The Teeter Totter of our Brains
How Left v. Right Brain Dominance has Created our World
[This is the fifth part of the series. To begin at the beginning, please go to the Introduction.]
3: The Renaissance and the coming Modern
The left brain once again surged to match the right brain. This new moment of balance between the hemispheres gave us the Renaissance in Italy in the 15th and 16th century. It quickly spread through Europe almost as quickly as the Black Plague. In England this explosive era of thought and invention coincided with the reign of their first female monarch: the Elizabethan Age.
The Renaissance was such a huge watershed in human development that it is a story that is known and does not need me to recount. What is essential from the point of view of this story is that the left brain came up to match the right brain bringing the two into balance again. The dynamism of the matched hemispheres caused an explosion in thought, invention and discovery. It was another Golden Age.
As important as this age was, what most interests me is what it spawned. The left brain continued to develop past and surpass the right brain. It became the master again. It gave birth to a new relationship with time, space, causality and identity.
Time became linear. It moved from an all at one time right brain medieval view of time to the left brained one at a time linear time. We started to appreciate the past and acknowledge the future. I know this is hard to wrap a brain around this idea, but the paintings and writings of the medieval era have a different relationship to time than now. You see Joseph and Mary: traveling to Bethlehem, giving birth to Jesus in the manger, being adored by the Magi and traveling to Egypt on the same canvas. As the left brain rose, its view of time took hold. Time became more linear and the clock became the guide.
Did the change in brain dominance allow for the Age of Exploration or did the Age of Exploration change our brains to experience space differently? The same question can be asked about rise of perspective in painting and architecture. We began to see and experience proportion, distance and differently. We started to move through space and distance. The compass, map, sextant and clock helped to understand that we were at a single point in space. Our very relationship with space changed.
The rise of the left brain coincides with the rise of identity. A person begins to realize that he/she is an individual separate from others. The right brain helps us to experience our interconnectedness to others. We feel part of the flock or hive. We see ourselves as part of the whole. The left brain helps us to differentiate ourselves from others. Our individuality becomes more important than our relationship with others.
People realized that they had choice. They (rather than God, their fate or destiny) controlled their lives. I often wonder which comes first: choice or individuality. Does the idea that I have choice make me specific and unique or does the fact that I’m unique allow me to have choices different than others? With choice comes causality. If I do this, then this will happen. I am responsible for my choices so I’d better make the right one.[i][ii]
Causality led to the development of the Scientific Method, the greatest idea of the Modern era. The left brain created the scientific method. The abstract thinking, the specific observation, the inductive reasoning are all very left brain attributes. Newton and Classical Physics are all products of the rising left brain. All of Newton’s laws are based on causality. Though his inspiration, whether it was the real or metaphysical apple falling on his head, came from the relational view of the right brain. One of the benefits of the scientific method is that it incorporates the inspiration and the holistic view of the right brain with the specific and detailed scrutiny of the left brain. Causality leads to the University, where every department is founded on understanding what will happen next. The natural sciences, the social sciences, even the humanities all try to figure out what will happen next.
Left brain continued to rise and surpassed the right brain. The movement that culminated in the Modern era began about four hundred years ago as the left brain ascended.[iii] The ascending left brain had a negative backlash. In the Jacobean period, the left brain grew to surpass the right. This caused a religious uprising and before you know it Cromwell takes over the country, Charles I lost his head, all of the theatres are torn down and the religious right comes to the forefront. In a few decades, a balance is restored. We get the restoration of the King, but everyone makes sure that it is done in moderation. Nothing too drastic. It’s OK for the King and Court to be philandering around as long as the common people behave and the country is really run by the Parliament.
In the late 1700s and early 1800s the right brain tried to get a new footing. It works with the left brain to inspire the Enlightenment. This gives rise to the American Revolution, then the French Revolution. This surge forward is followed by what should be called the First World War, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, the War of 1812 in America and many more related conflicts. Everyone settles down for a while. The left brain continues to surge. In pockets of nature, there is a lovely mid-19th century movement called Romanticism that encourages right brained thinking. Byron, Shelley, Keats, even Thoreau and Emerson expand our right thinking brain.
The Naturalistic Painters go out and look at nature and paint what they see. At the same time, you have the pre-Raphaelites who signal that something is really about to change.
[The Modern Era to the Next will arrive in a few days.]
[ii] As I work on this, I often write huge sections that end up being tangents to the main argument. Here is another tangent:
As fiefdoms gathered into countries and kings of provinces became ruled by Kings of nations, things changed. These Kings came to believe that they given all of this power by God and therefore they were infallible. The Church also became very corrupt, more in it for the power, land and money than for the salvation of souls. The Kings started to feel they might be over the Pope. Many Kings were excommunicated or threatened with excommunication during this period. The Popes’ wild card of banning you and your followers from Heaven was very potent. Eventually, these Kings made a deal with the Pope and reentered God’s (or the Pope’s) grace.
Then along comes Henry the Eighth. He was way too big for his pumpkin pants. When the Pope said he couldn’t dump his Spanish Queen (The Pope couldn’t side with England over Spain at this juncture.), Henry dumped the church. He created the Church of England and made himself the head of it. Therefore, he could divorce, execute and bonk whoever he wanted. He seized the lands of the church and made everyone toss out the good Catholic Church which for generations had been the right way for his new improved church with the King at the top. People had a choice to either stay with what they had believed in their whole lives and be beheaded or choose the new church and live. Here’s is a problem. What to do? Most people did what most people do, the most expedient thing they can do to stay alive. A few died for their faith, so there. A few years later when Mary, Queen of Scots, got the throne for a brief moment, everyone went Catholic again. Queen Elizabeth brought back the Church of England. I went to the Salisbury Cathedral and saw a crypt for Bishop at that time. He had switched back and forth a few times while remaining Bishop of Salisbury. “I’m Catholic. I’m Anglican. I’m Catholic. I’m Anglican.”
If the King could make a choice like abandoning the church and he is asking me to choose between the Catholic Church and the Church of England, I must have the freedom of choice.
[iii] I don’t want to harp on this, but monotheism is the left brains friend. Believing in one God makes you right. When the right brain offers choices, religion sticks to its guns. It leads the devoted back to reading the Torah, Koran or Bible. The act of reading strengthens the left brain. It also makes it more absolute. This creates more dogma. You know that you’re right. You shut down questioning, exploration and also people who are others and you burn some witches. (The resurgence of a monotheistic dominant religion includes an increase in the patriarchy and a backlash against women.)