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Empathy and Politics


It’s Saturday. The sun is out. It’s early and my malaise hasn’t yet caught up with me, so I will try to post something. Ever since I “retired” from my active role as an academic researcher and teacher, I have been on a quest to discover what makes me and the world work the way they do. I put me first because I think I need to figure myself out before I can do the same for the world. Toward this end, I even taught a course on the history of the “self” at my life-long learning institute.

My last few posts signal that I have come upon a powerful story that goes a long way to answer that question. In part only, as it describes the engine that shapes who we are, the brain, but not the individual output, that is, my own self or identity. McGilchrist’s model (see the last several posts) of the divided brain is complex, but can be summarized in this relatively simple statement: “Each hemisphere of the brain constructs a distinct world, one connecting to the present; the other to the past. Our identity depends on which one tends to control our behavior.”

The right side presents the present world to us as a living system, rich in interconnections and unique objects. The left to a flattened world with some of the same objects, but taken out of the rich context as separate parts, appearing only as categorical abstractions. I, as a self, show up to others differently depending on which hemisphere is in charge. I am using self only in a metaphorical sense to help me continue today’s story. My body expresses whatever the brain wants me to do no matter which side is in charge, but the nature of that expression differs distinctly. So let me talk about a left-brain self (LBS) and a right-brain self (RBS) to describe the two different persons that will be observed by others. Any such assessment must be made over a long period because the source of any single event is difficult to ascertain, unless the actor is asked for an explanation.

The RBS’s actions are specific to the present scene, reflecting a connectedness to the objects it contains. They are empathetic, coming from an understanding of the objects in their contextual situatedness. People show up as live individuals, each with a set of feelings and beliefs, just as does the RBS. If asked later to explain the action, the RBS will point to herself as the source of the beliefs and strategies. Explanations will tend to be pragmatic, focusing of the possibility that the chosen action would work.

The LBS’s actions are also related to the present scene, but may lack contextual specificity that results in undesired outcomes. They are routine, coming from abstract knowledge acquired through past experience. People show up as bundles of abstract attributes. If asked later to explain the action, the LBS will point to a general other as the source of the beliefs and strategies. Explanations will tend to be analytic, focusing of the probability that the chosen action would work.

McGilchrist makes a connection between individual hemispheric dominance and the general character of the society comprised by the individuals, arguing that modern life today reflects left-brain dominance. A quick scan of the primary societal institutions leads to an affirmation. Capitalism is conceptually a machine in which certain categories—capital (money), labor (people) and resources (the Earth) interact to produce increasing amounts of material goods and more wealth (money). All the categories are commodities, simply material objects with certain attributes. The contextual reality of both people and the Earth has been removed from the concept and its manifestation in practice. The contextual reality of inequality, that is the effects on real people, simply is not present. Smith’s model of the invisible hand is another abstraction behind the right side of the political spectrum, ironically because it represents the LBS.

Education, beginning at an early age, is designed to beef up the LBS. STEM training (not education in a right-brain sense) is pushing out music and art, both located in the right. In my lifetime, employment has shifted from an empathetic basis where workers were recognized as individuals with a life outside of work to mere commodities to be hired and fired at will, based largely, if not entirely, on their economic value. Many politicians have become economic actors, responding to the wishes of those whose wealth controls the electoral process. More and more people get their “information” from the Internet and “communicate” through some form of “social” media. The quotes are deliberate to indicate that these processes remove context and present a diminished view of the world and other human beings.

Empathetic understanding and behavior have taken a big hit from these modern institutions and technologies. Without it, social coherence is all but impossible to create and maintain. The social capital of Robert Putnam depends on it. Trust disappears as it has, not only between individuals but between individuals and collective institutions, particularly government and media, but also others like public schools, CEO, big Pharma and so on. Trust between individuals is built on specific past experience, but, in general, arises out of an empathetic sense of the other as sharing your own beliefs and norms. As the left-brain grows in dominance, empathy declines and trust follows.

It is pretty clear that the US world is not working well by any standard except economic growth— the epitome of abstractions. More left-brain derived solutions from any place in the political spectrum are unlikely to provide relief. People will continue feel alienated, even as the dissatisfactions of everyday concern may be lessened. A job will surely help the unemployed, but the nature of the job does matter. Money is itself an abstraction that without the proper context cannot feed the whole person, only the stomach.

Lack of empathy, given the divided brain model, is a pretty good indicator of very strong left-brain dominance. LBS’s see others as mere objects with some kind of attributes, positive or negative depending on the viewer’s own set of values. Perhaps this is a route to try to understand mass murder. The victims of mass murderer’s are mere objects. This is true for isolated crimes such as occurred in Las Vegas and in organized murder by religious and political factions. Ideology is another name for particularly powerful abstractions residing in the left-brain.

I believe that there is a clue in this model for those dedicating all or a part of their lives to making the world a better place. New ideas might help, but not likely; most will simply reinforce the dominance of the left-brain. Change that begins to restore the dominance of the right-brain offers a better shot at solving the issues of alienations and distrust that pervade the social atmosphere today. Bring government back to the scale where real people are represented. Stop allowing business to grow at the expense of small enterprises that are built upon relationships. Yes, this means to drop left-brain concepts like efficiency that ignore the reality of individual lives. The New Agers of the 70’s had a lot right, but got diverted into the realm of religion.

Part of the malaise I mentioned at the beginning of this post comes from the sense of enormity that I get in thinking and writing about this topic. Changing beliefs is difficult but can be done through both argument and evidence, but deliberately changing the way our brain works has never been done on a large scale. I see the growth of mindfulness training as part of an incipient sense that all is not right in the home or the office. But this growth is largely fueled by left-brain concerns over effectiveness in the workplace or other instrumental objectives. This and other ways to strengthen the right-brain’s muscle are much more critical to keeping the world from blowing apart than all the firepower and ideological “solutions” being played with today.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 7, 2017 1:40 PM ::

Comments Please, But Read This First

spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of "recent posts" list on the right hand side. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 7, 2017 8:56 AM ::

Some Advice to Our Political Leaders, But Not the Usual Kind


The Trump election and Presidency have exposed some serious flaws in the system of morality and laws that underpin our country. Both of these foundations are pretty good, but not good enough to maintain a fair and just order in these modern times. My recent exposure to the divided brain model of McGilchrist keeps me awake at nights with new insights about the world and myself. Since, other than news about Harvey and Irma and other tragedies, there is little to read in the news except the present follies in Washington. I do see our political system these days more and more as folly. I do not read anything that seems to me reflects an understanding of our socio-political-economic-environmental world. I should not even use these adjectives since it is simply “the world” that has been elusive, but I expect that few would really get my point without the modifiers.

So, I am going to make a stab at pointing to the nub of the problems that are facing us. Our modern way of thinking and acting no longer reflects the world out there and is doomed to cause more harm than good. Our ability to access the world out there has shriveled under the onslaught of modern institutions and we have become overly reliant on our theories about it, theories that unfortunately cannot fit the complexity of the everyday, forever changing “real” world. What I mean is that successful coping with the world requires that our mental representation fit it well enough so that our intentions are met closely enough to allow us to muddle through and, on occasions, even, to flourish.

That is not happening these days and I think I know why. The world shows up in our brain in two distinct ways and the wrong one is running our individual and collective lives. I have been outlining McGilchrist’s divided brain theory in the last several posts. I encourage you to go and read some of them, but here’s the gist of my argument. The right brain captures the present world, the one that is captures by the senses. However it is actually represented there, the “picture” is organic, context-rich, alive, and as close to truly mimicking what is actually out there as is possible for the brain to do. It is never exactly the same as Descartes would have us believe, but it is the best we can do.

Conversely, the left-brain contains representation of past situations, abstracted from their organic wholeness. Whatever images are contained have been removed from the contexts in which they had been embedded when previously encountered. The left is the home of our beliefs about the world, both the human and non-human pieces. Both categories have theories to explain their behaviors attached. For non-human objects, like planets, the abstractions usually work quite well because these objects tend to behave the same way in all contexts. That’s why normal, natural science works so well; it provides decontextualized theories. But for humans, similar beliefs coming from the social sciences do not have the same universality. Context always matters for human behavior, even where the richness of the real world has been controlled and diminished by design. (More about this later)

Most of our lives is spent in institutional settings where our actions are shaped by the rules of the game. Rules are simple abstractions (beliefs) that we have invented out of past successes or have been given to us by some authority, and have embodied in the left-brain. Some of our beliefs point to winning strategies within institutional settings. Institutions are always familiar once we have become socialized to them. So far this sounds like it fits the left-brain. Correct. The left-brain is the source of behavior in “familiar” situations. Familiar means that the perceived incoming sensory signals tell the right-brain that this scene is something that the left-brain already knows how to handle; it is meaningful. The right is always the first to “see” whatever is out there at the moment. If it finds meaning in it, it sends it over to the left, expecting the left to do the “right” thing. Social life depends on this process. If we could not anticipate behaviors, institutional life would quickly grind to a halt.

This normal process, however, does not always work and there’s the rub. The right brain may send something over to the left with a message to act as usual, but the usual turns out badly because the world out there did not quite fit the context that the right used to create meaning. Unintended consequences show up, sometimes small, but occasionally serious. This is true for individual behavior as well as collective behavior. We are all familiar with the feeling of “oops.” Our left-brain just tried something that might have fit another time, but not this case. The same thing is true of collective, social organizations. They can be considered, metaphorically, to have a brain, just like individuals with one huge exception. Collective brains have only a left-hemisphere (or to continue the metaphor, two left-hemispheres). They work only on the basis of beliefs that have been created from the past or have been set forth by some authority.

Since the world changes from moment to moment, the left-brain is always flirting with unintended consequences and failures. The mental models that organizational theorists try to change are situated in the left-brain of organizations (see, for example, Senge or Argyris and Schön) Whenever the world changes to something new and unfamiliar, that is, lacks meaning, the right takes over. It is responsible for coming up with some action that allows the actor(s) to successfully cope with the situation and move along. Even in collective situations, it is always an individual who comes up with new, right-brain-derived possibilities. The right works on an organically whole picture of the world of the moment. It examines the interconnected assembly of parts, rather than separate them, gathering context in the process. Objects in the picture are not abstracted; people, especially, show up as live, unique individuals. I suspect pet animals also are seen as unique living creatures.

Familiarity is again important, but now it is familiarity in a contextual sense, expressed as relationships between the actor and the objects in the picture of the world. Ruth is in the picture right now, not just my spouse. I am talking to Andy, not just my student. McGilchrist speaks about the “betweenness” of this relationship. The actor I am at the moment is situated somewhere between Andy out there and my sense of him in the right-hemisphere. When the left-brain is in charge, the betweenness vanishes; the world has become entirely embodied. The authentic “I” has lost the connection to the world. It’s as if a computer in my head was automatically tending to the world.

In these new situations, the right is in a bit of a pickle. If it sends it over to the left, it will come bouncing back because it will not fit any of the abstractions stored there. I haven’t quite figured out what McGilchrist says about this case, but I’ll take a guess. One of the features that distinguishes the right from the left is its ability to use metaphor to translate one situation into another; everyone has a poet in this part of the brain. The left is limited to using language literally; it has built a dictionary over the years. The right uses its metaphorical powers to create a new, meaningful situation from the puzzling scene in its view, and uses it as the basis of eliciting action from the left. The outcome of this process always has only a possibility of success since there was no precedent and no theorizing involved. The richer the context available to the right-brain, the more likely the chosen action will fit and be recognized as a success.

I am going to stop here for a couple of reasons. This post has gotten to be very long and complicated. The implications of this interpretation of how the mind works are huge and demand any number of posts. But a couple of hints today. In non-institutional situations involving human interactions, that is, non-routine behaviors, empathy is essential to provide the critical sense of aliveness and uniqueness that differentiates humans from other animals. As the scale and depth of institutions gets larger, empathetic relationships become more problematic, creating the kind of alienation so prevalent today. Even in institutional settings, humans want to be seen as autonomous individuals. I believe that the most important thing political parties must do to be successful today is to restore empathy to government institutions and processes. Tip O’Neill was spot on in saying that “all politics is local.” I am not sure he understood why; I believe it is because the empathetic relationships that bind people together are easier to create at smaller scales.

As long as I am talking about government, next, take a lesson from the Greeks who saw prudence or wisdom as the key to governance. Wisdom is the virtue that rests on the ability to perceive contextual differences about the world and find effective coping actions, as I described above for the right-brain. Find the metaphors that create possibility.

The third is directed to the world of high tech. Stop building devices that rob the world of context. Use your smarts to do the opposite. “Friends” has no existential meaning without historical context to bring them alive against a background of dead abstractions. Finally, stop trying to “think” your way out of problems. I put think in quotes because I believe that we use the words today almost entirely in a left-brain sense, especially in collective situations. Solutions based on positive knowledge, all left-brain stuff, need to be augmented or replaced by pragmatic findings. Pragmatism involves right-brain processes, keeping the immediate world present until the some individual finds a new, promising possibility, but always based on some metaphorical transformation that breaks the existing stalemate.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 10, 2017 8:45 PM ::

More Politics and the Brain


I’m stuck in my thinking about the brain as my posts surely are showing. I can’t help seeing its separate hemispheres in people’s actions and personalities. At the same time, I cannot get over how powerful this model is in coming up with cogent explanations for what I see. Most people I know directly or observe through the media seem to have relatively balanced brains with the right and left acting together to avoid dominant extreme behavior. As McGilchrist takes great pains to point out in his book, The Master and His Emissary, both hemispheres need to be engaged into order to act effectively over the long run.

It’s critical that our actions, individually and collectively, reflect the real world out there. It decides whether or not our plans, choices, and actions will turn out to be the way we thought and hoped they would be. Mistaking the menu for the meal will provide neither nutrition nor enjoyment. All the theories coming from the smartest of people will not work satisfactorily if they deviate too far from the reality of the world out there. It follows then that the right brain is essential to success in life for it is the side that captures the real world, the present moment. It never gets it all exactly right, but does what the left-brain cannot do, present the world outside to the brain.

The left is the repository of the past. It collects chunks from one’s experience, but unlike the right’s holistic view, its contents are abstracted, decontextualized, partial remnants. It is the home of one’s beliefs and theories. They are there because they have been extracted from past successes or failures in attempts to prepare for the future. There is no guarantee that these remnants will fit a new situation, however. Every future moment a human encounters is likely to be different from the past in some details, that is, the context of what appears to be central differs from the scene from which the pieces being recalled were created.

It should be clear that both sides are needed. Much of our life is spent in institutional settings where the context tends to be relatively constant. The players are known; the rules have been set; the proven strategies are clear; and so on. Here the left-brain provides the continuity and certainty that enables social life to go on. It allows us to solve the small problems that still arise because the context is not quite like the past moment I draw from. Cultures as diverse as ours has become over the ages would be impossible without this cognitive feature.

But life is not always a close repetition of the past. We encounter new situations all the time. We also may find that our tried-and-true left-brain strategies stop working after periods of success. Systems dynamics call these: fixes-that-fail. This is when the right-brain must ride to the rescue. It recognizes the situation as new, needing some new approach. It has resources of its own. Metaphor is one of the most powerful. Unlike the left-brain for which language is literal (a horse is always a horse), the right-brain can use metaphor to seek alternate ways of interpreting the situation (a horse is a strong animal) and thus call on other possibilities that might work or not.

The right is okay with possibility where the left always needs certainty; it will not try anything that does not have a known history of working at least some of the time (probability). In adults, the left-brain is always available, but the right-brain may not be. The left may have become so dominant that new situations (reality) are treated as instances of the past complete with strategies that are not always appropriate. Persistent lying is a strong indicator of left-brain dominance. Lying is a deliberate strategy of the left to shut out the right, but insisting on some “reality” that is comfortable, but is far from what is actually present. Systems dynamics has a fancy name for lying, either shifting the burden or addiction. Both are patterns of behavior that reflect a failure to acknowledge or understand the present reality. Shifting-the-burden refers to a continuing refusal to let the right-brain in so that finding new possibilities that might work are shut out. Addiction is the same except that the continued use of the same left-brain strategy leads to new problems that now much also be addressed. Alcoholics ignore whatever is leading them to drink, but also, overtime, creates new issues, health damage and social dysfunction.

Lying is a particular form of addiction in the President’s case. It clearly indicates an unwillingness to recognize what most others would claim is the real situation. This rules out any possibility of action that fits the world as seen by others. It also creates other problems, like loss of trust and respect, both essential qualities in leaders at all levels. Left-brain dominance shows up in one’s language. While the left-brain appears to be home to the mechanics of language, the right is the home of meaning. The prevalence of using language and actions pointing back the speaker is also a left-brain attribute; only the speaker/actor is at work. The reality of the present moment is missing. Narcissism, as such patterns are called by psychologists, is also a form of addiction, dominant left-brain activities.

Another feature of left-brain dominance is lack of empathy, a critical skill in one’s ability for interpersonal relationships. Empathy is a basic right-brain function arising from its ability to capture the present moment with its entire context. In this case, the context includes the conditions and mental states of other within the ambit of the present moment. Lack of empathetic understanding forces the action over to the left-brain with all the same problems I have been writing about.

The right-brain is the only part that can deal with complexity, that is, systems of many interconnected parts. Here context is critical as complex systems behave in often strange and unpredictable ways. An understanding of the whole is critical to create actions that are most likely to work, that is, to achieve the intentions of the actors. A missing right-brain virtually guarantees that something will be missed and the proposed actions will not lead to the desired results. Even when the right-brain is engaged, complex systems pose serious difficulties to anyone attempting to deal with them. Often the problems being faced are, themselves, the results of over-reliance on left-brain strategies.

There are other important features of the hemispheres that show up in behaviors, but I have chosen to highlight these because they point to an abnormal balance of the hemispheres, an imbalance with serious implications for the Country and even the World. Virtually every issue that reaches the President’s office is complex and demands right-brain attention. Without it, decisions are limited to the disconnected, inwardly focused past. The most important feature of governance, known since the time of the Greeks is prudence or wisdom. While many pages have been written to define and describe wisdom, I see it as a direct reference to the right-brain at work. Wisdom is the ability to capture the present moment in its entire context and make the right move. The richer the perception of reality is, the larger the possibility that the act will work.

Trump’s brain is not going to change. He cannot learn to be different, as many hoped would happen. Waiting for this to happen is a left-brained thought, a denial of reality. Never has there been a more critical time for the other two branches of our government to put petty politics aside. I know it is impossible to put politics entirely aside, but we cannot afford the pettiness of the present. If wisdom does not start to show up somewhere outside of the Oval Office, there is no way to act with any confidence that the act is right for the future of the nation. Maybe it’s too much to ask everyone to read McGilchrist’s book, but not to start thinking about what I am writing. Relying on fuzzy diagnostic medical terms as a predictor of behavior is unreliable, especially from afar, but an analysis based on this model of the brain seems to be much more definitive, given the mass of data available from the media.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 5, 2017 5:11 PM ::

A Few Things


It’s getting harder and harder to find anything good to write about. New situations do show up most of the days, but what is getting written about them is usually the same old same old. What is most bothersome is what is not being written about. The President, even though he is expert at getting the headlines, is not the whole story. I even wonder sometimes whether there is some strategy here. “Keep the limelight on me while the destruction goes on mostly unnoticed. I can get attention to my executive orders, allowing my people at the helms of the Departments to clean house.”

The newish slogan of the Washington Post, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” carries an ominous message. The lack of transparency, secrecy, and outright lying are obvious forms of keeping us in the dark, but keeping us in the shadows is another way to achieve the same result. Blinding us by the brilliance of the news, measured in effects on the eyes not the brain, hides what is going on outside the light. I am finding that the stories below the fold (metaphorically because there is no fold on the screen) are often the ones to pay close attention to.

One of these is about a nurse who was arrested for doing the right thing. An emergency room nurse refused to draw blood from an unconscious patient brought in by the police after a serious accident. She was following the protocols that require a warrant under the circumstances that prevented the patient from giving consent. She was handcuffed and taken away. I have since read that two police personnel have been placed on leave, but do not have any other details. The thought that I had on thinking about this and other incidents involving actions of the police is that. If we are really serious about maintaining law and order, the very first requirement is that the police know the laws they are supposed to enforce.

Our laws both enclose the guilty and protect the innocent. In much case where the line between these two is not obvious to all, the law requires some form of due process. In the heat of the moment, that is often inconvenient, but still the law. The recklessness of the President and condoning of lying seems to have sent a message that police can ignore the law. Such irony, a “law and order” President foments acts of lawlessness either by ignorance, carelessness or intent.

Still looking below the fold, the President’s second trip to Texas got more positive headlines, marking him as the “empathizer-in-chief. I had to laugh. If you read my last post about how the brain works, you would have seen, at the end, my argument that Trump’s brain is so configured that empathy is not something he is capable of. The banality of his off-the-cuff comments during the visit adds evidence that he cannot capture the real world. Here’s a few sentences from the Slate website:

He then went even further and suggested there was some sort of silver lining to the disaster that has flooded the country’s fourth most-populous city. “As tough as this was, it’s been a wonderful thing. I think even for the country to watch and for the world to watch. It’s been beautiful,” the president told reporters. “Have a good time everybody, I’m going to be doing a little help over here.” He didn’t mention the dead.

There is nothing beautiful to be found in Texas right now. Yes, there are certainly stories of heroism and care, but beautiful indicates a complete failure to capture the devastation.

Summer is winding down. We will be heading back to Lexington at the end of this week. With less distraction from Mother Nature, I will try (I promise) to keep up this blog. I am still awaiting word from the potential publisher on the fate of my book.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 3, 2017 5:47 PM ::

Attention, the Brain, and the President


“Attention” has been in the news more than usual lately. Among the many mental features of President Trump written about every day is his short attention span. Besides the obvious issue in taking in the necessary inputs to confront the complex problems that merit his action, inability to pay attention is a sign of how his brain works. Attention is name for the complex processes by which the brain takes in and processes inputs from the senses. Attention determines what kind of world shows up and, consequently, how we act and the kind of person we are seen to be. According to Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary: (See my last few posts for more about his divided brain model.)

Attention is not just another ‘function’ alongside other cognitive functions. Its ontological status is of something prior to functions and even to things. The kind of attention we bring to bear an the world changes the nature of the world we attend to, the very nature of the world in which those ‘functions’ would be carried out, and in which those ‘things’ would exist. Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world. If you are my friend, the way in which I will attend to you will be different from the way in which I would attend to you if you were my employer, my patient, the suspect in a crime I am investigating, my lover, my aunt … . And yet nothing objectively has changed… . It brings into being a world and, with it, depending on its nature, a set of values.

We can think of attention as the connection between the brain and the world outside. For Descartes, the connection was simple, a picture of the outside world was painted onto the mind, as if it were a mirror of whatever it captured in its purview. McGilchrist and others see the connection as more complicated. The world that is captured depends on which hemisphere is engaged. Before going further, the reason for focusing on the divided brain in this post is that one should be able to tell much about people by observing the nature of their attention. The divided brain model has not become the standard model in cognitive science, but I find it sufficiently compelling to use it to explain important facets of the behavior of modern humans and Western society. I have already posted some of the following information about the divided brain model, but it is sufficiently unfamiliar, but important, that I am repeating parts of it here.

The structure of the human brain is the product of evolution like the rest our bodies. Like many other creatures, the bulk of its neurons is divided into two hemispheres. One primary difference between the two is how they pay attention to the world and translate it into some sort of internal correspondence. In lower forms of life, one hemisphere tends to be focused narrowly on isolated object, like food. The other takes a longer, broader stance and is important in social activities. Humans exhibit the same general pattern.

The right’s attention is broad, persistent, and flexible; the left’s is narrow and focused. The left hemisphere stores and accesses images and information that re-present worlds from the past. Its domain is non-living, static, mechanistic, composed of abstractions, and ready to be controlled. The organic worlds of the right have become divided and abstracted; real people and things become categorized and lifeless; and the implicit context-richness of the right is dissected and explicated. Its attention to the world is focused and narrow. Its metaphorical self divides the coherent world of the right; grasps and holds to the parts; wants to control the immediate world situation; seeks predictability and certainty; avoids and is uncomfortable with uncertainty; values abstractions and categories over real things; uses conceptual, rationalistic process to arrive as conclusions; stores public information; and acts inauthentically.

In the broader context of my work, flourishing can become present at times when humans are fully engaged with the world, living in the present moment, as some might say. At such times our attention is sustained, taking in both the object of our attention and its worldly context. The meaningfulness that always accompanies flourishing depends on both the focal subject and its context. All of these features, according to Ian McGilchrist are associated with the right hemisphere. McGilchrist is careful to point out that both hemispheres are always involved in consciousness and associated intentional action, but flourishing and the dominance of the right are always linked.

But back to the present moment and the persistence of the short attention span on the President. What follows is my interpretation of McGilchrist’s model and its implications for predicting human behavior. That the conclusions bear an uncanny resemblance to the actual behavior of the President is more than merely coincidental, I believe.

The lack of sustained attention is a strong indicator that the right hemisphere is not being engaged and that the left is driving action. This means that connections to the present situation are weak, and consequently that actions are being driven largely by whatever worldviews have already been internalized. The constant claim of “fake news” takes on more than simply a strategic sense; it is a deep-seated mentality. McGilchrist devoted a whole chapter to the “triumph of the left hemisphere,” but let me quote just a few lines that have sent shivers up my spine.

Although the left brain does not see and cannot understand what the right brain understands, it is expert at pretending that it does, at finding quite plausible, but bogus, explanations for the evidence that does fit its versions of events.

How many times has Trump said something like “I alone can…”? Another sentence or two from the book: “The left is not keen on taking responsibility. If the defect might reflect on the self, it does not like to accept it.” Seen evidence of this, perhaps?

What I find chilling is the degree of unbalance between the two hemispheres. Signs of the right at work are almost completely missing. The lack of empathy and positive emotions is particularly telling. Conversely, the dominant, by far, emotion I observe, is anger, a distinctive left-brain product.

If this model of the brain is accurate, and I believe it is at least at the broad level, the implications are very serious. All the discussions of the President’s personality are merely secondary to the real question of his competence. A left-brain dominated person cannot connect the dots well, and a completely left-brain dominated person, say one whose right hemisphere has been injured, cannot connect them at all. Yet the world that presents itself to the President is always a highly interconnected system that demands some understanding of the whole and the connections. History and a sense of its importance to understanding the present is a right brain function; the left has only a momentary, incomplete grasp of reality.

I could continue, more or less, quoting the entire chapter I pointed to, but I think I have made my argument. The balance between the hemispheres necessary to function fully as a human being, much more so as a powerful leader, appears to be absent in this President. This is a biological condition, and is not going to change. This is more fundamental than any descriptions of personality disorders. It is critical that the other branches of government take this very seriously and act accordingly.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 26, 2017 1:05 PM ::

The Problem of Labels (Especially Political Ones)


I have been tuning into the latest misadventure of our President with more horror than usual. His reading of the events in Charlotteville is plain and simply wrong. His being our President makes the wrongness even more egregious. Once the painful response to the wrongness of his position settled down, I turned to all the comments about the situation coming from the media of all stripes. that is from “both sides.”

What I see is more evidence of the unreality of public (and probably much of private) life in America today. The reality of Charlottesville is that Nazism is absolutely not acceptable. Nazism was an aberration of humanity that was and cannot be justified on any basis. It is simply and plainly evil and wrong. To confuse the issue by employing labels like alt-right, alt-left, antifa, identity politics, or any other political name is simply just as wrong as is the Nazism that showed up in Charlottesville. I recommend an editorial article by Paul Waldman in the Washington post for those who want another similar view.

Extremism on the right is not, as some of the more conservative media claimed (e.g. this WSJ editorial), a response to anything, certainly not to the so called “identity politics” of the left. Extremism is simply what its name connotes: active adherence to a set of beliefs that either are far from reality or involve negating the beliefs and legitimacy of others. Active means taking steps to suppress these others. It’s only cause is the beliefs that it expresses in action. One of the most egregious incidents of extremism in history was the Inquisition and the Crusades under the Catholic Church. It is clearly a case where a powerful institution took its beliefs too far. It’s unimaginable that a Pope today would try to defend its past actions by invoking some external cause. It’s cause was was nothing more than concerns about failures to adhere to its dogma and potential consequences of that. Those that would defend Trump’s action and the causal event in Charlottesville as stemming from a response to anything at all are just as guilty as Trump is in not getting the morality straight.

I think the morality is this case is quite clearly in the realm of the deontological, while the excuses based on any argument are from the other major branch of ethics, consequentialist. Deontology focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions, not on the rightness or wrongness of the consequences or on the character and behaviors of the actor (virtue ethics). America is founded and grounded by deontology, not any other ethical basis. Unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is the epitome of an absolute belief that obligates anyone who would identify (sic) her-or himself as an American to accept it unconditionally.

There is much being written and said about this situation, but I think brevity is more appropriate because the real issue is very simple and straightforward. Any action that ignores the ethical basis of the nation is wrong. Full stop. Anyone who tries to defend such actions using any form of utilitarian or consequential excuses is wrong. Full stop. There are many who understand the importance of keeping moral arguments clear. I plead that you speak up. The Founding Fathers, slaveholders or not, gave us a clear moral ground for our Nation. The Constitution, to which the President and the Congress take an oath to follow and defend, means little without the moral grounding of the Declaration of Independence. Where are you?

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 16, 2017 10:05 PM ::

Context and the Brain


The divided brain model suggests that the two worlds that show up in our brains display many opposing features. Today, I want to focus on just one pair: contextual (right) vs. decontextualized (left). Flourishing arises from a contextual perception of the world, one that exposes the relationships of the actor to the world. Context is the source of meaning. It relates the content of whatever shows up in the conscious field to one’s historical experience. Meaning is basically historical. It arises in the temporal flow of living.

A mere snapshot of what is out there is simply a collection of objects. Each one is distinctive only to the extent it can be recognized as something already familiar. Each may have meaning related to what the object is, but not as to how it fits into the story of one’s life. That kind of meaning requires a historical context. What was going on the last time I encountered some or all of the objects I apprehend at this moment? What was I doing? Do I remember why I did what I did? Were my actions effective? How did I feel? The answers to such questions form a story from which meaning can be derived.

I am writing this from Maine, sitting in front of my computer, but able to look around it onto Maquoit Bay and to my boat that is moored in front of our cottage. I can describe my boat in great detail: the brand, how long, how much draft, the motor horsepower, etc. Although I now know all those details, having owned it for about 10 years, none of this provides any of the wonderful meaningful experiences it has given me. Experience describes the story of how I have been relating to the world and what part I retain. Any part of the actual events that is not retained is not part of the experience. Like any story, there is a central plot line and many details that embellish it. Like the objects out, the bare plot line is not meaningful without the context.

Simply remembering that I went out in the boat yesterday is not meaningful. Where I went and what I did add meaning. Did I go fishing? Did I catch any fish? Did I see an eagle this trip. How did I feel? To exist as a human being, experience must be contextual. The context provides the connection to the world, and that connection is what mades me fully human, beyond simply being a living creature like other forms of life.

Meaningful experiences are the product of the right brain, according to McGilchrist. I have written about him and his work in the last few posts, so will not repeat what is already there. The contextual world that shows up moment by moment is the present. McGilchrist says the right brain presents the world to the acting, living individual. Interesting uses of the same word to mean show to, a grammatical tense, and also to a moment in the passage of time. If what shows up is familiar, that is, has meaning to me, I draw on my past experience in picking my response, if I intend to act.

Acts originating in the right brain correspond to the existential mode of authenticity. I own the action as if there was some historically based person in charge. Such actions are the source of flourishing. They are always contextually connected to the present, although they may utilize strategies coming from the past. I think that Antonio Damasio’s idea of an autobiographical self fits the right brain. Autobiographical implies some sort of contextualized story, not simply a collection of unrelated decontextualized facts. I haven’t reviewed his work to see if this fits but plan to do that shortly.

I haven’t yet written about the left-brain in this post, but it is always looking to get into the game. McGilchrist writes as if there is a power struggle between right and left to determine who is in charge at the present moment. Greatly compressing McGilchrist’s writing and taking a lot of chances that I am misinterpreting it, the left is always hanging around waiting for a chance to take over.

The left, unlike the right, lacks context. It has abstracted the familiar experiences of the right into disparate objects and into conceptual categories. It knows what a boat is, but not how it fits into any real situation. It thinks it knows what beauty is, but only in some abstract way. It made explicit what the right understands implicitly. How this happens may be clear in the book, but I am still working to understand. I guess the process might go something like this.

The right always captures the present moment. It sends the contextually rich situation over to the left as a courtesy. If the situation is unfamiliar, the left will send it back without anything happening. The right is always in charge when someone encounters a new, unfamiliar scene. The “I” that acts from this side is open to new situations and is willing to try new possibilities that might fit the scene. If the left believes that it recognizes enough of the objects out there to categorize the scene as something it knows or can construct from its accumulated facts and concepts, it somehow takes over the action. The contextual richness of the right is missing; the concreteness of the present is replaced by an abstracted approximation. There is no I that owns the action; it is the result of some analytical, timeless process. Maybe it will fit and certainly does much of the time in situations that have been repeated so often that the abstraction can match the real situation closely. But if the situation departs in some ways from the one being modeled in the left-brain, the action may not lead to the intended outcomes.

What degree of familiarity, that is abstracted content, empowers the left and shuts out the right is not clear to me at this point in my understanding of McGilchrist, but some mechanism or value must be involved. Culture and its values may influence this process. McGilchrist argues the inverse; the relative strength of the two hemispheres influences the culture and its values. It is clear, in any case, that modernity since the Enlightenment and even earlier has preferred the left-brain’s analytic, decontextualizing process, the heart of the scientific method from which most of the facts that we “know” is derived. The richness of actual human experience with its subjective set of feeling and emotions and meaningful context has become secondary in the running of modern societies.

It should be obvious what gets lost. Authenticity and flourishing are among the first victims. The left hemisphere of individual and of some metaphorical collective brain has become so filled with facts, concepts, and categories that it believes it knows everything. Everything is familiar enough to act in an analytic, context-free manner all the time. The left so dominates the right that meaning has all but disappeared, resulting in the “disenchantment of the world” that Weber so eloquently observed. Since the topic of the blog is now flourishing, it is obvious where I am going. We have gone too far and need to redesign our institutions and jigger our values to allow the right-brain to recover its mastery. It is the side that makes us distinctly human in allowing meaning to enter our lives.

More to come in future posts. I am off for a week to Umbria to celebrate the 75th birthday of a very dear and close friend. The last draft of my book has been sent to the publisher and I now await the results of a long period of decision-making and, hopefully, final revisions.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on August 2, 2017 10:52 PM ::

Flourishing and the Right-brain

right brain

After a much longer time than I had planned, I have sent off the heavily revised manuscript of my new book to the publisher. I consider the time well spent because I was able to integrate materials from McGilchrist’s, The Master and his Emissary, the book about the divided brain I wrote briefly about in my last blog. While its findings about the brain did not affect my basic theses about flourishing, it provided much additional evidence in support. It made clear that flourishing is fundamentally about living in the present moment under the influence of the right brain. It is not anything possessed by the body. It pertains to the degree one is connected to the outside world, not to the re-presentations of the world offered up by the left-brain.

McGilchrist’s argument that the left has come to dominate the right helps explain why what I call flourishing has largely disappeared from our modern cultures. Operating out of the left-brain is essential for effective life within the key institutions, like work, law, sports, or games, or any one where following the rules is critical. Since the left-brain is the storage bin for such explicit rules, it rules the roost in these instances. In other institutions, like family, school, friendship, rules are looser and there is room for creativity, a right-brain function. Sharing brain hemispheres can enliven the passive connections of the left that show up places like work or school. The right-brain can also break through the deadening that social media and associated devices force onto living relationships, like friendship.

The emergence of interest in Eastern mindfulness practices, I suspect, has been, in some part, a consequence of the unbalance between the hemispheres. Its attractiveness comes from its advertised ability to produce peacefulness and mitigate suffering, stress and other consequences of modern Western life. Whatever bodily changes it produces, mindfulness clearly engages the right brain and connects the actor to the world of the present. It uses the ability of the right to sustain attention to the present surroundings and makes connections to what is happening outside the body instead of inside. The central Buddhist theme of non-attachment or giving-up-the-world seems to me to point to the world of the left-hemisphere, that is the accumulation of all the decontextualized stuff from the past in favor of moving to the right with its attention on the present moment.

I think this model will explain reasons behind the success and failures of the myriad of change programs and how-to books about personal satisfaction. Those that add muscle to the right can work and those that reinforce the left will fail to have any lasting impact. But most important to me is the relation of the divided brain to flourishing. The simplicity of the argument has me wondering if it can be true, but here it is. Flourishing is manifest in action being run by the right, not the left, hemisphere. One primary reason is the right’s connectedness to the outside real world. McGilchrist calls this relationship “betweenness,” a nice turn of phrase. The right is the source of meaning; the left strips meaning away from the present moment by taking everything out of context as it generalizes and categorizes.

People show up as alive, not the lifeless avatars of the left. The actor owns whatever action follows the acquisition of the present world. It is not some routine from the left that appears to fit the moment, but has been dredged up from the past. All of these aspect of right-brain action fit Heidegger’s authentic mode of being, which I had already connected to flourishing in my previous work. Now it seems a biological process lies beneath Heidegger’s philosophical derivation. This relationship only underscores his brilliance in thinking as he did without any knowledge of how the brain works.

My absence for so long is due to the need to go back to my essentially completed book and interweave the relationship of the divided brain model to flourishing. It has been time well spent. Flourishing is quite clearly a particular mode of life; distinct from what Heidegger calls indifference, a left-brain dominated mode of being. This is the mode in which we spent a lot of our everyday life embedded in institutional cultures. Institutions are constituted by, first, assigning powers to objects, including human beings, and, then, establishing rules governing actions within the institution. Games are a clear example of an institution. The game is defined by creating physical artifacts with specific functional features, say a chessboard and the pieces, plus a set of rules that govern the pay and the conditions that declare how winning is determined, say, mate in chess.

Other examples of institutions that shape our lives are thing-like concepts like family, school, business work, citizenship, and so on. Society provides general rules and roles that go with each one. We can choose roles, but have to follow the rules, as least in general. Life within institutions is shaped by the left-brain which stores up all the rules and associated normal behaviors. The left is the storehouse of the familiar, the situations that recur over and over. Initially, when these situations were new and unfamiliar, the right was in charge inventing behaviors to cope. At some point the control gets passed over to the left, but before that, actor are learning from the experience. In a sense, the actor flourishes during this time because he or she is actively connected to the world and owns the action as uniquely fitted to the concrete present moment. Flourishing does not equate with success, only with the mode of being. Success depends on the degree the actor’s mental depiction matches the real, external world. The right brain always does a better job at matching because it captures a holistic, organic snapshot, full of context, but it never exactly presents the world.

The divided brain model, in addition to building a ground for flourishing, also points to ways to enhance its possibility of showing up. McGilchrist argues, I think quite convincingly, that the balance between the hemispheres has shifted over time with significant effects on societal culture. Modernity has become highly dominated by the left, hollowing out meaning and framing an abstract, lifeless world in which we live. The balance can be shifted by adding to the right’s muscle, metaphorically speaking, strengthening its attentional capabilities relative to the left’s. Mindfulness exercises can do this as I mentioned earlier. So can technology that has been designed to wake up the right side, rather than put it to sleep, as is the case with much of the everyday technology we use.

It is certain that quite some time will pass before my book shows up in print, so I want to begin to put some of the key ideas on the blog, hopefully for discussion and feedback.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on July 28, 2017 12:45 PM ::

The Master and his Emissary


I mentioned I had come across a very interesting book that has enabled me to ground my arguments in my new manuscript even further than I had previously. I did not mean to keep the book a secret. I was waiting until a better time to discuss it. The book is The Master and his Emissary; The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press), by Iain McGilchrist. The author is a British psychiatrist and Professor of English. The book is an amazing amalgam of his scientific thinking and ability to present ideas that challenge one’s thinking about how we do think.

McGilchrist revivifies the lateralization theory of how the brain works, developed in the 1960’s by Roger Sperry and his colleagues. Working with patients with seizures whose left and right hemispheres had been separated by cutting the corpus callosum, the band that normally connects the two halves, they found that each side functioned differently from the other. This led to a pop psychological theory about brain-sidedness, similar to handedness, where each side performs differently. The diagram illustrates the conventional assignment of functions to the hemispheres.


The idea has persisted, but not without much skepticism among neuroscientists. After reading McGilchrist’s book, I, for one, am sold on the model of two distinct hemispheres, not quite as shown in the diagram, but close. His goes further and claims that the pattern of historic cultural behaviors has been shaped by whichever hemisphere dominates. In particular, he argues that the present culture of the West is the result of left-brain dominance, whereas the more fundamental situation for humans is the opposite. The brain and the world interact in a kind of hermeneutic circle. The state of the brain determines what kind of world we see, that is what we pick out to focus our attention and intentions upon. McGilchrist writes

We bring about a world in consciousness that is partly what is given, and partly what we bring, something that comes into being through this particular conjunction and no other. And the key to this is the kind of attention we pay to the world.

The kind of world we perceive and our subsequent behavior depend on which side is at work. The left side produces a mechanistic model of the world; the right a holistic one. The left is analytic and utilitarian; the right caring and empathetic. If you have been following my own work, you would see these two sides as representing two paradigms, modernity and a yet-to-be named paradigm of caring. Flourishing, the fulfillment of human potential, can exist only in the latter. I have come to this conclusion based largely on philosophical and sociological arguments. What I find so remarkable about his book is that it lays a solid foundation for the existence of these two contrasting worlds in the brain and its two different patterns of perception and response. McGilchrist argues that the right side is the Master in the sense that caring is the more fundamental human disposition to the world, but has become overmatched by the left. We need both to survive and evolve culturally as the left allows us to construct the technological world we have come to inhabit.

The right captures the present moment in its context-rich fullness. It feeds the left as experiences become familiar through repetition. It is the site of the present, the new. McGilchrist lists the following as attributes of the world it creates: presenting, new, whole, integration, context, things/individuals, personal, living, and contemporaneous. He finds that his model parallels Heidegger’s sense of Being. Heidegger speaks about “presencing” as a verb, that is, bringing the whole immediate world into consciousness. I find this quite the same as the author’s use of “presenting” as in the idea of the right side displaying a picture of the immediate world with all of its context and integrity to an imaginary actor sitting in the skull.

The left “re-presents” old facts that have been abstracted from experience and generalized. It is like a scientist who breaks down phenomena into small life-less pieces, each with its own set of features. The left cannot make sense out of incoming sensory inputs except by some sort of comparison with whatever is already known and resides there. The list of its attributes includes: re-presenting, known, part, division, abstraction, and categories, impersonal, non-living and timeless. The left-hemisphere-dominated human is the familiar Homo sapiens or Homo economicus or Homo faber, all names given to our species by various scholars. The right-hemisphere-dominated human sees and behaves so differently that it might justify giving it a distinct species name, Homo amans, coined by Humberto Maturana, to describe the distinctive loving, caring, connected stance. I have started to use the term Homo caritas.

While McGilchrist serves as a rich source of understanding as to how modern humans are the way they are, the key point for me is his argument that dominance has shifted over time. I find no mention of any genetic cause for the choice of dominant hemisphere. If we can go from right to left, I see no fundamental obstacle to reversing the balance. As messy as the world of today has become, I can remain hopeful that we can work our way back to a right-hemisphere world of care and context, and via that, the possibility of flourishing.

More to come.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on June 7, 2017 4:30 PM ::