The Bi-Cameral Brain and Wisdom
The impetus behind the Wisdom Circle is the belief that scientific knowledge, and the technology it supports, is not enough to enable us to negotiate the future as a human race. I am supported in this by none other than David Attenborough. He finishes his latest book, and the Netflix presentation that goes with it, with these words,
The living world has survived mass extinctions several times before. But we humans cannot assume we will do the same. We have come as far as we have because we are the cleverest creatures to have ever lived on the Earth. But if we are to continue to exist, we will require more than intelligence. We will require wisdom (my emphasis) (Attenborough 2022:220)
The mechanical world view, which could be said to have begun when we human beings first began to make tools with which we could change the world around us, was enhanced manyfold with the rise of modern science and the delineation of the physical world through mathematical symbols. It has culminated in artificial intelligence. So successful has this world view become that most other world views have been abandoned or at least challenged. Some think a profound hubris has taken over human consciousness. Yet, as we have seen, such a world view exists on very shaky ground (see last month’s blog). So much of what makes our lives truly human is not subject to either science or technology, but rather personal experience through relationship. This is where we learn wisdom. Our failure to see this and really value this is now critical.
There was a break-through for me this week with the publication of Humanity’s Moment: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope by Australian Joelle Gergis. She is a lead author on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report published this year. Her book is both scientific and human, passionately humane in fact. It is as if a leading scientist has decided the re-join the human race and not just play the detached observer from the ‘view from nowhere’. She is letting herself really feel the feelings that she feels working as a leading scientist facing humanity’s greatest challenge, but then also taking us in on her journey of her inner world. She ends her book with the very same quote from David Attenborough above. But whereas Attenborough only sees the ‘wisdom horizon’, Gergis plunges in. What she is doing is ‘getting wisdom’, valuing science completely but understanding its limits while at the same time embracing the equal importance of feeling (the arts) and personal relationship. Her struggle has been to re-find faith in humanity, knowing what she knows as a scientist in the face of indifferent politicians and blatantly self-interested fossil fuel industries. Did you know that fossil fuel lobbyists were the largest contingent at COP 26 in Glasgow? Did you know that in Australia more money is spent on fossil fuel subsidies than on the Australian army?
I very warmly recommend both these books as essential reading for anyone interested in wisdom and concerned about what is happening in our world. May many more scientist’s do what Gergis is doing, but as she herself recognises, many scientists, especially male ones, have trouble feeling their feelings and are locked in the illusory world that scientific knowledge is objectively true regardless of our experience, a ‘view from nowhere’ as the philosopher Thomas Nagel put it, like a ‘god’ who is entirely separate from his creation and only observes it neutrally. Such a view is no longer tenable.
Iain McGilchrist is also doing what Attenborough and Gergis are doing, trying to grasp what it is to be fully human in our modern world in the face of the global challenges we face. He is accepting the full intellectual side of this, bringing together science, philosophy, the arts and personal relationship, in the search for wisdom that matters and makes the differences we so desperately need. But he is much clearer I think about the problem we face, at least as he sees it. Whereas much traditional religion, especially the monotheistic types, sees the problem as sin, desire and disobedience, entrapping us in our egocentric selves, McGilchrist anchors our dilemma in our very bodies, in the bi-cameral nature of our brains. Our brains are the way they are because they evolved this way to enable us to survive in a world where we need to eat but also need to avoid being eaten, to put it bluntly. The Left Hemisphere (LH) evolved to help us manipulate the world to enable us to eat, to be aware of the parts; the Right Hemisphere (RH) evolved to help us keep an eye on the bigger picture, the whole, to enable us to avoid being eaten.
Whether McGilchrist is right about all this or not, he does appear to be right in his analysis of the bi-cameral nature of the brain. Both hemispheres are involved in just about everything we do, but they each have a very different take on the world. Each hemisphere is capable of consciousness in its own right, but it is in the working of these together that our full human consciousness emerges. But the hemispheres are not equal in this. In proper balance, the RH is primary and the LH serves it. In McGilchrist’s view this proper balance is not the case in our modern world. It has been reversed. The LH has taken over and has in part negated the RH. This is our problem. We have to re-find and nurture the primacy of the RH. We need wisdom and not just knowledge. In fact we need to value wisdom over knowledge, relationship over objective isolation.
The brain is, importantly, divided into two hemispheres: you could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is……. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that while we have succeeded in coercing the world to our will to an extent unimaginable even a few generations ago, we have at the same time wrought havoc on that world precisely because we have not understood it. 10
...indeed, each hemisphere deals with absolutely everything – just in a reliably different way. The character and sheer extent of that difference, as well as its significance for the future of our civilisation, formed the subject of The Master and His Emissary. And that difference could be seen as rooted in a difference in attention, as I shall explain. 32…..the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain makes possible attending to the world simultaneously in two otherwise incompatible ways. 34
McGilchrist goes into great detail, carefully justified with evidence both scientific and philosophical, for the different roles and functions of the two hemispheres of our brains. Here is one of his summaries, some points of which we will examine more closely in the Wisdom Circle. (the numbers refer to pages in The Matter With Things).
1. The LH is principally concerned with manipulation of the world; the RH with understanding the world as a whole and how to relate to it.53
2. The LH deals preferentially with detail, the local, what is central and in the foreground, and easily grasped; the RH with the whole picture, including the periphery or background, and all that is not immediately graspable. The importance of the global (RH)/local (LH) distinction cannot be overstated. It is also extremely robust.54 ‘Perhaps the most compelling distinction between local and global visual processing is the differential lateralisation in the brain’;55 ‘evidence to support this hypothesis comes from a wealth of data’.56
3. The RH is on the lookout for, better at detecting and dealing with, whatever is new, the LH with what is familiar. VS Ramachandran calls the RH the ‘devil’s advocate’, since it acts as an ‘anomaly detector’, on the lookout for what might be erroneously assumed by the LH to be familiar.57
4. The LH aims to narrow things down to a certainty, while the RH opens them up into possibility. The RH is able to sustain ambiguity and the holding together of information that appears to have contrary implications, without having to make an ‘either/or’ decision, and to collapse it, as the LH tends to do, in favour of one of them.
5. In line with this, the style of the RH is altogether more circumspect than that of the LH, which tends to be less self-critical.58
6. The LH tends to see things as isolated, discrete, fragmentary, where the RH tends to see the whole. The LH tends to see things as put together mechanically from pieces, and sees the parts, rather than the complex union that the RH sees.59
7. The LH’s world tends towards fixity and stasis, that of the RH towards change and flow.60
8.The LH tends to see things as explicit and decontextualised, whereas the RH tends to see them as implicit and embedded in a context. As a result, the LH largely fails to understand metaphor, myth, irony, tone of voice, jokes, humour more generally, and poetry, and tends to take things literally.61
9. There is a tendency for the LH to prefer the inanimate, the RH the animate. Machines and tools are alone coded in the LH, too, while the animate is coded by both hemispheres, though preferentially by the RH.62
10.The RH understands narrative. The LH, if offered a story whose episodes are taken out of order, tends to regroup them so as to classify similar episodes together, rather than reconstruct them in the order that has human meaning.63
11. Both hemispheres need to categorise, but do so according to different strategies. The LH tends to categorise using the presence or absence of a particular feature; the RH tends to do so by reference to unique exemplars, using what Wittgenstein called a ‘family resemblance’ approach – it sees the Gestalt.64
12. More general categories are dealt with preferentially by the LH, more fine-grained ones, as one approaches more closely uniqueness, by the RH. Damage to the RH can lead to a loss of the sense of uniqueness or the capacity to recognise individuals altogether.65
13. The RH contains the ‘body image’ (this is a slightly misleading neuropsychological term which refers not just to a visual image, but to a multimodal schema of the body as a whole). The LH tends to focus on parts – arms, legs and so on – out of which the body must then be constructed. The RH tends to process in a more embodied, less abstract fashion than the LH. The RH is also superior at reading body language and emotion expressed in the face or voice.66
14. The LH is superior for fine analytic sequencing and has a larger linguistic vocabulary and more complex syntax than the RH. Pragmatics, the ability to understand the overall import of an utterance in context, is, however, a RH function. Understanding prosody, the musical aspect of language, its tone, inflection, etc, depends to a very large extent on the RH.67
15. For most of us, music is very largely the province of the RH, the LH dealing only with simple rhythms.68
16. The RH is essential for ‘theory of mind’: that is to say that it is better able to understand another’s point of view.69
17. The RH is essential for empathy.70
18. In very general terms, both emotional receptivity and expressivity are greater in the RH.71
19. The RH is better at seeing things as they are pre-conceptually – fresh, unique, embodied, and as they ‘presence’ to us, or first come into being for us. The LH, then, sees things as they are ‘re-presented’, literally ‘present again’ after the fact, as already familiar abstractions or signs. One could say that the LH is the hemisphere of theory, the RH that of experience; the LH that of the map, the RH that of the terrain.72
20. The LH is unreasonably optimistic, and it lacks insight into its limitations. The RH is more realistic, but tends towards the pessimistic.73
How does all this fit within your thinking (and feeling)? Does it help? Can we bring ourselves forward in conversation as passionately as Attenborough, Gergis and McGilchrist in our own way and lives? Can we find ways to live this out in our very challenged but largely denying world?
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