Imagine water on the ocean: the push and pull of the tide combines to create a surge and crest of a wave, which peaks and breaks creating a turbulent swarm of white water and strong forces that rush toward the beach, spreading upon the bare sand, stirring it up, then losing power and turning to gently slide back to the sea.
This is a metaphor for emotion. When experiencing emotion there is a trigger, a powerful crescendo, and a fading. Biologically, physiologically, this is what happens in the body when an emotion comes on. Something triggers an emotional response, most likely some sensory input (sight, sound, taste, etc) which is associated with a memory or is interpreted by an assessing thought, and the brain releases chemicals that are carried by the blood stream activating physical changes throughout the body (elevated heart rate and breathing, tension, tingling, etc), then the physical systems return to baseline…ideally.
Trouble comes when the brain keeps thinking up ways to feed the original emotion, like someone stuck in front of a slot machine dropping in coin after coin so the wheels keep spinning. And really its just one particular part of the brain that gets stuck feeding the emotion, the left hemisphere
The brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor had the unique opportunity to observe how the left and right halves of the brain work separately and in tandem when she had a massive stroke that took out the functioning of her left hemisphere and worked for several years to regain functioning. She wrote about her fascinating experience in her book My Stroke of Insight (and she has a TED talk as well). And it is Taylor that has put the idea out in the mainstream that an emotion lasts for 90 seconds.
The short version of Taylor’s insights stem from the difference between the left hemisphere: responsible for language, critical thinking, problem solving, linear analysis, planning, etc, etc, thinking, thinking, thinking; and the right hemisphere: responsible for our connection to others and the universal energy around us, our ability to be creative, imaginative, intuitive and think “outside the box”, and the full, rich, complex sensations of the moment to moment experience.
The left brain gets us putting our socks on before our shoes and bringing the car keys out to the car so we can drive to work. The right brain gets us to take a spur of the moment turn on our way to work so we end up missing a huge car accident or getting to witness wild horses running through a field surrounded by a double rainbow.
Of course the two hemispheres do much more than this, but I’m hoping you get the picture. They also consistently work in tandem, but the left brain tends to dominate. Think about the busy chatter in your mind and you will hear the left brain, think about how often you hear that chatter and you will know how much the left brain dominates.
So, back to the 90 seconds of emotion. The brain gets its trigger and releases its chemicals, 90 seconds later the chemicals are flushed and the physiological impact has faded OR during those 90 seconds the busy chatter of the left brain has generated future possible scenarios, or assessed alternative chains of events, or connected to related experiences, or criticized, judged, and blamed everyone possible, or all of the above, consequently, releasing more chemicals to keep the emotional experience flowing.
See, the left brain is a storyteller and is responsible for taking things apart and putting them back together in as many different ways as it can. As Taylor puts it
“if it’s a subject you really feel passionate about, either good or awful, (the left brain) is particularly effective at hooking into those circuits of emotion and exhausting all the ‘what if’ possibilities”
Knowing this about the brain can give you some power to decide whether or not you want to continue to experience an emotion. These processes typically happens outside of our conscious awareness but by becoming conscious of what is happening in our brain we can influence the form our thoughts take. Being able to observe both the physiological emotional experience and the left brain’s analytical attempts to keep it going gives you control. It is a simple theoretical process to decide to disengage from the story circuits of the left brain, but of course it is a difficult act to engage in. It takes awareness, attention, willingness, commitment, and persistence.
Get to know your own emotional experience: observe what happens in your body when different emotions are triggered, where there is lightness or weight, tension, movement, energy pulses or blocks, and then pay attention to the left brain’s pull to keep the emotion going and what it is saying. Use the power of your right brain to come into the present moment, as opposed to where ever else the left brain is trying to go. Pay attention to breath and sensory input and output in order to connect to the here and now, thus quieting the busy chatter and emotional re-experiencing and bringing inner peace.
Emotions can be very useful bits of information or they can become a overplayed drain on your energy. Using a balanced brain approach so that the powers of both left brain and right brain are equally represented allows for your whole wisdom to determine the best course of action.
Again, these are simple concepts but difficult practices. Taylor’s book dedicates a couple chapters to the practice of finding balance, my blog on emotional awareness addresses mindful sensory practice, and spiritual energetic practices like yoga, tai chi, reiki, chanting, meditation can heighten one’s ability to tap into the right brain.
Thanks for reading, I’d love to read your comments (related or not) on my facebook page.