Context and the Brain

left_rightbrain

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.

|