The Half Brain Method

The Half Brain Method

Hafeez Diwan | June 28, 2023

A man standing and thinking in front of an illustration of the right and left hemispheres of the brain.

Here is something I read in Idries Shah’s The Perfumed Scorpion many years ago. I had read and puzzled many times over an Italian proverb quoted at the start of a section entitled “The Teaching Story – 1”. The quote reads:

“People who speak little need only half a brain.”

Maybe I am a lot slower than others, but I must confess that it has taken me over thirty years to understand why this quote was placed at the top of a section about teaching stories and how to work with them. It was only a few months ago that a thought came into my head about all of this, and then something clicked. Let me explain.

When reading a traditional teaching story, we tend to associate it with something else we know, or view it from a literary, sociological, psychological, cultural, or other perspective. We might also submit it to a detailed left-brain analysis. The left hemisphere of the brain, as Dr. Robert Ornstein put it succinctly, is interested in the more granular “text” than the bigger picture, intuitive takeaway. Of course, left-brain analysis is essential, but it is incomplete. It doesn’t yield the deeper dimensions of a teaching story. To get to that taste, that extra flavor, one has to engage the right brain, the hemisphere that sees the bigger picture or the “context” as opposed to the individual components or details.

This process may take some time, as experiences accumulate and things fall into place. Shah’s teaching story “Time and Pomegranates” in The Dermis Probe, about a lesson imparted by a physician and teacher to his impatient student, demonstrates this. The physician teaches his pupil that it can take time for a lesson to be learned. The student, upon seeing a patient who requires a pomegranate to be cured, blurts out the diagnosis. The patient becomes infuriated and stomps away, annoyed that an ailment as serious as his could have a diagnosis as simple and straightforward as pomegranates. The teacher then demonstrates to the student how to gradually build up to the same diagnosis, this time by speaking to another patient, providing the sufferer much-needed time to absorb the diagnosis.

It can take time for context to become evident. Perhaps the right hemisphere of the brain takes a certain amount of time to read, or size-up, the situation, thereby helping us respond more appropriately when it’s done its job. 

The last sentence of Dr. Robert Ornstein’s book, The Right Mind, provides a favorite quote: 

“And given the right hemisphere’s focus on the large elements of our lives, it provides…’the right mind’ for different situations.”

The importance of context and time is woven into many experiences from my professional career. Here is one example:

As a skin pathologist, I rely heavily on the right brain and the right mind. I look at skin biopsies under the microscope to give a diagnosis. This helps the dermatologist, or whoever did the biopsy, give the correct treatment to the patient. 

Many years ago, I saw something I incorrectly thought was a deadly fungal infection growing inside the blood vessels of the skin. Once I learned more about the patient and got more information, I suddenly recalled something I had seen in scientific literature. It led me to the correct diagnosis. The patient had another serious disease, but not the immediately life-threatening fungal infection. But what I saw under the microscope did look almost exactly like a fungal infection. 

I later showed the biopsy to my friends at the Texas Medical Center. These were some of the top skin pathologists in Houston with over sixty years of combined experience. They all made the same mistake. Informed of the context—the complete clinical picture—they instantly made the connection and arrived at the correct diagnosis. 

The importance of context in my field, or indeed in any, cannot be overstated. But it can take time for the context to be gathered and reflected upon. 

I thought I was looking at a fungal infection. Everything pointed to it. My left brain poured over the evidence and concluded that it was most definitely a fungal infection. My left brain was wrong, however. I needed the context. And the contextual information allowed my right brain to make the correct connection.

In simpler terms, the talky left brain can do its thing but then must shut up so that the right brain can work its magic. This may seem overly dramatic. But over the years, as I have grappled with making different diagnoses, I can tell you that the “Aha moments” come when things click with the right brain. The same is true for working with teaching stories, when an insight suddenly appears seemingly out of nowhere. 

Which brings me back now to one meaning of the quote: “People who speak little need only half a brain.” 

People who speak little (don’t engage the left brain too much and only for a short, limited time when trying to make sense of something) need only half a brain (the right brain needs a bit of silence from the left brain’s chatter to be able to discern the subtle voice that can only be heard when the louder left brain is taking a time-out). 

I’ve started calling this the half brain method, and I use it on an almost daily basis in both my professional life, and my personal life as I work with teaching stories and all the other bewilderments that life routinely throws at me. I simply take a time-out from left brain thinking and let the issue bounce inside the right half of my brain, and often, clarity emerges (thankfully, typically much quicker than thirty years!).

I am reminded of the following Iain McGilchrist quote from The Master and the Emissary. It highlights the critical importance of the right hemisphere of the brain, the half of the brain that is engaged in the half-brain method: 

“If the detached, highly focused attention of the left hemisphere is…not…resolved into the whole picture by right hemisphere attention, which yields depth and context, it is destructive.”


Hafeez Diwan is Professor and Director of Dermatopathology at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. He is the author of a number of books including How to Love Obnoxious People—and Why?: The Life-Saving Art and Science of Loving Truly Horrible People. His most recent work, co-written with his daughter Sara Diwan, is the middle-grade/young adult novel The Great Lion Escape: The Same Different Place, Book One.