Photography for the Right Side of the Brain

Flower Energy

Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuro-anatomist who suffered a hemmhoragic stroke at the age of 37. She was bleeding into the left side of her brain, gradually losing function on that side and experiencing life from the right hemisphere.

Amazingly, she is fully recovered, although living differently (by choice) as a result of the experience. You can hear her popular TED talk here.

I’d heard Bolte Taylor’s speak before, in her TED talk and in interviews. Recently, I read her book, Stroke of Insight, and am so glad I did. In the book, she goes into much greater detail about how the brain works, what she experienced, and how she recovered (all quotes below are from the book).

“The two hemispheres of our brain communicate through the corpus calloseum. Each hemisphere is unique in the type of information it processes, but they work together to generate a seamless perception of the world.”

All very interesting, but what struck me most was this quote.

“Hemispheric dominance is not to be confused with hand dominance. Statistics vary, but generally everyone who is right handed (85% of the U.S. Population) is left hemisphere dominant. Over 60% of left handed people are also left hemisphere dominant.”

We’re all mostly left hemisphere dominant. Could developing more of our right hemispheres lead to a greater sense of well-being and compassion? Bolte Taylor thinks so and so do I.

Characteristics of the Right Hemisphere


The characteristics of the right hemisphere (as described in the book and listed below), seem to mirror contemplative living, where we judge less and appreciate more – experiencing a greater sense of connection, peace and even joy.

* Creates a master collage of this moment; what it looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like, and feels like.

* Allows us to take an inventory of the space around us and our relationship to that space.

* Allows us to remember isolated moments with uncanny clarity and accuracy.

* No time exists but the present, which is timeless and abundant. The experience of joy is in the present moment.

* We perceive and experience connection with something that is greater than ourselves. Everyone and everything are connected together as one.

* Thinks intuitively outside the box, and creatively explores the possibilities that each new moment brings.

* It’s spontaneous, carefree, and imaginative. It allows our artistic juices to flow freely without inhibition or judgment.

* It perceives each of us as equal members of the human family and enhances our ability to be empathic, to walk in the shoes of another and feel their feelings.

* There is a lack of critical judgment, likes and dislikes.

* Right hemisphere consciousness is more about being than doing.

* People are experienced as concentrated packages of energy. Rather than listening to words, energy is felt through facial expression and body language.

By practicing contemplative photography (or other contemplative practices), we are developing the right side of our brains – something that most of us could use.

Jill Bolte Taylor describes some of the benefits she realized from tapping into her right hemisphere.

“One of the greatest lessons I learned was how to feel the physical component of emotion. Joy was a feeling in my body. Peace was a feeling in my body. I could feel when a new emotion was triggered. I could feel new emotions flood through me and then release me. Most remarkably, I learned that I had the power to choose whether to hook into a feeling and prolong its presence in my body, or just let it quickly flow right out of me.”

“Before the stroke, I believed I was a product of this brain and that I had minimal say about how I felt or what I thought. Since the hemorrhage, my eyes have been opened to how much choice I actually have about what goes on between my ears.”

“One of the greatest blessings I received as a result of this hemorrhage is that I had the chance to rejuvenate and strengthen my neurocircuits of innocence and inner joy. I have become free to explore the world again with childlike curiosity.”

How do we begin?

“Peacefulness should be the place we begin rather than the place we try to achieve.” ~ Dr. Jerry Joseph, Stroke of Insight

Bolte Taylor interprets this quote to mean that we should stem from the peaceful consciousness of our right mind and use the skills of our left mind to interact with the external world.

“Since the stroke, I steer my life almost entirely by paying attention to how people, places, and things feel to me energetically. In order to hear the intuitive wisdom of my right mind, however, I must consciously slow my left mind down so I am not simply carried along on the current of my chatty story-teller. I listen to my body and implicitly trust my instincts.”

Contemplative practices, including photography, start with attention – to body, mind, and spirit – and aligning all three according to what feels right for us. We learn how to slow down and listen, and most importantly, to trust what we hear.

How do you develop the right side of your brain?

Related Posts

Listen to a recent interview from Sounds True with Tami Simon and Bolte Taylor on “Balancing the Brain and the Power of Choice.”

Listen to her TED Talk.

Buy the book, Stroke of Insight.

Blog Post: Perception and the Brain

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See You in September


During the month of August, I’ll be taking a break from blogging and my weekly newsletter.

It will be a time to simplify, create, spend time with family and friends. I’ll be wrapping up my Adventures in Seeing workshop and getting ready for a Labor Day weekend on Star Island, New Hampshire.

We all need a break sometimes. Here are some photography ideas for the month.

Susannah Conway’s August Break – Susannah offers a daily photographic prompt (and email) and an opportunity for everyone to share their images.

10 Tips on How to use Photography as a Tool for Personal Development – Catherine Just. I thought the description of her Nap Series, a way to use photography to shed new light on a “problem” is fascinating, and one I will do sometime myself.

* And, check out this post on ideas for photo walks, inspired by the book On Looking.

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.” ― John Lubbock, The Use Of Life

See you in September

Registration is now open for fall workshops – The 50mm Project (September), Keeping It Simple (October) and Going Abstract (November).

I hope you’ll join me for one or more.

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Photography as Worry Therapy

rain, green, Kim Manley Ort

Nearly 1 in 7 Americans suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder. ~ Scott Stossel, Atlantic Magazine

Scott Stossel reports this statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health in his book, The Age of Anxiety, as well as the article in Atlantic Magazine. Treatment for anxiety accounts for 31% of expenditures on mental healthcare in the U.S. (with similar percentages in Canada).

Stossel should know. He’s suffered from generalized anxiety and many phobias since he was a kid. He’s tried every therapy and drug imaginable. In his book, he shares meticulous research on the history of anxiety, as well as stories from his own experience.

Of course, acute anxiety or depression should be taken seriously. There are no one size fits all answers. If this is something you struggle with, I hope that you’re getting professional help.

While I’ve never been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, I have experienced some social anxiety and, beneath my calm exterior, am a worrier (a milder form of anxiety). My mind naturally goes to worst case scenarios.

I believe that I gravitated towards photography, and especially contemplative photography, as a form of worry therapy.

Photography is one way to train our attention in the moment and away from worrying about a future that hasn’t happened.

* Contemplative photography helps us see what’s right in front of us without judging it as good or bad.

* By taking a longer look, we see perspectives and possibilities we might not have considered.

* We might even experience a moment of awe or wonder at what we see, just as we did when we were kids.

Martin Seligman, in his book, Flourish, writes,

We think too much about what goes wrong and not enough about what goes right in our lives. Of course, sometimes it makes sense to analyze bad events so that we can learn from them and avoid them in the future. However, people tend to spend more time thinking about what is bad in life than is helpful. Worse, this focus on negative events sets us up for anxiety and depression. One way to keep this from happening is to get better at thinking about and savoring what went well. ~ via Brain Pickings

The truth is we need some time every day where we’re just “being” and not focused on the future and our to-do lists – whether it’s meditating, photographing, dancing, or just staring out the window.

It just makes the whole day better.

Here are some more articles on this topic to consider.

Brain Pickings on Stossel’s Book – The Culture and Costs of Anxiety

Photography as a Balm for Mental Illness – NY Times (thanks to a couple of readers for pointing out this article to me)

The Broken Light Collective - an online place for photographers living with or affected by mental illness.

Art as Therapy – by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong OR see the exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Relationship between Creativity and Mental Illness – via Brain Pickings

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Playing with Window Reflections


Woman in Space

I’m often drawn to reflections in any surface. They hint at another world, a somewhat dreamy, surreal mirror of the real thing.

Window reflections are another subject altogether. Most photography articles teach how to avoid window reflections. This past weekend, I went out in search of them.

With an effective window reflection, we get a picture of everything – the window, the inside, the outside, and often the photographer too. All of life is blended together into one image, creating something rather other-worldly.

Normally, when we look in a store window we see what’s inside and don’t even notice the reflection. Going out in search of reflections requires a different way of seeing – a more playful one.

It’s a fun photographic exercise in seeing.

When I went out this past weekend, I set an intention to just photograph window reflections and nothing else. This way I trained my eyes to see this way and not be distracted (by regular subjects).

It felt like play and I knew that many of the images would not work out. But, there are always surprises. The images here in this post are some of my favourites.

Green Jeans

To see more images from my photo walk, check out my Window Reflections Album on Flickr.

And here’s an e-book that I highly recommend if you’re interested in this type of photography, Chasing Reflections by Eli Reinholdtsen – available through Craft & Vision ($5 download).

See some of Eli Reinholdtsen’s reflection images on Flickr and read an interview with her here.

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Sailing Away


“Sailing a boat calls for quick action, a blending of feeling with the wind and water as well as with the very heart and soul of the boat itself. Sailing teaches alertness and courage, and gives in return a joyousness and peace that but few sports afford.” ~ George Matthew Adams via Brainy Quotes

Living a contemplative life is not all about slowing down or doing nothing. Far from it. Some of the most contemplative people I know are “do-ers” and very curious people. They’re interested in everything.

Last night, I finished my beginner sailing lessons. I’ve never been a boater, but I do love the water. I live in a town where sailing lessons are available close by. And, I was curious to learn more.

My goal wasn’t to complete the beginner class, the intermediate class, the advanced class, and then buy the boat. That’s what several others in the class had planned.

My goal was to try something new, learn a little about sailing, and experience life from a different perspective – from the water.

It was a very contemplative experience.

I was open to learning something new. I accepted that there would be some hard work and a steep learning curve and it was humbling at times.

Now, I can say that I do know the very basics of sailing; at least some of the terminology. I experienced some beautiful evenings and sunsets out on the water. And, I have great respect for sailors.
I don’t plan to continue on to the intermediate and advanced classes – kayaking is more my style – but trying something new added some adventure, exercise, and beauty to my summer.

The quote above says it well, and this song, Sail Away, sung by David Gray, describes the metaphor of sailing as an adventure into the unknown.


Have you tried something new recently?


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Art Wolfe on Abstractions

Yellow Abstract


Note: All images are by me, not Art Wolfe.

Recently, in my weekly newsletter, I shared a video of photographer Art Wolfe giving a talk at Google. This video struck a chord with many.

“The trick and the challenge is to constantly come up with perspectives, points of view, that haven’t quite been done before. That’s what gets me out of bed, that’s what motivates me.”

Art Wolfe is a world-renowned travel and wildlife photographer, as well as art educator. Even so, he tells us that he’s not very technical. As a matter of fact, he may only know 4% of what his camera can do.

His point is that his strengths lie more in the composition and seeing aspects of photography.

“The hardest thing for a photographer is to find a compelling image in that 360 degree world we live in. What I try to teach is how to find your subject as you’re walking down the street in any location on the planet and pull out something that 99% of the rest of the population would never see.”

The entire video covers a wide range of subjects and is well worth watching. However, I was particularly drawn to his abstract work. Art Wolfe has a background in painting and he goes on to say that his greatest influences in photography have been painters.

He was first influenced by the Impressionists of the late 1800’s, particularly Georges Seurat, who painted everyday life in Paris in the pointillist style.

Wolfe goes on to show many examples he’s found in nature that reflect this style. The example, above right, is one of my images of this style. You can see Art Wolfe’s wonderful examples in the video.

Another example he cites is Monet, a very well known impressionist, who used imprecise brush strokes. Wolfe began experimenting with longer shutter speeds or taking advantage of wind blowing or snow falling to create impressionistic images – something near and dear to my heart.



At first, he didn’t understand the chaotic abstracts of Jackson Pollock, until “he saw a Jackson Pollock in a mud-spattered vehicle in southern China.”


Pollock-style (left) and Pointillist-style (right)

Van Gogh is another example of an impressionist painter, although his paintings are completely unique and surrealistic. Wolfe describes how reflections that distort reality can often look like a Van Gogh painting, something I find as well.

He finds Picasso’s cubist-style in overturned boats and Georgia O’Keefe’s flowers in icebergs in the Antarctic.

In his early years, Wolfe became known as a wildlife photographer. Today he says,

“I’m shooting rusting cans in a gutter, to the grand landscapes and everything in-between. As an artist, and having a background in painting, and illustration, and graphic design, I shoot without prejudice. And, it just opens up the world. I never run out of ideas.”

I love that saying – to shoot without prejudice. It opens up so many possibilities.

Wolfe goes on in the conversation to explore composition (something he teaches), the value of leading lines and different lenses, as well as showing some of his newest work.

One project, called Migrations, is about animal migrations, but is really about patterns. In another, he photographs cultures from above, creating abstract views of people.

More Reading

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Post: The Fun of Abstract Photography

Urban Decay Series – Part 1 (Rust), Part 2 (Wabi-sabi and Wood), Part 3 (Walls and Roads)

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