empathy

The title of this post, is the epigraph of E. M. Forster’s novel, Howard’s End. Forster’s novel is all about relationships, internal and external. Margaret Schegel, the older of the two sisters around whom the story unfolds, becomes impassioned about the phrase, “only connect.” The phrase conveys two meanings in the novel. The first relates to two internalized, opposing forces that battle each other in an individual persona. Margaret refers to them as the beast and the monk or to the prose and the passion. The second is an imperative to make and nurture personal relationships.

Forster has caught the essence of the divided brain in constructing Margaret’s persona. The battle between “prose” and “passion” is that of the left brain fighting to overcome the right. McGilchrist has argued that this battle has been won in the culture of modern societies and threatens to destroy the marvelous work created by the two working cooperatively over the centuries of modernity. As McGilchrist claims, Margaret’s battle is universal. Forster, wittingly or not, is criticizing the cognitive state of the society of his and our time.

“Prose” clearly matches the left’s control of language while “passion” refers to the right’s function to connect to the outside world and participate in it, more or less emotionally, emotionally. Passion describes relationships, of all kinds, that stand out from other more mundane ones and are pursued deliberately, energetically, and explicitly emotionally. The second meaning of connect is derivative of the first, and is an iteration of the need to have connections to the world if one is going to be able to relate passionately. The left can only re-present lifeless images of the world, abstracted from the past within the processes going on in the brain. The right side is more heavily involved in emotions than the left in general: anger is an exception.

As I have written, I have been finding McGilchrist everywhere. Not only in fictional tales, but in my more academic communities, one of which is involved with the idea of sustainable consumption. I observe that much of the conversations that go on on-line among the members of this very active community would be much clearer if the divided-brain model became part of the interchanges, because dominant psychological and economic theories do not account for the different worlds presented by the two sides.

Self-interested behaviors generally involve shaping the external world to fit one’s wants, desires, needs or other words denoting self-interest. Buying, a necessary preliminary to consumption for most, represents a movement of some object from a metaphorical shelf out there to one’s household with a concomitant shift of property rights. The act, in the economistic, rational model of the brain, is presumed to be the result of the utility-maximizing calculus that selects the immediate action. Unselfish acts, like altruism and outwardly directed (caring) acts are usually attributed to some inner value that shifts the calculus away from the apparently normal self-interest. The divided brain suggests a starkly different reason.

Buying is a kind of coercive act over a non-living object, but is not recognized as such because the object has no say so in the matter. In a much more general sense, it is much the same as coercing humans to achieve one’s objective (note the use of the cognate “object,” here). The requesting actor (principal) has a picture of some desired, future world in the left brain that is different from the image of the present one taken in by the right hemisphere and handed to the left. Using the past decontextualized knowledge it possesses, the left will then send a message back into the world, via the right brain’s control of the body, including the voice, directing others (agents) to perform such that the world changes accordingly. Departures from the left’s body of generalized knowledge from the contextual world of the present moment may lead to failure or unintended consequences, even if the message is executed precisely.

Coercion can be avoided and consensus achieved if the principal and agent(s) have previously created relationships in which such potentially dominating acts are acknowledged as legitimate. [I am using “principal” merely to refer to the one making a request and agent to the respondent, not to some fixed hierarchy as in other models.] Such relationships involve the right-brain and a history that all the parties have developed some sort of caring relationship based on a mutual acknowledge of the others concerns. Habermas’s “Communicative Action Theory” fits well into the divided brain model. He argues that consensual action can follow the establishment of the following four validity claims:

“Comprehensibility” and “truth” both belong to the left-brain. If the language being used is incomprehensible to the left brain, no further action is possible. It is the primary center of language in the brain. If the action being contemplated does not match some set of pre-established facts, that is match the “world” held in the left brain, it will not be able to offer up response to the request being made and the action will stop unless the actor is coerced to do whatever he or she has been directed to do. The “truth” does not have to match the actual world out there, but only that which has become established in the left-brain. This is why it has been possible to create action among members of the Trumpist community who share a picture of the world that does not correspond to those of us relying on “alternate facts.”

Consensuality also requires satisfying the other two validity claims, both of which involve the right brain. “Rightness” or normative legitimacy depends on having established a relationship that accepts that a differential in authority may exist, but one that does not interfere with the mutual acknowledgment of respect and dignity between the actors. “Truthfulness” depends on a right-brain assessment that the other is being honest about whatever is being requested, and depends on some form of mind-reading and an apprehension of the context of the situation. In an actual situation, the two sides would be interacting and opening and closing gates to direct the flow of cognitive processes. If all the validity claims are found to be true, the action can proceed without further conversation. Conversely, without all claims established, the action will either not occur or require further conversation to establish the validity of the claims or, alternatively, to add a carrot or stick. The conditions that can produce consensual action are obviously desirable, but do not obviate the need for systems of compensation, incentives, or sanctions, based on the relative importance of actors’ performance to any organization.

The point of this short discussion is to stress the importance of making cognitive, right-brain connections that add context to the cool, rational content being provided by the left-brain. I hear a lot of chatter in the political media these days about the need to talk to one another to heal the rifts that have become so large during Trump’s administration. Democracy is at heart, some sort of agreement to act consensually—that our government is legitimated by the consent of the people. At the extreme, libertarians eschew any kind of coercion from others, especially the government. But without connecting, talk is grossly inadequate to that task. Mere talk does not engage the right-brain. Social healing is a process that always requires relationship beyond any rationality that may change the beliefs and norms that have separated opposing parties. It requires actions that fit Habermas’s scheme, that are non-coercive. This discussion strongly suggests that healing must involve activities at small enough scales that actual connections can be formed.

ps. I watched a stunning documentary a few nights ago that portrays the possibility of making extraordinary connections to the world. My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) is the story of a diver and an octopus who become friends. No other word will do. The cognitive and emotional capabilities shown by the octopus are, at first, beyond belief, but then are merely awesome. The connectedness between the two is an extreme example of the power of the right-brain to present the world in all of its richness and life and transcend the limits of the left-brain, which could not possibly have contained anything to make sense of what unfolded. Conversely, it shows the immense power of the right to be creative.

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