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.