Fraternal Twins

Are you aware that there are two of you?
Two different people live inside your skin.
One, cool and controlling – rational, too;
T’other, empathetic, unlike its twin.
The left brain offers a world, abstracted,
Defined by dead reductions from the past.
Because all meaning has been subtracted,
You’re run by rules memory has amassed.
The right brain connects you to the present
Where the real you acts in the here and now.
Unlike the rule-bound left, you can invent;
Now, the creative, caring you can show.
Our modern culture has suppressed the right.
That means there’s little flourishing in sight.

John Ehrenfeld

If you have been following the blog over the past year or so, you know that I have used lots of space and words to discuss the divided-brain model of Iain McGilchrist. I started blogging about it while I was writing The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World and have continued ever since. I found it resolved questions I held about flourishing, and provided a model to do something about bringing it forth routinely, rather as its fleeting appearances in my own society and elsewhere as well. As I have continued to try to understand and appreciate this model, I have come to believe that it has the power to dissolve problems far beyond the ones I have been grappling with.

What follows here and in subsequent writings is my own interpretation of McGilchrist’s work. I take full responsibility for the accuracy in reproducing his ideas. I am not a cognitive scientist, but do not believe that it is necessary to come from that arena to fully appreciate his work. He has done such a monumental job in collecting and making sense out of a vast collection of data about the brain that his story can be accessed by anyone who is willing to put in the hard work necessary. With this caveat, let me move on.

First, this work is not simply another study of the brain. It is what Thomas Kuhn calls a paradigm, an entirely new way of thinking about problems. Here is an extract from an article in the Guardian on the 50th anniversary of his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Kuhn’s central claim is that a careful study of the history of science reveals that development in any scientific field happens via a series of phases. The first he christened “normal science” – business as usual, if you like. In this phase, a community of researchers who share a common intellectual framework – called a paradigm or a “disciplinary matrix” – engage in solving puzzles thrown up by discrepancies (anomalies) between what the paradigm predicts and what is revealed by observation or experiment. Most of the time, the anomalies are resolved either by incremental changes to the paradigm or by uncovering observational or experimental error. As philosopher Ian Hacking puts it in his terrific preface to the new edition of Structure: “Normal science does not aim at novelty but at clearing up the status quo. It tends to discover what it expects to discover.”

The trouble is that over longer periods unresolved anomalies accumulate and eventually get to the point where some scientists begin to question the paradigm itself. At this point, the discipline enters a period of crisis characterised by, in Kuhn’s words, “a proliferation of compelling articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals”. In the end, the crisis is resolved by a revolutionary change in world-view in which the now-deficient paradigm is replaced by a newer one. This is the paradigm shift of modern parlance and after it has happened the scientific field returns to normal science, based on the new framework. And so it goes on. (Available at https://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/aug/19/thomas-kuhn-structure-scientific-revolutions)

My reference to Kuhn has two purposes. The first is to argue that McGilchrist’s divided-brain model (henceforth, DBM) is paradigm shifting. It is a new “world-view” about the brain. It enables us to explain formerly perplexing problems and to design our away around those problems that continue to concern us. The second purpose is to point out Kuhn’s own paradigm can be elucidated by application of the divided-brain model: normal science is the province of the left-brain; paradigm shifting belongs to the right. As I continue to develop this series of essays, I will include other examples where the DBM either breaks a logjam, helps explain seemingly perplexing situations, enables the design of new artifacts or institutions, or enables individuals to overcome their “problems.”

My interest in the brain is not that of a scientist. Foremost, I see that the DBM pens a doorway to flourishing, the topic that has been pushing me forward for several decades. Second, I am not interested in the brain, per se, but in its role in generating human action, including speech, as action is the only thing that actually affects the world. Further, I believe that the myriad of acts that we make fall into a small set of behavioral patterns, each related to the way the two hemispheres interact, as in the table below.

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

Master Hemisphere

External World

Mode of Being

Behavioral Type

Left

Institutional

Undifferentiated

Routine

Left

Familiar

Inauthentic

Habit

Right

Familiar

Authentic

Caring

Neither

Anywhere

Occurent

Wonder–Learning

Neither

Anywhere

Occurent

Scientific Study

Right

Laboratory

Pure Occurent

Curiosity

The first column refers to the master hemisphere, understanding the both sides are generally involved. The second to the milieu in which the action shows up. The third refers to the modes of being that Martin Heidegger posited in his master work, Being and Time. I have reversed curiosity and wonder because they this comes closer to the common way of holding these words. I include this category because I believe that the DBM lays a ground under his philosophy and the important field of existentialist thinking in general. (Another case of the clarifying power of the DBM.) The close ties between his work and the way the brain works justifies his skepticism of metaphysics. The last column are the names I will be using for each type.

If all our behaviors were entirely successful, there would be little need to try to figure out why we do what we do; we would only need to continue to do what we are doing. But clearly that is not the case in both small, medium-sized, and very big cases. Even if everything were working for a while, it would virtually certainly start to fail in the future as the world in which our actions take place is always changing. As this context changes, so does the need to change what we do.

Since the days of the Enlightenment, we have relied largely on one way, applications of scientific knowledge. to adjust our actions to avoid such failures to produce the desired outcomes and continue our journey toward perfection. We rely on it to control both ourselves and just about everything else. The natural sciences allow us to design all kinds of technology, from plows to quantum computing. The human or social sciences do the same for coordinating our social activities and for our individual pursuits.

Scientific knowledge is clearly not enough because our behaviors are far from perfect. They leave each and everyone personally unsatisfied in small and big ways. We look for medicine and psychology to fix our bodies, and economics to satisfy our materials needs. Every discipline outside of the humanities is designed to “fix” problems in some arena of our personal and social lives. Virtually every problem we face can be traced back to one of the behavioral categories and to the creation of unintended consequences in the course of normal behaviors. I find it helpful to have this taxonomic list because the remedies for these failures depends on the type of behavior. I will address these in separate essays to follow.

Before closing, I will mention, perhaps, the most important aspect of the hemispheres that leads to the behavioral mode, the primary world it attends to and serves. The right hemisphere gathers in sense data about the external world and acts as if it was connected to an a part of it. The left refers to an internal world it has created by abstracting generalized information from the historical arc of one’s experience. Its actions are aimed at controlling that world which actions may or may not align with the external world. Unintended consequences can be said to be the result of such deviations. Further, if these actions are repeated over and over again as are exactly those we deem to be normal, these unintended consequences can and do grow until they become very large and ultimately may threaten the stability of the system in which they appear. Such is the origin of the threat of climate change and inequality. Paraphrasing a sentence form the quote above: “The trouble is that over longer periods unintended consequences accumulate and eventually get to the point where concerned people begin to question the paradigm itself.”

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