Right and Left Brain

This post is part 6 in a 7 part series of reflections as I turn 25 years old. I’m convinced that to be human is to struggle and to struggle with God. This series serves to honor the difficult questions. I don’t know if everyone has questions their mind continually turns over while they walk the dog, shower, drive to work, but these are mine. I’m hopeful that in 25 more years I’ll have more compelling, more faithful answers to them than I do now – or that I’ll have moved on to more interesting things altogether. Either way.

Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole’ – Iain McGilchrist

When I first heard Iain McGilchrist speak in an interview, I knew I had to get a hold of his work. And then this green covered, 588 page, beast of a book arrived in the mail, and I second guessed my decision. It took me about a year to read, but this book, this conception of how we construct, perceive, and enter into reality, is one of the most important things I’ve ever read.

For me, the pearl of brilliance in this work is the idea that each person possesses a mind which is split into two parts: the right and the left. And these parts work together to build our conception of the world and to creatively interact with that world. However, they are not at all the same, the right and the left. The are not merely two parts on the same team. They have distinct personalities, trademarks, tendencies, preferences. There are hallmarks which define each, and they are vying for control.

The Master and His Emissary

McGilchrist will go on in the second half of the book to explore ways in which these hallmarks, of the right and left hemisphere of the brain, are evident in cultures. A very plain example being something like: a culture driven by numerical information, data, and artificial intelligence bears the hallmark of the left hemisphere taking control. A culture which values personal connection, human interaction, and intuitive understanding bears the hallmark of the right hemisphere being in control. And this, McGilchrist argues, is the proper order of things. The title of the book, The Master and His Emissary, is taken from a story told by Frederick Nietzsche.

The story goes that there was a spiritual master of a small domain known for selfless devotion to his people. As the domain grew, he trained emissaries to help with the work. Eventually the most trusted emissary began to see himself as master and used his position to increase his own wealth and status. He became contemptuous of the master and hated him for his temperance and forbearance which he viewed as weakness, not wisdom. Eventually, he overtook the master and ruined him, duped the people, and the domain was overrun by tyranny and collapsed. (The Master and His Emissary, (paraphrased) p. 14)

McGilchrist argues the right hemisphere is, properly, the master. It ought to be in control and assisted by the left hemisphere. However, he believes our world has come to be dominated by the unruly emissary, the left hemisphere. Below, he outlines the characteristics of each.

Hallmarks of the Right and Left

“If one had to encapsulate the principal differences in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, one could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, [is] dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care.

The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical arrangement of other things already known. It can never really ‘break out’ to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own representations only. Where the thing itself is ‘present’ to the right hemisphere, it is only ‘re-presented’ by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere’s consciousness is of itself.” (p. 174)

The right hemisphere is what allows us to know through experience and intuition. The left prefers analytical, rationale, mechanistic means of knowing. The right hemisphere is able to appreciate the relationships between entities as well as concepts and paradoxes. The left hemisphere is powerful, but self contained, in its ability to know and use only what it is familiar with and the virtual world it creates (p. 93). The left hemisphere is immensely valuable in its ability to use language and develop systemic thought. That we can discriminate between parts and reason with rationality is largely thanks to the left hemisphere. McGilchrist will argue, however, these actions should be performed in service of “something else that only the right hemisphere can bring” (p. 93).

Cases of Damage to One Side

Some of the really helpful insights in this book are the case studies of people who have brain damage to one of their hemispheres. “An inability to recognise faces is called prosopagnosia, and follows right-hemisphere lesions” (p. 60). The left hemisphere see things in parts whereas the right hemisphere sees the whole. So when the right hemisphere is damaged, and the left is on its own, it tries to recognize a face part by part, the nose, the eyes, the shape of the chin, and struggles to recognize a face. The right sees the whole and has no trouble.

The right hemisphere has a closer physiological relationship with the body. McGilchrist notes that parents, going back thousands of years, tend to hold infants to the left side of their body – this puts them in the direct line of sight of the left eye which is connected to the right hemisphere. [This is a bit confusing: the right side of our body, including eyes, corresponds to our left brain hemisphere, and vice versa]. In patients with right hemisphere damage, such as a stroke, “there appears to be a removal of the normal integration of self with body: the body is reduced to a compendium of drives that are no longer integrated with the personality of the body’s ‘owner.’ This can result in a morbid and excessive appetite for sex or food, which is out of keeping with the nature of the individual involved” (p. 69).

In a remarkable experiment, split brain patients are shown two pictures projected to one or the other hemisphere (both hemispheres cannot see the same image in this experiment), and they are asked to pick a card associated with the scene. Each hemisphere has knowledge of only one image, and in each case it’s different. A picture of a snow is shown to the right hemisphere and a picture of a chicken is shown to the left. When the patient is asked to choose a card, his left hand (which corresponds to the right hemisphere) correctly chooses the shovel. When asked why he chose this, he uses his verbal left hemisphere to respond (it cannot know, because it only saw the chicken). He responds that of course it’s because you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.

“The really interesting finding here…is that without batting an eye the left hemisphere draws mistaken conclusions from the information available to it and lays down the law about what only the right hemisphere can know…and did so not as guessing but as statement of fact…in the presence of a right-sided lesion, the brain loses the contextual information that would help it make sense of experience; the left hemisphere…makes up a story, and…appears completely convinced by it” (p. 81).

Ways of Knowing

When it comes to truth, the right hemisphere is concerned with metaphor, the implicit, and relationship. The left hemisphere is bent toward abstraction, and explicit definition (something like objective truth). One of my favorite examples in this book is of the difference between grasping and drawing near. The left hemisphere wants to gain knowledge by grasping it, that is, by holding it tightly and obtaining it. This is the kind of ‘knowing’ in which we memorize facts and hold them as though that were the truth itself. The right hemisphere way of knowing the truth is to draw near to it, almost as if we were sitting near to a wise person and experiencing wisdom through proximity to it.

In Greek mythology, Tantalus was the son of Zeus, and he was cursed to “stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, with the fruit ever eluding his grasp, and the water always receding before he could take a drink” (wiki). McGilchrist’s claim is that “grasping things…won’t get us as far as we would like, because the most important things in life refuse to be grasped…like Tantalus’ grapes they retreat from the reaching hand” (p. 179). Another good example is trying to look at a star in the night sky. Often, looking directly at the far off star will cause it to disappear from vision. However, looking near it will allow us to see it in our periphery. “The best things in life hide from the full glare of focused attention. They refuse our will” (p. 181). This is encapsulated in the folk wisdom we repeat to take life as it comes/don’t try to hard/don’t force it. McGilchrist cites the poet Donne:

One a huge hill, cragged and steep,

Truth stands, and hee that will, reach her,

About must, and about must goe,

“Satire III” – John Donne

The clarity and fixed nature of things is preferred by the left hemisphere and make up its conception of truth. “It is only in the case of the left hemisphere, not the right, that one can speak appropriately of a world ‘view’ at all…[which produces a] resulting illusion of clarity, the ability to know something ‘just as it is,’ as though everything about it were revealed through clear vision” (p. 181). This depth, awareness of relationship, context, and the betweenness of things is necessary from a right hemisphere perspective. In contrast, the left prefers the objective, Cartesian, two dimensional view of the world. It may be compared to getting to know someone by memorizing facts about them: where they were born, how tall they are, what shade their skin is as opposed to knowing someone by eating a meal with them: here, you experience their presence, depth, and gain intuitive insight.

“The right hemisphere presents an array of possible solutions, which remain live while alternatives are explored. The left hemisphere, by contrast, takes the single solution that seems best to fit what it already knows and latches onto it. V.S. Ramachandran’s studies of anosognosia [which impairs a person’s ability to understand and perceive his or her illness] reveal a tendency for the left hemisphere to deny discrepancies that do not fits its already generated schema of things. The right hemisphere, by contrast, is actively watching for discrepancies, more like a devil’s advocate. These approaches are both needed, but pull in opposite directions.” (p. 41)

Apollo and Dionysus

Apollo and Dionysus, “according to Nietzche, these two gods represented the two fundamentally opposed artistic drives: one (Apollo) towards order, rationality, clarity, the sort of beauty that comes with perfection, human control of nature, and the celebration of masks, representations or appearances” and the other (Dionysus) “intuition, the over-riding of all humanly contrived boundaries, a sense of oneness or wholeness, physical pleasure and pain, and the celebration of nature beyond human control, as she really is” (p. 199). McGilchrist claims these do not correspond exactly to the hemispheres, but I think it is a good representation of the tension between them and how the world we know is contrived from the push and pull of these fundamental differences.

If we think about our world today in which much of our experience is mediated by algorithms which are based on data and machine learning, it certainly seems like the left hemisphere and Apollo are winning the tug of war. New advances is artificial intelligence are making many tasks possible for computers to complete. A.I. released late in 2022 has the ability to write theologically coherent sermons, compose stylistically consistent poetry, and even write college homework papers extremely well. (Ezra Kline recently released a very helpful podcast episode on this.) In the therapy world, there is talk of and progress towards A.I. therapy in which a person is helped by a robot who talks back and administers treatment. On a more relatable level, in 2022, internet users were on pace to hit about 2.5 hours per day spend on social media according to Oberlo. When we’re scrolling, we are being served by machine learning as algorithms learn from what we ‘like’ and serve us what it thinks will be the most likely to keep us fixated or click on adds.

This is what McGilchrist terms the triumph of the left hemisphere. When this happens, the world is known and reality is built upon the precept of the left hemisphere – everything is according to this. “The existence of a system of though dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning” (p. 229). What about the world according to image and screen (Instagram)? Surely it will discount anything which is not according to itself and those who adopt this view will seek to build the world according to it. “In our contemporary world, skills have been downgraded and subverted into algorithms: we are busy imitating machines” (p. 256).

There is a popular phrase which originated when people lost their jobs in coal mining and were coldly told by journalists “learn to code.” Essentially, we’ve built artificial machines to replace you – so you need to learn to build artificial machines if you want a job – it’s time to start imitating machines. This is the triumph of the left hemisphere.

Living with the Metaphor in Mind

Reading this book took me about a full year, but it has given me a new metaphor for understanding how we build and interact with the world as we know it. One of the fundamental insights is that the world as we perceive it does not exist apart from our perception. Our conception is always, in some way, an expression of who we are. Relationship and communication is never a one-way street. To encounter something means you change and it changes – we are not able to see things “objectively,” nor should be desire to.

“If what it is that exists comes into being for each one of us through its interaction with our brains and minds, the idea that we could have a knowledge of it that was not also an expression of ourselves, and dependent on what we brought to the relationship, is untenable” (McGhilchrist, p. 37)

I’m no neuroscientist, but even a rough understanding of the hallmarks of the right and left hemispheres has helped me to think differently about things I encounter. I’ve found it very helpful in identifying the values and desired outcomes of institutions (like churches), ways of relating to people (like methods of therapy), and businesses (like meat producers). For instance.

A church institution which is deeply concerned with counting the number of baptisms they are able to conduct or that views faithful living as a set of rules to follow and facts to live by or which builds services for production value and branding seems to me to be dominated by a left-hemisphere paradigm. A much easier to read book on this subject is The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation – Jim Wilder. In contrast, a church which values personal connection, sees people as whole lives rather than defined by isolated actions and checked boxes seems to me to have a healthier right-left balance.

When psychotherapy originated, patients were asked to lie on a couch to be observed by a therapist who tried to objectively analyze them like a doctor with a scalpel. Later, Rogerian therapy was designed to place emphasis on personal connection and keep the counselor/client relationship at the forefront of therapy. Today, some therapists are using A.I. to treat clients without having to have any interpersonal connection, and this seems like a reversion to the left hemisphere dominance where therapy started.

Recently, I learned that the reason most of our grocery story meat is so cheap to buy is because the animals it comes from are treated as machines and basically no regard is given to their suffering so profits can be maintained. This is a gross domination of left hemisphere value, and it brings to mind the fact that psychopaths often have deficits in the right hemisphere which prohibit them from feeling any guilt, shame, or responsibility (p. 85). Meanwhile, I have friends who raise their own animals for meat and maintain a grounded connection to where their food comes from which seems much more sensible.

Right, Left, Right

It’s important to note that the left hemisphere is not bad. It is not something to be eliminated, or as McGilchrist says, we should not wish for everyone to experience a left brain stroke. The key is keeping the master in charge and the emissary under his direction. McGilchrist suggests the proper order is right – left – right. This is to say that primary experience of reality begins in the right hemisphere. From here, the left hemisphere is extremely useful in processing and reasoning from this experiential data. However, “it is essential that what the left hemisphere yields is returned to the realm of the right hemisphere where it can once again live” (p. 219).

He gives the example of a work of art or a body (perhaps in surgery) which is subjected to detached, analytic attention, we lose the sense of the thing itself, and its being in all its wholeness and otherness recedes. But the result of such attention, provided it is then relinquished, so that we stand in a state of openness and receptivity before the thing once again, may be a deeper and richer ‘presencing.’ The work of the left hemisphere done, the thing ‘returns’ to the right hemisphere positively enriched.” (p. 231).

The question I’m left with is what does it look like to make sure this sequence is allowed to operate properly. Extended metaphorically, could it mean that in church, the decision about the service is not left up to the production guys – they are there to serve the needs of the people who will be in the building? Could it mean that in companies which are data driven, like the one I work for, measures have to be put in place to make sure the data is used to serve values and not the other way around? How can we push back when the left hemisphere’s warriors (A.I./algorithms/machine learning) are hidden behind words like community and connection to disguise themselves? Ultimately, how do we keep the main thing the main thing? How do we keep the emissary from usurping the master and bringing the kingdom to tyranny and ruin?

Published by javenbear

Javen Bear is 25 years old and lives with his beautiful wife Aleisha in Phoenix, Arizona. He's a graduate student in a mental health counseling program at Grand Canyon University where he also works as an admissions representative. Javen’s super-power, if he had one, would be the ability to press pause on the world and catch up on reading. He enjoys talking walks with his wife, playing guitar, and always uses Oxford commas.

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