The Teeter Totter of our Brains
How Left v. Right Brain Dominance has Created our World
[This is the fourth part of a series. To begin at beginning, please go to the Introduction.]
1: The Classical Era
The left brain ascended and we got the Classical Era exemplified by the Golden Age of Greece. It was driven by reading and writing a symbolic alphabet. The left brain digs symbols and language, what could be better than putting them together? Literacy and education rose. A citizen (men who owned property) was expected to be literate and schooled. This is the first time literacy expanded past the few priests and scribes.
Writing drove the left brain upward. When most people write they use their right hand. The right hand is connected to the left side of the brain. Writing was a single handed activity until the invention of the typewriter. It created a direct link to the left brain.
As the left brain ascended it came into balance with the right brain. This presented an explosion of new ideas and the minds to develop these ideas. Ancient Greece gave birth to mathematics, logic, the natural sciences, philosophy, drama, and democracy. When the two sides of the brain are balanced it creates an explosion of new thought.
Though relatively balanced, the two sides of the brain swapped the lead for a few centuries. Sophocles was more right, Plato was very left, Aristotle was a swinger. He taught Alexander the Great who shared this great learning and the written language through conquests across the known world. All in all, the two sides maintained a balance from the 5th century B.C. until well into the Roman Empire. With the rise of the Empire, the left brain rose to surpass the right brain for the first time.
[This is a good time to remind you, that I’m talking in wide generalities. The partnership and rivalry between the hemispheres was always in play, from year to year, region to region and person to person.]
The Romans were the first left brain dominant society. They made things work. They didn’t create much on their own, except during the Republic era when the two hemispheres sat at a balance. (The conflict between the two sides is the undercurrent argument in both of Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra). Once Caesar Augustus won, became the Emperor and engineered the Roman Empire, the left brain was off and running. [i]
The left brain was very good at running an empire. It excelled for centuries. The Roman Empire was a great bureaucracy. It was a developed system. It was not so much a time of great invention as it was a time of incorporating and perfecting the inventions of others. They made everything the Greeks and Roman Republic had come up with more efficient and workable. This was the strength of the Romans and it is the strength of the left brain. The entire empire settled into a steady progress. Even when the leader at the top was a total nutcase, the institution kept going.
The Right Brain maintained a strong support which kept the Empire near a balance. One contribution of the right brain was in the way the Romans incorporated the peoples and the cultures they conquered. They assimilated them. The conquered people for the most part could keep their own beliefs, practices and even their own leaders. They only had to accept a few ideas and systems from the Romans, along with paying taxes, not revolting and giving up their sovereignty. The Romans would run things and they were very good at running things. This worked for most peoples. [ii]
One way the Romans assimilated other cultures was in the gods question: “Do you have your own gods? Sure, they can be in the Pantheon. We probably already believe in your gods, we just call them by other names.” This polytheistic view worked for most people. Where the Romans ran into trouble was with the monotheists. Once you believe in only one God, then your God is better than everyone else’s gods. You’re right and everyone else is wrong. It’s very left brained. You can’t buy into a right brained Roman many-god solution if you only have one God. This is why the Romans had a particular problem with first the Jews and then the Christians. [iii] [iv] [v]
Even for the developing left brained Romans, the zealotry of the Christians was a reason to toss them to the lions.
After the first thriving years of the Empire where invention was matched with engineering something happened. The autocracy and bureaucracy of the Empire overtook the right brain. The emphases shifted away from the natural and invention to concepts, systems and rules. Art, poetry and life became abstracted. Remember the left brain is more comfortable with abstraction and symbol than the real and natural. One place this took over was in the rise of Christianity and the Roman Catholic Church. Over the first four centuries after Jesus Christ, his teachings became more rigid and dogmatic. Whether this was the normal course of any belief system or a result of the left brain dominant culture of the Roman Empire is hard to say. The dominant left brain found an ally in the Christian movement. In turn, Christian belief became more rigid, the priests/nuns became celibate, Jesus became the symbolic ‘son of God’ rather than the ‘son of man’, and the virgin birth was conceived. Beliefs were crafted by severe left brain thinking and all that was natural was removed.[vi]
By the early fourth century, Constantine embraced Christianity calling for religious tolerance. By the end of the century, paganism was outlawed. The eastern half of the Empire split from the western half. It had always been more right brained Greek than the west. The Church split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The east remained as the Byzantine Empire while the western part of the empire declined and was overrun by barbarians.
The true decline and fall of the Roman Empire is a topic for many volumes of books. The deterioration of the institutions of the empire was both a cause and a result of this decline. The legal system became corrupt. Romans passed on the duty of being soldiers to foreigners and mercenaries. There was a decline in literacy and education. The industriousness that created the empire was exchanged for indulgence in the excesses of privileges offered by wealth. The ruling class became indifferent to ruling. Still, the system was so good the decline of the Empire took centuries.
2: The Dark and Medieval Ages
After a while the left hemisphere declined. It seems the left brain tried to stand alone without the right brain or with the right brain in servitude to the left. The left side of the brain deteriorated rapidly leaving a weakened right brain. For the decline of the Roman Empire was a decline in the left hemisphere’s dominance. I believe that the right hemisphere did not rise to surpass the left, but the left declined. This is an important distinction that will matter later.
The left brain diminished and the right brain had to take back the reins. In the west, the decline disintegrated into the “dark ages.”
Scholars of the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th – 10th Century A.D.) tend to dislike the term “Dark Ages” as it diminishes the times. This period was not as dark as often ascribed. However, from the point of view of this argument, this period showed a decline in brain function and progress. I’m trying to avoid a left brain centric view that would throw out the entire human experience from the decline of Rome to the beginning of the Renaissance; however this part was pretty bleak.
It needs to be said, that while Europe plunged into the Dark Ages, the Muslims, Jews and the Moors progressed. They maintained a strong left brain culture based in most part on their religion’s emphasis on the word and literacy. This helped them keep the two sides of the brain in greater balance with the left brain slightly leading. [vii]
The Catholic Church did not stress the importance of reading. Most of the local clergy leading small congregations were illiterate. The Church understood that to maintain power it helps to control the information and the interpretation of that information. Also, most kings and leaders remained illiterate. Charlemagne the Great was unable to read and write all but his name.
At the core of the church a left brain order remained to manage the system, but it was not widespread. Life returned to a more primitive existence. This is not just a description of the practicalities of life, but also the point of view. It seems that for a few centuries, we were out of both sides of our minds.
By the middle of the Middle Ages (1000 – 1300 A.D.), the right side of the brain began to engage. St. Francis of Assisi helped to reconnect the church to nature and life of necessity. Society developed. There was a significant difference between the lives of the commoner and elite whether that elite was royalty or clergy. There was little to no functional middle class. There was a difference between the laborer and skilled labor. Progress came from learning and excelling at a trade. For the commoner, the world was simple. People didn’t travel. There was a loss of the system of time. This world was as it was and as it always will be.
The world was fixed. A person understood his place in the world; his function. This was his identity often even his name. There was no mobility in status, rank or distance. There was no time, because there was no change. In the absence of clocks and even calendars, only the holy days marked by the church provided a sense of time changing. Time was marked by the eras of the Popes and the Kings.
It is important to understand how the right brain made this time because the space-less, timeless, identity-less experience was generated by the right brain in the absence of a strong left brain. It was a different experience than a left brain-centric world.
The primary building of the Medieval Era was the Cathedral. They were created over a few centuries by unnamed craftsmen. A sculptor or plasterer could spend his whole life working in the cathedral. It was started before he was born and would not be finished until long after his death. He was part of the continuum of the cathedral. As a cog in the wheel he was nameless and without identity. He was part for the mechanism of the cathedral which was a microcosm of the cathedral of the universe.
The Cathedral was the centerpiece of a community. Through its design and artwork it told the stories of the bible and of their place in the system. It was a place of awe, a spectacle. It was where people were instructed how to live in their time. They experienced their part in the grand scheme of God’s universe.
The Cathedral was the center of religious, civic and cultural life. However, some forms of entertainment were not permitted. By 1000 A.D., the actors got themselves kicked out of the church for asking questions and making fun of the clergy. The theatrical entertainment climaxed with Passion Plays that moved through the town being performed in wagons supported by the various craftsmen guilds. This is a good example of a right brain way of thinking about the telling of a story. Not one point of view or one location, but multiple views, multiple locations and not always told in linear order.
There is no surprise that the Medieval Era gave rise to the “cult of the” Virgin and Courtly Love. The right brain respects and honors the matriarchy. As the right brain flourished, there was a rise in the worship of the Virgin Mary, the Christian Mother Goddess. At its best the balance of the right brain with the left brain in Catholicism honors not only the Holy Trinity of God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit but also includes the Virgin Mother. The inclusion of the feminine with the masculine patriarchy is essential for balance and is a sign of balance between the hemispheres of the brain.
The Middle and Late Medieval Ages featured the Crusades. For the first time in centuries, peasants, knights and royals who had never traveled outside of their hamlet were travelling across the continent to another part of the world. As they traveled, they were exposed to ideas, experiences and sensations both ancient and new. Travel develops the brain. They brought back different thoughts and tastes than when they left. They returned home as different people than when they left.
The Crusades, the writing of regional languages, and the rise in literacy all combined to increase the left brain. The writings and ideas of the ancients were re-introduced. When they started reading Aristotle, Pythagoras and Archimedes, a whole new vista opened up for them. In the latter half of the 15th century Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press making written material exponentially more available than prior to this invention. This invention revolutionized the world. The resulting increase in literacy and regional languages led to a sharp rise in the left brain.
When the left brain rises in power, it honors specificity, logic, language over image, reason over emotion. It also inspires are patriarchal leaning, an overwhelming focus on correctness and backlash against the other and the feminine.
As the left brain rose to match the right, we achieved balance once again. The fruit of that balance was called the Renaissance.
[More coming on Tuesday, Oct. 9]
[i] That’s a topic that could keep me writing for days: How the Right Brained Roman Republic led/ gave way/lost to the Left Brained Roman Empire. Another time.
[ii] When the Romans took over a city, they were quick to build three specific buildings: The Amphitheatre (or Hippodrome) for the horse/chariot races and wagering; the Coliseum for the blood sports, and the Theaters for cultural instruction and comedy. These three different venues for entertainment were important because they helped distract and civilize the citizens. The races or athletic competitions fed the desire for competition. Throughout the Empire, there were four teams designated by color to root for. No matter where you were in the Empire you could root for the Greens. Think of this as the sports entertainment that fills our TVs today. The Blood Sports of the Gladiators offered the cathartic experience. This allowed for the release of the basest and most violent instincts. This pacified and distracted the mob. We currently get this from our movies and football. The Theater was built for both tragic and comic plays. This entertainment taught the new populace what it was to be living in their time as members of the Empire. It was also the place that allowed a place to make fun of and ridicule the leaders.
[iii] I want to argue that Polytheism is right brained and Monotheism is left brained. Though I’m not sure it is true. The right brain seeing the big picture and open to all possibilities can get behind the idea that there are many gods. Hell, the idea that everything is god and we are all part of god sits well with the right brain. The feminine right brain is also comfortable with an Earth Mother rather than a male Sky God. The left brain can get very comfortable with the singular focus on one God. It also grooves on the abstractness and ineffability of one God. Most one God believers describe their God as male which fits for the masculine left brain. Also the emphasis that Judaism, Christianity and Islam place on the written word and their rejection of image is very left brain.
Remember the right side of the brain loves new ideas and loves to communicate with stories and images. The left brain loves to take an idea, lock it in, write it down and make it into a rule. I believe Jesus started with a right brained-centric idea, then as Christianity developed, it got written down and cemented. The idea shifted to the patriarchal and the dogmatic. Read the Gospel of Thomas for an interesting contrast to the Epistles by Paul.
[iv] The current riots in the Middle East are in part due to a video portraying the prophet Mohammad. This is a big no no in Islam, even if the portrayal is deifying and not ridiculing. It’s all blasphemy. It’s also very left brain-centric: words, not images. If Muslims allowed images and portrayals of the Prophet, it would engage their right brains and open them up to a more empirical view of the Mohammad, the interpretation of his teachings, their leader and the rest of the world. Perhaps, the introduction of the technology that brings an overwhelming onslaught sounds, images, and interconnectedness is changing the brains of young Muslims faster than the Imams can teach left brained ideology form the Koran. On the other or same side, an ultra-orthodox Jewish rabbi has called for all of his follower to destroy their IPhones: http://www.timesofisrael.com/burn-your-iphones-leading-rabbi-rules/]
[v] I clearly need to write the paper on Religion and Brain Lateralization. It’s a huge topic.
[vi] Leonard Schlain in book, THE ALPHABET VERSUS THE GODDESS, argues that this is the path of all religions. The teacher/prophet/leader speaks an open, inclusive idea that is very right brained. In time either he or his followers writes it down and it increasingly becomes more fixed and dogmatic. One example of this is the Koran: early Mohammad sounds rather free love compared with militaristic and dogmatic older Mohammad.
[vii] There is an interesting idea to pursue about the balance of the patriarchal external world and the matriarchal internal home life that thrives in Jewish and most Mediterranean cultures. It is an interesting balance.