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.

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