Many of us have grown up with respect and admiration for logic, reason, and rational thinking. Broadly speaking, Western educational systems aim at developing these exact skills and qualities, teaching us to think methodically, to organize, structure and categorize knowledge, to think in abstract terms and derive mental representations of different experiences. According to Ian McGilchrist, a prominent psychiatrist, author and thinker, all these aspects of our intellect are controlled by the left hemisphere (the LH) of our brain. In his book “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,” Dr. McGilchrist also persuasively argues that the LH has been increasingly dominating the way we think, perceive, and go about our lives in Western civilization, which, as he warns, has had a catastrophic impact on us.
That the human brain is divided into two hemispheres, left and right, is well known. We might have even heard the pop psychological claims that the right hemisphere (the RH) is the creative and emotional part, while the left hemisphere (the LH) is about rationality and language. Indeed, McGilchrist’s work supports the notion of this difference, yet counter to the distinction of tasks, he emphasises different ways in which the hemispheres deal with the same or similar tasks. In other words, we can think of different ‘personalities’ of the hemispheres.
From an evolutionary standpoint, the LH is there to help us be diligently focused on something that we’ve prioritized, to be able to grasp it, thus approaching the world as a predator would. The RH is there to help us be on guard for predators, to assess and explore, to see the ‘bigger picture´. To survive, we need to be able to do these two things at once, hence the division of the brain. So, the personality of the LH is motivated by power and control, aiming to reduce things to structures that can be manipulated and utilized. Simplicity, linearity, logic, and narrow focus of attention that eliminates all that is ‘unnecessary’ is how the LH operates. For example, a map or a model is something the LH would approve of, as it packages a complex phenomenon into a much simpler representation that is easier to operate with.
By contrast, the RH is all about the broad focus of attention, which tries to comprehend the whole, with all its complexity and richness and interconnectedness. If the LH is preoccupied with self-serving goals (like a predator would), the RH is engaged in social bonding. When the LH is attentive to the exact words, the RH is listening to the implicit meaning of what is being said. As the LH reduces everything to manageable parts and pieces, the RH synthesises it all together. Using a business metaphor, the LH sounds like an acting manager, whilst the RH is the CEO, the visionary.
It sounds obvious that we need the balance between both of these personalities, right? A well-functioning organization has both, a qualified acting manager to run the day-to-day operations, and the holistic approach and general direction provided by the CEO, who knows the big picture. In fact, you’d wish that all acting members of the organization share both perspectives, which is what self-managed organizations have been experimenting with, although these are still more of an exception. Dr. McGilchrist’s central worry is that in the organization of our minds, there is imbalance between the hemispheres, and the acting managers ‘run the show’ without much regard for the greater vision of the CEO. McGilchrist argues that in Western societies we have overused a reductionist and analytical approach to inherently complex systems, such that we are consistently missing the importance of the bigger picture, and that we completely rely on our intellect at the expense of our intuition.
As my LH longs to capture McGilchrist’s arguments into clear examples and orderly categories, my RH seems to comprehend what he is really saying—and brings up many relevant experiential insights. Our so-to-speak left-brain bias is at work when we forget to trust the process and try to control everything; when we increasingly disconnect from one another and the nature; when we get caught up in expectation instead of easing into the moment; or when in striving to improve a certain part we damage the whole. For example, are the clear-cut and rigid COVID protection measures flexible enough to adapt to a rapidly changing environment and real-world experience? What really are the benefits of an over-simplistic dichotomy of political orientations, such as in the US? When we fiercely fight for our own rights, as the increasing vehemence of identity politics has shown to us over the past years, aren’t we neglecting the many commonalities of our human nature?
So, should we set clear rules and systems to bring the RH back into the game? Quite the opposite. McGilchrist suggests that instead of doing more and trying to shape all of it into the right form, we should take a step back and allow the good, which is already there, to grow and evolve. In other words, instead of being constantly in doing mode, we could all make more room for being present in the moment, observing the world around us, in the flow of our experiences, just as our right hemisphere would prefer it. Ultimately though, we may want to try to better integrate the two hemispheres—after all, they form part of the same brain!