The word “forward” has generally positive connotations. It is the direction you’re facing, attentive to what’s in front of you. We think of “forward” in relation to what’s unexplored and “backward” as what’s already happened, suggesting nothing to be learned from that direction. Unlike “ahead” which implies a relationship to what’s behind, or a competition with another, “moving forward“ is pure direction, a more open present-centered state that keeps us in action, learning and developing.
As I learn more and more about the brain my tendency to try to visualize the gestalt helps me to consider what might be general principles of the mind and how they could be useful. One of the most significant is the idea that we are happiest when we move the energy forward in the brain. When researcher Elena Korneva massaged the front of a cat’s hypothalamus the cat purred. When she rubbed the back it showed signs of terror. Reaching from the frontal lobes to the older functions in the back, the hypothalamus is thought of as the brain’s metaphoric thermostat, mediating between body and brain mechanisms to keep us balanced. Our fear responses send energy to the back of the brain where memory and fight/flight responses are centered. When we take action on a problem the energy moves forward. Speech is an action. Studies have shown that happy emotions are associated with activity in the left front hemisphere. This is the location of Broca’s area, where we put our thoughts into words, an action the brain reinforces as good for our well-being. Perhaps the most helpful thing about keeping a journal in difficult times is the act of putting the troubles in words. Psychiatrist / novelist, Walker Percy wrote, “We tame the world with descriptions.” Naming something makes it feel more known. It is one of the uniquely human powers. Imagination and analysis, reason and discernment, all of the specialized abilities evolved to enhance human survival are in the front of the cortex. These mental actions are clearly in our interest to develop. Right behind the forehead in the prefrontal cortex, they are densely connected with our primary source of dopamine, the nucleus accumbens, considered a major pleasure center. Action utilizing our highest powers stimulates dopamine, which stimulates focus and attention. Nature builds incentives to keep us evolving. We are meant to use our capacities and are happiest when extending them. Nothing feels better than acting, because through our actions and their effects we fulfill our being and discover who we are.
As Howard Gardner has repeatedly emphasized, many of our higher powers are not developed by current education’s focus on left hemisphere abilities. More time is spent breaking knowledge into small units. Very little attention is given to synthesizing and comprehending relations between one area and another, the abilities that images educate. The concept of “forward” itself has been twisted by the linearity of left hemisphere thinking. Forward is really outward. When we shift our body position, facing a new perspective, then that becomes forward. Backward is the land of memory and the known. It moves energy to the back of the brain and taps into conditioned patterns.
Outward and forward is the direction of learning. Growth moves in all directions. Direction itself has been found to play a part in happiness. Energy that is directed pulls the mind’s energies into harmony. Direction is often equated with purpose, when we’re directionless we’re confused and ultimately depressed because there are so many human faculties going unused. When we don’t act, it’s often because early negative messages have made us fearful of doing what we really want or of our ability to succeed at something. But growth is much simpler than the grand plans that accompany external definitions of success. To take an interest in anything, to investigate, observe, inquire, and pay attention to where we are and where we’re heading pushes energy to the front of the brain. All directions outside of the self enable consciousness to become aware of itself within the whole. We can choose to direct our energy forward, in our brains and in our lives.