August 2017 Archives

Attention, the Brain, and the President

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“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.

The Problem of Labels (Especially Political Ones)

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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?

Context and the Brain

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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.