I have been lately quoting Marx’s last “Thesis on Feuerbach” which reads: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” Much as I admire Iain McGilchrist for his breakthrough work on the brain, I wish he would pay more attention (right-brain) to this timely aphorism. His first book, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, established the bi-hemispheric brain as the paradigm for the way we attend to the world and consequently act in it. It also pointed out, in excruciated detail, how the modern brain, with the left hemisphere ascendant, was leading us to the edge of an abyss, into which all our cleverness would not save us from falling.
Given these two main themes, it seems to me that anyone who was involved in the design or operation of any parts of the system, natural and humanly constructed, which we moderns inhabit would want to begin to use the divided-brain-model model to divert our approach away from the abyss. It is not that such existential threats are new. Humans have been, for a long time, harming both other humans and the Planet that supports us, first without understanding their impacts, but now for some decades well aware of them, Sustainability, as a desired norm has been around since the late 1980’s, when it took over as an umbrella for a myriad of issues, including concerns like global warming and climate change. Today it includes newer problems like ocean pollution by plastic microparticles.
Unlike other creatures with the same bi-hemispherical brain design, human have filled the left-brain with “answers” to just about everything imaginable, including situations that might appear threatening. Lower-level creatures, without the stored knowledge we possess, tend to flee from perceived threats. The left-hemisphere, with its high level of optimism and technological hubris about knowing how to handle any situation, quells the immediate response to flee from it. This response is compounded when the actual problem is due to happen some time in the future,
Instead of jumping into action, humans often stop and ask why is all this happening, the most basic of philosophical questions. Marx was quite aware of that as the quote indicates. Although much of his and his co-workers work was philosophical in nature, the most famous and impactful of his work was the Communist manifesto— a call to action. And so, today, the call for action is even more grave as there is no question about the need to act now. At least, that’s what I believe a global right-brain would argue. It would be able to “see” the actual state of the world and all of its inhabitants in the richness of their cosmic and temporal context.
And it would start to take care of that world, meaning it would call for actions that are designed to cope with what it saw, then and there, not based on the theories and facts stored in the left-brain that have been extracted from past experience. Fine to use those theories and facts in service to whatever the right hemisphere determined would be needed. Modern brains work in the opposite direction most of the time with the left-hemisphere directing the right to follow its (left’s) directions. In reality, the two sides interact in a complex manner, but this simple model does illustrate the general character of actions produced when the left or right hemisphere dominates.
My concern about McGilchrist’s continuing plunge into the philosophical implications of the divided-brain-model, in his new book, The Matter With Things, is that he, as the ultimate authority on this new paradigm, could (I won’t go so far as to say he should) be the one to muster the troops to begin the battle to bring back the mastery of the right hemisphere. As I have written in my book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, we do know how to begin strengthening individual’s right brain, but that is not sufficient as long as the institutions that run the modern world keep the left hemisphere in control. The ubiquitous use of mobile devices and social media plays to the left-brain and, simultaneous, defocuses the connections of the right hemisphere to the world, quite the opposite outcome from what is needed. Artificial intelligence threatens to take over the creative processes of the right hemisphere, just at a time where we need more, not less, creativity to cope with the complexity of the world.
Reversing the march toward disaster is going to take imagination and creativity (both right-brain functions), not just more of the same from those institutions I have mentioned. The many “isms” and “ologies” that claim to have the answers to our questions and the solutions to our problems are helpless in the face of the complexity and magnitude of the challenge ahead. I remain hopeful that this new paradigm will catch hold in time to slow down and reverse our misbegotten adventure in learning how to be human.