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.