by Jeff Polet
Back when I was an undergraduate, one of my professors recommended to me a book by the psychologist Julian Jaynes. Jaynes’ book was my first introduction to the idea of a “bicameral mind,” identifying the distinctive functions of the two hemispheres of the brain. More importantly, it drew my attention to the problem of how we can account for consciousness, particularly since such accounting must use consciousness to account for itself. More simply put, what is it about human beings, as distinct from other animals, that makes them aware of themselves as creatures in the world, as a sort of point at which reality begins to reflect back on itself?
Jaynes was taking on a lot of the regnant assumptions in the “science” of psychology at that time, a crime for which his work was largely dismissed. The fundamental assumptions of that discipline have changed over time as well, with the currently predominant explanations for human behavior being mechanistic or bio-chemical. (That is, behavior can be accounted for by reference solely to the chemical or mechanical workings of the brain, and thus human consciousness is little more than the operations of a sophisticated machine — which is why developing Artificial Intelligence both intrigues and frightens us, because we fear that our machines might bypass us entirely, rendering the species superfluous.)
This by way of introduction to an interesting interview I read recently featuring Iain McGilchrist, a British psychologist and literary scholar. I was vaguely aware of McGilchrist’s work, which I regarded as potentially interesting, but was not prepared to take on the 1500-page 7½ pound The Matter of Things, although this interview has inspired me to take a crack at his less intimidating The Master and His Emissary.
Like Jaynes, McGilchrist seems interested in how the physical functionings of the brain account not only for behavior but for consciousness itself. But he goes far beyond that question to explore how the distinctive functions of the brain’s two hemispheres might account for civilization itself. McGilchrist accepts the claims of contemporary neuroscience that ways of thinking and being in the world track the firing of neurons in particular parts of the brain. He describes the difference this way:
The left hemisphere has a very narrow beam, targeted on a detail which it can see very precisely. It fixes it and grabs it (and the left hemisphere controls the right hand with which most of us do the grabbing and the getting). Whereas the right hemisphere has a broad, open, sustained vigilant attention, which is on the lookout for everything else without preconception. So on the one hand you’ve got an attention that produces a world of tiny fragments that don’t seem connected to one another — a bit here a bit there, a bit elsewhere — that are decontextualised, disembodied. Whereas with the right hemisphere we see that nothing really is completely separated from anything else — that ultimately, all this is on some level seamlessly interconnected, that it’s flowing and changing rather than fixed and static. Uniqueness is something the right hemisphere sees, while the left hemisphere sees just an example of something that it uses or needs. The right hemisphere is the world in which we live; the left hemisphere’s world is, if you like, a map, a schema, a diagram, a theory — something two dimensional. So we’ve got this one world, which is composed of things that are mechanical, useful, inanimate, reducible to their parts, abstracted, decontextualised, dead; and another world, which is flowing, complex, living, changing and has all the qualities that make life worth living.
This certainly doesn’t make left-brain dominance sound attractive (right-handed people tend to be more left-brain dominant and the opposite applies for left-handed people; not much is said about the 1% of the population who write and eat and do other activities left-handed and play sports and other activities right-handed). There is also a symbiosis at work here: the more materialistic we become, the more left-brained we will be, and the more left-brained we are, the more materialistic we will become. If indeed the left-brain produces grasping and getting, our obsession with wealth gives evidence of left-brain dominance. The greatest evidence for left-brain dominance, however, is the control and regulation of both nature and human nature. Our technological epoch is evidence of it being a left-brained one.
My favorite part of McGilchrist’s theory has to do with his approach to “attention,” that is, variations in how we attend to the world around us. Most of us have the experience of being puzzled at how people around us “attend” to the world differently than we do. Where we see beauty they see economic value; where we see playfulness, they see waste; where we see complexity, they see simplicity; where we see doubt and confusion, they see certainty. It is as hard for us to bridge these breakdowns in understanding and attentiveness, in McGilchrist’s accounting, as it is for the brain to join the two hemispheres. McGilchrist allows there has to be two kinds of attention — a narrow, focused one and a broad, creative one — but argues that once human beings became more left-brained than right, when the functions of the left brain become socially and politically privileged, the whole civilizational project itself shifts accordingly. One result is that, because we retain our right hemispheres, the world becomes increasingly strange and alien to us. (This is a theme in Walker Percy’s essential novel Love in the Ruins.) Estrangement and alienation, disconnection from nature and one another and ourselves, become the dominant pathologies.
An important implication of McGilchrist’s theory is that our left-brain orientation, with its grasping and getting and controlling and narrow focus, puts us in a state of perpetual war with one another. His argument is that the brain, and by extension civilization itself, works well when the right-brain dictates to the left-brain its proper role. “Things work well as long as the left hemisphere is carrying out work it’s deputed to do by the right hemisphere.” (The master and its emissary.) Here’s an example he gives of how this plays out at the civilizational level:
The Greek and the Roman civilisation began with a sudden outburst of flourishing in which the two sides worked very well together. Then over time, they moved more and more towards the left hemisphere’s point of view. I think this is because civilisations tend to overreach themselves. They tend to amass an empire, and then everything has to be administered: there are rules and procedures, and everything is rolled out under a bureaucracy. And what this privileges is a simple, sequential, analytic way of understanding, rather than the more complex, holistic understanding that is required and is provided by the right hemisphere.
He argues that our current civilizational moment is marked by overwhelming left-brain attending, a kind of attending whose fundamental disposition toward the world is one of domination. “We’re living in an age of rationalising and reductionism in which everything can be taken apart.” McGilchrist contrasts this with earlier, healthier ages, reflecting back on a “time in history” when “people lived close to nature.” But not just nature. “Most people belonged to an inherited culture, a coherent culture. Art had not been turned into something conceptual, but was visceral and moving. Religion had not been presented as something that only a fool or an infant would believe. These are all very arrogant positions that we now hold.” And this reversed subordination of the right-hemisphere to the left has produced serious consequences for our personal and political well-being: “We know that some things are key to human flourishing: proximity to nature; a culture; some sense of something beyond this realm. They make people healthier, both physically and mentally. We’ve done away with that and now all we’re left with is public debate.”
Right-brain thinking has humility. It sees things in their interconnectedness, their wholeness. It accepts the frustrations of not-knowing and not being able to control outcomes. It doesn’t think that only things that can be measured have value. It’s comfortable with mystery and miracles, with faith and failure.
Of course, that’s assuming that McGilchrist’s overall approach and insights are correct. I’ll confess to some skepticism about the project for reasons I need not go into here, but I do think he’s on to something important. I’ll have to read his book to figure that all out, however.
- Does McGilchrist’s approach seem to account for our current political divisions? If so, does he give us any way out of this problem, or are we stuck with it?
- Is it possible for someone to become more right-brained or left? Is the brain a static, fixed entity or is it more plastic than he seems to indicate, and if so, what does that suggest for how we live our lives?
- Does being left-brain dominant makes us miserable, less human?
- Is a left-brain dominant culture even a culture at all?
- McGilchrist argues that left-brain dominance results in a decline in creativity. Do you think we’ve become more or less creative, and what evidence would you produce for that claim? If we are in fact less creative, does that account for cultural decadence?