L-mode and R-Mode

Recently I was given the excellent book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards. It’s a book about learning to draw but, as the title suggests, the author takes an approach based on applied psychology/neurology. This is not a mere affectation on her part. Rather, it seems Edwards was teaching drawing for decades, discovered what worked and then realised that what worked had a basis in psychology. She introduces research from neurology about the functional differences between the two hemispheres of the brain and then frames the drawing exercises around that research. According to Edwards, the motor skills needed for drawing are not the main game, contrary to what most drawing instruction suggests. Rather, you have to learn to “see” and that “seeing” is carried out by the right side of the brain. Those who try to draw from the left brain are drawing “symbolically”. They translate what they see through the left side of the brain which is where language processing occurs. Thus, rather than draw the vase in front of them, they think to themselves that is a vase and draw from the idea in their mind. The results are not good and the person usually concludes that they are unable to draw and they give up. I’m skeptical of the neurological basis for all this; sounds very left-brain to me. But I think this distinction is true phenomenologically and it also maps on to what we know about how language works. I have mentioned before in this blog that I wrote an honours thesis in cognitive linguistics which deals a lot with the schematic nature of language and cognition. It hadn’t occurred to me before, but “childish” drawings are schematic and this lends weight to Edwards’ idea that learning to draw is learning not to draw the schematic representations in your mind but what is visible to your eye.

Edwards calls these differences R-mode and L-mode corresponding the right and left brain respectively. L-mode is verbal, analytic, sequential, linear, objective and time-bound. It is about intellect, logic and computation. R-mode involves intuition and leaps of insight. It is subjective, relational and holistic. When you are ‘in’ R-mode, you have a feeling of timelessness and immersion in the moment. According to Edwards, a major problem that students of hers have is that they are stuck almost permanently in L-mode. When trying to draw, they are not really seeing the thing they are drawing but are intermediating through language and logic (components of L-mode). Thus, they might try to render a cube reasoning that all the sides must be the same length. But this is not how the eye perceives a cube and thus the drawing will be wrong. What they must do instead is learn to see the angles and relations of the cube. That is what needs to be taught and learned. It’s because L-mode is so strong in our culture that Edwards spends the first half of her book trying to get the student to use R-mode instead. She has several exercises intended to make the student distinguish between the two. I seemed to be cured of this problem as I didn’t have any difficulty getting into R-mode but the exercises reminded of a time when I had to learn the distinction the hard way. I’ve told this story once before on this blog, but I’ll re-tell it here as I think it perfectly describes what happens when L-mode dominates over R-mode.

Some time ago I decided to teach myself audio engineering. I had been a musician for a number of years and learning the basics of sound mixing seemed like a good practice tool as well as a way to record ideas for songs. The technology to record audio had also become incredibly cheap and it was possible to do home recording to a technically high standard. The technical means to do audio recording are now not much more expensive than the technical means to do drawing. But, just like drawing is all about seeing, audio engineering is all about hearing and that is not a technical problem but a perceptual one. To put it in Edwards’ language, it’s about learning to use R-mode. But I didn’t know that at the time. My early mixes sounded dreadful. Although I knew at some level that this was a problem with the fact that I wasn’t listening properly, I still went looking for technical solutions. I employed an L-mode way of addressing what was an R-mode problem. I jumped online and started searching for solutions to make my mix sound better. One of the ideas that came up was compression. Compression was the difference between a professional sounding mix and an amateur one. That’s what the internet said. This statement has some level of truth. Compression is essential to a good mix and many of the sounds we hear in professional recordings are created by a compressor. But the key task for the sound engineer is to learn to hear what the compressor can do. That was what I had not yet achieved and it was part of the reason my mixes sounded so bad. The internet didn’t tell me that, though. The internet told me to try this compressor or that compressor. And that’s what I did. I downloaded the compressor that somebody said would fix all of my problems, eagerly loaded it into the track I was working on and switched it on. Instantly my mix came to life. The highs were high, the lows were deep and mellifluous, the vocals rang out like a choir of angels. I sat back to take it all in and then figured I should check the settings on the compressor so I could remember them for future reference. I looked down at the computer and realised that the compressor was not even switched on. I had clicked the wrong button. I switched it on for real and the mix went “meh”.

Obviously I’m exaggerating the story for effect but I really did perceive the mix to have changed at the time and when I learned that the compressor wasn’t switched on I was genuinely shocked at how easily I had fooled myself. We all tell ourselves stories about the world that turn out not to be true, but on this occasion my base perception was wrong and no amount of excuses or post hoc rationalisations could have shown otherwise. As I was reading Edwards’ book, I realised she was explaining why that had happened. L-mode really can interfere and override our perceptions. If it can do that with seeing and hearing, it can certainly do it with more complex phenomena like, oh, I don’t know, pandemics. On the other hand, what Edwards says is true about R-mode is definitely correct. As I became proficient at audio engineering, I would regularly achieve the state of immersion and timelessness that Edwards associates with R-mode. It’s a state of deep focus where one loses all sense of time. It’s sometimes referred to as being “in the zone”. I experienced that feeling again when working through some of the exercises in Edwards book this time in relation to drawing. Phenomenologically, I think the L-mode/R-mode distinction is very useful to highlight the artistic mindset but also more general cultural traits. The reason Edwards needed to write such a book is because we live in a culture that has become massively imbalanced in favour of L-mode. All of our education system, which now lasts about sixteen years for the average person is about the manipulation of symbols without any corresponding real world experience. It’s like talking about how a compressor works without ever hearing how it affects a mix or hypothesising how a line on a page represents an object without ever drawing an object.

Using the L-mode/R-mode distinction, I can now see that this what Gregory Bateson was getting at in his excellent book Mind and Nature which was all about parts and wholes, relations, hierarchical structures, synthesis and other R-mode concepts. It’s also what underlay Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language, or Ivan Illich’s critiques of our education system. In fact, many of the important critiques of our society and culture from the 20th century were really pointing out this imbalance. Western culture systematically excludes R-mode from consideration. We consider any intuition to be superstition. We dismiss subjectivity as “anecdotal evidence”. We know how to break things down through analysis but we’ve forgotten how to build things up through synthesis which is why we can’t create things of beauty anymore. Most importantly, I think, we are drowning in symbols (L-mode) without the subsequent perception of reality (R-mode) that would ground those symbols. As Edwards notes, her students struggle even to hold their attention on an object so they can draw it. They fall back to symbolic representations. Such people find it easier to think “that is a vase” and draw a schematic version than to actually look at the vase and really see it in order to draw it. This change seems to happen about the time of adolescence when the symbol-manipulating faculty develops to a high level. It’s at exactly that time we subject teenagers to an education system that does nothing to develop their R-mode but makes them work through exercises based entirely on L-mode. The grading system of exams is also pure L-mode. All this education was originally intended to train people to serve in the bureaucracy which is, of course, just a symbol-manipulating organisational structure. That training is relevant to bureaucrats. It is, however, entirely irrelevant to any occupation outside of an office. The increase in higher education in the last few decades has, thus, swung the existing cultural imbalance in western society even further to the left (interestingly, this statement also works in a strictly political sense too).

How do we address this imbalance? Teach people how to draw, paint, play music, mix audio, sew, knit or any other handicraft or art. Learn any skill in an empirical fashion with only minimal book learning. Disconnect from exposure to symbol manipulation. Learn how to trust intuition, guessing and leaps of faith. Take naps. Fritter away time on “useless” activities. Sit around and do nothing. If you need an excuse to do these things, just say you’re developing the right side of your brain. Or better still, tell your left brain to STFU.

8 thoughts on “L-mode and R-Mode”

  1. Yeah, I’d heard that the main thing in learning to draw is learning to see. Alas, I’m absolutely terrible at visualization. For instance, I could have an hour long conversation with you, and then fail to recognize you a week later (despite remembering the conversation very well). Alas! So, if I ever wanted to learn any kind of drawing-like skill, I’d have to stick to the schematic kind. Calligraphy perhaps.

    But, here’s something I’m reasonably good at: foreign languages. I’ve studied six, and I’ve gotten reasonably good at four. Traditional language learning is very schematic, but more recently, there’s been some pushback against that, with more and more people emphasizing a large amount of input. What seems to work best for me is heavily schematic study (conjugation/declension tables and such) at the beginning, followed by lots and lots of input (and of course some speaking and writing practice). If I skip the schematic part early on, I wind up speaking an unusable mess of a language, full of fossilized errors. If I only do the schematic part, well, I can conjugate/decline, but I can’t use the language in any meaningful way. So, I go heavy on grammar early on, and then get lots of input.

    Does that generalize to other skills? As a novice, you start by learning some basic schemes (the “left brain” stuff). But the more advanced you get, the more it becomes about learning to see/hear. But I suspect that without those schematic basics, most people just remain blind/deaf.

  2. This is also the same dichotomy that ‘embodiment’ meditations work with, although the terminology is different – being in your ‘head’ (L-mode) and in your ‘body’ or ‘heart’ (R-mode). The mindfulness body scan practices are a very simple method to learn to appreciate and abide in the differences.

  3. Irena – I once read something about the four different ways of learning. From memory, it was reading/analysing, observing and copying, doing (trial and error) and I forget the fourth. Sounds like you are more in the first category. For me, I need lots of doing. I find analysing leads to over-analysing. I prefer to dive in and make a lot of mistakes. I think these things change depending on age too. Children dive in by default but teenagers and adults are more likely to prefer analysis. There was a method of second language learning popular a few decades ago that was immersion based with almost no grammar. I don’t think the results were very good for adults.

    Daniel – that’s a good point. I’ve experimented with meditation and had a bit of success but it never clicked for me. I’ve found, strangely enough, that with repetitive manual labor jobs you can easily get into a meditative state. I suspect that’s why a lot of people like knitting and similar handcrafts.

  4. Irena:

    You can still learn to draw. I have no visualisation at all (full aphantasia) but after some dedicated effort (greatly aided by Edwards’ book) I can draw competently – not from memory of course but live is perfectly fine. A few of her exercises obviously don’t make sense (draw a well known person from memory for example) but the method of learning to see directly and translate that onto paper does not require visualisation ability.

  5. Simon,

    Your post reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness, I am curious if you read it?

    It tells the story of a European sailor who travels on a boat up the Congo River. At first, he encounters atrocities against the African population, but he and the rest of the Europeans do not seem to mind, because they use stories and language they brought from Europe to make sense of the situation, as if they use their idea of Africa and exploration rather than their actual experience.

    But as the story progresses, the main character loses faith in this story, and his entire way of making sense of the world collapses, to the point where by the end of the novela, the events no longer form a logical and coherent story, but the reader’s intuition fills the gaps.

    I think one way of viewing this story is that it takes place at first in the narrator’s left brain, but then gradually switches to his right brain.

  6. Bakbook – Interesting. I read Heart of Darkness in high school English class. Don’t remember a lot about it but it’s been on my list of books to (re-)read. I’ve been pondering whether “existential crises” like the protagonist of that book are forms of integration between left and right brain. Two of the most of obvious ones that happen in life are the teenage years and the midlife crisis. Both seem to me to involve the left brain’s rationalising tendencies breaking down and the need for the right brain to “reintegrate” to a higher plane of consciousness. I’m also thinking that we are at that point as a society right now. The old rationalisations are breaking down before our eyes and what’s needed is a reintegration from the right brain.

  7. Hi Simon,

    Fascinating, and thanks for explaining the differences. It reminded me that many years ago I had a bit of a shock when reading Bill Gammage’s book: The Biggest Estate on Earth. So as you do, I was happily reading the text and thinking to myself that it all made perfect sense. The book also included many lovely very early Australian paintings depicting the general landscape at the time. Having a certain strong interest in that topic for obvious reasons, I took a very close look at the early paintings. At first my mind screamed at me that the trees were depicted incorrectly by the early settlers. In fact my brain suggested that they’d naively painted a version of a tree, and that’s when it hit me hard – it was my minds perspective in that matter that was incorrect. The early settlers had indeed depicted the world that they encountered and the trees were depicted accurately. It was a rather rude shock… 🙂

    And yes, here we are today…

    Incidentally I’ve long since used the zoning out and being in the moment and focusing only on what is in front of me when doing work around the farm. It’s actually a more relaxed way of thinking. My day job actually requires too much of one specific form of thinking in order to undertake those work tasks. Professions can perform subtle changes upon a personality if one is not careful. Thus my desire to only do that work part time and then surround myself with beauty the other part of the week and then create upon the land itself. I have an inkling that many folks do not know what they are missing out on.

    Cheers

    Chris

  8. Chris – what was so weird about the trees depicted in the book? You’re right about the need to balance out one’s work. I suppose that’s another way in which our society has become Left-Brained. Everybody works and most jobs require L-mode with almost no R-mode by default. If people switched into R-mode at work they’d probably quit 🙂

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