IS OUR BRAIN REALLY DIVIDED?
DR IAN MCGILCHRIST discusses the hemispheres and their different “personalities,” and then shows a sweeping dissertation on the history of Western civilization as seen from the context of the divided brain.
Some very subtle research by David McNeill, amongst others, confirms that thought originates in the right hemisphere, is processed for expression in speech by the left hemisphere, and the meaning integrated again by the right (which alone understands the overall meaning of a complex utterance, taking everything into account).
Ian McGilchrist is a former Oxford literary scholar who trained in medicine and now works as a consulting psychiatrist and writer. For the past twenty years, he has pondered why the brain is divided into two hemispheres, instead of being an integrated, single organ. Utilizing the fruits of current neuroscientific investigation, McGilchrist acknowledges that virtually all functions once thought to be the province of one hemisphere (e.g., speech and language in the left hemisphere and imagination and emotion in the right), are, at least to a certain extent, mediated by both hemispheres. Nevertheless, he posits that the two hemispheres provide the individual with differing perspectives on the world. The right hemisphere promotes emotional sensitivity and empathy; an aesthetic sense, with an appreciation of beauty; knowledge and awe of the numinous, leading to a religious impulse; and an overall ability to place facts into context. The left hemisphere allows focusing on details; communicating about them using language; and the ability to manipulate this knowledge to achieve desired ends. Citing examples from nature, McGilchrist hypothesizes why both of these perspectives may be necessary for a being’s thriving. For example, a bird can pick out edible seeds (utilizing primarily the left hemisphere) while maintaining vigilant surveillance of its environment to detect potential predators (mediated by the right hemisphere).
QUESTION: You believe the left brain has been gaining control over the course of human evolution. How did this come about?
DR IAN MCGILCHRIST : I think an aspect of being a conscious being is that you are aware that you can become powerful by manipulation. Other creatures, of course, are competing and manipulating, but they’re probably not aware of the fact that this is a way of becoming powerful—that it seems to work well for a lot of the things that one does as one grows a civilization. One needs to build structures by putting brick upon brick, or stone on stone. One needs to create drainage and irrigation and so on. One creates these things that seem to make life simpler, easier and better and make you more powerful. It’s enticing, and you can soon begin to think that everything works like this. Everything in your world seems to break down into a lot of machines that we’ve created. While this is a very interesting way of looking at things, it’s basically a practical tool for getting ahead. It’s not really a very good instrument for epistemology or for ontology—for finding out actually what the world is and how we know about it. It can lead us to narrow down the way we think about things to a merely rationalistic set of propositions, a series of algorithms.
QUESTION: What are the effects of the left brain taking over?
DR IAN MCGILCHRIST : One of the interesting elements that comes out in research into the “personalities” or the “takes” of the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere thinks it knows it all, and as a result is extremely optimistic. It overvalues its own ability. It takes us away from the presence of things in all their rich complexity to a useful representation—that representation is always much simpler. And an awful lot is lost in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need to simplify. For example, if you’re designing a building or if you’re fighting a campaign, you need a map, a scheme. You don’t really need all the richness of what would be there in the real world. But I’m afraid that that representation moves into a world where we have the ability constantly to interact with the world only as a representation, over a screen.
Even Facebook and social networking may look like you have suddenly have loads of friends, but what it may actually do is take you away from your real-life friends so that your life is more crowded and there’s less time, actually, to be aware peacefully of the world around you and to interact socially—a word that used to mean “with your fellow creatures.”
QUESTION: What can we do about this?
DR IAN MCGILCHRIST : People often ask me this question. I think they’re rather hoping I’ll give them a list of bullet points—“The 12 Things You Need”—like a best-selling paperback. That is really a perfect example of the left hemisphere. “Okay. Fix it by having a little plan. We do this, we do that, and bingo!” But in fact, what I have tried to convey throughout the entire book is that the world, as it is, has its own shape, value, meaning and so on, and that we crowd it out with our own plans, thoughts and beliefs, which are going to be narrow. A wise thing to do would be not to do certain things. Another theme of my book is that negation is creative. That by having less of something, more comes into being. So actually what we need to do is not create a world. We need to stop doing lots of things and allow the wonderful thing that is already there to evolve, to give it room to grow. That’s also true of a single human mind.
QUESTION: How do you advise your patients in your psychiatric practice?
DR IAN MCGILCHRIST : As a psychiatrist I see people day in and day out who have problems in their lives. One way of looking at these problems might be that their minds are full of things that they feel are important, ways of thinking, and that it’s not so much that I can tell them to think differently. You can give people pointers, but the critical thing for them is to come to a realization that they’re doing things that are damaging. Therapy is always like that. Sometimes when I see a patient I have a pretty shrewd intuition of what they need to do. But if I were to tell them that right off, it would have no meaning. They need to find their way to it by realizing that what they’re doing now is not the right way. One very practical thing—a recipe for healing for almost every one of my patients—is not forcing things to be the way they would like them to be, but to embrace the way that they’re likely to be and doing those things that will help that forward. – See more at: http://brainworldmagazine.com/what-at-any-one-moment-is-governing-our-actions/#sthash.2rbrg1Mk.dpuf
QUESTION: It sounds like a very philosophical attitude.
DR IAN MCGILCHRIST : We are now understanding the benefits of mindfulness, which is officially recommended by the British body NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). The essence of mindfulness is clearing your mind of all the stuff that’s going on in there and stopping you from experiencing life. You’re so busy feeling bad about the past you can’t change and chasing after a future you can’t predict, instead of actually being alive in the moment. That is really the essence of mindfulness. Recent research shows that mindfulness engages wide networks in the right hemisphere, and the EEG studies show that there is a more balancing of the two hemispheres in those who are meditating. So I think meditation and not doing things, making space in your life and switching off your machines, being present in the moment and practicing mindfulness would be a way to start.
BUY HIS BOOK – The Master and His Emissary