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.