signposts

Here is yet another rejected oped piece, this one by the NYTimes. I wrote this in response to a David Brooks oped, headlined, “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams,” (click here to see it). He pointed to all the asocial events going on in the US, but could not identify any reason. That was the main thrust of his piece. My attempt to provide a good reason didn’t make it into the editorial pages. How can we, who think we have a solid clue to explain and repair our badly damaged social system, crack the wall that prevents the McGilchrist divided-brain-model from being at least looked at seriously. Here is what I sent to the NYTimes.

A Response to David Brooks

You are right, David Brooks, as you wrote on January 13, America is coming apart at the seams, but you are wrong about the lack of some reason. There is a reason, a very important reason. The mentality of a society reflects the dominant mentality of the individuals that constitute it. For example, the so-called Era of Good Feelings was given to a period in the early 19th century in the United States, characterized by a broadly held desire for unity and national purpose attributed to the aftermath of the War of 1812.

In your column, you write, “Over the past several years, and over a wide range of different behaviors, Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways. But why?” The why becomes clear when you use a recent stunning model of mentality to explain the vagaries of human behavior. Iain McGilchrist, a British psychiatrist and philosopher, has written two seminal books on how the human brain works–not the way we think it does–and the consequent ways it shapes the realities that guide our behavior.

His basic claim is that each hemisphere of our divided brain attends to the world differently, each offering up a different version of what we come to believe is the “real world.” The general character of societal behaviors reflects which side is dominant. The right hemisphere is connected, via the senses, to the phenomenal world, that is, the world of all the things and happenings we apprehend. Its world is alive, full of meaningful objects. When it is the master, behaviors are empathic and caring, reflecting the context of the external world to which it is connected.

The left is not so connected, but, nevertheless, presents a world to us. Unlike the living world of the right, its internalized world is re-created from generalized facts, previously abstracted from whatever representation of actual experience the right hemisphere has passed over to it. Behaviors stemming from the left are designed to control the external world according to whatever its inner world wants. These findings are stunning because they fly in the face of the model that has guided philosophers, natural and the human scientists, and others for centuries. Please note that when I refer to the left or right hemisphere as doing something, it is only a metaphor for actions by some actor that is dominated by that hemisphere. Also, both hemispheres are constantly interacting, even if the actions being observed reflect or are attributed to the dominance of one side or the other.

The lack of empathy and care that Brooks refers to, but cannot explain, conforms closely to would be expected when the left hemisphere runs the show. The attaining and maintenance of meaningful individual and social lives requires that the right hemisphere be the master, keeping the power-seeking left side’s demands that to accept its impoverished view of the world at bay. Some combination of the generalized knowledge of the left and the right’s understanding of the real circumstances is necessary to create and sustain our wondrous civilization and solve our problems without departing too far from reality. The outcomes of our behaviors will always eventually conform to reality, no matter what we think is going to happen.

Although there have been periods in history with a proper hemispheric balance, McGilchrist argues that the left hemisphere has become the master in our modern societies. Most emotions have their origins in the right side of the brain, but anger is an exception, arising from the left. Anger shows up when the left becomes frustrated because it cannot control the situation. Much of what Brooks describes is typical of actions driven by anger. Further, the left will lie and make up stories to defend its view of the world. This feature goes a long way to explain “The Big Lie” and the explosion of alternate facts. Efforts to suppress the vote and to censor school books are other evidence of the control the left always tries to exert. Those who support its agenda should beware. If it should get its way more broadly, it will eventually come to control even those who believed it was working for them. So much for freedom.

Much more about the divided brain model can be found in my book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World and McGilchrist’s, The Master and His Emissary. I sense a lot of frustration in Brooks column, frustration that spills over into the widespread concern over the state of the world. Armed with this new understanding, it is possible to construct solutions that are not limited by the left hemisphere’s worldview, the same world view that has generated these concerns in the first place. They will look very different from current misinformed attempts.

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