iain cartoon

David Brooks had an interesting oped in the NYTimes on August 7 about the state of the Republican party. The sub-headline read: “The party looks brain-dead at every spot Trump touches.” For me, this wording is quite intriguing because I have been re-reading, The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist’s book about the divided brain. His arguments about the different functions of the two brain hemispheres seem to fit the way that the Republican party and especially, Donald Trump, look out at the world and respond to it. Using McGilchrist’s model, I would say that the right-hemisphere of both Trump and the collective party is largely missing-in-action, leaving the left fully in charge. And as I enumerate the consequences of this lop-sided situation, the dire consequences should be quite evident.

The following are my summaries of what he describes in his book. Everything he writes about is grounded on experience with brain-damaged people or laboratory experiments that inhibit one of the hemispheres or the other. As he writes, however, it is critical to know that both hemispheres are always at work in normal people, but the relative balance between the two sides does show up in personality and demeanor. His own words, in this case, are much better than mine.

In reality we are a composite of the two hemispheres, and despite the interesting results of experiments designed 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 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 in conflict with the other. (page 91)

The right side captures the new — the present in all of its contextual richness, while the left carries the past, stored as abstract, lifeless, general and categorical. Sounds just like the essence of conservatism, a belief that the past is a better source of knowledge about the world than what is right in front of your eyes. The right side is flexible and more capable of shifting the frame or holding multiple views. Its attention span is longer and broader than the left’s. The left side is internalized, working only on the past, without the ability to connect directly to the present. The left takes a short-term versus the longer-term view of the right.

The right can take and work with the whole situation out there; the left divides everything into familiar pieces and works with the pieces. The right is better at exploring possibilities; the left is grasping and wants to control. The right can recognize the specificity and uniqueness of each new situation; the left reduces everything to prior abstractions and categories. The right sees people as individual, living beings; the left sees them only as lifeless categories and is easily confused by small differences between things. The right apprehends the environment.

Only the right is capable of empathy, and, consequently, moderates one’s own point of view relative to that of others. The left is unconcerned about other people and their feelings and needs. The right mediates social behavior and is the seat of most emotions other than anger. The left owns anger. The right handles most emotions, both in capturing whatever is coming in from others and in expressing one’s own emotional state. The right controls prosody, that is, the non-verbal (song-like) aspect of speech. The left is more emotionally neutral (except for anger), and tends to be unwarrantedly optimistic about outcomes.

The left’s way of reasoning tends to be linear and sequential; the right can handle more complex deduction. The left prefers the explicit and linear; the right is better with the implicit and complex. The left uses language more literally, that is, word-for-word, than the right, which can take in the whole and find contextual meaning. It appreciates metaphor, irony, sarcasm, irony, and so on in other’s speech. The sense of time — as past, present, and future — belongs to the right. The left has trouble following narrative or story. When unconstrained by the right, the left has a strong tendency to confabulate, that is, make up stories to cover gaps in one’s knowledge. It misses the details of the situation and builds on the generalities that have already been stored up. This tendency leads to left to make poor inferences and mistaken choices. The left tends to stick to its own point-of-view. The right is more self-aware and less grandiose than the left. Again, the left is ever-optimistic and specializes in denial. In severe cases of damage to the right, the left can be hamstrung by naively forecasting the outcomes of its beliefs. It is always “winning.”

Moral sense is situated in the right side. Moral values are linked to empathy, again only the right’s domain, and are intuitive and strongly connected to the right’s higher emotional receptivity. The sense of justice belongs to the right, which can also inhibit selfishness. Both sides are involved in constructing a sense of self, but in quite different ways. The self of the right is continuous and is intrinsically and empathetically inseparable from the world of Others. The left’s self is more objectified and disconnected.

That’s about it — 62 dense pages condensed into a handful of words. After I took all this in, I could not help but wonder about what is inside Donald’s Trump’s head. I’m not a shrink and would not hazard a diagnosis of his mental state, based on what psychiatry or psychology might say, but haven’t the same compunctions as the trained observer used to draw conclusions from evidence that I am. Here goes.

No signs of empathy. Little or no concern for others. Lack of emotional affect, other than anger, which is around much of the time. Denial of what has to be staring him in the face. Highly controlling. Constant confabulation and lying. Flat manner of speaking. Grandiose. Doesn’t read and has a very short attention span. Makes choices that are quickly changed. Add your own here.

That’s enough for me. The right side of his brain would appear to be missing or malfunctioning. McGilchrist is much concerned about the dominance of the left hemisphere in our modern culture, but, as I noted, wants to be clear about the importance of both. Here is the closing paragraph of Chapter 2.

However, as I also emphasised at the outset, both hemispheres take part in virtually all ’functions’ to some extent, and in reality both are always engaged. I do not wish to leave the impression that it might be a good thing if the entire population had a left-hemisphere stroke. I take it for granted that the contributions made by the left hemisphere, to language and systematic thought in particular, are invaluable. Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance — second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. Even if we could abandon them, which of course we can’t, we would be fools to do so, and would come off infinitely the poorer. There are siren voices that call us to do exactly that, certainly to abandon clarity and precision (which, in any case, importantly depend on both hemispheres), and I want to emphasise that I am passionately opposed to them. We need the ability to make fine discriminations, to use reason appropriately. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring. Alone they are destructive. And right now they may be bringing us close to forfeiting the civilization they helped to create. (page 93, My emphasis)