When I interviewed George Vaillant for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) monthly newsletter, I asked him whether right-brained people find it easier to express love than left-brained folks. He thought it was an interesting and important question and suggested I write about it in my next article for PPND.
I don’t have a simple answer, but I have been reflecting on it for the last month during a trip to India with my mother for the dedication and blessing of the new building for the Evershine English school – a sponsorship school for disadvantaged children in the rural villages of Bangalore that we helped start over ten years ago.
Right Brain, Left Brain
But first, a brief synopsis of right brain versus left brain. The left brain houses language, details, and analytical skills, while the right brain houses ideas, the “big picture”, and empathy – things often referred to as the “soft skills.” In schools and jobs, we tend to exercise our left-brain strengths at the expense of our right-brain qualities. But there are reasons to rebalance.
Books like Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. and Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence herald right-brain thinking and the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) in an ever-changing world, rather than solely relying on left-brain thinking and IQ. Many of us have been rewarded to think rather than to feel, to strategize rather than to empathize, and to emphasize rational detachment rather than emotional involvement. However, in today’s global economy, we need to tap into our right-brain qualities to handle communication and business relations that traverse geographical and cultural boundaries.
Now, back to my initial question. My gut tells me that folks who are more right-brained have an easier time expressing love because they exhibit more “childlike” behavior, lead with their hearts over their heads, and are more adept in the universal non-verbal language of love.
Be Like Children
In India, I witnessed the simple and pure way that children express love and joy. Throughout our visit, a Bible verse repeated in my head: “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:15).
What are little children like? They are zestful, curious, and loving. Based on research by Nansook Park, Chris Peterson, and Martin Seligman using the Values in Action Inventory of Strengths, these three character strengths are more positively associated with life satisfaction than the intellectual strengths of appreciation of beauty, judgment, and love of learning. I believe that the bible verse reminds us to revel in the childlike behaviors of unconditional love, wonderment, and unabashed enthusiasm.
Lead with the Heart, not the Head
The number one thing that leads to happiness is love. Children are more open to giving and receiving love, where adults may recoil from it to avoid rejection, intimacy, and the unknown. Adults may fear taking risks and overthink negative “what ifs.” As Dr. Vaillant remarks, “love is biological” but “love, like grief is often difficult to bear.” Being like children and getting out of our heads and into our hearts may help us jump right in rather than dip in our toes.
Practice Non-Verbal Communication
In his book, Pink remarks, “To enter another’s heart, you must begin the journey by looking into his face.” Traveling in India I witnessed the power of nonverbal communication. Unlike words, facial expressions do not lie. I felt love and compassion from the genuine Duchenne smiles on children’s faces. I could feel their warmth and compassion, even though I couldn’t verbally communicate because I didn’t know their language. Indeed, a face can paint a thousand words.
Paul Ekman’s discovery that facial expressions are universal supports Vaillant’s findings that love is biological. Raising eyebrows for example indicates surprise in New York City as it does in New Delhi. “People’s emotions are rarely put into words; far more often they are expressed through other cues,” writes Goleman.
Love is often expressed nonverbally and through emotion. George Washington University neurologist Richard Restak remarks that people primarily express emotions and read those of others through the right hemisphere. Goleman agrees that the mode of the rational mind is words, while the mode of the emotions is nonverbal. Since our faces are the primary stage for displaying our emotions, our ability to express the emotion of love may be hindered if we are not as prone to nonverbal communication. Right-brained non-verbal communication is a universal language that connects us across countries and cultures.
Through their smiles and exhilarating two-hour song and dance performance, I felt more love and connection with the Indian schoolchildren than I did through conversation. While a vital mode of communication, sometimes “words get in the way,” to quote a popular song. “Love is not about words. Love is about attachment, music, odors, and spiritual ecstasy,” exclaims Vaillant. Love does not live in the rational part of the brain but rather in the same limbic olfactory brain where scents, caretaking, and memory all come together.
Although I can’t easily put into words the beautiful, loving experience I had at Evershine English School in India, I can call up the pleasant scent of jasmine, the riveting Indian melodies the children sang, and their radiant smiles when I savor my experience. It makes me think that love is indeed more easily expressed through the right side of the brain where music, memories, scents – and children – seem to reside.
Ekman, P., Sorenson, E. R. & Friesen, W. V. (1969). Pan-cultural elements in the facial displays of emotions. Science, 164, 86-88.
Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. NY: Bantam Books.
Haidt, J. & Keltner, D. (1999). Culture and facial expression: Open ended methods find more faces and a gradient of universality. Cognition and Emotion, 13, 225-226.
Keltner, D. (2009). Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.
Park, Peterson, Seligman (2004). Strengths of Character and Well-being.” Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.
Pink, D. (2006). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Penguin Books.
Restak, R. (2009). Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance. Riverhead Hardcover.
Taylor, J. B. (2009). My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey. Plume.
Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.