I’ve noticed something quite odd, over the past few months…
I don’t seem to be nearly as aware of my left side as my right — to the point of outright ignoring what’s going on on the left side, at times.
I know my left side is there — my left hand, arm, shoulder… my left foot, knee, leg… the left side of my face, too. But when I focus on my body or I think about using my hands or legs (both sides), my attention immediately goes to my right side. Almost to the exclusion of my left.
I first noticed this when I was doing one of my body scan breathing meditations a few months back. I was doing progressive relaxation, trying to get to sleep, and I was focusing on my body, one part at a time. First toes… then feet… then ankles… then shins… then knees… and so on. I really focused on my body, as my attention moved from one part to the next. But when I got to around my knees, I realized I hadn’t been paying any attention to my left side.
I didn’t think much of it at first, but as I’ve repeatedly done exercises which require focus on left-side action, I’ve noticed a significant challenge in perceiving what’s going on there.
Strange. I’ve frequently tried to focus on my left side, along with my right, since I first noticed this. But it hasn’t been working. My left side feels like just a shadow of what my right side felt like. Where my right side feels like it’s at about 95% of being “present”, my left side feels more like 65%. Really strange. And a little disconcerting.
I’ve read about people who have sustained strokes or other brain injuries, and how they can be completely oblivious to one side – they neglect it or don’t sense it, but the whole time they’re convinced that they have no problems — even when they fall over when they try to get out of their chair, and the side they’re oblivious to is paralyzed.
I’m not saying that’s what’s going on with me. Far from it. But there is a pronounced asymmetry to how I perceive and experience my body.
Which is odd, because when I was a kid and played baseball and soccer and other sports, my left side was sometimes my stronger side. I was a switch-hitter, and I batted better as a leftie. My left leg was the one I balanced on and did most of the fancy footwork with, when I played soccer. And I tended to change up sides when I was playing things like ping-pong and pool. I wanted to use my left side along with my right.
In retrospect, I think perhaps I sensed there was an inherent weakness to my left side, which I needed to compensate for and offset with deliberate training. Yeah – thinking back, I recall that I did spend a lot of time as a kid training my left side on purpose. I would “mirror write”, where I wrote with both hands, mirroring each other. I did balancing exercises, and I deliberately used my left side “for fun”. I didn’t do it because I was told to. I didn’t do it because I had to. I did it because it seemed like a fun challenge that I could test myself with, and it was really satisfying when I succeeded in doing things like writing with my left hand or balancing for a long time on one leg. A lot of time, nobody was watching (and if they had been, they might have questioned what I was doing and discouraged me), and the rewards were strictly internal. But they were rewards. And I do believe it helped me.
As a result of these exercises, I believed I actually improved my coordination and my balance. You have to understand — I was a very uncoordinated kid when I was little — I couldn’t even do somersaults, ’cause I’d fall over half-way through the roll). I truly sucked at games like kickball and dodgeball, because I couldn’t seem to kick the ball straight on or react quickly enough to dodge the balls thrown at me. (On a side note, could the teachers of the world please spare TBI kids from playing games that require quick reaction to keep from getting slammed? I’m not sure getting hit over and over again in dodgeball was particularly good for me. I’m not complaining, simply questioning.)
When I was off by myself, balancing and reading backwards and writing with both hands, I had the chance to set goals and challenges for myself that I could appreciate and I could reach on my own time. I didn’t have anyone standing over me saying, “You have to do this exactly this way or you are a failure!” I just set myself a fun challenge that had no down-side or negative consequence if I didn’t reach it right away, and then I tried to do it. I had a hard time at the start, but eventually, I did it.
I did things with my left side that I could do with my right. I became a switch-hitter. I developed a “smart” left hand that could handle a baseball glove with sensitive dexterity. And I could write whole sentences backwards with my left hand. Cool!
I believe this left-side-focus practice of mine played a role in rehabilitating me (slowly but surely) from the TBIs I experienced as a kid (at ages 4, 7, 8, and possibly some other ages in there, too). Something in me instinctively knew I needed to strengthen my left side. I needed to focus specifically on it. And there were benefits, even if only I could fully appreciate them.
And now it looks like I need to go back to doing that. Because I’m not nearly as aware of my left side as I’d like to be. Maybe it’s the constant right-side focus, especially thanks to my using a mouse on the right side of the computer. Or maybe it’s because I tend to watch the right side of the road when I drive (is that a cause, or a symptom, though? maybe both).
Whatever the cause, whatever the reason, this right-side dominance and left-side oblivion bothers me. When I try to focus on my left side, and I can barely feel it, let alone sense the same “presence” in it that I sense on my right side, I feel like only half a person.
I don’t like that very much. I need to do something about it.
Fortunately, I think I’ve found some really good ways to go about doing this. I’ve been checking out the blog The Best Brain, and I’m finding some really good tips there. (Thank you Debbie, for keeping your blog – I can’t believe I haven’t found you before. Good stuff you’ve got there.) Anyway, one of the things that caught my attention is the concept of cross lateral movement. I wish I could find that page again where she talks about crawling as a way of building up coordination of the two sides of the body — it apparently helps the hippocampus, which lets us learn, and also coordinates different sides of the body.
I’m always interested in learning how to use body and mind to heal the brain, so I Googled “cross lateral movement” and I found this information:
Cross Patterning: A Jump Start to Brain/Body Integration
This Cross Patterning technique from One Brain is simple to learn and activates (in some cases re-establishes) communication between the two brain hemispheres and the whole body. It works by stimulating the brain to shift between integrated (both sides) processing, using a cross lateral (two-sided) march, and parallel (one-sided) processing using a uni-lateral (one sided) march. Use it whenever it’s hard to “do” and ”think” at the same time.
Each brain hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body. So by intentionally moving an opposite arm and leg across the midfield, we fire off both brain hemispheres at the same time, creating and myelinating better neural connections over the corpus callosum. This cross lateral movement stimulates the whole brain––the vestibular (balance) system, the reticular activating system (the brain’s wake-up call!), the cerebellum (automatic movement), the basal ganglion (intentional movement), the limbic system (emotional balance), and the frontal lobes (reasoning). As already mentioned, slow cross lateral movement also increases dopamine levels in the brain (enhancing our ability to see patterns and to learn faster).
When we then switch to a same side arm and leg movement, we deepen the neural netting that assures our ability to quickly shift with ease and full access, to each individual hemisphere as needed. The intent is never to be “stuck” in any one pattern of brain communication. Multiple connections and instant flexibility are the key!
And that’s very cool. I’m still studying the image, to see if I understand how it works, but I think I get the basic premise — use movement of alternate sides of the body to coordinate the various actions of the brain.
While this info was from a web site for kids learning, the concept strikes me as very powerful for TBI survivors — all of the above parts of the brain — the vestibular (balance) system, the reticular activating system (the brain’s wake-up call!), the cerebellum (automatic movement), the basal ganglion (intentional movement), the limbic system (emotional balance), and the frontal lobes (reasoning) — have been impacted to some extent by my TBIs, and any exercise or practice that strengthens them simultaneously has the potential to dramatically improve my performance and recovery.
Strengthening the vestibular system is key — it helps me balance better, so I run less risk of falling again, which is a very significant concern for me. I’ve sustained at least 9 concussions in the course of my life, each one wreaking progressively more havoc than the last.
Boosting my reticular activating system is also key, so I can wake up better. Being foggy and dull just plain sucks. It’s no way to live, but until I started exercising regularly, I’d been living just that way for years and years, relying on caffeine and cheap carbs and drama to keep me going. That’s no way to live. Why not strengthen my “wake up call” system instead?
Intentional movement is something I can’t live without. Literally. Emotional balance and reasoning, too. These are aspects which have given me (and those I live and work with) very real hassles over the years. Oh, God, I can’t even begin to tell you how much havoc they’ve wreaked in my life. To the point of outright disability. It sucked to no end, and finding ways of addressing those aspects of my experience and behavior has been key to my overall recovery.
Looking at this web page showing the cross lateral movement, I’m struck with how I’ve actually been instinctively doing these sorts of exercises, over the past three months or so. I do “shoveling” exercises I saw on an exercise video — in a squat, hold your weight(s) down to one side, then as you rise up from the squat, move the weights up and across your body (straight-armed) to the other side, kind of like you’re shoveling dirt. The movement should be slow and controlled, from what I gather — at least in part because you don’t want to pull something. The main thing is the movement.
Another cross lateral movement I’ve been doing for almost a year is alternating leg-left crunches. I stand straight with my legs shoulder-length apart, and I lift up my left knee towards my right side, as I crunch down with my right arms and shoulder to my left side. It’s like I’m making an “X” with my arms and legs, with my left knee and my right elbow moving past each other. I usually have my arm tucked closer to my body, so my left knee crosses in front of my right elbow. When I’ve completed the movement and brought my right arm back to my right side and my left leg back to my left side, I switch and have my right leg and left arm cross over my body.
It does get a little disorienting at times, and sometimes I have to stop and think about what I’m doing — I lose track of which side is doing which. But nobody’s watching, there’s no consequence to me losing my place, and I just stop, collect myself, and continue. Not only is this good for coordinating both sides of the brain/body, but it’s also good for your lower abdomen and your obliques. It’s a good core exercise, and it’s also good for balance, which as I mentioned is very important to me.
The main thing with these exercises for me, is making sure my movements are slow and controlled. Especially if I’m holding dumbbells, I run the risk of pulling something, which is about the last thing I need. Slow, controlled movements help me work on my impulse control, and they foster mindfulness on an increasing level I need. I can come up with a hundred different reasons to rush my “x-crunches” as I call them. But the point of doing them slowly and controlled — to foster impulse control, executive control, and mindful attention to what I’m doing — trumps them every time.
So, I have these ways of strengthening my cross lateral movements, which helps my brain connections in many ways. That’s great. Now I need to specifically strengthen my left side, so I can not only use it better, but actually feel it and have a working relationship with it. It’s no good for me to just favor one side of my body — or just one side of any part of my complex life. I want to experience all of me, not just half.
I’m a whole person. I need to have the whole of me engaged in what I do. And I don’t want this left-side neglectfulness to get entrenched in my life. I’ve got a lot of years to go, and if I let this pattern get too set, I don’t see good things coming of it. Now is the time to fix this, while I’m aware of it, before it takes over my life.
So I guess it’s time to go back to the discrete little games that I play by myself to ensure that all of me is involved in my life. There are many, many things I can do to strengthen the pathways of my brain that relate to my left side, so I’ll do them. The main thing is to have some fun with it, not treat it like some sort of obligatory therapy drudgery that’s required to avert disaster — or else. Where’s the fun in that?
Come on, left side – time to get (back) in the game.