In a previous article (3rd Act Magazine Fall 2020 issue), I expressed newfound optimism that cultural evolution is nudging the human mind toward altruism, empathy, compassion, and equity and away from greed, selfishness, and tribalism. I have since read a persuasive book that argues in the other direction.
In short, the argument claims that the left and right hemispheres in our brains are at war with each other. Our left hemisphere (LH) has assumed a dominant and oppressive role. Perspectives offered by our right hemisphere (RH) are suppressed. As a result we have, collectively, become mentally unbalanced.
I know what you are thinking. All this left-brain, right-brain stuff was dismissed by serious researchers years ago. Wait! Hear me out. The research has continued. Yes, the popular mythologies of 30 years ago are largely baloney. But hemispheric differences do exist, and they are significant. Understanding their differences might give us a clue about how to restore a healthier cognitive balance.
Scholar Iain McGilchrist is largely responsible for the renewed interest in the study of hemispheric laterality. His book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World provides an exhaustive review of new research, and offers a provocative understanding of the role each hemisphere plays in shaping our world.
The RH is cast as the Master in McGilchrist’s allegory because it provides us with our most direct experience of being alive in the real world. The LH is the Emissary, which serves the master by picking apart our experience and creating symbolic representations of its component parts. It uses an avatar version of ourselves to explore imaginary scenarios within a virtual world. Problems arise when the LH suppresses real experience in favor of its own invented simulations.
The Balanced Mind
In a balanced mind, information flows from RH to LH and back to RH. Consider a walk in the woods. The RH is the nature lover that feels more alive when immersed in the natural world. It absorbs the sounds and colors of the forest. It is awed by the grandeur and majesty of the Redwoods. The RH is happy to relax and merge with the magic of the forest. The LH is the curious naturalist that investigates the details of the forest. It studies the properties of an individual tree. It peels off a piece of bark, digs at the roots. These details of what it finds, when shared with the RH, enrich and deepen the balanced experience of the forest.
Problems arise when the balance is lost, and the LH suppresses the moderating effects of the RH. The RH reaches out to discover its connections with the natural world. The LH reaches out to learn how it can exploit the natural world. In an unbalanced mind that is denied the more holistic perspective of the right hemisphere, LH tendencies are exaggerated. It loses sight of the big picture, of the forest, and becomes focused on how individual trees might be harvested. The forest becomes a logging opportunity. The wilderness becomes a vast untapped resource.
It is too simplistic to argue that the usurping LH is the source of all evil, and the suppressed RH the source of all that is good in human beings. The truth is more nuanced, and the key point is that we need the balanced input of both hemispheres to realize the full positive potential of the human mind. We can get a deeper sense of the functional importance of each hemisphere by looking at how they differ in structure.
The neuronal wiring of the right hemisphere is an intricate web of networked connections. It has myriad ways of communicating with itself and with the body, offering the potential for innumerable patterns of neuronal activation. The signals travel in all directions. This enables the RH to form a holistic, integrated picture of our lived experience. The web of connections facilitates the discovery of remote associations and novel combinations of thought. RH ideas and thinking are emergent and self-organizing, rather than pre-programmed like those of the left hemisphere.
The Left Brain vs. the Right Brain
Neuronal wiring in the LH tends to be linear, sequential, and orderly. Once stimulated, neuronal activation follows a well-worn path that supports replicable routines and practiced algorithms. The LH excels in the performance of practiced skills. It is wired for control, which makes it uncomfortable with anything unpredictable, unique, and individual—like human nature and the natural world. The LH prefers machines and stable, non-changing concepts, and symbols. It trusts tools of its own invention and is suspicious of organic growth. Rather than bear the anxiety of the unknown, the LH constructs plausible fantasies that it embraces wholeheartedly.
The RH offers us direct experience of life; the LH offers us a virtual representation of life. If the RH is a craftsman’s studio, the LH is an assembly line run by robots.
As individuals, we can seek to rebalance our minds by emphasizing RH perspectives, while diminishing LH modes of thought. I’ve come to realize that practices like meditation, mindfulness, yoga, and physical exercise perform this rebalancing act. In their own ways, each of these practices helps us to quiet the artificial chatter generated by our LH and reinforce our connections to our living bodies as they interact with the natural RH world.
We must find peace and harmony within our own brains. With the power of a balanced mind, we can, perhaps, find ways to rebalance social inequities and learn to place as much value on natural life as we do on the engines of productivity, progress, and profit.
Michael C. Patterson, founder and CEO of MINDRAMP Consulting, writes extensively on the art and science of brain health and mental flourishing. He is an educator and consultant who previously managed AARP’s Staying Sharp brain health program and helped develop the field of creative aging.