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Devotion: Left Brain vs. Right Brain

This devotion comes from Sara Langworthy, a soprano in the National Lutheran Choir. Sara shared this devotion prior to the choir's first tour performance on February 18, 2016 in Mequon, WI. In this somewhat "scientific" devotion, Sara describes what it physically and mentally takes to sing and, in doing so, how meaningful connections are made across time and space. 

It’s come time for me to debunk a myth about the human brain…again. You didn’t know you were coming to a neuroanatomy lecture today, but, as we’re on a college campus, it seems appropriate.

I’m sorry to shatter your illusions, but the whole right brain vs left brain distinction? IT IS NOT A THING.

There’s no hard science behind the claims that people who tend to be more analytical and logical are “left brained” and those who are more artistic and emotional are “right brained.” This misnomer is an artifact of overly simplistic reductionism of brain science from 20 plus years ago.

I’ll admit there is SOME truth to the idea that certain areas of your left side of your brain are involved in processing different kinds of information than those same areas in your right side of your brain. And sure, the left brain vs right brain distinction is an understandable idiom that can get a point across.

But the overemphasis on localizing character traits or skills to particular parts of the brain minimizes what our brains, and consequently we as humans, are really capable of.

Even more problematic, it ignores an undeniable and ubiquitous truth about human existence – that connection is what makes life possible.

In more recent years, neuroscientists have begun to more fully understand that though there are specific parts of our brains that process certain types of information, that it is the intricate network of connections between neurons across areas of the brain that make it possible for us to do the whole “being a human” thing.

It’s the cohesive networks of individual neurons seeking connections with each other that make it possible for us to live and breathe and yes, sing.

Let’s just think about singing for a minute. If you were to reduce it to some of its essential elements, it’s astonishing to think about what your brain has to do to make singing happen – and especially singing in a choir. At a basic level, you need the ability to: 1) hear harmonies and complex tonal shifts, 2) control the movement of your body and vocal chords, 3) breathe deeply to support your tone, 4) see the music and the conductor.

Then you’ve got the more complex cognitive processes like 1) the attention required to stay right with the conductor, 2) the memory of what section comes next, 3) the self control to stand there for an hour and half without moving too much, 4) not to mention the complex task of reading music, and reproducing what’s written on the page into a very specific vibration of vocal chords that’s agreed upon (ideally) by everyone else around you.

The act of singing requires diverse and complex networks of unique systems across your brain working together efficiently and fluidly to create the music we make together.

When you think about it like that, it’s nothing short of incredible.  A true gift from God.

Sometimes people in my professional circles are confused about how I can be both a scientist AND a Christian. But honestly, the more I learn about the human brain, and how we as people grow and change and interact with the world and the people around us, the more I see God in everything. To me, science and faith are not at odds with one another. They enrich each other. Studying one enables me to more fully understand and appreciate the other.

Recently one of the readings at church was first Corinthians chapter 12 (I think). It’s the passage about the members of the body of Christ and how each is necessary and no less important than the others to make the whole body function. Paul was on to something more deeply true than he probably realized. Within the relationships we have with each other, the complex networks of neurons in our brains, and even in the molecular bonds of the chemicals in our cells; it’s connection that makes life possible.

We’re experiencing the value of connection now as we are on tour together. We’re forming new bonds, making new memories, growing and deepening our NLC family.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that singing together both requires and creates connection.

In this program, we connect to members of the body of Christ through common experiences of those emotions we’ve heard about before from Kate and Tim in previous devotions: joy, fear, anger, sadness, disgust…These psalms and spirituals evoke all of those emotions, and connect us across time and space with those who have come before.

They also make a promise of hope; of indefatigable love. A promise of a deep, enduring, unfailing connection with the One who loves us best.

These psalms and spirituals we sing reflect a quintessential truth of science: without connection, we are nothing.

But through our music making together, we create a connection with each other and with our audience that speaks a truth deeper than science could ever measure.

Please pray with me:

Now as evening falls around us

We shall raise our songs to you,

God of daybreak, God of shadows,

Come and light our hearts anew.   ~ Marty Haugen

Amen.