divided-brain

In my daily ramblings through my email and on the web, I often spot something worth commenting on in my blog. Thinking back to when I started blogging about 11 years ago, I divided my posts between ones about my books and somethings about politics or the state of the world. I cannot do much with the latter topics these days. it’s just too depressing. But I still can try to tie my own work to the larger picture, and that’s what follows in this post

I was reading a post from one of my regular weekly bloggers and found another tie to the divided brain model, so central, now, to my work. The item was about the work of Alain de Botton, a name unfamiliar to me. With a kittle research, I found that he is a prolific writer about emotional intelligence and related topics. The blogger has included this extract from his book, The School of Life: An Emotional Education:

The knack of our species lies in our capacity to transmit our accumulated knowledge down the generations. The slowest among us can, in a few hours, pick up ideas that it took a few rare geniuses a lifetime to acquire.

Yet what is distinctive is just how selective we are about the topics we deem it possible to educate ourselves in. Our energies are overwhelmingly directed toward material, scientific, and technical subjects and away from psychological and emotional ones. Much anxiety surrounds the question of how good the next generation will be at math; very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness. We devote inordinate hours to learning about tectonic plates and cloud formations, and relatively few fathoming shame and rage.

The assumption is that emotional insight might be either unnecessary or in essence unteachable, lying beyond reason or method, an unreproducible phenomenon best abandoned to individual instinct and intuition. We are left to find our own path around our unfeasibly complicated minds — a move as striking (and as wise) as suggesting that each generation should rediscover the laws of physics by themselves.

As I am always looking for more evidence of the divided brain, I ordered a copy, so I can dig in directly. De Botton neatly divides our cognitive capability in two, pitting formal knowledge against emotional smarts. This split closely matches the split between left and right-brain hemispheres in McGilchrist’s work I follow. Close relationships, like marriage, require the ability of the right-brain to be in the moment, to use the right’s emotional resources, and, especially, its ability to empathize. Almost all of our education is devoted to filling up the left hemisphere with assorted facts, as he writes.

The “emotional intelligence” doesn’t “lie beyond reason.” It rests in a different part of our brain. It probably comes before reason and the knowledge upon which its machinery rests in the development of a human being. We are born with little or nothing of a factual nature (left), but start with built-in abilities to be present and react to what is going on (right). We need both kinds of cognitive capabilities and different ways to build them as we mature. To flourish, as I write, requires an ability to interact empathetically in relationships with the world of human life and the rest of nature, and, also, formal knowledge to cope with all the rules and machinery of the complex cultural institutions that frame our everyday existence.

de Botton suggests we are far from that point.

We are as clever with our machines and technologies as we are simple-minded in the management of our emotions. We are, in terms of wisdom, little more advanced than the ancient Sumerians or the Picts. We have the technology of an advanced civilization balancing precariously on an emotional base that has not developed much since we dwelt in caves. We have the appetites and destructive furies of primitive primates who have come into possession of thermonuclear warheads.

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