It has been such a long time since I posted my last real entry that I hardly know where to restart. I have two main streams of attention going on right now: getting my book done and the mess the US is in. They are closely tied together. For those who have followed my blog previously, you might have seen a bunch of entries about Iain McGilchrist and his divided brain theory. Rather than recapitulate his work, my understanding of it is available in a series of posts starting in June 2017 listed under the archives menu. His basic finding is that the each hemisphere of the brain presents a different world with the effect that we act in very different ways. It’s almost as if we are two different people because these two worlds are so very distinctive.
The right brain plunks us down right in the middle of the present and sends us a picture of the world that is surrounding us, and connects us to that world. The contents of the (metaphorical) picture we see are live and unique. We know them as familiar friends and act accordingly, trying to ascertain and take their needs into account. The world that the left provides is made up of abstractions it has created from past experiences. Its picture is composed of dead re-presentations or re-constructions of the living world of the right. Real, living, breathing, feeling, hurting, loving human beings show up simply as generic forms, endowed with generic properties.
The right-brain tries to ascertain what is happening over there right now so that actions will reflect the immediate, present context. The left consults its collection of facts and assigns some property to the objects in view. All the humans are simply self-interested, needy machines. They bleed if you cut them; they smile if you please them; they cry if you do not, but the left has no sense of what might please them or not, except for some very general beliefs. For example, money makes them happy and so on.
McGilchrist argues further that the dominant side of the brain has a major role in shaping the character of cultures. In particular, our modern culture is strongly influenced by the left-brain with pathological consequences. Drastically compressing his elaborate discussion, the connectedness that underpins the uniqueness and aliveness of the human species has been replaced by a separateness that deadens and commodifies everyone and everything. There is much more to his work, but this little piece of it gets me to my second stream of attention, what is happening today.
Obviously much too much is going on to capture in a single blog, but I do see a signs of the left-brain at work in the generalizations that dominate much of the political airspace today. I’ll start with the patterns of racism and other isms that season much media and political chatter. Isms in general are models of left-brain reductionism and abstraction. They take the lively and rich world, and reduce it to some abstract generalization. Racism is a particularly pernicious example because it refers to real people. Other names for left-brain abstractions are stereotypes, presuppositions, prejudices, alternate facts, or one I have just encountered, single story—a powerful phrase that appeared in a TED talk by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Such single stories are a natural outcome of the way the left-brain works. For that reason, they are not inherently good or bad. Human beings cannot avoid having them; they are a normal part of the way our brains work. What, I believe, we can and must do, both individually and collectively, is to keep our left-brains from gaining control of our actions. If allowed to take its natural dominant position, the right-brain will keep the left-brain at bay and allow us to act in the living world of real people, not the simulacra of the left. It lets us see the world as it is, in the rich context that gives it meaning beyond mere concepts.
The modern culture, and the US, in particular, is a left-brain dominated culture. There are sound historical reasons that this has happened. Much of we would acknowledge as very positive features of modernity—scientific knowledge and its child, technology; the very major institutions of the economy and government—are primarily the outcome of the left-brain at work. But letting it run our lives comes at a great cost: the potential loss of our sense of connectedness, the essence of our humanity.
The cultural dominance of the left brain is very difficult to overcome because big institutions, like government and politics or business or academia, tend to run without stopping to think (metaphorically). The right doesn’t have much of a chance to re-emerge. It’s very different for individuals. Whenever we hear ourselves telling a single story, we can stop, put the right-brain in gear, and face up to the reality that everyone is different, and deserves to be treated that way. We can interrupt others, appropriately, and point out that there left-brain is running them, of course, not using those exact words. There are quite a few of our leaders that need such interventions, but are, unfortunately, very hard of hearing.