Saturday, June 12, 2010

Your Side Less Favored

My grandson Logan had a stroke just before or during birth. It left him with little or no use of his right side. Over the past few years, my daughter Joy has helped Logan to recover the use of his right side, working with him and using various therapies. Recently, Iris and I spent a week sharing a big beach house in Myrtle Beach with Logan and Joy, as well as my other kids and their families, my dad, my uncle and his family. We spent a lot of time playing together and Logan, who's now almost three and doing great!

One of the challenges faced by Joy and others working with Logan was to get him to use his right hand. Not surprisingly, since his right hand was not functional, Logan favored his left. If you extended something towards his right hand, he would reach around with his left to take it. If you placed something in his right hand, he would snatch it away with his left. As an infant, you couldn't simply explain to Logan that he needed to use his right hand in order to recover its use. So, you had to get creative: playing games; occupying his left hand with something else that he really wanted so he had to either let go of the first object or use his right hand to get the second; and so on.

Logan also favored his left leg. When he got to the point where most children would be crawling, Logan would do this little maneuver where he would tuck his right leg under him and pull himself along using his left, almost as though his right leg were a skateboard.

Despite Logan's favoring his left, Joy persistently worked with him in using his right and Logan is doing really well. He walks, he runs, he jumps, he plays catch. It was a joy to see him using everything.

Training on Happiness
This morning, I was reading a book by Richard Layard called Happiness, Lessons from a New Science. Layard talks about the scientific evidence that we can indeed train our feelings, how we are not simply victims of our situations or our pasts. He suggests that we can directly address our 'bad' feelings and replace them with positive feelings and build upon them.

Layard goes on to say that all this requires developing a positive outlook and the sense of being in an internal positive space that is impervious to outside events. He qualifies this saying:
Easy words to say, but extremely difficult for most people, unless they have some kind of discipline to help.

Fortunately, such disciplines exist, as they do for playing the violin. If you want to be a top-class violinist, you have to practice for about ten thousand hours before the age of eighteen. You also have to study with a competent teacher. When you have done this, you have radically altered your brain, increasing the number neuronal connections between the relevant neurons.

Likewise, we can train ourselves in the skills of being happy.
I'm not sure I buy the specifics of Layard's requirements for playing the violin, but I absolutely buy into the fundamentals:
  1. if you want to do something, finding a solid discipline and a good instructor and then studying and practicing a lot is a great way to get there
  2. the approach fundamentally alters your brain making you someone else
  3. the above applies to being happy
I would go so far as to say that the above approach always works; to say that you've tried it and it didn't work would indicate that you hadn't actually pursued the approach. One or more of the key ingredients might have been missing: the discipline poorly founded, the teacher uninspired, or the time spent in focused practice limited.

Extinguishing the Discipline
Over the past few months our rehearsals with our band No Room for Jello have become more and more experimental. As we jam, I've started tossing out odd meters (5/4 and 7/4 and 13/8) without calling them out per se; I just start playing in 13/8 and let everyone come along for the ride.

It's interesting to watch how everyone responds. Everyone notices that something is different, that the one beat keeps moving around. Usually at least one of my band-mates will adopt an approach akin to stopping at the end of an entrance ramp to a highway crowded with rapidly moving cars; he will stop playing, gauging the traffic, looking for that spot where he can jump into the flow, gas, brake, gas, brake, gas, brake. Someone else will continue to play and I'll notice him mouthing one, two, three, four... as he tries to determine the meter. Someone else might just let go of the analysis and play, trusting that he'll get it.

All the above work and all the above don't work.

Last Wednesday, we stopped and talked a bit about how I seem to be able to just drop into an odd meter without thinking about it; it all comes quite naturally to me. As I started to explain it, I realized that it hadn't always been natural or easy. I'd been fortunate to go to music school at Berklee where the discipline was rock solid, the teachers exceptional. I'd also practiced eight hours a day.

The thing is that, having employed the discipline so ardently, I'd got to the point where I no longer needed the discipline. In the terms of popular psychology, I'd "rewired my brain" transforming something that didn't come naturally into something that did.

The Side You Favor
Now, I'm sure that the 1%-empty crowd will be able to point to cases where I'm wrong, but I believe that we can take anything that feels challenging and unnatural and transform it into something that comes easily and naturally. Find a solid discipline and a good teacher; study and practice. You can apply this to playing the piano, you can apply this to writing novels, you can apply this to being happy, you can apply this to being loving.

In many cases, the things that we want to do require us to use our unfavored sides and the first step requires us to actively limit our favored sides in favor of our unfavored sides. In many cases, the side that we favor may be so favored that the other seems non-existent. For example, you might favor eating so much, the vary idea that not eating can feel good would seem ludicrous. You might favor sleeping so much, the idea of feeling great with less sleep may seem absurd.

I'd love to conduct a little experiment where each of us picks something she really wants that requires her side less favored and then applies the approach outlined by Layard. It may require delving into the distant past to recall something that you've long given up on.

What would it be? Would you be up for giving it a go?

Happy Saturday,


  1. My first inclination was to say no, I do not have the time right now, but... I could learn to run. I already found a running club on mondays where I can practice techniq and a running partner on sundays, so all I have left is to schedule some training, and if some of the training could be done on the couch (you know how important mental training is for spor7) - well I'm in.
    I want to learn to run 10 k in 50 min, but first step is to run a fast 5 k.

  2. Joy, I really like running as a model for learning. I grew up never being good athletically speaking. I was always the last or next to last picked for sports teams in school.

    When I turned 30, I decided that I would really get in shape. I began running and biking every day. I go so that I could run ten miles in 59 minutes and bike 29 mile on my mountain bike in 60 minutes. Not super competitive, but way better than I'd ever anticipated.

    The thing that helped me was to apply what I'd learned in music to running. If you want to play really fast, the you practice really slowly with a metronome. Playing slowly with really great technique is challenging because there's nowhere to hide. When you play fast, you can be off by a fraction here or there and never really notice it. When you play slowly and you're off a bit, it's really pronounced.

    With running, I stopped pay attention to speed and started pay attention to technique, running with as little impact as possible, paying attention to stress points in my knees, my hips, my neck, my shoulders. I never ran faster than I could without making mistakes.

    Just a thought.

    Love, Teflon

  3. Smiling

    When I do the group training I get to do exercises and to push my speed - and I realise that I use muscles that I didn't used to use that much while running - so it's like catching up on things I might have missed when I first learned to run.

    As in the playroom when we work with a kid who can speak but who never learned to look for the nonverbal ....

    - when I run alone I do what you do, but now I just have inspiration to look for new things


  4. Joy, That's a good reminder for me. I know sometimes, when I'm trying to work through something that I don't yet know how to do or am not very good at, I like to work it through by myself. It gives me time to slow things down and figure it out.

    At times like this, I often avoid working with others because I see it as potentially getting in the way of my own process. However, there are times when my own process is the problem and working with others essentially forces me to us another process.


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