Could Modern Crises Stem from Problems in the Human Brain?

As a pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our human systems and institutions, psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist’s proposition that a battle in our heads is impacting the direction of our future is worth revisiting.

You’ve likely heard pop culture musings on the two hemispheres of your brain. The left side is said to deal with reasoning and facts, while the right side is supposed to be the creative, emotive center. Jane over there with the slide rule must be left-brained, but Joe, the artist, is right-brained, and so on.

But this simplistic dichotomy is a caricature of what’s actually going on in your head.

Both hemispheres are involved in reason and creativity, and everything else, too. The fact that we have two hemispheres at all is a pretty weird thing. We don’t have two sides of our stomach, for example. By contrast, not only do our brains have two halves, but they are organized asymmetrically. Even weirder, experiments show that each side is able to maintain consciousness on its own. Scientists are still puzzling over this arrangement, but it looks like the two sides come equipped with distinct ways of helping us to exist. Like disorderly twins, they might be separated so they don’t get in the way of each other.

There appears to be a striking difference not so much in what the two hemispheres do, but in how they go about doing it. And that, according to psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, makes all the difference. His book, published in 2009, puts forth the idea that fundamental distinction between the hemispheres lays in the modes of attention they give the world, delivering, as it were, two versions of our human sense of reality. Each version is valuable and they are in many senses complementary. They are also in opposition to each other.

McGilchrist proposes that what we want is for the two hemispheres to integrate their different takes on reality, to enhance each other’s strengths. One side, he believes, is meant to ground and guide the necessary but limited work of the other. The problem is, the two may be getting out of sync. He thinks that one version of reality – the less grounded one - has taken over to the extent that we don’t even notice what’s happening. It’s like the relationship between a wise ruler and her trusted emissary – the clever emissary was supposed to be carrying out the ruler’s mission, but now he’s run off with his own agenda. The emissary is running amok. And he may end up destroying us.

As the pandemic continues to threaten us, and the world moves further toward alarming patterns of technology, despoilation of nature, social unrest, and human alienation, his work is worth another look.

A Tale of Two Brains

This idea that our minds are operating on different tracks has been around for a while. For example, the notion of the conscious and the unconscious speaks to a mental division, as do more recent concepts like that outlined in Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

The brain is physically divided into different regions, such as top to bottom, and front to back, but McGilchrist is primarily concerned with the right/left division (though all are related).

The left hemisphere specializes in narrow focus. It tries to pin things down, looks for detail, and breaks things down into parts and categories. It likes rules and linear sequences, and goes for a sort of quick-and-dirty, just-the-facts approach, according to McGilchrist. The left side excels in the sort of homing-in attention that lets an animal grab a fruit, peck a seed, or chase a rabbit.

Significantly, the left side sees things according to their usefulness and figures out how to manipulate the world to its ends. It’s not too interested in relationships and can’t give us a sense of the whole, but it gives us the power to learn and make things. We need it to be human.

The left hemisphere can also lead us to places that begin to look inhuman. It acts as a kind of processing center, tending to get fixated on data, models, and maps, losing touch with the world around us if its findings don’t go back to the right hemisphere for context. In McGilchrist’s view, it has a kind of optimistic overconfidence about what it sees and constantly works to shut out anything that doesn’t agree with its narrow take on reality. It’s reductive, mechanistic, and self-referential, and it has an enormous capacity for denial. It’s also more tuned into anger and aggression than the right side. The left side doesn’t have a sense of humor.

The right hemisphere, in contrast, deals with a broader kind of attention. Where the left side’s goal is to manipulate things, the right tries to understand them in context, to see the big picture and how the parts fit into the whole. It pays attention to our relation to others, to whether they are friend or foe. The right side is more open, receptive, and aware of signals from surroundings. Its attention is more flexible and it attends to processes rather than fixed things. Its emotional modes are empathy and bonding. While the animal is chasing prey with laser-like focus, it still needs to maintain a larger awareness of what’s happening around it. It has to pay heed to the world in two ways at once.

McGilchrist thinks that because the right side is more interested in what exists “out there,” only it can bring us new information. The left hemisphere deals with what it already knows and therefore prioritizes the expected. This works well in routine situations, but less so when we need to revise our initial assumptions. The right hemisphere is better at shifting the frame.

“Because the left hemisphere is drawn by its expectations,” writes McGilchrist, “the right hemisphere outperforms the left whenever prediction is difficult.”

But don’t tell that to the left side – it thinks its predictions are always right.

Reasoning and Language

What about that idea that the left side is the part that enables our human ability to reason?

That’s not really the case, asserts McGilchrist, noting that reason didn’t pop out of nowhere. It evolved from and makes use of the kinds of perceptual and motor inferences present in other animals. Reason isn’t what separates us from other creatures, he posits. It places us on a continuum with them.

McGilchrist further observes that there are different kinds of reasoning. There’s the linear, sequential mode, which the left side does well, but there’s also intuitive reasoning, like deduction, and some types of mathematical reasoning, that are mainly dependent on the right hemisphere. The left side is involved in explicit reasoning, like problem-solving, while the right side is more about implicit reasoning, the ‘aha!’ moment that happens when our attention isn’t narrowly focused.

Contrary to what is commonly thought, language, too, is not solely a left-brain phenomenon.

McGilchrist believes that language probably developed first in the right hemisphere in the kinds of vocalizations and gestures our ancestors used before they had words—the sort many animals use, and a lot of languages still include. He speculates that music may be the ancestor of human language, arising as a means of communication with others and a way to create social cohesion.

Words and grammar, in his view, came later to help us not only to map the world, as some have suggested, but to manipulate it. We can communicate to someone else through a musical sound, like a whistle, but it’s much easier to engage with something removed from us in space and time, like an object or a tool, through words and sentences. McGilchrist speculates that the earlier, right-brained kind of language is oriented towards others, whereas the later, left-brained language is more about things.

The left side’s words let us categorize, memorize and be precise. They help us plan and turn us into bureaucrats, as some of the most ancient surviving written texts attest. Referential language also helps us bend other humans to our will — and gives us greater power to deceive them.

Not that manipulation is always a bad thing. Verbal and written language let us design stuff and change our environment, to build civilizations. But in McGilchrist’s view, the left hemisphere’s language is associated with the idea of grasping, which shows up in the way we talk about “getting hold of an idea” or “grasping a concept.” Referential language is linked to possession. When the relational element falls away, the sense of social cohesion withers.

The right side seems to engage with the part of language that binds us to emotion and embodied experience. That’s because language is not some kind of cognitive machine, insists McGilchrist, but an “inextricable part of an embodied, living organism” that develops through the “empathic process of intelligent imitation.” Babies learn language, he says, by imitating others, a right-brained strategy, not by deploying abstract rules, the way of the left brain.

So language is a hybrid of the strategies of the two sides. McGilchrist thinks that while its foundations lay in the right hemisphere, in the body and the world of experience, its referential aspect came over to the left side, where it performs important functions, but also tends to lose contact with reality, becoming “a self-consistent system of tokens,” as he puts it.

The left hemisphere’s reasoning and language may have serious limitations. The famous Paradox of Theseus helps explain how its habits can hamper us. This thought puzzle relates that the ship in which Theseus returned to Athens from Crete after he slew the Minotaur was preserved by the Athenians long after his death. Each time a plank of the ship rotted away the Athenians would replace it with a new one. After a long time, all of the original planks had been replaced. Was it the same ship or a different ship? Philosophers disagreed.

McGilchrist suggests that it’s only the left side of the brain that struggles with this paradox – the side oriented towards precision, linear logic, and pinning things down. The right hemisphere, attuned to fluidity, to the whole rather than the parts, and reasoning that is more intuitive, is okay with paradoxes and the notion that more than one thing can be true, depending on context. It appreciates that forms are fluid, ever-changing.

McGilchrist warns that we’ve become over-reliant on our left hemisphere, which tends to confound reality because it doesn’t consist of discrete parts and sequences. As Heraclitus suggested, reality instead flows like a river. We need the left hemisphere’s take on things to build a rocket or plan a harvest, and it lets us create useful maps. But are we getting the map mixed up with the territory, and consequently getting lost?

In and Out of Balance

McGilchrist sees the struggle of the left hemisphere for dominance playing out in human culture – a claim that some think may be a synapse too far. He claims that as individuals, we seem to use whichever hemisphere is better at a given task rather than shift between them. But sometimes we start out with the “wrong” hemisphere, and then tend to default to it. It’s a kind of winner-take-all phenomenon, which can lead to an overall bias that may eventually show up in and shape the culture at large.

He argues in favor of biological evidence that changes are potentially taking place in our physical brains. But even if you don’t find that idea compelling, he offers the notion of a battle in the bicameral brain as a useful metaphor (metaphor, by the way, is a right-side specialty). It helps us to see how certain strategies of perception and their attendant values not only shape the world, but shape us in turn. In McGilchrist’s view, our minds adapt to the culturally constructed world that we live in, and the structure of our brains also brings that world about. Our brains are then rewired to further adapt to the world they have created in an ongoing feedback loop.

Going back in history, McGilchrist discusses periods in which culture seems to reflect a desirable balance between the two hemispheric modes, like the Renaissance, in which art and science flourished together and were mutually influenced. During other periods, he sees domination by one hemisphere, such as the left-brained Enlightenment, challenged by a countermovement, in this case, the right-brained Romantic Revolution.

You can probably see where this is going. The Industrial Revolution, according to McGilchrist, is the point at which the left side really took off, leaving embodied reality so far behind that we may be in danger of losing it altogether. Faced today with Silicon Valley visions that leave our bodies and the Earth behind, this doesn’t seem to be an exaggeration.

McGilchrist stresses that the left hemisphere prefers the human-made rather than the organic because it prizes certainty, and we can be confident about the stuff we make, take apart, and put back together. Living phenomena, on the other hand, are mysterious and forever in flux. We can’t ever know them completely. Recall, the left brain prioritizes what it knows, so the human-made world wins. Winner takes all.

If attention changes the nature of what we find, and the left hemisphere’s attention is dominating our view of reality, then it’s no surprise that we’re increasingly orienting ourselves towards virtual worlds, towards maps rather than territories. Alone at our computers, we are atomized and detached – just the way the left brain likes it. The left hemisphere prefers a model of reality to reality itself – even if the model is a little uncanny. Or just plain wrong.

The left brain has contributed impressive technology and advances to human existence, but in the service of what, exactly? If it’s in the service of our happiness and well-being, there’s ample evidence that it is failing. Our success, McGilchrist reminds us, is not just about manipulating our environment, but in living fulfilling lives and creating close-knit societies. In addition to reaching out to grasp, we need to reach out.

But he sees our hemispheric imbalance starting early in our education, moving rapidly from the right-sided activities of storytelling and play in early childhood to instruction that is increasingly left-brained, technical, competitive, and abstract — all STEM and no wisdom. We move away from our embodied, relational selves into our heads and our screens, perhaps never to return.

The Case of Economics

The field of economics is an interesting case to consider in light of McGilchrist’s work, and something he has touched upon in discussions subsequent to the publication of his book.

Economics is a child of the Enlightenment and influenced by the mechanistic view of the world laid out in Newtonian physics, emerging at a time when thinkers were preoccupied with finding unchangeable rules for how everything worked. The discipline started out embedded in the human context of moral philosophy. In the work of moral philosopher Adam Smith we can see what McGilchrist might view as an attempt to balance right and left hemisphere perspectives. Smith was the author of both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations. But his first work was soon forgotten and his later book became a touchstone of the Enlightenment period and fundamental to our own era.

Economists made use of machine models and mechanistic perspectives, and, just as McGilchrist describes as the modus operandi of the left hemisphere, ended up with a propensity to see everything in those terms. Start out with a hammer, and everything looks like a nail. Human beings become atomistic “rational actors” behaving in their economic self-interest instead of relational beings embedded in various social contexts, their motivations and behavior forever fluctuating.

Economists became fixated on what turned out to be flawed models of reality, aiming at achieving certainty, but instead slipping further and further into a narrow perspective that caused them to miss the big picture. Somewhere along the way, they got trapped in a self-referential hall of mirrors, discovering more of what they already knew, resistant to ambiguity and the fluidity and complexity of reality.

Exhibit A: the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8. Most prominent economists missed what was coming in their elaborate predictive models. Hadn’t they prioritized models at the expense of experience? It certainly looks as if an overconfident faith in markets (recall the left side’s blithe arrogance) had blinded them to their obvious failures and the greater human and environmental context in which markets manifest and operate.

Among physicists, work in quantum mechanics and ideas like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle had made practitioners more comfortable with ambiguity at the core of the universe. In philosophy, too, there was a move away from the left-hemisphere-like division of mind/body, subject/ object that held sway in the West from Plato until the nineteenth century.

But economists, particularly those of the Neoclassical tradition, kept going for false clarity. They were assertive and predictive instead of questioning and provisional. They stuck to their models, and still often stick to them today, no matter how many times they are proven wrong.

Some economists, like New York University’s Roman Frydman, who works on the concept of imperfect knowledge with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, have been trying to bring what McGilchrist would describe as more right-hemisphere insights and approaches into economics, but they are still vastly outnumbered. Economics departments are still dominated by left-hemisphere strategies, by decontextualized and disembodied thinking, by models and algorithms that can get reality spectacularly wrong. The discipline is insular and self-referential, keeping itself too isolated from other fields. Just the way the left side likes it.

Economists appear to be the clever emissaries of academe. Running the show but running amok, too often deaf to the master’s wisdom.

Into the Light of Things

If the two hemispheres are battling for supremacy, the question arises: which side are we on? If McGilchrist is correct, we should be on the side of both, in favor of balance.

But if we continue to let the emissary run rampant, he warns, we may end up in a very nihilistic place – buried alive in algorithmic procedures, virtualized existence, expanded bureaucracy, and a disenchanted, fragmented world where we are stranded in a permanent state of unfulfilled desire, so bored and alienated that we spend our time seeking novelty or numbing ourselves further. We keep on reducing the world to a commodity, exploiting natural resources, and becoming more miserable in the process. We worship what John Ruskin called “The Goddess of Getting On,” forgetting the wonder of our embodied being and Ruskin’s reminder that “the only wealth is life.” We reduce our fellow human beings to units and statistics, and become willing to sacrifice them to “the economy,” as the pandemic has illustrated. Or simply interact with avatars and robots.

If we want to bring the right hemisphere back into its proper place as the master of our minds and the wise influencer of our reality, then we have to take care of what we pay attention to, and how. We attune ourselves to a different, more open, and flexible kind of seeing. We refuse to let the left hemisphere shut down our options. We attend to intersubjectivity, empathy, and patient attention. We use narrative and metaphor and always strive to see the bigger picture. We attend to self-other interactions, to relationships, and to relational values. We tap into communal wisdom and the knowledge of cultures outside the West that are not so left-sided in their approach to the world. We strive to have contact with nature and other people, with everything that exists outside ourselves.

“There needs to be a process of reintegration,” writes McGilchrist, “where we are brought into the experiential world again.”

Or, as William Wordsworth, a right-sider if there ever was one, once put it, we “Come forth into the light of things.”

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