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General · 7th March 2014
Ray Grigg
Humanity's incomparable degradation of our planet's environment continues unabated. Despite the inevitable severity of the consequences, we seem incapable of stopping the process, even though the causes have been exhaustively documented by a consensus of many scientists from multiple disciplines and the media have publicized the alarms in lurid detail. So we know what we're doing wrong. Why, then, don't we change our behaviour? This perplexing question is being answered by the psychiatrist and writer, Iain McGilchrist.

McGilchrist's book is The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The title is derived from a story told by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 - 1900). Neitzsche's story recounts a small but prosperous realm that is ruled by a wise master who governs his people with selfless devotion. As his realm prospers and expands, the master realizes he needs emissaries to communicate with its distant parts. So he carefully selects and trains his representatives so they can be entrusted with this special duty. Eventually, however, the most clever and ambitious of these emissaries becomes contemptuous of the real master, begins presenting himself as him, and finally usurps power. With the master deposed, the people are incompetently ruled, tyranny replaces wisdom, and the realm soon collapses in ruin.

McGilchrist's uses Nietzsche's story as a metaphor to illustrate the recent dominance in Western culture of the left hemisphere of our brain (the emissary) over the right hemisphere (the master). As the influence of the West spreads to the entire planet, the characteristics of the left hemisphere, as identified by the latest neurological research, are amplified to global proportions. The escalating environmental damage of climate change, ocean acidification, species loss, water shortage, soil exhaustion, resource depletion and ubiquitous pollution may be sufficient to undermine the foundations of our modern civilization.

Anatomically, the thinking part of our brain, the cerebral cortex, is composed of two structurally and functionally distinct hemispheres connected by a collection of neurons known as the corpus callosum — just a few million neurons that have the contradictory function of both linking and separating the two hemispheres. Both hemispheres process language, imagery, reason and emotion, but they do so differently, integrating these differences to give our conscious thinking the impression of seamless awareness.

The right hemisphere understands language imaginatively, symbolically and metaphorically. Thus, it is the seat of poetry, music, creativity, aesthetics and intuition. It gives us our sense of beauty, mystery, empathy and humour. It is able to accommodate ambiguity and paradox. It can process innuendo, subtlety and irony. It is comfortable with the implicit and nuanced. Because the right hemisphere can accommodate uncertainties, contradictions and unresolved complexities, it tends to be wary, critical, fluid and open, constantly in search of interconnections, patterns and meaning as it gathers insights and places them in perspective. It tends to understand immediately and holistically, possessing an integrating function able to grasp the context in which details belong. As the recipient of direct or primary sensory experience — “presentation” — the right hemisphere is more closely connected to reality than the left hemisphere, which receives experience through indirect or secondary input — “representation”.

The left hemisphere specializes in the literal and explicit meaning of language, in being logical, precise and detailed. It focuses on the present and immediate. Its strength is in manipulation and control, with interest in identifying and completing tasks. Such short term goals make it inherently optimistic. Its attention is localized, without the perspective that understands how those tasks fit into a larger design — it is better at solving problems than pondering the strategic wisdom of addressing those problems.

McGilchrist argues that the vitality and viability of cultures are very much determined by the relationship between these two hemispheres. When Western history has held them in functional equilibrium, then philosophy, creativity, art, learning and practical accomplishments have all flourished. When the left hemisphere is dominant, then this history has exhibited signs of being rigid, dogmatic, narrow, fragmented, discordant and even self-destructive.

That we live in a culture dominated by left hemisphere thinking, according to McGilchrist, warrants close examination. The narrow and rational way it functions tends to habituate behaviour. Its literal interpretation of language tends to rigidify thinking into dogmas, routines, simplicities and certainties. Without a grasp of context or a sense of perspective, this mode of thinking has difficulty plotting broad strategies and initiating major changes. A problem that requires a paradigm shift in understanding and behaviour is extremely challenging for this hemisphere because it lacks the breadth to comprehend outside the confines of its limited capabilities.

When these two hemispheres are in balance, according to McGilchrist, cultures flourish — classical Greece and early Rome being prime examples. Since the Renaissance ended about 500 years ago, McGilchrist contends, left hemisphere dominance has been rapidly increasing. He cites particularly dramatic increases in its predominance during the 16th century's Reformation (a literal reading of the Bible); the ascent of objectivity during the 17th century's Age of Science (empirical evidence as the measure of knowledge); the extolling of reason during the 18th century's Enlightenment (a rational mind as the only legitimate means of understanding), the staggering material advances of the 19th century's Industrial Revolution (the translation of reason into mechanization) and, finally, the incredible ingenuity of the 20th century's Technological Age (the marriage of science and machines with its proliferation of novel products).

So this brings us to the present, to an exploration of the pressing environmental problems we now face, and to an exploration of why our style of thinking makes these problems so difficult to solve. Next week, Part 2 of 3.