General · 25th March 2014
Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, argues that our modern culture has been dominated by the detailed and rational thinking of the brain's left hemisphere, which has largely displaced the insightful and integrating functions of the right hemisphere. Without the essentials of the right hemisphere's enduring values, without its foresightful decisions and wise insights, we inadvertently create a culture that is unlikely to endure. And nowhere in our present world is this deficiency more evident than in our disastrous relationship with nature.
The right hemisphere experiences nature holistically, in an empathetic and organic way. It is aware of the critically important interconnections that make ecologies an integrated dynamic of incredible diversity and complexity. Because it thinks like nature thinks, it intuitively grasps our co-operative and symbiotic relationship with our natural surroundings. The seamless patterns and designs of nature have a profound truth and beauty that communicate directly to the aesthetic and spiritual capabilities of the right hemisphere. It recognizes that the inner and outer are intimately connected, hardly surprising considering that both are equivalent living embodiments of evolution's timeless designing. The left hemisphere's notion that we could exist separately from nature is an illusion perfectly obvious to the right hemisphere's awareness.
The capability of the right hemisphere to be inclusive allows it to sense a biological identity and spiritual kinship with nature, the kind of awareness to expect when our deepest selves are but an extension of our natural surroundings. The right hemisphere, by reaching beyond the limits of logic and reason, draws us into a larger self that transcends the boundaries of the ordinary self, thereby enclosing our individual identity within the order of a greater belonging. So a lichen-draped tree that is a thousand years old, a hurried waterfall that thunders forever into the stoical patience of dark rocks, a heavy mountain that soars into the sky with its stony defiance of gravity, a waiting desert that speaks of eternity with the silence of its shimmering heat — these are all enchantingly beautiful because they are recognized by the right hemisphere as the unbounded self which forms the foundation of our being. Nature is the biggest self we can know — whether we know it or not.
But such statements are only understood by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere can't process aesthetics. It is befuddled by ambiguity, paradox, contradictions, nuances and implications that extend beyond the defined boundaries of the specific, concrete, explicit and immediate — and by notions that are more expansive than self. So the two hemispheres have fundamentally different ways of experiencing nature — a difference most dramatically expressed in our ambivalence to wilderness.
We are enchanted by wilderness, yet we destroy it with our meddling. We treasure it as special, yet we exploit it with our greed. We marvel at its complexity, yet we simplify it with our ignorance. We honour its beauty, yet we defile it with our trespass. We venerate its mystery, yet we are reluctant to let it be itself.
For a culture dominated by left hemisphere thinking, wilderness is a dilemma because it exists with a spontaneous integrity that is beyond our understanding and control. This hemisphere is confounded by the untamed character of wilderness, while our right hemisphere is intuitively attracted to it. The wild attribute in wilderness resembles the unfettered thinking that takes place in the right hemisphere. So this hemisphere feels a kinship with wilderness — appreciates its implicit uncertainty, recognizes with its unfolding ingenuity, identifies with its creative openness, shares its profound inventiveness, and senses the wisdom in its timeless balancing. All the inexplicable and enchanting qualities in wilderness that entice and enthral the right hemisphere, fill the left hemisphere with a disquieting vagueness and uncertainty.
Wilderness, however, is just the most extreme example of our ambivalent response to nature. As our left hemisphere attempts to increase control of nature through effort, engineering and technology, our right hemisphere discovers a deepening identification with nature through insight, empathy and concern. The process that the left hemisphere calls progress and improvement is the same process that the right hemisphere calls assault and destruction.
In Iain McGilchrist's model for explaining the failings of our culture, the left hemisphere has forgotten that it is the “emissary” and not the “master”. It is incapable of reaching the perspective and wisdom needed for managing complex systems, of grasping the principle of co-operation, of understanding that gaining control and power is ultimately — at its deepest and most profound level — losing control and power. This is the lesson in Fredrick Nietzsche's story of “The Master and His Emissary”. And it is the lesson repeated over and over again in the story of human history. The right hemisphere, having been deposed from its authority by the left hemisphere, is struggling to express its dismay at the deteriorating ecological conditions that are becoming both pervasive and critical. Scientists, philosophers, poets, artists, environmentalists and many others are appalled by the disastrous influence that the left hemisphere is having on the vitality and viability of our living planet.
So we are faced with the imperative of returning our thinking to a state of balance. The evidence is becoming distressingly obvious that the left hemisphere has been too dominant for too long. When unsupervised by an empowered right hemisphere, its propensity for denial, evasion and folly is demonstrably pathological and dangerous. Those who are aware of the situation are justifiably alarmed.