't seem to comprehend what is meant by the term "wasting time" as does the left hemisphere. In observing traditional Native Americans this lack of time specific is a dominant trait.
The left hemisphere can verbalize itself much better than the right. A person could function with only one brain hemisphere, but a whole brain would be better. Blakeslee equates the left brain with the conscious mind and right brain with the unconscious mind.
These two divisions must function in a balanced and integrated manner for wholesome human functioning to occur. But studies subsequent to Sperry's have discovered even more remarkable things about the two hemispheres. One is the distinct possibility that each hemisphere is in competition with the other--each demanding that its perceptions and methods of organizing data be considered superior. Another study has determined that currently we are living in a left hemisphere oriented society, and nowhere is this more emphasized than in our schools.
This is limiting, not only to the youngsters who learn and express themselves through right brain activities, but also to left brain thinkers who have not developed right brain activities. Blakeslee states that the brain should be synergetic in its approach toward developing a whole person.
Evidence that the two hemispheres may be in competition with each other comes from schizophrenics. A common complaint among them is that someone is stealing their thoughts. The right hemisphere is in fact verbalizing aloud the thoughts of the opposite hemisphere before the person has a chance to speak or even think about it.
Native American spiritual people have developed methods to deal with this competition of the hemispheres. Since the spiritual side of the brain is the right side, and verbal dominant is the left, spiritual people practice a technique which allows both sides to exist without fear of being out of balance. This method for balance is called the Dakota "Red Road" in Dakota religion. This term denotes an existence between pairs of opposites. Almost all Native American spiritual people have a concept which enables this psychological balance to occur. Spiritual people pray constantly for this balance.
The isolation of the characteristics of the hemispheres are major breakthroughs in the self-understanding of the human race. The discovery of the mutual rivalry of the hemispheres is perhaps the most startling discovery of all. One thing is certain: mankind, stated Einstein, currently employs only a fraction of the total brain potential. Scientist Jerry Levy has said that American scientific training through graduate school may entirely destroy the right hemispheric functions.
It has been determined that traditional Native Americans are more dominant in right hemisphere thinking. This may be the reason for the psychic phenomenon and miracle healing performed by spiritual people. Whatever the reason, educators today are becoming increasingly concerned with the importance of the functions of the right hemisphere.
1. Blakeslee, Thomas R., The Right Brain. Garden City, New Jersey: Anchor Press and Doubleday, 1980.
2. Boast, Dr. William, "Balancing the Brain Workshop."
3. Deloria, Ella. Speaking of Indians. University of South Dakota, Vermillion: Dakota Press, 1979.
4. Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Los Angeles, California: J. P. Tarcher, Inc., 1979.
5. Ferguson, Marilyn, The Aquarian Conspiracy. Los Angeles, California: J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1980.
6. Fire, John, and Erdoes, Richard, Lame Deer-Seeker of Visions, New York: Pocket Books, 1976.
7. Froiland, Paul, "Gray Matter," in Passages. August, 1980.
8. Jung, Carl G., Man and His Symbols. New York: Windfall and Doubleday, 1964.
9. Laird, Chariton, Language in America. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1970.
10. Munzert, Alfred W., Test Your I.Q. New York: Monarch Press, 1980.
11. Powers, William K., Oglala Religion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975.
12. Ross, Allen, In Search of the Origins and Destiny of the Red Man. Doctoral dissertation, Western Colorado University, 1980.
13. Ross, Allen, A Red Road for Educational Synergy. Position paper, 1981.
14. Zink, David, Stones of Atlantis. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1980.
This article was prepared as a position paper for the American Indian Leadership Program, April 9, 1982.
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