“If I am right, that the story of the Western world is one of increasing left hemisphere domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.” – Iain McGilchrist
In case you’re not familiar with the footballing phrase, “a game of two halves”, it has become a cliché in British soccer commentary, and means games which have a different character in the two halves. The same could be said of our brains.
The human brain, and the brains of most other animals, is made up of two hemispheres: the left hemisphere is good at linear and reductionist thinking, categorisation, logic and analysis, mechanical concepts, and tasks requiring focused attention. It is optimistic, individualistic, has the monopoly on verbal language, and is blessed with an extremely robust perception of its own abilities (remind you of anybody you know?!).
The right hemisphere is in many ways the converse, the yin to the left hemisphere’s yang. It is good at conceptual and holistic thinking, imagination, intuition, compassion, prefers the organic to the mechanical, and has a wider orbit of peripheral vision, metaphorically speaking. It is the seat of most emotions, apart from anger – only the left hemisphere does anger. It has no verbal language, and has a high tolerance for paradox, and tends to be pessimistic, melancholy and doubtful (you may know people like this too…).
According to the philosopher and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, our world is becoming increasingly left-brain dominant, and this is not a good thing.
(Full disclosure: Iain is a dear friend of mine, and I would like to emphasise that any liberties and/or errors I have introduced in interpreting his work are mine, not his).
Our best theory at the moment is that the two hemispheres were a positive evolutionary adaptation that allowed us to maintain tight focus on the task at hand (like eating our lunch) while also being aware of what was going on around us (thereby not becoming some other creature’s lunch).
Ideally, the two hemispheres operate in harmony, each playing to its strengths. But here we run into a snag, which inspires the title of McGilchrist’s book. The story goes that there was once a wise and spiritual master who had a small but prosperous domain, but as his subjects grew in number, he trained a number of trusted emissaries to oversee the welfare of its far-flung outposts. In his wisdom, he chose not to micro-manage his emissaries, but to respect their autonomy. Unfortunately, his most ambitious emissary began to abuse his power in order to further his own wealth and influence. “And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.”
Following this metaphor, the right hemisphere should ideally be the chief strategist, given its wider and wiser perspective, while the left hemisphere plays to its strengths as administrator and executive. As McGilchrist writes, “the purpose of the left hemisphere is to allow us to manipulate the world, not to understand it”.
The dynamic between the two hemispheres is reminiscent of the creative tension between yin and yang, which gives rise to the life force, or qi:
“Another way of thinking of the difference between the hemispheres is to see the left hemisphere’s world as tending towards fixity, whereas that of the right tends towards flow. All systems in nature, from particles to the greater universe, from the world of cellular processes to that of all living things, depend on a necessary balance of the forces for stasis with the forces for flow. All existing things could be thought of as the product of this fruitful tension.”
So the hemispheres should ideally be a complementary double-act, and it seems likely that this used to be the case, or at least, more so than it is now. However, given its ebullient self-confidence, the left hemisphere has gradually usurped the power of the right. The right hemisphere knows that it needs the left. The left has forgotten that the right exists. (Any resemblance to patriarchy is purely coincidental – or not.)
According to McGilchrist, we see the symptoms of the dominant left-brain worldview all around us. This shift becomes a positively reinforcing feedback loop, as the left hemisphere creates an external world in its own image:
“Here I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”
It’s possible that we used to have more of an intuitive sense of the underlying nature of reality (see my blog about Don Hoffman’s work for more about this), but the reductionist, materialist worldview of the left hemisphere is increasingly blocking out our ability to perceive the invisible realms that exist beyond our senses.
It was this reductionist, materialist thinking that reduced the number of our “official” senses to a mere five. It has been suggested Aristotle’s De Anima was the start of the idea that there had to be an observable physical organ corresponding to a sense for it to be real, rather than imaginary or “extrasensory” perception – eyes for sight, a nose for smell, and so on. Individuals (usually women) who exhibited allegedly extrasensory abilities, such as the ability to communicate with plants for medicinal purposes, have for the last several millennia been denigrated as witches, persecuted, and killed, leading to the loss of their wisdom traditions and (possibly) inheritable capabilities.
The more that our left hemisphere enforces its (literally) narrow-minded worldview, the more we cut ourselves off the useful information being processed by the right hemisphere. According to McGilchrist, we have paid dearly for our increasingly left-hemisphere orientation:
“We know so much, we can make so much happen, and we certainly invest much in the attempt to control our destinies. And yet, if we are honest, we feel as though it ought somehow to have added up to – more than this. Meanwhile, around us we can scarcely fail to see the evident global degradation and destruction of what we now call ‘the environment’, but which is nothing less than the living world; the breaking up of complex, close-knit communities, and their ways of living in harmony with nature, that took at least centuries, if not millennia, to form; the substitution of a way of life that we have already determined in the West to be lacking in meaning, often aesthetically barren, driven by commercialism and morally bankrupt, devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and happiness, but delivering anxiety and systemic dissatisfaction; the erosion, and in some cases the trashing, of ancient artistic and spiritual traditions; and the loss of the sense of uniqueness as everything becomes abstracted, generalised, categorised, mechanised, represented and rendered merely virtual… Meaning emerges from engagement with the world, not from abstract contemplation of it.”
Not just individuals or societies, but entire empires have also paid dearly for our abstraction from the natural world. McGilchrist sees, in accounts of the fall of the Greek and Roman empires, evidence of increasing left hemisphere dominance:
“But [the flourishing] did not last. It may be that an increasing bureaucracy, totalitarianism and an emphasis on the mechanistic in the late Roman period represents an attempt by the left hemisphere to ‘go it alone’.”
(Ringing any bells? For more on the collapse of empires, see this earlier blog post.)
If you need cheering up after McGilchrist’s rather bleak prognosis, I recommend Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a catastrophic left hemisphere stroke at the age of 37 (which might not sound very cheering – but it gets better).
Bolte Taylor was a neuroanatomist so, given her professional expertise, she was able to observe, with (mostly) dispassionate calmness, her life-threatening predicament in real time as she had her stroke, which she describes in her 2008 TED Talk and book, My Stroke of Insight. As the blood wreaked havoc in her left hemisphere, shutting down its functions, she found herself seeing reality in an entirely different way which, far from being terrifying, was extremely alluring, even spiritual:
“As the haemorrhaging blood interrupted the normal functioning of my left mind, my perception was released from its attachment to categorization and detail. As the dominating fibres of my left hemisphere shut down, they no longer inhibited my right hemisphere, and my perception was free to shift such that my consciousness could embody the tranquillity of my right mind. Swathed in an enfolding sense of liberation and transformation, the essence of my consciousness shifted into a state that felt amazingly similar to my experience in Thetaville. I’m no authority, but I think the Buddhists would say I entered the mode of existence they call Nirvana… In the absence of my left hemisphere’s analytical judgment, I was completely entranced by the feelings of tranquillity, safety, blessedness, euphoria, and omniscience.”
She uses phrases that could equally be used by someone describing a peak spiritual experience, or the effects of hallucinogenic drugs, such as “peaceful bliss of my divine right mind”, “glorious bliss”, and “sweet tranquillity”.
“My left hemisphere had been trained to perceive myself as a solid, separate from others. Now, released from that restrictive circuitry, my right hemisphere relished in its attachment to the eternal flow. I was no longer isolated and alone. My soul was as big as the universe and frolicked with glee in a boundless sea.”
Bolte Taylor equates the left hemisphere with head, thinking, mind consciousness, small ego mind, small self, masculine, and yang consciousness, and the right with heart, feeling, body’s instinctive consciousness, capital ego mind, inner or authentic self, feminine, and yin consciousness.
I’m not for a moment here suggesting that we would be better off without our left hemisphere – it evolved for a very good reason, and we wouldn’t do very well without it – but I invite you to imagine what it might be like if we were able to subdue the left hemisphere at will, and connect intentionally with the worldview of the right hemisphere. Or we can simply learn from Bolte Taylor’s account:
“My stroke of insight is that at the core of my right hemisphere consciousness is a character that is directly connected to my feeling of deep inner peace. It is completely committed to the expression of peace, love, joy, and compassion in the world… It is my goal to help you find a hemispheric home for each of your characters so that we can honour their identities and perhaps have more say in how we want to be in the world. By recognizing who is who inside our cranium, we can take a more balanced-brain approach to how we lead our lives.”
Seems to me that Bolte Taylor is agreeing with McGilchrist that both an individual and a society function optimally when it knows when best to invoke right brain consciousness, and when to rely on the left. A quote usually attributed to Albert Einstein (who, according to a 2013 study, was blessed with an unusual corpus callosum that had more extensive connections between certain parts of his cerebral hemispheres compared to the brains of both younger and older control groups) states:
Bolte Taylor feels that most of us (with exceptions in indigenous cultures, and assorted individuals in the western world who may practice as healers, intuitives, and so on) will have to work mindfully (literally) to reverse the shift and re-create balance in our predominantly left-brain-oriented world.
We would do well to remember who is the master, and who is the emissary, which is the sacred gift and which is the servant, and do our best to nurture the optimal balance between the two.
Note: The Master and His Emissary is a fascinating, but somewhat daunting, read – and I’m not easily daunted. There is a relatively bite-sized version called The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning, also by Iain, and also very good, and I particularly recommend this animated/illustrated RSA talk.
Early bird tickets for TEDxStroudWomen are selling fast – but luckily, as we’ve now had to go virtual, the sky is the limit, and the more the merrier! Please join us on Sunday 29th November for a day of fascinating talks around our theme of Emergence. All details on Eventbrite and on our website.