The promises of virtual reality are coming slower than expected. Even Metaverse (formerly Facebook) has reported poorer than expected progress. As well it should because we are not at all ready for such new technologies. We have yet to learn how to cope with real reality, much less something beyond it. If new technology could ever be the answer to dealing with large and significant social/environmental problems, it must first enable us to see the world and ourselves as they really are.
What we really need is a clearer understanding about how we humans perceive and act within the world we inhabit. Much of the misery humans are facing and have faced in the past arises from unintended consequences of our actions. Some would call them side-effects, but they can become anything but “side,” as in global warming or outrageous inequality. These are not failures of intentions, but the result of an incomplete capture of reality that omits important considerations. We can never capture all of the complex reality of the world, but can do a much better job.
To do that and lessen the generation of unintended consequences and, on the plus side, increase the likelihood we get where we headed, two non-technological changes must be made. First we must change the destination of our endeavors from today’s well-being material (wealth) or psychological (happiness) norms to the existential goal of flourishing. And second, we must adopt a better fitting model of how the brain works, one that explicates the causes of our present malaise and offers a way to find our way to a flourishing world.
The bi-hemispheric or divided-brain model of Iain McGilchrist, described in his magnum opus, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, argues that each hemisphere attends to the world differently. The right-hemisphere is connected to the body and the external world via the senses and presents a contextually rich, contemporary “picture” to the acting individual. The left, contrarily, accesses an internal “world,” re-constructed from bits and pieces it has abstracted from what the right has sent over to it during past experiences. The character of individual and social behavior over time depends on which side acts as master, that is, runs the show. Right now, the left hemisphere is in charge with serious consequences for the future of humanity and the planet.
The right, because of its connectedness, is the source of empathy, producing acts that take into account the conditions of the external world, especially of any humans involved. It pictures the world as alive, interconnected, changing, and organically holistic. When it is the master, acts have a better chance to achieve whatever the actor intended and minimize unintended consequence because they better reflect the world as it is right now than does the left side.
When the left runs the show, actions reflect some re-constructed version of reality that may or may not be close to what actually exists. We get fooled a lot of the time because the reality that the left has created over repeated behaviors fits closely enough to produce the results the actor was seeking. But it acts without empathy and awareness of the results of its acts. It is the source of overt prejudice. Real unique people become decontextualized, better, dehumanized, and are treated as mere objects.
To make matters worse, the left often lies or confabulates to reinforce its mistaken or partial view of reality because it cannot cope with anything that cannot be forced into its inner world. Artificial or augmented reality can only make matters worse by, in effect, pampering the left, when what is needed is a return to the mastery of the right hemisphere. I cannot begin to convey the richness and profundity of McGilchrist’s work here, but what I have written captures the aspects most important to begin to understand the real roots of our present concerns and offer a way toward a flourishing future. Instead of seeking technological fixes of any scale, we must begin by acknowledging the divided-brain-model as more fitting than the age-old, Cartesian version that remains the foundation of our understanding of human behavior. Then, we must put in place measures to shift the hemispheric balance back toward the right.
We know how to do that. Mindfulness exercises quiet the left and engage the right. They are found in Eastern cultures that exhibit right-hemisphere worldviews – holism, spirituality, connectedness. Pragmatic inquiry forces attention to the here-and-now and bases subsequent actions on what is observed instead of the prevalent use of left-hemisphere-based theory as a guide. The consumerist ethic on which Western politic economies are now based should be replaced with one focused on caring — acts that reflect our connectedness to, not isolation from, the real world. These kinds of practices will take time to design and implement, and even more time to take effect on the scale necessary to shift normal behaviors from using the world as a resource to be used for self-satisfaction to taking care of it so as to assure that humans and other life will have an inhabitable home in the future.
If that does come to pass, humans will begin to flourish without even thinking about it. Human flourishing emerges as we begin to find the correct balance between those acts of caring that come from the metaphorical soul or heart (right), and those we enact according to the myriad of sets of institutional or societal norms (left). According to the divided-brain-model, we are not a single self, run by a mysterious mind, but, rather, a set of fraternal twins, each representing the dominance of one of the hemispheres. Both sides are always working together, the left feeding the right pieces of its mechanical world and learning new tricks, but the final outcome depends on which side dominates.
I recognize that this presentation of a new way to think about the way we think is daunting, but the evidence presented by McGilchrist is massive and persuasive. Evidence of its validity can be found in antiquity, long before any real knowledge of the brain was available. Just look at the two opposing Latin words, sinister with negative connotations and dexter with the opposite sense. Dexter is the Latin word for “on the right hand,” and has even earlier linguistic roots with the same sense of “right.” Sinister’s roots are just the opposite, pointing to the left side. A match to the opposing hemispheres too uncanny to ignore.