Different Worlds—Different Human Beings

fraternal twins

Humans are different from all other species in many ways, but one that has been singled out is that we seek meaning. A corollary to this is Socrates’s warning that, “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Heidegger wrote that only human beings make an issue about being, itself. Only we ask questions about what it is to be? This could be interpreted, again, as seeking the meaning of existence. We are also unique in our ability to create and use language in our quest for meaning and generally to express our intentions and feelings, and to coordinate our actions with others. This does not mean (sic) that we are always looking for meaning; sometimes we simply take it for granted.

But what is meaning? I am not using meaning in the sense of what does a sentence mean—a question that has been debated extensively by analytic philosophers. I am using it in the sense of what is the meaning of the worldly objects and their interrelationships, and those personal feelings and thoughts of which I become aware. It is hard to avoid the tautological sense of the word. Several dictionaries define meaning as what is meant! My sense is that meaning emerges out of all the truths (plural) one can attribute to worldly objects, both material and conceptual. Meanings, taken this way, are critical in determining how one acts in any given situation.

Even if this does an adequate job to define meaning, any specific meaning at any given time is never certain for two main reasons. One is that the words we use in talking about meaning are often ambiguous. More critically, the dither arises because we have two different possible worlds to refer to—the world presented by the right-brain or that re-presented by the left-brain. More precisely, since both sides of the brain are generally engaged, meaning and our response depend on which side is in charge regarding the immediate course of action.

When the left dominates, meaning is derived from the internal world already present as a collection of images, facts, beliefs, values, concepts and other pieces that have been taken out of the context of previous experience and abstracted, generalized, or categorized, and stored in the left hemisphere for future use. It re-constructs its world from these pieces, and extracts from that world whatever meaning it uses in constructing an intention to act. I am using the word “intention” as a short-hand description of the processes by which what our actions are formulated.

The world of the right is strikingly different. It comprises as much of the present, immediate world as the right apprehends through the senses. The objects are unique to the moment, and appear to be “alive,” contrasted to the inanimate character to the left’s. Even living objects, like people, are seen as abstract objects by the left. I have explicitly chosen the word “world,” not “reality,” to describe the assemblage of objects and relationships from which meaning is drawn and action is produced. Neither hemisphere can exactly reproduce the “real” external world. No matter what our brains expect to happen when we act, the outcome will be dictated by that external “reality.” The differences between these three worlds—the left-brain’s, the right brain’s, and external reality—have created serious conflicts over the meaning and use of the word “truth.” I will get to that in another post in this series.

In this post and subsequent articles, I am going to elaborate on the notion of self or personhood or agent or actor nor being or any number of other hard to grasp notions. As I have been thinking about this article, I have come to realize how hard it is to pin down clear definitions of out status as human beings. We are beings in the sense that we have material properties, but what makes us “human” beings is much more difficult to grasp. For the time being, I will be using “self” to refer to the bundle of attributes that would form all the predicates to I am p or I do p or I feel p or I believe p, where “p” stands for things like tall, smart, engineer, sad, etc. I have not been so careful in the past, but hope to be more consistent. The reason for my concern now is that I intend to connect these notions to the several overall ways the brain works according to the divided-brain-model (DBM). Self has a distinctively subjective sense to it. It is related to the way I hold and express myself, independent of how others may see me.

Actor or agent, as I am using these words, refers to the way a human being shows up in action as seen by some observer. Importantly, action refers to bodily motions, including speech as a special form of motion. The reason that I am going through these hoops is that I am much more interested in the results of the brain at work than the details of the processes going on in the brain itself. In the previous post, I mentioned that I hold McGilchrist’s DBM as paradigm changing, offering up an enhanced capability to understand the worldly manifestations of the cognitive system, and, thus, to allow us to deliberately correct errors, make people feel better about themselves, create flourishing, and design our way out of collective problems, big and small.

I am not primarily interested in the first of these, making people feel better about themselves. That end is the province of psychologists and therapists of all types, economists and sociologists with their own models of what matters to our species, and more. My concern is flourishing, first, and, because flourishing can only happen when we are addressing the other categories, I do also have tothink about taking care of those other problems as well. As I have written in The Right Way to Flourish, I believe it is more important to build our lives and our societal structures with flourishing as our normative objective than to strive toward some positive feeling, like happiness.

That end leads me to be more interested in the way we behave than the way we feel, because flourishing is an existential quality, manifest in how we show up in the world. Flourishing is accompanied by all kinds of positive feelings and emotions, but they are the consequence of flourishing, not the cause. The importance of behavior in achieving flourishing or some other normative goal has been understood since antiquity. The Code of Hammurabi (ca. 1750 BCE) is the best example of ancient legal writings designed in this case to control behaviors and promote fairness. Aristotle’s “good” was to be attained by living according to a set of behavioral categories, the virtues.

Economists, psychologists, and other social scientists have elaborated many theories about the causes of different kinds of behaviors. As I have noted, I do not believe any of these have the power of the DBM, because virtually all of these have viewed human beings as having unitary minds. Not surprisingly, this is quite problematic because 1) it is a big question as to whether humans have minds (I do not think so), and 2) the DBM suggests that behavior types categorically depend on the balance between the two brain hemispheres.

The processes by which the behaviors we can observe are related to the inner worlds of the brain are, as yet, understood only in general terms. They involve the neurons and their interconnections, neurotransmitters, the way the corpus callosum works, and more. For this discussion, however, the focus is on which of the two hemispheres is the source of the particular world and its associated truths from which subsequent action arises. I will reproduce the table I posted previously to illustrate my interpretation of the relationships of dominant hemisphere to some broad classes of behaviors.

Basic Modes of Behavior (Revised 5/12/2021)

Master Hemisphere

External World

Mode of Being

Behavioral Type




















Scientific Work



Pure Occurent


Both hemispheres are essential to flourishing, as I have written in The Right Way to Flourish. But the key is that the hemispheric balance must match the demands of the particular situation. Flourishing has two parts: personal wholeness and social coherence. Personal wholeness depends on the right hemisphere as master and social coherence, conversely, on the left as master. Social coherence is a measure of how well an actor fits into the particular institutional context of the moment, that is, follows the rules. Personal wholeness pertains to extra-institutional settings, where such rules are absent. In these cases, attaining wholeness demands that the action be fitted to the particular context of the moment, something that only the right hemisphere can do.

This table is based on existential, not psychological, categories. They have to do, as noted, with the way individuals appear to observers, including oneself. To avoid confusion, before I get to discuss the table, I will finish this post with a discussion of the subjective self, the I. I draw heavily on McGilchrist’s text to minimize errors in translation. One thought to carry though this discussion is that when people refer to a mind, they usually are attaching it to this kind of self. I note that McGilchrist sometimes speaks of two kinds or aspects of self as being related to the dominance of one or the other hemisphere. He noted that the right-brain is more involved in creating the self, but that “no one hemisphere can on its own constitute the self.” These quotes come from pages 87-91 of The Master and His Emissary.

The self is a complex concept, but, in brief, the self as intrinsically, empathically inseparable from the world in which it stands in relation to others, and the continuous sense of self, are more dependent on the right hemisphere, whereas the objectified self, and the self as an expression of will, is generally more dependent on the left hemisphere.

The personal ‘interior’ sense of the self with a history, and a personal and emotional memory, as well as what is, rather confusingly, sometimes called ‘the self-concept’, appears to be dependent to a very large extent on the right hemisphere. . . . The right hemisphere seems more engaged by emotional, autobiographical memories. It is hardly surprising that the ’sense of self’ should be grounded in the right hemisphere’ because the self originates in the interaction with ‘the Other,’ not as an entity in atomistic isolation: ‘The sense of self emerges from the activity of the brain in interaction with other selves.’

The right’s role is consistent with its ability to connect to the present, real world.

It is also the right hemisphere which is responsible for ‘maintaining a coherent, continuous and unified sense of self’. Evidence from patients with dementia is highly suggestive that it is the right hemisphere that ‘connects the individual to emotionally salient experiences and memories underlying self-schemas’, and which therefore forms ‘the glue holding together the sense of self’.

This next extract has an important connection to flourishing because personal wholeness rests on caring behaviors that involve the empathetic competence of the right brain. The salient here is the claim the right right brain is involved both in the ability to empathize and, not so obviously, the ability to be the target of another’s effort at empathy.

Important aspects of self-awareness in the sense of how we are likely to seem or come across to others — akin to insight — also depend on the right hemisphere. The capacity to understand one’s self as a human being like others, which is involved in self-awareness, is an aspect of the human ability to identify with others, empathise with them and share their feelings, dependent as we have seen, on the right hemisphere. The right inferior parietal lobule plays a crucial role both in planning and monitoring the outcomes of one’s own actions.

The following quote will be relevant in later discussions of free will and motivation.

It was one of the earliest perceptions that the left hemisphere is the seat of conscious self-awareness, certainly for the expression of its selfhood through the conscious will. I have already suggested that the expression of the will, in the sense of the conscious, rational will — grasping and manipulating — may have been responsible for the expansion of the left hemisphere. Nonetheless it turns out that when we are acting ‘for ourselves’ in the sense of initiating new action rather than following another’s lead, the activity is largely in the right hemisphere, though this may be restricted to practical, habitual actions.

McGilchrist again cautions the reader not to make the distinction between the two hemispheres overly sharp. In the next extract, the “we” is closer to the “self” than to the actors behind the behaviors in the table.

In reality we are a composite of the two hemispheres, and despite the interesting results of experiments designed artificially to separate their functioning, they work together most of the time at the everyday level. But that does not at all exclude that they may have radically different agendas, and over long time periods and large numbers of individuals it becomes apparent that they each instantiate a way of being in the world that is at conflict with the other.

I do not see the distinction so much as a conflict, but as a different way of behaving as expressed in the table. The apparent conflict arises when the actor aligned with one of the hemispheres produces an outcome that would have been more normatively appropriate if it had arisen from the actor aligned with the other hemisphere. My own way of expressing his point is that many, if not all, of the persistent, individual and social/collective problems that we are facing arise when the left-brain’s dominant actor inappropriately displaces the right-brain’s actor. To maintain the focus on the behavior, not the brain, I will refer to these distinctive actors as left-brain actor (LBA) and right-brain actor (RBA). McGilchrist would probably not approve, but I think these distinctions will work as long as you understand that this usage is illustrative and metaphorical, not definitive.

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