Science Behind the Inner Child: Understanding the Left and Right Side of Your Brain

The inner child is the part of our psyche that produces impulses, seemingly irrational reactions, outside our conscious control, often contrary to our long term goals and intentions; these behaviors stem from unconscious emotional beliefs instilled by early childhood experiences. Join Jason Korda as he explains these processes in more depth and how mindfulness meditation helps to 'negotiate'.
Josh Korda is a Buddhist teacher.
Josh Korda is a Buddhist teacher.

Both William James and Sigmund Freud, in their own ways, produced very coherent, clear descriptions of subconscious, unconscious processes that had predominance over the logical, rational, conscious mind. Both, from their own empirical research, documented the degree of influence that unconscious (we could also call it automatic or implicit) processes held over decision-making and times in life where we act in ways that are completely contrary to our intentions, when physiological, emotional experiences seem to be self-sabotaging.

For a long time, this recognition of the unconscious was essentially based on observation, but didn’t really have any foundations in neuroscience. And that came to a fundamental pivot in the 1960s.

The Two Brain Hemispheres

A group of patients with extreme cases of epilepsy underwent a radical procedure, in which the corpus callosum (thin nerve fibers that connect the right brain hemisphere with the left hemisphere for integration) was cut and severed. The epileptic fits would stop, but in place were a whole raft of symptoms rather extraordinary, which pointed to the idea that each hemisphere of the brain had different functions and roles.

The left hemisphere is typically the dominant one. It is the host of language. While there is language function in the right brain hemisphere, the language we use to communicate thoughts and ideas is primarily left-hemisphered. That’s dominant in most people and as one hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body, it means that most people are right handed. The left hemisphere, which is conscious and language bearing, consciously controls the movement of the right hand, the right leg, the right side of the body.

The right hemisphere is subdominant and controls the left side of the body. That’s why very often – unless you bring conscious awareness of what your left hand is doing – it will work independently. The left hand might move and might essentially seem to have a will of its own.

Back to the the epilepsy patients from before: In cases where the corpus callosum was cut and severed, really extraordinary symptoms would occur:

In one case, a man lit a cigaret with one hand and the other hand knocked it out of his mouth, indicating that one hemisphere of the brain wanted the cigaret while another hemisphere of the brain didn’t want to smoke. Another person was about to attack a relative with one hand. His other hand grabbed hold of the hand that was about to attack and assault and stopped him from acting out on the impulse. More interestingly, when they gave split-brain patients questionnaires with neutral questions both hands would answer the question with the same answers. In one case, however, when a person got asked about being bullied 30 years previously, an emotionally heavy question, the right hand, which was conscious, responded that the experience didn’t bother the person at all. The left hand, however, which was expressing the unconscious realms of the right brain, answered that he was still extremely wounded and emotionally upset by the events from 30 years ago.

The Differences Between The Left and Right Brain

Famous neuroscientists such as Sperry and Gazzaniga developed a theory that the brain hemispheres had very specific specializations. Other neuroscientists posited that while there are differences between them, the primary difference is that the left hemisphere tends to be what’s called top-down, whereas the right hemisphere is bottom-up.

Left Top-Down

The left top-down, which we could call the conscious adult mind, represents life and experience in words and ideas. It tries to make sense of all experience in categories and sees the world in separate objects. It views our self and how our identity is unique and different from everyone else. It tends to be very optimistic, logical and schematic, which means step-by-step. It tends to be very future oriented. It plans and and sets goals for the future.

The left top-down processes are very interested in self-survival. The left brain seeks security by trying to amass tools and resources from the world. It loves gadgets and screens, smartphones and computers. It loves things that are man-made. It conceives of the present as being separate from the past and views time like slices of a loaf of bread, in terms of days, times and so forth. It can get over events from the past and experiences the past as far away because, for left memory, the further away events are in the past, the more we lose the details that we built narratives from. The left brain is voluntarily recalled memories. It is largely disembodied and capable of blocking awareness of feelings. People who have classically avoided attachment, who are extremely self-reliant, have isolated jobs and gravitate towards isolating endeavors, tend to have very strong functioning left top-down processing.

The Right Bottom-Up

The less conscious region or processes are known as right bottom-up. They’re not primarily conscious, but automatic, not under volitional control. They don’t view self like the left brain does. It view ourselves as interconnected.

The right bottom-up processes tend to withdraw for protection. While the left, the adult conscious mind, tries to solve everything, e.g., through acquiring money, resources or shelter, the right tries to survive by retreating and withdrawing. The right bottom-up has strong needs for playful, exploratory curiosity. It doesn’t view the world in terms of categories like the the left brain, but in terms of shifting, fluid events that it gravitates towards. The right bottom-up tends to live as much in the past as it does in the present and has no interest in the future, except if something it anticipates will be scary. But it lives very much in the past. For the right brain, there’s no difference between events that happened 30 years ago and events that happened yesterday. Emotional wounds or traumas that happened in childhood and adult life can feel just as painful, just as scary and trigger just as much of a need to retreat, withdraw and run away.

The Inner Child: When the Two Brains Clash

According to Alan Shore, the right orbitofrontal holds internal working models that are unconscious, which holds deep emotional beliefs about how safe we are with other people, whether we can trust others, whether we will get our needs met. It triggers feelings of vulnerability and core shame, where we believe either fundamentally we are lovable or unlovable. When we are dreaming or under the influence of hallucinogens, the dominance of the left hemisphere, the left top-down, is subverted and we become primarily right bottom-up, which is why our dreams are associative. People from distant past can be experienced as well as people in the present, which is why we can make strange, illogical associations.

The right bottom up gravitates to the familiar. Hence, what Freud called repetition compulsion. For example, somebody who in childhood had an abandoning caregiver who was not emotionally truly available, even though they very much want attachment, will continue to gravitate and be attracted towards emotionally unavailable partners.

The right brain is largely formed by experiences in the first five years of life. That’s why we call it the inner child.

The overall view is that the right bottom-up is not monolithic. It can hold completely contradictory impulses. We can have emotional impulses to attach, continually seek love from people who are unavailable, explore, give up and run away from obligations that the left has set. But it also can have very strong retreat and withdrawal impulses.


The left brain can have us sign up for giving a talk in front of a large crowd. But then the right brain remembers experiences from grade school where we stood up in front of a classroom and kids laughed at us and we felt humiliated. When we get up in front of that crowd, suddenly we might experience a panic attack. We might get nervous and overwhelmed with fear because the right bottom-up remembers all of the emotional wounds from the past and says,”This scenario that I’m in right now is far too similar to those emotional, painful events of my past.”

These impulses, again, can be very contradictory. In life when we’re stuck, when we’re immobilized, when we’re caught up in procrastination or stalling, it’s because one impulse to pursue something in the future (very often from the left brain) has run completely against right bottom-up impulses to attach for security and withdraw from danger. Somebody can get a job offer that’s very attractive – more responsibilities, higher payment, it looks better on the resume – the left brain will almost immediately say yes. But the right brain will say, “Hold on, not so fast. All the people I know are at my current job. I don’t know any of the people at that new job. And I need attachments that are secure. And also, I’m scared of change because when I changed schools in fifth grade, I felt alone and disconnected.” The person will find themselves stalling, incapable of finishing up the application, getting nervous every time they sit down to put together their resume to send it over and so forth.

The right brain controls our attention

What many people call adult attention-deficit disorder – sometimes it’s real due to a lack of acetylcholine in the left cingulate –, very often, what people view as attention-deficit problems or problems with laziness or procrastination, is simply due to the fact that the right brain is not interested in pursuing the goals and agendas that the left has set.

The adult brain gets hijacked by irrational (or very real) fears of the right bottom-up brain, the inner child, which holds all of our attachment and interpersonal wounds from the past. When we find ourselves catastrophizing, going over everything that can go wrong, feelings of vulnerability in the right brain got activated by some life event. The right brain speaks to us through the body, not through ideas and words and inner chatter like the left adult brain. It speaks to us bottom-up with feelings. It creates a feeling of vulnerability and nervousness, which leave the left brain overwhelmed. This is called mood congruence.

Many people have chronic financial fears, even though they actually have enough money to live comfortably, but they live in chronic financial insecurity. This is not because of money. This is because the inner child, the right bottom up processes of the brain, have had severe attachment wounds from the past. In childhood, the most vulnerable years of their life, they might have not been taken care of. The right brain triggers these feelings of vulnerability, lack of support and care, and then the left goes along with it and says “There’s obviously something going wrong. Obviously, I’m not safe, but it can only make sense of the vulnerability by concluding that it has to do with money.” The feeling of vulnerability is translated by the left conscious mind as “I don’t have enough money” when it’s really about a lack of trust that we’ll be taken care of by other people.

Very often the right brain, the inner child, will have the desire to quit obligations, just like a child to not do its homework, to run away, play, explore. The adult brain will then translate it with long lists of why everything in life sucks, why everything in one’s job or one’s life is terrible and create escape fantasies in line with the right brain or inner child desires.

Negotiating Between Left and Right Brain

In 2001, I was working in advertising and only practiced Buddhism as something that I would do after work. After 9/11, I wanted to volunteer, but they didn’t have any use for someone who worked in advertising. That felt incredibly wounding to me. It reminded me, unconsciously, of all the times in childhood when I felt unseen or not taken seriously. It created a very strong desire to quit my job and just devote my life to volunteering. That was a very strong emotional impulse. But at the same time I had a contrary emotional impulse, which was fear due to my own insecure attachment with my father from early life, fear that if I did quit my job, I wouldn’t be taken care of, that I’d fall between the cracks of the world, that I’d wind up homeless, penniless, that I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills,…

So, I had one very strong emotional desire to quit. I couldn’t stand going to work anymore and there was good reason for that. But I also had a very strong fear that if I did quit, I’d never make money again. The only solution for me was to step in and hear both of those inner child impulses and negotiate a middle path with them, which was to understand both emotional needs and to meet both of them in a safe way. I changed from full to part-time working, just making enough money to survive. I started shifting the focus to my Buddhist studies, to getting empowered as a teacher, to very slowly shifting my life away from advertising to teaching. And by 2005, I was a teacher. And a few years after that, I was living by donations rather than living from advertising. It was a slow process because if I had simply quit my job, I would have been rife for panic attacks. On the other hand, if I had simply stuck working with advertising, I would have been emotionally miserable. So either case, my inner child would not have gotten either of its needs met. I had to use my adult brain to hear my emotional needs, even though they were contradictory – one to quit to just do what I wanted, the other to stay on course, work and think financially. First and foremost, I had to hear both needs and find a creative solution. I was able to do this through mindfulness practice.

There are many therapies that work very well for people who want to understand these schemas and the unconscious emotional beliefs and impulses of the inner child. Most famously, there’s psychoanalysis stemming from Freud works, but there’s also new traditions of psychodynamic therapy and coherence therapy, both of which focus on understanding the unconscious inner child impulses, legitimizing them, taking them seriously, but then working creatively in a way to help ourselves to integrate these needs into our adult life. Many people also come in contact with the needs of the inner child through art therapy, music therapy, through therapies that focus on free association because the free associated mind tends to be more automatic and right hemispheric.

Therapist Dr. Lucia Capacchione wrote something I found quite interesting. She talks about putting a crayon in her non-dominant hand, which was the left, and starting to write with it. She writes,

“I had no idea this would change my life forever. A child-like self within me spoke to me that had been buried under a mountain of responsibility and five years of continual crisis’s at home. I spontaneously began dialogs in my journal between the inner child, which wrote with my left hand and my adult inner critic, my dominant right hand. As a result, my energy increased dramatically as well as my will to live.”

How mindfulness meditation helps to negotiate

In Buddhist practice, the best way to connect with the inner child is through integration. The inner child is, of course, primarily embodied, it expresses its needs through the body and feelings. We can feel excitement and the desire to explore, expansion as the breath becomes fuller, or the body withdraws from situations, disconnects, seeks security and in that case, the body contracts, stiffens and goes into an armored state.

When we’re stuck in life, find that our goals and plans are being undermined by impulses of procrastination and stalling fear, when we suddenly experience panic or anxiety, in Buddhist mindfulness, specifically in mindfulness of feelings, we stop and find the physiological affect state beneath all the inner chatter in times of panic or anxiety. The left brain will catastrophize and look around for all the reasons to be frightened. We put aside our focus on thoughts and rather go into the body and we focus on what is beneath all the ideas and stories.

Instead we focus on the feelings. We sit and we acknowledge the feelings and begin to ask what do they want? They express themselves through impulses. And sometimes the impulses will be clearly wanting to retreat or stop. Sometimes the impulses will be wanting to hug and cling. Sometimes they will be wanting to explore, grasp, or become curious. We listen to the impulses as they express through the body. That’s how the inner child speaks to us. Then we develop a dialog.

The way we develop a dialog is not through talking. Take this example: we want to change careers or where we’re living, but every time we set about to undertake that plan, we get overwhelmed and stuck. We then connect with that feeling of being scared, that doesn’t want to proceed, and we show it ways to proceed that would be safer. We show it, for example, that if the change is too much, we can quit and or stop at any moment. We talk to the inner child through images showing it that we can proceed at a very slow pace.

The way to talk to the inner child is, simply, by paying attention to it, listening to it, understanding its needs, being creative and showing solutions.

The inner child loves presents and rewards. When I was writing my book, my left brain undertook the project and said, “OK, I should write a book.” I signed the contract and the next thing I knew, I had to write two hundred and forty pages. I suddenly realized I’d never written anything longer than 10 pages in my life. There was a lot of fear that whatever I wrote wasn’t going to be good enough. So at first, I procrastinated and didn’t get anything done. I then realized that there was this frightened child in me, terrified of being rejected or found not good enough. So, I had to start rewarding the inner child.

Every time after I sat down and wrote, I would reward myself with ” Now I get to go and eat my favorite lunch”, “Now I get to play music” or “Now I get to do something that I really love”. It’s the same way you would reward a child for doing something that it didn’t want to do. I also had to promise the inner child that if I really didn’t like what I wrote, at the end, I wouldn’t have to submit it. I took it step by step, each time assuring that inner child that if it’s too much we’ll stop – we’ll just going to start a little bit.

I took away all of the self-blame and self-criticism. I didn’t associated with any sense of that there was something wrong with me. My inner child needed me to take it very slowly. I promised it that whatever I wrote, I would show to friends first and not to scary editors or publishers. Slowly, then very quickly, I made my way through it.

I invite you to join me in a meditation where we soothe ourselves and visualize some area in life where we feel stuck, where we can’t move forward, or where we feel that we have impulses or emotions that don’t make sense. In the meditation below, we will be developing a way to communicate and integrate the inner child into our adult life.

  1. Connecting With The Inner Child In Mindfulness Meditation Josh Korda 21:44

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