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General · 12th March 2014
Ray Grigg
Iain McGilchrist, a practicing psychiatrist, argues in his book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, that the dominance of the left hemisphere over the right hemisphere in the thinking part of our brain — the cerebral cortex — predisposes our modern culture to particular understandings and behaviours that do not serve our long-term interests.

Because the left hemisphere concerns itself with details and the processing of them in a logical and systematic manner, it functions to solve the practical problems of the moment. Without the right hemisphere's comprehensive insights, it has little awareness of generalities and strategies. It is so intent on solving immediate problems that it fails to recognize the cumulative consequences of its solutions. And, unfortunately, it doesn't know that it doesn't know.

If we can educate ourselves to become aware of the unbalanced relationship presently existing between these two hemispheres, perhaps we can reach important insights into our thinking, note our obliviousness to nature's deteriorating condition, realize why we are doing so little to avert a looming ecological catastrophe, discover the necessary corrective measures, then resolve to implement them. Indeed, the problem is so serious that McGilchrist's line of thought follows one presented by Louis A. Sass in Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought. Madness and insanity may prove to be harsh but honest appraisals of the left hemisphere's dominance.

Because of the left hemisphere's propensity to experience in specific and segregated parts rather than in whole and complex patterns, it perceives ourselves as separate and distinct from nature. And its inclination to control puts us in an adversarial relationship with our natural surroundings. The utilitarian character of the left hemisphere wants to use nature for practical purposes — to exploit its resources and to bring it into submission in the service of human needs. This narrow focus makes it unaware of the devastating environmental consequences of its behaviour.

Indeed, the biggest environmental problems facing our civilization will go unnoticed by the left hemisphere because it lacks the capability of thinking on a scale large enough to perceive them. This explains why habit loss, species extinction, ocean acidification, depleted ocean fish stocks, eroding soils, rising levels of pollution and — perhaps the biggest of them all — global climate change are so slow to be effectively noticed and systematically remedied. The left hemisphere is too busy drilling, digging, growing, inventing, building, making, buying, selling and consuming to notice that the biosphere is collapsing because of its feverish enthusiasm.

The comprehensive insights and awareness of the right hemisphere have been displaced, according to McGilchrist, by a narrow thinking that is methodical, pragmatic and rigid. The left hemisphere's reality is certainty, simplicity, routine, stasis and order. Its focus is problem solving, dealing with the immediate and the present rather than the distant and the uncertain.

The left hemisphere doesn't understand context and perspective. It is interested in getting oil rather than considering the implications of exhausted supplies, in catching fish rather than conserving stocks for tomorrow, in extracting the required minerals rather than worrying about future needs, in killing weeds rather than fretting about toxic residues, in cutting down forests rather than replanting trees, in generating energy rather than caring about the carbon cycle. Its strategy is to make specific products to address specific needs rather than examining the wisdom of its objectives. The left hemisphere is perfectly suited to generating a modern consumer economy with the challenge of meeting an endless parade of invented demands that must always be gratified.

So, according to McGilchrist, a culture dominated by the left hemisphere should result in a rise of bureaucracy, depersonalization, vicariousness, superficiality, faddism, selfishness, vanity, indulgence, fragmentation and alienation. Without a sense of perspective and a structure of direction to provide daily living with an overarching purpose and meaning, cultures of the left hemisphere should be less contented and happy. And, indeed, this is precisely what is happening. “What makes us happy,” McGilchrist writes, “is not wealth but the reciprocal relationship between ourselves and one another, ourselves and the world. This is something the right hemisphere alone understands, since it is the ground of empathy and interconnectedness, where the left hemisphere is concerned with manipulation and sees the world atomistically.”

McGilchrist is justifiably concerned that this manipulative and atomistic way of thinking is fundamentally unbalanced and unhealthy. When his ideas are applied to the seamlessly integrated ecosystems that comprise the actual functioning of our planet's biosphere, then the amplification to global proportions of this narrow mode of thinking and behaving creates bigger problems than our left hemisphere is capable of either recognizing or solving.

“The left hemisphere has evolved to help us use the world to achieve our ends,” McGilchrist explains. “But it is a specialist in denial.” He cites examples from medical records of subjects who have had severe right hemisphere strokes. As their bodies lie useless and paralyzed, their left hemisphere refuses to recognize that anything is amiss, or it attributes the problem to someone else in another bed. “The left hemisphere, ever optimistic, is like a sleepwalker, whistling a happy tune as it ambles toward the abyss. Let's wake up before we free-fall into the void.” Next week, Part 3 of 3.