The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Ah, yes. Another gem from the good folks at RSA Animate. Writer and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist gave this lecture as part of the RSA’s free public events program. And don’t fret: it is not too neuroscientific.

McGilchrist makes it quite clear at the start of the lecture that there are misconceptions about the roles of the right and left brains: one does not deal exclusively with reason and the other with emotion; one with language and the other with visual imagery. Both sides of the brain are active during such experiences. Imagination, too, requires the left and the right hemispheres.

Vorpus callosum lithograph plate from Gray's Anatomy

Vorpus callosum lithograph plate from Gray’s Anatomy

However, there is definitely a physiological and functional division here. A deep groove separates the left and right hemispheres, through which runs the corpus callosum, thick band of nerve fibers that passes information between the hemispheres. Not only that, the brain evolved asymmetrically:

“…it’s broader at the back  on the left and broader on the right at the  front and slightly juts forward and backward.  And it’s as though somebody’s got hold of the  brain from underneath and given it a sort of  sharp twist clockwise.”

So what roles do the two sides play? What do they offer the human experience (as noted in McGilchrist’s lecture)?

THE LEFT BRAIN

narrow, sharply focused
– attention to detail
– when we already know something’s  important and we want to be precise about it
– a simplified  version of reality. It’s no good if you’re fighting  a campaign having all the information on all the  plant species that grow in the terrain of battle.  What you need is to know the specifics of  where certain things are that matter to you  and so you have a map and you have little flags.  It’s not reality but it works better.
-the world at a left  hemisphere is dependent on denotative language and abstraction yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known,  fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, general in nature but ultimately  lifeless.

THE RIGHT BRAIN

sustained
broad
open
vigilance
alertness
– The newness of the right hemisphere  makes it a devil’s advocate it’s always on the  lookout for things that might be different from  our expectations.
– understands implicit meaning, metaphor, body  language, emotional expression in the face.
– deals with an embodied world in which we  stand embodied in relation to a world that is  concrete. It understands individuals not just categories.
– disposition for the  living rather than the mechanical.
– yields a world of individual, changing,  evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate  living beings within the context of the lived  world, but in the nature of things never fully  graspable, never perfectly known and to this  world it exists in a certain relationship.

WHY IS DIVISION A BIG DEAL?

Other animals have divided brains, too:

“And it seems that birds and  animals quite reliably use their left hemisphere for this narrow focused attention  to something it already knows is of  importance to it and they keep their right hemisphere vigilant broadly for whatever might be without any commitment as to what  they might be. And they also use their right  hemispheres for making connections with the  world, so they approach their mates and  bond with their mates more using the right  hemisphere.”

McGilchrist notes the left and right hemisphere of the human brain follow similar patterns, but the division and asymmetry is much more dramatic. The frontal lobes are the command and control center of the brain, responsible for reasoning, problem solving, judgment , impulses, managing higher emotions, etc. This area actually inhibits other areas of the brain, stopping immediate action-and-reaction sequence. McGilchrist claims that this allows humans to do two things:

1. “It enables us to do what  neuroscientists are always telling us we’re  very good at which is outwitting the other  party, being Machiavellian…We can read other people’s minds and  intentions and if we so want to we can  deceive them.”

2. ““it also enables us to  emphasise for the first time because there’s a  sort of necessary distance from the world. If  you’re right up against it you just bite. But if  you can stand back and see that other individual is an individual like me who might  have interests and values and feelings like mine,  then you can make a bond. There’s a sort of  necessary distance as there is in reading – too  close you can’t see anything, too far you can’t  read it.”

Hence, it is the brain’s ability to inhibit and divide that makes us…well…human. Yay!

BETTER TOGETHER

Both sides of the brain offer valuable knowledge about the world.  The left side procures information within a closed system, a world of precision, detail, and limits. This world has boundaries, and within boundaries lies the possibility for perfection. Perfection, however, “is brought ultimately at the price of emptiness.”

Sound familiar? McGilchrist claims that is the path the modern world has taken. Our left-brained society prioritises “the virtual over the real. The technical becomes  important. Bureaucracy flourishes. The picture  however is fragmented. There’s a lot of  uniqueness, the how has become subsumed in  what. And the need for control leads to a  paranoia in society that we need to govern and  control everything.”

And it is not difficult to see why we’ve fallen out of balance. McGilchrist puts it nicely:

“the left hemisphere’s talk is  very convincing because it shaved everything that it doesn’t find fits with its model off and  cut it out. So this particular model is entirely  self consistent largely because it’s made itself  so. I also call the left hemisphere the Berlusconi of the brain because it controls the  media, it’s the one with which we… it’s very  vocal on its own behalf. The right hemisphere  doesn’t have a voice and it can’t construct  these same arguments. “

He also mentions the hall of mirrors effect: “the more we get trapped into this the  more we undercut and ironise things that might have led us out of it and we just get  reflected back into more of what we know  about what we know about what we know.”

There is a balance to be struck between the two hemispheres. Manipulation of the world, reason, and the nuances of language are essential to humans in this modern world, but so to is recognizing the broader context within which one makes those changes or retrieves that knowledge.

McGilchrist’s final quote was a good one, and so I, too, will leave you with the words of Albert Einstein:

“The intuitive  mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society  that honours the servant but has forgotten  the gift.”

divided brain video image

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One response to “The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

  1. Pingback: Iain McGilchrist: Interview and Metaphor | the art blot·

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