Thursday, October 21, 2021
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Left or Right – which side rules your brain?

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DR Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist who has written a popular and influential book, The Master and his Emissary, concerning the human brain and how it functions in two different ways. His is not the first theory to propose a dualism; there have been several, because doctors and psychologists have long observed evidence of differential abilities if one of our two hemispheres is affected by injury.

McGilchrist’s thesis is as follows: while the whole brain is involved in every task, each hemisphere is specialised. The Left hemisphere’s attention is focused on a narrow subset of the world, as befits a predator stalking its prey. The Right maintains a holistic attention, monitoring everywhere on the lookout for a predator. These specialisations give each hemisphere unique characteristics.

The Left is designed to be single-minded and manipulative. It sees in black and white, is simplistic and linear in its thinking. It believes it can control the world and has a very high opinion of itself. It is dismissive of alternatives and uncomfortable with uncertainty. It abhors messiness and chaos and desires predictability. It brooks no compromise and, like Procrustes, prefers one-sized solutions to fit all. 

The Left brain contains the major speech centre. It can argue its case. It is intellectual and objective. On its own you might describe it as autistic. If asked its ideal job it would say bureaucrat or middle manager. I picture Sir Humphrey from Yes, Minister.

The Right sees the world as connected, uncertain, complex, wondrous. It specialises in relationships. It appreciates rather than manipulates. Unfortunately the Right brain is functionally less talkative, which puts it at a disadvantage in a world dominated by communication technology. It is experiential and immersed in the world. It is subjective. On its own you might describe it as artistic. If asked its ideal job it would it would point to a rock star or an entrepreneur. I picture Jimi Hendrix. The Right knows that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy.

Of course in most of us these hemispheres don’t work alone, they collaborate to make us successful in the world. However, our culture may serve to emphasise the importance of Left-brain talents in our materialistic pursuits, and the division of labour has created specialisms that favour its extremes.

If your Right brain has made a connection between Left-brain thinking and the current World Economic Forum efforts to manage, control and manipulate the global population into a herd of obedient subjects then it works the same way as mine does. I think that some people with more power than wisdom are trying to apply to our species the same control that has brought to us the wealth, comforts and security that mastery of the natural world has delivered to us. In McGilchrist’s metaphor the Left brain makes a useful servant, but not a very good master.

C S Lewis saw this coming. In his book The Abolition of Man  he identified the ‘men without chests’. Such men are overly reliant on reason to guide them, ignoring the proper contribution of the heart’s perspective. In his analogy the chest was the mediator between heart and reason. Its absence was the cause of our dysfunction. Lewis predicted a bleak future where the men without chests established permanent hegemony over mankind.

However, Dr McGilchrist’s insights offer some hope. Left-brain thinking is unable to appreciate the non-linearity of real life, is unable to appreciate its profound complexity. It cannot plan well for this because it cannot see it. It will attempt to force the square peg of life into a round hole. Real life will confound it, as it always does. The Right brain is wiser.

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Pseudonym de Plume
Pseudonym de Plume has a background in psychology and academic research.

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