As you probably know, Japanese is a logographic language, which means that it maps single characters into a meaningful unit. It’s this consolidation and compactness that makes it popular among people getting tattoos—you can pack a lot of meaning into a small space! So although a direct translation is not possible, the word ikigai (pronounced [icky-guy]) is best described as what makes life worth living. It’s something that motivates you, drives you, and gives you purpose and joy.
There was a study that started in 1994 in Japan, asking people if they had an ikigai; it included a little over 40,000 people, from ages 40 to 80. After seven years, 95% of the people with an ikigai were still living, versus only 83% who were without an ikigai. Think about this: because people had a reason to wake up, they did—12% more often. The leading cause of death? Heart disease. Hypertension (a pre-cursor to strokes). You might think that correcting for socioeconomic, or lifestyle, or habitual factors would somehow separate this data into something more than just ikigai. But it doesn’t. There is an entire field of study for this phenomena and it’s positive psychology. It’s a real hot topic for popular science and authors alike, marrying self-help and scientific anecdotes into one.
For those of us who would have said “yes” to having an ikigai, we are still struck with some days, weeks, or even month-long stints of feeling lost. We are often asking how we have lost our ikigai, and what we can do to reclaim it.
“The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding.” -Leonardo da Vinci
To understand this better we have to inspect the brain; and in particular, the two hemispheres. Try folding your hands together, as if you were praying. Notice that the thumb of one hand, and pinky of the other are the outermost fingers. Now, fold your hands again, but switch the way which you folded them (so the pinky and thumb are now of the other hand). Feels odd, right? Try it with folding your arms. Now, try pointing at something with your right hand, then cover your left eye with your left hand. Are you still point at it? Try doing it the opposite way. These are lateral dominances, and they range from folding our hands, to writing, seeing, throwing, eating, brushing our teeth, using our phones, and twisting a screwdriver. This all has to do with the fact that the two hemispheres up there are different.
I am sure you are familiar with some of the common attributes given to “left-” and “right-brainers”. Left brainers love math, and right brainers are artsy. To talk with some depth about whether this is true, we have to look a bit deeper at the brain, and even though it may seem like a diversion from ikigai, we will certainly see that it all fits together.
The brain exhibits a physical breaking of symmetry, or asymmetry. This is seen both in “Yakovlevian Torque”, which shows a slight clockwise twist of the two hemispheres if viewed from the bottom-up, as well as unique morphologies of the outer layer (aka. the cerebral cortex).
The story of why is interesting. What we do know is that we were once less asymmetric; we are able to tell from fossilized endocasts that our brain has evolved into this more-lateralized structure. Most animals have highly symmetrical brains, unlike us, but asymmetry does seem to follow the primates and peak at our species. The primary biological reason for symmetric redundancy is so we have extras; we can continue to live without one hand, one foot, and even one hemisphere of our brain, but are usually unable to if both are inflicted.
For humans, there was a span of time about 1.5M years ago that contains the evidence for a good theory which explains the explosion of asymmetry in our cranium.We weren’t Homo sapiens yet, rather Homo habilis, or handy-man. Thats because we were using tools to hunt and build. Language was forming, and soon societies that would spawn cultures. Mothers stayed home, and men hunted. We were no longer adapting to our environment, but adapting it to ourselves. As this played out, it was becoming more important for us (in terms of survivability) to be specialists, rather than having redundant, copied body parts.
Jump to today and we have language centers, motor centers, places where objects are rendered, and where memories are stored. Let’s look at a few examples of how these lateralizations play out.
The outbreak of WWI sent many of the great European scientists to the United States and included within their fields of research was brain function and anatomy. Remember that during this time frontal lobotomy’s and electroconvulsive shock were ‘cutting edge’ (there was a Nobel Prize given for the lobotomy). It wasn’t until the 1960’s that anything having to do with asymmetry appeared and it was through a surgical procedure that would limit debilitating seizures for people suffering from epilepsy. It was called a commissurotomy and involved cutting the fiber tracts that run between each hemisphere. This essentially stopped seizures from spreading between the brain, and gave much relief to the patients. Unknown at the time was what effects it might have on consciousness and human processes (the procedure had only been trialed on monkeys).
There is a crossing of motor fibers in the medulla oblongata, just above the brainstem, called the pyramidal decussation (decussate means to cross, or form an X), which makes it so our left hemisphere controls the right side of our body, and the right hemisphere controls the left—we are said to have contralateral control. This is the rule for everything except for smell.
Once the procedure for the epileptic patients was complete, one of the first experiments was to take a bag full of random objects and ask the patient to blindly pick one with their right hand. Once the did, and placed it back into the bag, they were asked to use their left hand to retrieve the same object. They were not able to; it was a failure in cross-retrieval. If each hand got to select an object, then the objects were scattered onto a table, each hand would search for its object, paying no attention to the other hand’s object. Next, researchers blindfolded the patient, and had them place their hands out in front of their body. They manipulated one hand and gave it a unique posture—such as a closed fist—and then asked them to replicate that posture with there other hand. Again, this proved impossible; a failure in a symmetrical hand pose. The commissurotomy had created two brains (or minds?) that are not talking.
Next were the behavioral studies, which are far more interesting. The researchers devised a simple device to stimulate each side of the brain: two transparencies were projected to the right and left peripheral views of the patient with a shutter set to display them at 1/10s intervals. When the patient focused on the center of the device, this was quick enough where the image would only be registered by the corresponding half of the brain.
An image that was flashed twice to the same hemisphere was readily identified as a duplicate, however when flashed contralaterally, the patient could make no such mention and they considered it unique. Anything flashed to the right visual field could be spoken about, or written down. However, when flashed to the left visual field, the patient could only describe that a flash occurred on the screens, but nothing was shown. This in itself represents the existence of the language dichotomy and dominance hypothesized by 19th century physicians. When a nude picture was supplanted into otherwise random images displayed to the left visual field, the patient showed a “sneaky grin” and “perhaps a blushing,” yet when asked what they saw, the replied in similar fashion as before, that is was only a flash of light. When asked about their peculiar behavior and arousal, they said they had no idea what had come over them!
What followed was testing whether or not each hemisphere identified objects by appearance or function. When a cake was flashed to the right hemisphere, the patient would relate the stimuli to a hat. When flashed to the left hemisphere, the patient would relate it to a spoon and fork.
Over and over the right hemisphere proved to be making metaphorical and holistic relationships. The left hemisphere was concerned with function and categories. In one of the more famous cases (and in a similar experimental manner), a patient’s right brain was asked what he wanted as an occupation, with a response of “race car driver”, while the left brain said “architect”—seems to fit into the pattern.
“A scary dream makes your heart beat faster. Why doesn’t the part of your brain that controls your heart beat realize that another part of your brain is making the whole thing up? Don’t these people communicate?” -George Carlin
Of course 40 years of research on top of these results has brought up contention, alternative experiments, and other findings, but in principle these are hard to dispute.
Now that we have a basic idea of the left and right brain functioning, we come back to ikigai, and can expose it through a study on cerebral dominance of musicians and non-musicians. We can think about music—and lets stick with classical or symphonic music for now—in two ways. When we are listening in a casual manner, music is a grand melody; there is a flow, a canter, a mood. Alternatively, we could just think of it as a combined set of instruments, playing a set of notes. Given the previous discussion, you may find yourself already alluding to placing these interpretations to one or the other side of the brain. What the research reveals is that musically naive listeners (aka. non-professionals) will interpret music as a melody using their right hemisphere. However, professionals who have dedicated most of their life to practicing and playing music become more focused on the isolated tones, individual sequences, and even the notes when listening to music, using mainly their left hemisphere.
This is the key to our ikigai! Professionals break down the music because they have to; they have been trained to be aware of the nuances, and even the errors. They become a stickler to themselves. They can not see majesty of the forrest through the slightly-imperfect trees. An off-key note will ruin a performance for them just as bad as a misspelled word would ruin a novel for a grammaticist, or an awry brushstroke would ruin a painting for an artist. All the while, the naive listener is in mild euphoria allowing the music to tell a story. The professional looks back at the naive listener and sees a twinkle in their eye and a pose of serenity,wondering how on earth they could enjoy such mediocracy.
We are all naive at some point and I propose that we fall in love with our ikigai using primarily one hemisphere of our brain—just like naive musicians. For them, it starts in the right hemisphere, where we appreciate vistas of information coming together as a whole. But for others, it may be the individual elements of chemistry that call to the left brain, each with a distinct atomic weight and a plethora of properties. But one day that naive chemist is asked to build compounds, integrate those into atoms, and then describe how a world of atoms creates an organism, and how organisms create our world—and its here that the ikigai is lost, and the chemist wonders, what happened to my elements?!
I think this is the fundamental shift we all need to be careful of. When we find ourselves falling out of love, we need to remember the magic that inspired us in the first place. We need to, at least on occasion, revisit it with the naivety, the humility, and the ignorance we once had. The musician needs to play their heart out, sing some acapella, dance in the rain to something that speaks to their heart. The chemist needs to pin up a table of elements, quiz themselves on the properties, and balance a couple reactions, just to remind them that this is what it’s all about.
The real world is full of minutiae that impedes our sense of ikigai. It’s that paperwork, the Monday meetings, and unread emails that makes us question our purpose. Sometimes we can’t get away from it. But if our hearts are in it, if it is our true ikigai, we need to remember why and spend some time revisiting the hemisphere that brought us to it—because let’s face it, it may just save your life.
Learn more about Your Brain and Your Work in my upcoming book, Left. Find out more at http://gaidi.ca
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