Left and Right Brains — the delusion and pride of left-brain dominated thinking
This post from James started out as private correspondence (which I, Barb, was privy to) between James and a mutual friend of ours. It focussed on “Power corrupts”, what gets corrupted and how.
When politicians and pastors exercise extreme control, they use their authority to mislead, coerce, micro-manage and oppress people. In this post, James discusses the kind of defective thinking which breeds extreme control. He examines the roles of the two hemispheres of the brain and what happens when the left hemisphere becomes overly dominant.
James wrote this letter before Covid-19 and our various reactions to it. Much has changed for us in our religious, social, economic and political lives since then but the corrupting effect of power remains the same.
So, with James permission, here is his letter.
Dr. Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and former teacher of literature at university, spent twenty years of researching to write his book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. (In case you’re curious, ‘The Master’ is the right brain and ‘His Emissary’ is the left brain – the logic part.) He claims that Western Civilisation is captured by Left Brain thinking and this capture will be our collective undoing.
Our major institutions, governments, legal systems, corporations and media are all driven by this Left Brain thinking and its maxims beginning with, “We are in Authority, therefore We know best”!
Our institutions have demonstrated major short comings in integrating today’s decisions with the long term survival of our culture and perhaps our existence.
Left brain thinking includes logic which some, but not all, people can use. But this left hemisphere also caters for self interest and short-term solutions which can be a problem if the left brain operates without the holistic-minded right brain. This unbalanced brain displays a crass certainty about itself. Prompting the expression, “Power Corrupts”.
Tragically, the institution that has the capacity and the teachings to reverse this suicidal direction of society, the Christian Church, has also been captured by this same distorted perspective. It is a short shortsightedness which I hope to explain in the following paragraphs.
When talking about left and right brain functions it sounds like there is a very clear demarcation between the hemispheres and the functions. In fact, both hemispheres are usually involved in most functions but one hemisphere will be dominant. So for our purposes it is easier to talk as if they are completely separate and exclusive. While not accurate, this makes for a useful metaphor. (I will use the words ‘hemisphere’ and ‘brain’ interchangeably.)
Having said that, I will illustrate the differences using the example of a bird. A bird does, in fact, have completely separate functions between left and right brains or hemispheres. The essential difference between the hemispheres is one of focus or attention; one is ‘far sighted’ and one is ‘near sighted’. Or one sees the overall picture and one see the particular detail.
In a bird, this far and nearsightedness is literally true rather than metaphorically true as it is for humans. Each eye is wired to the opposite hemisphere in the brain and each eye serves completely different functions which reflect the different functions of the hemispheres.
A bird’s right eye is wired to the left hemisphere and it uses this eye to search for seeds or worms to eat and twigs to build a nest with. While it is doing this, the left eye which is wired to the right brain is scanning the environment for threats and opportunities. This arrangement allows the bird to search for lunch while avoiding becoming the someone else’s lunch.
From memory, the above illustration comes from Dr Iain McGilchrist. To give another illustration of how the left and right brains differ, I’ll use the experience of watching a movie. This is my understanding, so if it proves to be wrong you can blame me and not Dr McGilchrist.
Imagine you are watching a movie on DVD or online and you are enthralled in it. You are totally drawn into the story. You are watching the main characters and how they are relating to each other. You are involved and experiencing the drama with them. You are using your right brain to do this.
There are lots of details in the background set and the actors have costumes. You are somewhat aware of all this but as it all blends into the story you don’t find any particular detail a distraction. Your subconscious mind is taking in all these millions of bits of information which you are hardly aware of but they are registering somewhere in your brain never-the-less.
Then suddenly something alerts you to something wrong with the movie. What was it? Something is not right. Something doesn’t fit with the story. The spell is broken. We have a contradiction somewhere.
So you stop the movie and rewind it a little to see what it was. There it is! Was that a motor car in the background in this Roman times historical movie? Now you advance the movie one frame at a time to be sure that it was a car you saw. Now you are using your left brain to focus in on a problem just like the bird does using its right eye and left brain to pick out the seed on the ground.
I will make a small diversion here to explain the role of the subconscious. The subconscious cannot think in negatives, only positives i.e. what exists and not what doesn’t exist. It doesn’t understand “Jim Blogs is not a paedophile”. It thinks ‘Jim Blogs’ and ‘paedophile’ and puts them together.
Neither can it deal with abstractions because abstractions do not exist in the physical world. They exist in the mind to help understand the world. The subconscious learns by association. A major function of the subconscious mind is to keep watch on the world to see that all is well. When all is not as it should be, when there is a contradiction in the information coming in, the subconscious mind communicates with the conscious mind through the body. These communications are sometimes called ‘gut reactions’ or ‘intuitive feelings’. They are very real reactions to very real information, albeit subconscious information. The purpose is to engage the right brain which has been looking at the overall picture and to convey that something is wrong with this picture.
The right brain (McGilchrist’s “Master”) engages left brain (“His Emissary”) to look closely at whatever it is that is causing the subconscious to react through the body and report back to the right brain. The left brain is able to determine what is going on in reality through using logic. The particular form of logic used in this case is Inductive Logic, otherwise known as the Scientific Method.
The left hemisphere, having deciphered what is wrong and what is the reality of the particular situation, then conveys the conclusion to the right brain which then integrates the new information into its overall understanding of the world (or the movie) and then makes whatever adjustments are necessary. So, the left brain is a very useful tool of the right brain in a properly functioning brain or mind.
But sometimes the left brain gets enamoured with its own ability to determine truth in particular situations and thinks it can determine the truth of everything all by itself and does not hand the reins back to the right brain. Delusions and certainty about those delusions follows.
Now, to appreciate how the left and right brains differ in the way they process reality, imagine watching that movie again one still frame at a time and analyzing the changes frame to frame. This is what the left brain does using its analysis. By the time you got to the end, you would not be able to tell anyone what the story was about, what emotions the characters experienced or even the point of the movie at all. But you would know an awful lot about the costumes, the settings, the lighting, the changes in location — all the details. And if it is an unbalanced left brain, it will think it knows all there is to know about the movie. It is not aware of what it is not aware of. (Dunning-Kruger Effect)
To be able to talk about the movie as a story and talk about why you spent the time and the money to go and see it, you have to see it rolling. It needs to be animated and moving. It needs to come alive, in other words. So it is with right brain thinking. We can only really appreciate life, emotions, and meaning from experiencing life at ‘rolling’ speed taking in a deluge of information but picking out the important stuff; the ‘life’ as it were.
But if after stopping the movie to examine each frame, the left brain does not hand control back to the right brain to resume watching the movie in ‘play’ mode, we have a major problem. The left brain thinks, “I had better keep control to make sure there are no more problems with the rest of the movie.”
The ‘life’ in the movie dies and the whole point in watching it disappears. So it is with controlling politicians and pastors with our societies and churches.
For further viewing, reading and listening
The Divided Brain Documentary featuring Iain McGilchrist with actor-comedian John Cleese of “Monty Python”, neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor of TED Talks fame, pioneering neuroscientist Dr. Michael Gazzaniga, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, neuroscientist Jurg Kesselring, Aboriginal elder and scientist Dr. Leroy Little Bear, neuroscientist Onur Gunturkun, and – brains!
The Master and his Emissary: the divided brain and the reshaping of Western civilisation – interview with Iain McGilchrist on ABC radio.
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