Left brain – right brain: In therapy

In my previous post I outlined some of the key differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain and touched on what that might mean for psychotherapy. I’ll now delve a little deeper into that mystery.

While my previous post was based on well established neuroscience, some of what follows is more speculative. That said, it’s all grounded in current scientific understanding.

As I explained last time, part of the role of the right brain is to keep us alert to danger. The right hemisphere is specialized for wide-angle sensory awareness that’s good for scanning for threats: We might say that the right brain is naturally suspicious. Perhaps it’s no surprise that research has found a correlation between depression, anxiety and increased activity in the right hemisphere. A lot of that activity is in the frontal lobe, a region concerned with reward, attention, planning, and motivation. There’s also a high level of right hemisphere activation in PTSD and when childhood abused adults recall unpleasant memories. Another strand of research suggests that PTSD is linked to poor communication between the hemispheres (Cozolino, 2017).

How might therapy help balance and integrate the two hemispheres? When I work with clients, I’m constantly monitoring several channels of communication. The most obvious strand to watch for is the difference what is said and the way it’s said. The structure of language, the way sentences are strung together, is largely a left brain activity, but our tone of voice is more involved with right brain processes. Body language and facial expressions are also more under right brain control. If, or rather, when, there’s some inconsistency between the simple content of what’s said and the wider context, I’ll need to make a judgement call. Suppose a client says “I’m fine about that”, but their facial expression, body language or tone say ‘I’m really not OK”. I might decide to reflect that back to them: It’s as if I’m acting as a mediator between the right and left hemispheres.

Peter Afford suggests that Experiential Focusing – the foundation of my therapeutic approach – may work by promoting the integration of the left and right hemispheres (Afford, 2014). Focusing invites us to drop our awareness into our physical bodies and check for a ‘felt sense’, a feeling in the body that carries meaning. We then sit with any felt senses that arise and gradually begin to engage with them through language. A felt sense is often just a vague sensation at first and I’ll be curious about where it is in my body, its size and shape, and whether it has a colour or a particular emotional tone. I’m initiating a dialogue between an emotional, bodily sensation, which are right brain processes, and the more left brain activities of labelling and seeking details. The next stage is to deepen that dialogue, literally asking the felt sense what it’s about. The linguistic right hemisphere is engaging in dialogue with the more embodied left.

I’ve been watching the therapeutic process over the last few months and I think I’m seeing lots of occasions where I’m helping my client with some left/right brain integration. I’m not saying this explains how therapy works; there are many parallel processes going on all the time, many of which we may currently be oblivious to. However, I believe the work of balancing and integrating the left and right hemispheres is a key part of therapy and having a greater awareness of how that might happen can enhance therapeutic practice.

Left brain – right brain: Beyond the myth

Back in the 70’s there was a lot of pop-science chatter about the left and right brain hemispheres. Right brained people, it claimed are creative, while left brained types are analytical. Pretty cool, huh? Cool, but inaccurate and misleading. We now know much more, and the research reveals something much more exciting!

While most systems are integrated across both brain hemispheres there are real differences between the two, but it’s not simply “emotion on the right, reason on the left”. When we talk about the right/left lateralization of the brain, we’re saying that some functions are carried out in one hemisphere more than the other; it’s about specialization. While there are differences between right handed, left handed and ambidextrous people, in general the specialization is as I describe it below.

Areas of the right hemisphere are specialized to deal with aspects of the physical and emotional self. Strong emotions like anxiety and terror activate the right brain. The right hemisphere has many more connections to the emotional heart of the brain, the limbic system. It’s also more connected to the rest of the body, notably the viscera – your gut.

The left hemisphere is specialized in organizing the conscious linguistic self. It’s better at problem solving and is inclined towards positive emotions. The left brain is the more social of the two halves: It’s engaged when someone approaches you and also when you’re angry with someone. The left brain thinks in a linear, sequential way and has less of a connection with the rest of the body than the right brain.

Graphic of the brain

We all have an instinctive ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response to danger, and the right brain is tied into that. Because it processes information in a holistic way, the right brain quickly gets the big picture, and it’s always checking; is that picture safe or possibly dangerous? Perhaps because we’re wired to look for danger, the right hemisphere is more concerned with negative emotions. When you look at a distressing image, the right hemisphere is activated and depression seems to be linked with increased right brain activity. Many right brain specializations are concerned with things outside our immediate awareness, so we can think of it as the home of the unconscious mind. As Louis Cozolino explains:

“When we are awake, the right hemisphere silently provides information to the left, which we experience as intuition, feelings, and visual images” (Cozolino, 2017).

Both halves of the brain have a vital role to play, and mental wellbeing requires a balance and integration between the two. All this has profound implications for psychotherapy. Anxiety, depression and psychosis have all been linked to poor integration between the left and right brain, so does therapy help integration? The short answer is yes, but a more thoughtful discussion will follow in my next blog post.

Wired to survive?

According to evolutionary neuroscience we’re not wired to be happy or content but simply to survive. It’s a new science, so such judgements are subject to review, but it certainly seems that our bodymind system easily becomes dysfunctional in modern industrial societies.

Paul Gilbert is a clinical psychologist and developed a new therapeutic approach called ‘compassion focused therapy’ (CFT). Paul has identified three basic bodymind systems; one is focused on potential threats, another on finding resources, and the third on calm contentment & soothing. When the threat system is active our attention becomes like velcro for danger signs and teflon non-stick for anything positive: If you’re on alert for wolves then the fact that the moon looks fabulous is pretty irrelevant! Short-term that’s fine and once danger has passed we naturally shift to either the search and reward mode or the calm contentment system. As long as there’s a cycle between these three systems, we’re fine.

Adapted from Gilbert, 2019

Because the threat system has survival value it can override the other two and it’s activated whenever there’s a perceived danger. The threat system works on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis so will trigger whenever we feel that a situation isn’t safe. Many people live in situations which don’t feel safe; low income, precarious or stressful work, discrimination, difficult relationships or just keeping abreast of the news. That means that the threat system is often over-active and many people don’t spend enough time in the regenerative contentment & soothing system.

Compassion focused therapy draws heavily on mindfulness to help people learn to rebalance themselves. By becoming mindful of when we’re stuck in the anxiety provoking threat system, we can learn to shift into calm contentment. Self compassion is hugely helpful in this, and though we all have compassion, we may not practice it much. In our culture it can be seen as a sign of weakness or a distraction from the busyness of our lives. But in fact compassion is a form of courage that inspires us to act. With practice we can develop more compassion for ourselves and others, healing within and making the world a better place in the process.

It’s worth noting that mindfulness is the key strategy in CFT. Mindfulness, like so many of the other approaches to alleviating mental distress, is an embodied pathway of connection. If we really are wired to survive, perhaps early humans developed the embodied pathways of connection as a route to a deeper thriving? Practices like mindfulness, ritual, dance, psychedelics and the deliberate use of trance emerged early in human evolution. These same practices are retained by many indigenous groups and have therapeutic value for them. The same is true for all of us: These ancient healing practices can take us beyond mere survival mode to a vibrant, joyful existence.

‘Sacred Ecology’ Revisited

Over a quarter of a century ago I presented a paper called ‘Sacred Ecology’ at a Newcastle University conference (1994), and it’s still my most widely read article. Should I be dismayed that I haven’t come up with anything more popular or pleased that it’s remained relevant?

Sacred Ecology was published in 1996 (Harvey and Hardman) and has been republished several times since, both in books and on the internet. When ‘Humanistic Paganism’ re-posted Sacred Ecology in 2015 I added a short introduction to put it into context. I commented that my emphasis on ritual missed something: “While ritual can be very powerful, there are many ways to access the wisdom of the body and some – like Focusing – are arguably more reliable”. Five years on, I’m increasingly curious about a whole range of embodied pathways to the wisdom of the body and what fundamental principles might underpin them. I’ve already discussed several of these pathways in this blog: Focusing, mindfulness and the wilderness effect, but there are many more.

St. Catherine’s Hill
St. Catherine’s Hill

Since writing Sacred Ecology I’ve gained a better understanding of ritual. Back in the ‘90’s I was heavily involved with Paganism. While that gave me a profound personal experience of the power of ritual, it was in a very specific context. I’ve since explored ritual in other contexts, notably ecopsychology and dance therapy.

Ritual is fundamental to the practical ecopsychology of Bill Plotkin and Joanna Macy. While Plotkin has a more Pagan orientation, Macy’s ‘Work that Reconnects’ is grounded in Buddhism. Both are valuable and widely influential.

Psychotherapy can be a kind of ritual: I’ve argued elsewhere that ritual theory can help us understand the healing process in outdoor therapy (Harris, 2014) and that’s probably true of psychotherapy in general. Moreover, ritual is used explicitly in Family Therapy (Hecker & Schindler), dramatherapy and the dance therapy developed by Anna and Daria Halprin.

Does all this shed light on why Sacred Ecology is still relevant? I wrote Sacred Ecology to illustrate the importance of EcoPagan ritual, but if that’s all it was about I doubt that anyone would bother to read it today. Sacred Ecology hints at something more fundamental: A profound re-connection with the other-than-human revealed thorough the wisdom of the body.

Five steps to mental wellbeing

As I was walking home one evening I saw a card lying in the street. I picked it up and realized what it was; the five steps to wellbeing developed by the New Economics Foundation (NEF). This little card is a brilliant reminder of the 5 steps so I now make sure I see it everyday.

The Five Steps to Wellbeing

The five steps are simple and powerful.

Connect – I’ve often written about the importance of connection; in fact I think it may be the most fundamental source of wellbeing. The NEF research concurs: Having less than four close relatives or friends puts you at high risk of future mental health problems. On the other hand, wide social networks “promote a sense of belonging and well-being” (NEF).

Try to connect with the people around you:

  • Talk to someone instead of sending an email or text;
  • speak to someone your don’t know yet;
  • don’t just ask how someone’s weekend was; really listen when they reply.

Be active – In Exeter, there’s no excuse! Walking, cycling, kayaking, climbing, swimming, football or, of course, rugby! You don’t have to take on anything too demanding; just find an activity you enjoy and make it part of your life. I often recommend physical exercise for clients who are experiencing depression: Exercise can boost your endorphins and moderate aerobic exercise can help with emotional regulation (Bernstein & McNally, 2017).

So why not go for a walk, try a sport, take up yoga or maybe tai chi? If you walk to a colleague’s desk instead emailing them, you get a bonus social connection!

Take notice – Research shows that paying attention to your immediate experience and ‘savouring the moment’ enhances wellbeing. It can also deepen self-understanding, thus helping you to assess and reaffirm your priorities. Taking notice is related to mindfulness which has been shown to promote positive mental states and facilitate emotional self-regulation.

  • Cultivate your curiosity; look out for the unusual.
  • Notice the changing seasons.
  • Just pause to notice your sensory experience: Really be with this moment.
  • Remember to check in with your self: How are you feeling right now?

Keep learning – lifelong learning promotes optimism, enhances self-esteem and improves overall life satisfaction. Learning new skills also encourages social connection and is associated with a more active life. Why not join a class, a book club or learn to play an instrument?

Give – Remember the injunction to “practice random kindness”? It seems the Hippies were onto something! Evidence from a range of sources suggest that giving promotes wellbeing. It doesn’t need to be much: Research found that just one act of kindness a week boosts wellbeing. A simple smile or a kind word can count. Start small and maybe you’ll be encouraged to do more, like volunteering for a local community project.

While the NEF research notes the importance of contact with the natural world for wellbeing., they don’t highlight it. I think they’ve missed a crucal step there as these five steps work beautifully in nature. You could easily weave all five steps into a bird watching walk with friends, volunteering for a local conservation group or helping out a neighbour with their gardening!

Nature and the therapeutic relationship

I completed my Masters dissertation back in 2014, so it was interesting to re-work it into a journal article several years later. My question was whether working in a natural environment had an impact on the therapeutic relationship. It does, of course, but how?

The existing literature noted seven key themes:

  • 3-way relationship;
  • Nature and the therapeutic process;
  • Symbolism, metaphor and synchronicity;
  • Power;
  • Self/other, inside/outside;
  • Nature and the therapeutic process;
  • Boundaries and containers.

I found all of those in my research, as well as two completely new themes; the turning point and transference. The term ‘transference’ comes from Freud and it describes the phenomena of ‘transferring’ our feelings about someone in our past to a different person in the present. The person in the past is someone of deep importance to us, typically our father or mother. I’d guess we’ve all experienced that, even if we didn’t realize what was going on at the time! My research found something rather odd and potentially very significant: It’s possible to transfer strong feelings about some significant person in our past to a natural object or phenomena. A tree, for example, can come to represent someone’s father or stormy wild weather can powerfully evoke emotional echoes of a mother/son relationship. I wonder if this plays into the idea of ‘Mother Nature’?


There’s a key moment in therapy in nature, a turning point where the client and therapist pass a threshold and enter into a liminal space. I draw parallels with anthropological theory about rites of passage, which highlights the importance of that in-between space where the initiate is neither who they were nor who they are to become (Van Gennep). In a rite of passage there’s a midpoint of transition where, for example, the person is no longer a girl, but not yet a women. The anthropologist Victor Turner emphasized the importance of this central liminal phase where the ritual participants are “betwixt and between” (1967).
What has all that to do with therapy? Turner’s notion of liminal space seems to be closely related to what psychotherapist Donald Winnicott calls “transitional space”. Transitional space is “is an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute” (Winnicott, 1971). Is where therapeutic healing happens?

I’m ending this post with some big questions left open. No apologizes for that: I did the same in my dissertation! Sometimes the value of research comes from the questions it asks rather than the answers it claims to offer. I’ll end here with the same quote from Merleau-Ponty that concluded my dissertation:

“[t]he accomplished work is … not the work which exists in itself, like a thing, but the work which reaches the viewer and invites him to take up the gesture which created it” (1993).

The Wilderness Effect

Ecopsychologist Rob Greenway used to guide people on wilderness treks and after years of research concluded that “civilization is only four days deep” (Greenway, 1995). When people go on long treks in the wilderness they start out enthusiastic: They’re feeling excited and looking forward to the coming adventure. But after a couple of days of hard walking, most begin to get uncomfortable. It’s not just aching muscles that are the problem; people start to miss the familiar civilized world that they’re habituated to. “There’s no fricking phone signal out here!” “When do we get to have shower?” “Damn, it’s quiet …”

But something profound happens after about 72 hours of being in the wilderness. Rob found that almost everyone experienced “an increased sense of aliveness” and “feelings of expansion or reconnection”. Rob calls this phenomena “the wilderness effect” and it’s one of the best established theories in ecopsychology.

I was hugely excited when I first read about the wilderness effect. It seemed to offer a powerful way to reconnect people with nature, and maybe transform our relationship to the world. My excitement was short lived however. The effect Rob had observed happened on extended trips into the American wilderness, so there’s no way to bring it to the millions who yearn for it.

But years later I had an experience that opened my eyes to another possibility. I was living on a road protest site and while it was far from being pristine wilderness, life there slowly deepened my connection to nature. Could it be that something like the wilderness effect happens when we spend a lot of quality time in urban nature?

A camp fire in the woods
Life in the woods

The short answer is yes; ecopsychologists generally agree that “simply spending meaningful time communing with nature” is beneficial (Shaw, 2006) and the full-on wilderness effect is a difference of degree rather than a difference in kind. I’ve written about this in detail elsewhere and I’ll be developing these thoughts in later posts, but for now I’ll close with a quote from Jim Hindle. Jim lived amongst the trees at the Newbury protest site and beautifully describes how his awareness was transformed by that experience:

“I became accustomed to the sound of the wind in the trees at all times. It wasn’t a thing I necessarily listened to, but the silence that fell whenever I stepped inside a building was eerie and disquietening. … It was like being connected to a great river, the source of all life … and years of separation between us and the Land were falling away like an old skin”
(Hindle, 2006).

The Intuitive Therapist

If you’ve ever watched a filmed therapy session or heard Susie Orbach’s In Therapy, it might seem like there’s not much going on. The client says something and then the therapist says something. What you can’t sense, unless you’ve been there, is the deeper process going on throughout the session. As a therapist I want to be 100% present in the moment and sensitive to every nuance of our complex interaction. I also want to be aware of everything the client has ever said to me, how they might be feeling and how I’m feeling. I need to consider if, based on half a dozen theories of therapy, there’s any pattern in all that. If there is a significant pattern, I need to decide when and how to say so.

When I was training to be a therapist I despaired of ever being able to process all that and stay present with the client. I was so busy thinking about what they’d just said that I kept missing something crucial! It seemed impossibly hard. And I was right; trying to consciously think through the complexity and depth of therapy is impossible.

Most of the vast bulk of Uluru lies below ground

I’d assumed that I had to think everything through consciously, but actually about 95% of our cognitive processing happens in the other than conscious mind (Thrift, 2000). I talk about this a lot in my PhD thesis on embodied knowing, but it took me a while to appreciate how this happens in therapy. In therapy – and in everyday life – my “body senses the whole situation” (Gendlin, 1992). The wisdom of the body draws on sensory perceptions, emotions, memories, past experience and much more to decide what to do next. It’s a massive understatement to say that “your body knows much that you don’t know” (Gendlin, 1981).

Malcolm Gladwell talks about this “power of thinking without thinking” in Blink (2005). The book is full of wonderful stories about people who know intuitively what’s going on in very complex situations. There’s the art expert who can unerringly sense a fake but can’t tell you how, and a fire chief who’s gut feeling saved his entire crew from disaster. In each case the ability to correctly intuit what to do emerges from a powerful embodied knowing that’s been developed through training and experience.

In a typical therapy session I’m not constantly pondering what the client had just said: My focus is on staying present. Meanwhile my embodied mind – which has a huge range of input and a vast capacity to process that input – does the work. Drawing on this embodied wisdom is the essence of Focusing Orientated Therapy.

Pinakarri: Aboriginal deep listening

‘White Fella Dreaming’ writes about Pinakarri, a practice from the Aboriginal Mandjilidjara Mardu people of Western Australia. Pinakarri literally means “ears standing up” and is usually translated as ‘deep listening’, a listening with the whole bodymind. It struck me because of the similarities with practices I’m familiar with from ecopsychology, spirituality and therapy.

This is a slightly edited version of the guide to Pinakarri from White Fella Dreaming:

  1. Sit quietly and sense where your body connects with whatever is supporting you right now; the ground, chair or cushion.
  2. Feel the weight of your body and notice how the earth supports it. No matter what you are sitting in, it is made of earth in one way or the other. The gravity that holds you there was created with the beginning of the Universe.
  3. Become aware of your breath. Listen to the difference between the in breath and the out breath. This is how the Universe sounds when it sings through your body.
  4. Become aware of the slight difference in temperature between the in and out breaths. This difference is what you give to the act of breathing. The heat involved in that change comes from the Sun. It is warming up life through your body and you are a channel for this process. You embody the energy of the Sun. You are completely unique and absolutely universal at the same time.
  5. Now listen to the beat of your heart. This began in the womb and stays with you until death. It beats out a particular rhythm and sound.
  6. Find the first point of tension you become aware of. Breathe into that spot and consciously relax it with the power of the Sun and the universal energy you are now aware of. Breathe out the tension.

While much of that sounds like Buddhist breathing meditation, several elements recall a Western Pagan earthing ritual (Starhawk, 2004) and other aspects echo the practice of ‘grounding into being here’ from Whole Body Focusing. All of it sits beautifully within certain strands of ecopsychology (e.g. Bill Plotkin and David Abram). Have these approaches appropriated Aboriginal practice? I very much doubt it. Although there has been a lot of influence on Western Paganism and ecopsychology from indigenous wisdom, I think it’s likely that people across the planet have learnt this kind of deep listening simply by virtue of being embodied and aware.

It’s not what you know …

… it’s the way that you know it. I sometimes have a name ‘on the tip of my tongue’. I’m sure you know that odd feeling; you both know and don’t know at the same time. We make sense of these experiences by talking about an unconscious knowing that we can’t always bring into full awareness.

But there’s a curious flip side to this: You can ‘know’ something consciously without really ‘getting it’ at a deeper level. My therapy clients will sometimes comes to a realization – an ‘Ah ha!’ moment – when they grasp something in a new way. “I knew that already, in my head, but now”, they add with a touch to the heart or stomach, “I know it here”. The difference is profound.

I first wrote about this 25 years ago in Sacred Ecology:

“Besides the cerebral knowledge we all possess, the words & ideas stored in our heads, there is a deeper knowledge held within the tissue of our bodies. It is a somatic, physical knowing which comes from direct experience. This is the knowledge of faith, of emotion, of the gut feeling”.

I later discovered that I was describing embodied knowing and went on to do a PhD on the subject (Harris, 2008).

Diagram of cognitive iceberg
Conscious knowing is just the tip of the iceberg

Embodied knowing is fundamental to my work as a therapist. In many cases a client knows exactly what’s needed, but doesn’t have conscious access to that knowledge. At other times someone will know something consciously, but lack an embodied grasp of it. The therapist is rarely – if ever – the expert. Our role is facilitating the client’s journey of growth and self discovery, which typically involves integrating their embodied knowing.

There’s another vital aspect to this which takes me back to where I started. In Sacred Ecology I wrote that we need to understand our deep relationship with the other-than-human world at the level of embodied knowing. Unless you’re avoiding the news, you’ll know, in your head at least, that there’s a climate crisis. The facts are clear and have been for years, but nothing much gets done. Action on climate change is characterized by denial and broken promises and time is running out: We may have less than 18 months to avoid catastrophic change. But unless we get that at a gut level, really feel what it means, we’ll remain in what Zion Lights calls ‘passive denial’. You may know the facts about climate crisis but, painful though it is, you have to experience the reality in your body. That wisdom of the body is like taking the red pill; there’s no going back.

When I wrote Sacred Ecology I believed that myth & ritual offered the best route to the wisdom of the body. I’ve since recognized that there are many pathways to embodied connection. These include practices that are already advocated, like mindfulness and nature connection. We need to focus in on these pathways and learn how to use them more effectively. This is embodied ecology and may be our best hope for a future.