Previous brain research has shown that the brain is divided into the left and right hemispheres, each with different functions and perspectives on reality. Yet recent brain research has shown the functional division is not as we thought, and that language, imaging, and reasoning is served by both hemispheres. Yet, our society has favored left-brain thinking and perspectives, at the expense of the right brain, with some negative consequences.
Neuropsychological research demonstrates how our right hemisphere sees the world from a metaphorical, non-verbal, integrated, and contextual way, open to new experiences and the left hemisphere sees the world in an analytical, detailed way with a narrow focus, and helps us manipulate and use the world pragmatically.
We need both hemispheres to live productively in the world. As brain damage studies have shown, without the right-brain, we can become socially and emotionally insensitive, and without the left-brain, we struggle with detail and taking action Each hemisphere gives us distinct perspectives on the world and ourselves.
As Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist, and author of A Stroke of Insight, A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, who survived a massive stroke that paralyzed her left hemisphere, reports, the stroke had damaged the left side of her brain, yet her recovery unleashed a torrent of creative and intuitive capacities in her right brain. Then she saw the world in a different, beautiful way.
Not so many people are as fortunate as Taylor. An imbalance in hemisphere function in individuals can have detrimental if not damaging effects. But what about the cumulative and sum total effect of entire cultures of people with such an imbalance?
Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, argues that in the Western World there has been a far greater reliance on our left brains, the result of which has propelled our world into imbalance. Beginning at the time of Aristotle and up through the Roman Empire, the emphasis on left-brain thinking dominated our perspectives on the world and ourselves. During the Renaissance, the brain focus was more balanced, with an a right brain appreciation of the deep and creative perspectives on reality. During the Reformation, the Western world moved back to a left-brained, empirical view of reality, with an emphasis on rationality and reason.
McGilchrist argues that our right brain responds to negative feedback whereas the left brain gets increasingly locked into its own, sometimes narrow point of view, limiting itself to doing things the way things have been done before. McGilchrist says the result is that the Western world has become increasingly mechanistic and rule-and-procedure bound. One need only look at the exceedingly complex machinations of many western governments as evidence of this.
As a result, we see the world as a mass of non-connected and fragmented bits of information with little meaning.
McGilchrist reflects the views of postmodern philosopher Jean Francois Lyotard who argued that the present age clearly shows fragmentation and increasing relativity regarding beliefs and values. Our postmodern society has witnessed the following developments that contribute to that fragmentation:
- Single issue political groups and the growth of multiple and polarized political parties;
- The explosive growth of negative politics;
- A distrust and withdrawal of support for established public institutions;
- The resurgence of active ethnic groups in Asia and Latin America demanding power and control;
- An increase in litigation and litigious behavior;
- Substantial increases in "taxpayer" revolt behaviors;
- Increasing rates of predatory crimes and social aggression;
- The proliferation of specialized and polarized media;
- The separation of social groups based on beliefs religion or ethnicity, including the development of "gated" communities.
In science, too, fragmentation has been evident. Scientific research, concepts and theories have proliferated to the point where it is virtually impossible for a scientist to be an expert in a traditional field of inquiry. Scientists are also having increasing difficulty using the same language or communicating with each other.
McGilchrist says that bureaucracy, the curse of modern society, thrives and grows in a world dominated by our left brain, with its materialistic perspective of a world to be exploited, all the while our right brain yearns for a naturalistic, integrated experience.
And there's lots of evidence to illustrate how we've lost that experiential love for life and replaced it with what? Work!
According to numerous studies over the past 25 years, during which the Western world has experienced tremendous prosperity, people's life satisfaction and levels of happiness have not increased and often have declined. In 1955 in the U.S., 44% of all workers enjoyed their working hours more than anything else; in 1999, only 16% did, according to Gallup's data.
McGilchrist argues that the left-brain helps us use our world, to achieve our ends, often at the expense of human happiness and our environment. But the left-brain is also expert at denying anything is wrong and or having made wrong decisions. Research has shown that people suffering a stroke in the right brain will often deny anything is wrong in their life. The left-brain is ever optimistic, even while it walks over a cliff.
Given the world we know today with its financial, ecological and social problems, surely this must be clue to our over reliance on left brain thinking. Isn't it time to allow the right brain to give us the opportunity to live in balance?