September 2017 Archives

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.

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.

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.