The Teeter Totter of our Brains
How Left v. Right Brain Dominance has Created our World
0: The Primitive Era
In the beginning . . ., maybe not that far back. Let’s look at the time between when we developed language until the creation of the alphabet. We can call this the Primitive Era. Our right brains were dominant. We were learning, figuring things out. Our perception of our world was more global. I refer to this as the zero era, the starting point.
We became the humans we recognize as being human between 100,000 and 40,000 years ago. This is when we developed into Cro-Magnons. During this time, we must have evolved from speaking a proto-language on sounds and rudimentary words to a full blown language with a vocabulary, syntax and grammar. By 40,000 year ago, a spoken language was intact and gave us an explosion of innovation including sharp stone tools, needles, fishhooks, bows and arrows and rope. This is called the Great Leap Forward. It must have been caused or at least fully aided by the development and implementation of language.
While we were still firmly in our right brains, the left brain came into its own with the development of language. This was the start of the rise of the left brain.
In the Judeo-Christian Creation Myth, God gave Man dominion over the animals and gave him the task to name the animals. The gift of language and the ability to name was what made man superior to the other animals. The rise of the language left brain working with the learning right brain gave us the first major leap ahead. Language took us to the next level. Language gave us our first glimpse of our own identity. We gained an appreciation of how we were separate from each other, the animals and the forces that impacted us.
We began worshiping the forces larger than us. At first, it was the earth Mother, Gaia. We acknowledged the sun, moon, stars, wind and rain. But all cultures began with earth worship and that deity was female. It contained all other forces; everything including ourselves was part of the earth. It was during the great leap forward that we started to make art: cave paintings and sculptures. Much of our first art work was to a female deity.
Even after other cultures moved forward, (We could say evolved if we can accept the use of the word to describe minute, though monumental, changes that occur all of the time and not just over tens of thousands of years. To go from a reptile to a bird takes a long time, but don’t dismiss the rapid minute changes that are happening all of the time.) some cultures remained primitive into the twentieth century. By now, I don’t believe that there are any primitives left.
Anthropologist who studied the more recent primitives, the indigenous people such as the Aborigine in Australia, the natives in New Guinea, or even some native American tribes, have noted an experience of all time being one time. Space being transportable and not solid. These are concepts that will be revisited by the quantum physicist of our time. And what drove this, is the primitives were living more in their right brain than in their left brain. The experience of the world for the right brain is one where time is circular and not linear. It also tells us that space can be crossed instantaneously.
Agriculture was our next great invention. It started about 10,000 years ago in several parts of the world disconnected to each other. For man to figure out agriculture it takes a huge relationship between the left and right brain. The right brain has to notice the seasons, the how things change over time and hold the past/present/future in the same moment. The left brain has to engage in specific focus and do what it does best: if, then. The development of the concept of if I do this, then this will happen is the root of consciousness. While lower level mammals exhibit instinct that resembles this concept, it is what makes the upper level primates a cut above.
The Orangutan swinging high above the jungle floor, sometimes one hundred feet in the air, pauses to wonder: if I swing over to that tree will it hold my four hundred pound weight? This is the beginning of consciousness. To be wrong would mean a painful fall to jungle floor, not to mention the embarrassment. This moment of consideration is vital.
The primitive man looking over at the junk pile and saying: “Hey, fruit is growing over there where we tossed out the seeds last year. If we planted the seeds, then fruit would grow there and we would no longer have to be hunters and gatherers. We could be farmers. What if we can get those animals to stick around? No more wandering. No more tents. Homes with soft beds and warm roofs. Plenty of food. Leisure time. Sports. Monday night football on a big screen TV. Beer. And on.”
The rise of the left brain gave us agriculture and animal husbandry, it worked with the right to make it work.
However, Agriculture took a while to catch on. Some societies never adopted it even though they knew of it from others. Conventional wisdom would dictate that it made life easier, gave us leisure time, and made us healthier. Once we have agriculture, our groups can grow larger than a nomadic party. It gave rise to cities, specialized labor, leisure time, class structure, and time to ponder. It also brought us larger towns with more people, the ruling and clergy classes, traffic and the accumulation of stuff. It brought us diseases. If moving out of the cave was a bad idea, then leaving the nomadic life of the hunter and gatherer could be considered another big mistake. I wonder if this is why some cultures didn’t adopt agriculture. Was it better to stay back in the primitive?
On the other hand, the leisure time and division of labor derived from agriculture gave rise to a learned class which in time gave us written language. The first written languages used pictographs rather than symbols, drawings that represented words rather than symbols put together to make words. This is because a written language had to be developed first in the right brain and it does images better than symbols. After the brains began to perfect written language, the left brain shifted it to a symbolic alphabet. This was more efficient and included so many more options. It also gave rise to quick growth of the left brain.
The Egyptians were the pinnacle civilization that still retained a right brain edge. Their written language made of pictographs, their religious system, even their construction showed a leading right brain with a strong left brain support.
The worship of the Earth Mother gave way to a pantheon of gods, male and female, though increasingly male dominant. This demonstrates a brain development for categorization and assigning of specific tasks to specific gods. The gods also became more human like. There is an interesting transition from the Egyptian pantheon to the Greek and then the Roman. The gods became more human, more flawed, and less omnipotent. They are a right brain dominant that is starting to have too much left brain involved.
When Moses said let my people go, he was leading his people to a different promised land than Israel. He gave them a monotheistic religion, with an alphabet and a respect for the word over the image. The Jewish faith/culture emphasized literacy. More than anything, literacy develops the left brain. This, if anything, can be pointed to as the ascension of the left brain over the right.
It’s important to give nod to the Phoenicians. This Semitic Canaanite people founded a major civilization between 1200 – 500 B.C in what is now known as Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. They created one of the first alphabets. They were a maritime society that traveled all over the Mediterranean. Their alphabet inspired the development of the Greek alphabet. The Greeks added vowels that were lacking from the Phoenician alphabet. (It remains in question whether the Phoenician alphabet inspired the Hebrew alphabet or the other way around.)
Along with the contiguous advances of the Phoenicians and Greeks, this ascension of the left brain gave birth to a golden age, the Classical Era. Let’s call this the Era One.
[Next section coming on Monday, Oct. 8]
[Next section coming on Monday, Oct. 8]