Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Divided Brain & the Search for Meaning: Why Are We So Unhappy by Ian McGilchrist & RSA Animate “The Divided Brain”

I don’t recall how I discovered RSAnimate, but I did, and you should, too. RSA stands for “The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce: an enlightenment organization.” And if I’m not mistaken, when they say enlightenment, I think that they mean Enlightenment, as in going back to the time of Newton. But whatever their pedigree, they’re providing some first rate programs. For value and quality, they rival and sometimes exceed TED Talks. I especially enjoy the animations, which make the learning visual as well as fun. 

I recall that the first animation that I discovered is this one by Iain McGilchrist about “The Divided Brain”. The short summarizes the work that McGilchrist has done in writing The Master & His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World (my on-deck list). McGilchrist argues that the earlier split-brain theory is wrong in positing that the left side of our brain is all logic and language and the right side all visual and imagination. Functions involving language, vision, and other processes are spread across both hemispheres. However, our brain is clearly divided into two hemispheres. Something is going on even though the initial split-brain theories were off the mark. In fact, we learn from the animation (as only animation can teach it), our brain doesn’t sit symmetrically within our skulls, but it’s torqued so that the right front and the left rear receive more space, and in social mammals, the right side is larger. What gives? 

McGilchrist posits that the divided brain reflects two functions: one a holistic (my term, not his) monitoring of our surrounding environment that prompts a desire for understanding and the other (left) side features the ability to focus narrowly on objects, allowing us to abstract and manipulate them, giving rise to such things as language and tools. Thus one side of the brain acts as a flood light and the other as a search light. These two necessary, separate, and complementary functions allow us to grasp wholes in a more intuitive manner (although he doesn’t use the term in the book or short, it sounds like gestalt to me). And the left side allows us to abstract and manipulate tools, language, and persons. Gilchrist notes something that I’d learned many years ago from psychiatrist and student of mysticism and meditation, Dr. Gerald May: the large frontal lobes of the brain—unique to humans—serve foremost as an inhibition device. It prevents us from acting compulsively on our desires or fears. Consider this premise: what makes us most human is our ability to say “no” to our whims or compulsions, our ability to restrain action. This ability allows us to step back, as it were, and to act strategically (represented in the animation by Machiavelli) and to act empathically (represented by Erasmus). 

The final segment of the animation and the main focus of The Divided Brain addresses the significance of this information about brain architecture and function. Without this final perspective, this would be just another book and animation about how our brains work. Fun and interesting, but of no great consequence. However, McGilchrist, before becoming a psychiatrist, taught English literature at Oxford. He bridges C.P. Snow’s two cultures. He argues that the architecture and functions of the brain affect how we live and act. McGilchrist believes that from the time of Greek civilization to the European Renaissance, a balance existed between the functions of the two sides of the brain. But with the advent of modernity, the West became enamored of left side functions that emphasize tools and manipulation, language, logic, and abstraction— at the expense of the right-side functions that concern the wider context of the embodied, changing environment in which we live. This, McGilchrist contends, accounts for the fact that despite our unimaginable wealth and material well-being, we’re often profoundly unhappy and hold a feeling being stuck in a trap of our own making. 

The Divided Brain is a 10,000 word essay written as a follow-up to The Master & His Emissary. (Yale U Press commissioned The Divided Brain as an e-book to complement the paperback edition of The Master & His Emissary.) In this essay, McGilchrist fills in some of the holes or questions that have arisen from his big book (and he whets my appetite to read the longer work). He brings extreme good sense to the issues posed. For instance, he writes: 

I take it that we bring about a world in consciousness that is partly what is given, and partly what we bring, something that comes into being through this particular conjunction and no other. And the key to this is the kind of attention we pay to the world.

McGilchrist, Iain. The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning (Kindle Locations 120-122). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

(By the way, I made a note of this in my copy of this that it contradicts the patter that I hear from so many (young) yoga teachers: “It’s all in your head”, “you just need to believe”, and so on. I notice that I never hear this nonsense coming out to the mouths of 60-year old bodies.) 

In another gem of insight, he writes: 

There is no royal road to certainty about what the world is, or what it is like. We all, whether we are poets or scientists, or just going about the business of daily life, have to begin somewhere, by a leap of intuition, as to what kind of thing it might be we are dealing with – not just any leap, of course, always a guided one, but nonetheless fallible and uncertain. Depending on where and how we leap is what we find. And depending on what we find is what we will find in due course, since it begins the process of hardening things up into what we call a certainty. What we do not expect to find, we just will not see: much elegant research demonstrates that we are essentially blind to what we do not think is there. 

Id. at 124-129.

In this quote, he offers a succinct summary of the differences in the functions and modus operandi of the two sides of our brains: 

[I]t is the left hemisphere that controls the right hand with which we grasp something, and controls the aspects of language (not all language) by virtue of which we say we have ‘grasped’ the meaning – made it certain and pinned it down. The right hemisphere underwrites sustained attention and vigilance for whatever may be, without preconception. Its attention is not in the service of manipulation, but in the service of connection, exploration and relation.

Id at 144-147.

He goes on: 

What are the key distinctions? One way of looking at the difference would be to say that while the left hemisphere's raison d'être is to narrow things down to a certainty, the right hemisphere's is to open them up into possibility. In life we need both. In fact for practical purposes, narrowing things down to a certainty, so that we can grasp them, is more helpful. But it is also illusory, since certainty itself is an illusion – albeit, as I say, a useful one. There is no certainty.
Another way of thinking of the difference between the hemispheres is to see the left hemisphere's world as tending towards fixity, whereas that of the right tends towards flow. All systems in nature, from particles to the greater universe, from the world of cellular processes to that of all living things, depend on a necessary balance of the forces for stasis with the forces for flow. All existing things could be thought of as the product of this fruitful tension. But again, stasis itself is an illusion, helpful though it is in grasping the world on the wing.

Id. at 154-158; 192-196. 

I could go on with these quotes, but I think that you grasp (manipulation on the left-brain) the meaning (located on the right). His essay is full of these insights. I will leave you with this one last thought from McGilchrist: 

[S]ince the Industrial Revolution, we have constructed a world around us externally that is the image of the world the left hemisphere has made internally. Appeals to the natural world, to the history of a culture, to art, to the body, and to spirituality, routes that used to lead out of the hall of mirrors have been cut off, undercut and ironised out of existence, and when we look out of the window – we see more of the world we had created in our minds extended in concrete all around us.
Meaning emerges from engagement with the world, not from abstract contemplation of it.
Id. at 440-443; 445.
Think on these things.


lost in the triangle said...

being of right-brained mind i am convinced this is why i am having an *incredibly* hard time re-adapting to life here in the frozen tundra. there is nothing here to stimulate the right side--it is as though this place were allergic to culture. i'm not sure how much longer i could or should tolerate this lacuna...but i do know it is different elsewhere. enjoy your particular difference, and wish us luck with selling our house!

Stephen N. Greenleaf said...


I don't think that April is the cruelest month; March is, at least in Iowa. Hints of spring snatched suddenly way by winter's icy hand. Yet, reflecting from the tropics, I have a greater appreciation of the aesthetics of winter, at least at its best. I miss intense blues skies above crystal white landscapes with only the brown skeletons of trees or golden green grasses to mediate between them, and the sound of my breath and a few lonely crows challenging the silence. Of course, a great deal of the time it’s simply dreary out.

I started The Master & His Emissary, and you might like it. I began in the middle with his cultural history of Western Civ based on the division in the brain. Quite fascinating. While reading McGilchrist about melancholy, I realized why I so enjoy the fall & used to hang around at Kent Park a lot: I enjoyed (yes--the correct word) the sense of melancholy that it brought. Here, however, I wonder if there isn't something to the idea of the indolence of the tropics. Even when it rains, it's not for long, and it stays pleasantly warm. The enveloping warmth and soft breezes can lull one into a very relaxed state.