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Published 24 September 2012 05:48, Updated 11 October 2012 05:00
Some argue humans have preferred a left-brained view of the world because it encourages us to think we are in control and can manipulate what happens in the world.
Right now, inside your skull, the two sides of your brain are at war – and the left side has its opponent on the run.
According to psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist, both hemispheres have important roles to play but the overwhelming – and increasing – dominance of left-brain thinking is creating an anxious and frightened world.
The reason is that the left hemisphere looks for certainty and logic to make meaning from a world that, in reality, is beset by chaos.
It is detail-oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things and is inclined to self-interest. It misunderstands whatever is not explicit, lacks empathy and is unreasonably certain of itself, McGilchrist says.
“The left hand side of the brain allows us to manipulate things and build things,” he says by phone from Britain.
“It tends to prioritise; it tends to jump to conclusions. It tends to think it understands things when it doesn’t.”
When its view of the world is confounded by reality, it finds it hard to reconcile what is happening.
The right hemisphere, which has lost its influence during the “age of reason”, has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity but lacks certainty.
The right hemisphere provides “relational attention”, enabling us to see the whole picture, to form social bonds, to inhabit and belong to the world we see, rather than simply being detached from it and using it.
McGilchrist, who wrote The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, says by unquestioningly embracing the “age of reason”, always looking for rational explanations, we have become anxious, fearful and confronted if we can’t control things.
Even knowing the fallibility of predictions (which ignore surprise events), we try to look for certainty before we make decisions: “We think we can make an algorithm to predict things. But the whole of society is chaotic systems”.
It is the now-weakened right hand side of the brain that finds meaning in life: “It is a meaning that comes out of experience, including adversity. Most social and religious rituals have gone out of our lives and we think that is sensible.
“Actually, in my view, we have moved backwards. We are like spoilt children with a lot of expensive toys with no idea how to play with them and get meaning out of them.”
McGilchrist says humans have preferred a leftish view of the world because it makes us feel powerful. It encourages us to think we are in control and can manipulate what happens in the world.
But it is an oversimplified version of the world, he says.
“It is a quick and dirty take on the world,” he says. “It has a kind of plausibility. But anything that doesn’t fit into [its] theory doesn’t have any meaning. You’ve got rid of those questions. It makes it look like you’ve got a simple answer to everything.”
In its “final triumph”, the left hemisphere has created a world that reflects its own essence.
“The things that used to alert us – the natural world and the arts – have become less potent,” McGilchrist says.
Now we find ourselves in a world where the path to a good life is supposed to be paved with gold. Shopping is supposed to make us happy. Bigger houses, prestige schools and clever electronic toys are what we aspire to.
But even having these things, we are unhappier than ever.
“The things that pull people together have been eroded by industrialisation and the movement of population,” McGilchrist says. “People lead more fragmented, competitive lives and work harder, longer hours. They see themselves as cogs in a machine.
“We know that achieving greater affluence doesn’t lead to a sense of greater wellbeing – there’s big literature on this. To cut a long story short, there is enormous interest in the standard of living not delivering the goods in terms of happiness.
“People are less happy than they used to be. Things that make us happy are not material things in any sense.”
McGilchrist says striving for greater affluence seems rational – the sort of think that would delight the left side of the brain – but a side-effect has been a loss of meaning.
“It is a metaphysical problem – in the way we look at the world. There is no meaning to our lives”.
While the advance of left-sided thinking seems unstoppable, McGilchrist has some advice for those who wish to fight back:
Practise mindfulness: be present in the world.
Seek out experiences, accept the sad along with the good times.
Stop trying to monitor and audit everything.
Reconnect with music and arts.
Iain McGilchrist will be speaking at the Creative Innovation conference in Melbourne on November 28 to 30.