The defining features of the human condition can all be traced to our ability to stand back from the world, from our selves and from the immediacy of experience. This enables us to plan, to think flexibly and inventively, and, in brief, to take control of the world around us rather than simply respond to it passively. This distance, this ability to rise above the world in which we live, has been made possible by the evolution of the frontal lobes.
For centuries we’ve wondered about the left hemisphere and right hemisphere divide.
The “left hemisphere is detail oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest, where the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity.”
This division, psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist explains in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, “helps explain the origins of music and language, and casts new light on the history of philosophy, as well as on some mental illnesses.”
“My thesis,” McGilchrist writes, “is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities:”
two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.
These two hemispheres “coexist together on a daily basis, but have fundamentally different sets of values, and therefore priorities, which means that over the long term they are likely to come into conflict. Although each is crucially important, and delivers valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each needs the other for different purposes, they seem destined to pull apart.”
Both of these hemispheres are “hugely valuable,” but they stand in opposition to one another and “need to be kept apart—hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain.”
McGilchrist explores the differences between our two hemispheres and argues that modern society, and its formal structures, favors the left brain:
An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.
Yet we require both sides of our brain … (much like our Apollonian desire for control and order balances our natural Dionysian wildness).
It might then be that the division of the human brain is also the result of the need to bring to bear two incompatible types of attention on the world at the same time, one narrow, focused, and directed by our needs, and the other broad, open, and directed towards whatever else is going on in the world apart from ourselves.
Below is a fascinating video from RS Animate of McGilchrist explaining how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society.