The Teeter Totter of our Brains
How Left v. Right Brain Dominance has Created our World
[Sorry for the gap between Post 5 and 6. Life got busy. Also, there's this funny thing with writing. The act of writing down my thoughts changed my thoughts on this topic. Is this the tyranny of the left brain over the right? This is the sixth post in a series. There are seven. Yeah, I know it is a big thought. Go to the Introduction if you want to begin at the beginning.]
Before we launch into the 20th Century, I want to discuss where we were on the eve of the Modern. The left brain came up to match the right in the 16th century giving us the Renaissance. It didn’t stop there. It kept moving to surpass the right brain. A leading left brain gave us huge advancements. The right brain kept it in check and also gave us many counter-culture movements including the Romantics, the Pre-Raphaelites and the Transcendentalists. However, the left brain kept taking over.
One good example of this trend was how the Enlightenment transitioned into the French Revolution. The ideas of enlightenment on the surface feel very left brained. Reason and Science would reform society putting aside superstition, prejudice and the abuses of the church and state. The analytical and abstract left brain would combat the loose thinking and hyper-imaginative right brain. Reason would take charge. Science, including the social sciences, would be our salvation. Interestingly, the ideas of the Enlightenment contained such right brained ideas such as all men being created equal, a return to democracy, and human rights. You have to have the right brain playing along to see all things as equal. The Enlightenment is a good example of the two sides of the brain working in concert.
As the ideas of the Enlightenment took root and grew to the French Revolution, the movement was co-opted by the left brained. The good ideas became rigid. Equality was replaced by intolerance and violence. Anyone who continued to question (the very act that got it going) was dispatched using the most efficient killing invention of the day, the guillotine.
The Guillotine is a funny symbol. It kills by separating the head from the body. The thought that the brain contained the mind of the person was relatively new. Until the 17th century, the seat of the mind was the center of the body, the solar plexus. As the cognitive intellect developed, the emphasis became directed on the brain in the head over the mind of the body.[i] The ideas of the Enlightenment emphasized the intellect over the body. And yet, taken to the dogmatic extremes of the Reign of Terror thought became the crime rather than actions. Thinking got us here, but in time correct thinking as prescribed by the ruling group was differentiated from the consideration of all ideas. It was like, “Thank you for coming up with the ideas to start the revolution, we’ll take it from here. We don’t need new thoughts anymore, so stop thinking or we will cut you off.” This is a prime example of conversation the dominant left brain is having with the right brain. It’s funny that the popular means of execution became cutting the head from the body.[ii]
Hegel’s Dialectic in many ways describes the teeter totter of the left and right brain. It also describes the Modern way to synthesis the conflict between opposites, whether they be ideas or the two sides of the brain. His three dialectical stages of development or thesis being challenged by a negative, argument, opposite or antithesis is the common state which Hamlet spoke of in his “To be or not to be” speech. Hegel’s very Modern resolution to this conflict was a compromise or synthesis. The challenge is that a synthesis often negates both the thesis and the synthesis and waters them down losing their potency and relevance.
[While this route is what I’d call the model of Modern thinking, later I will posit that our new challenge is hold the opposites of the thesis and antithesis as both being valid and necessary to hold as bother being true at the same moment. Rather than forcing a synthesis, we need to generate an ambi-thesis.]
Hegel often described another way to view his Dialectic as the movement from Abstract to Negative to Concrete. This pathway describes the natural learning occurring between the two hemispheres in a clearer way.
Another example of the left brain inventing the Modern was in the rise of the individual over the group; differentiation over integration. The developing archetype became the myth of the lone cowboy who rode in on his horse and to clean up the town or the myth of the self-made man who went from rags to riches without help from others. “Living by their wits” became the phrase of the day. These myths became the source material of the American Dream. They are the sign of a left brain thinking that the individual is disconnected from the group. It’s no surprise that the lone hero revealed his shadow side and became the antihero as we moved into the 20th century.[iii][iv]
In the late 19th Century, western man grew to believe that he was the master of the natural world. He explored, invented and conquered. It was a time of great engineering. As Canals divided the continents, the telegraph connected them in ways that were unimaginable a few years before. Power was harnessed to light the cities, explorers travelled to the poles and the far reaches of this earth, finance surpassed industry, and learning was further codified in the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. A dominant left brain with a creative right brain in support could get you far.[v]
Late 19th Century man knew he was the master of his universe. He understood how his world worked. He explained the workings of God’s plan. He introduced new inventions in the home, on the street and at work. He anticipated the new Century as his coming zenith. He could not predict how much was about to change.
4: The Modern Era and the coming Next
The Renaissance shifted us out of the Medieval and on the road to the Modern. In the last century we culminated the four century journey into the Modern and began the shift to the next. Whether the Modern climaxed at the turn of the last century; or with the First World War when many felt everything changed; or with dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, we finally arrived in the Modern.
No sooner did we arrive than we began the transition to the Next. Prior to the 20th Century, the modern artists and physicists began to signal that the world worked differently than we had previously thought. Monet, Manet, Renoir and the other Impressionists all suggested light and space work differently than we previously thought. The haystack will look differently on different days and at different times. How I see also depends on me. Paintings of the haystack must change to reflect what I see.
The Post-Impressionist and Modern artists expanded our view of the world. When you look at Cezanne, everything starts to fall off of the canvas. Gauguin goes back to the primitive to rediscover a true right brain-centric world. Van Gogh gives us images of lights and colors that make everything more real and more abstract at the same moment and Picasso just plays with our mind showing us what it all might look like if we can release our conventional view of the world. The Art was inexplicable, but so was the Science and Physics, and they were singing the same song in different keys.[vi]
Darwin came out and told us that we had evolved from the apes. All life had evolved from single cells through a mechanism of survival of the fittest. This idea rocked our world. Then, Freud came out and said it isn’t about what is happening out there, but what it is happening inside the mind that makes us who we are. Our dreams, subconscious and unconscious were guiding us more than our natural world. Einstein told us that the motion and vantage point of the observer is as important as the observed. Everything is relative to the observer. All that we had been told about the world is wrong. These ideas were radical and many rejected them violently. Others knew intuitively that the world was different than previously understood.
The quantum physicists pushed the envelope more. They told us that until we observe something it can be in two different states at the same time, the uncertainty principle. Also, the very act of our observation effects the observed causing entanglement. An electron can behave both like a wave and a particle depending on how you look at it. Time wraps in on itself. All time is happening at the same time. There might be parallel times and universes. Things are no longer fixed. Light particles bend. When an electron jumps it disappears and connects with everything else in the universe. Matter is not solid and might not be real at all. These ideas on the surface are nuts. Even they say that if you say you understand quantum physics, you are lying.
(Notice there is a similarity between what these scientists and artists were saying and what the people in the primitive and medieval eras believed about our world. If I’m calling this new age the Four, it matches the Zero and Two eras. The evens match and the odds are the same because the evens have been right brain dominant and the odds are left brain dominant.)
We moved from writing with one hand to typing. Most people are right handed making the physical act of writing left brained. Imagine the impact when we went from using one hand and one side of our brain to communicate to typing, writing with both hands and both sides of our brain. This very act and invention might be the cause of the ascending right brain as much as the invention of the printing press caused the left brained rising Renaissance and Modern era.
We went from occasionally hearing music, most of our own making, to listening to phonographs and radio. We went from a seeing a few handmade paintings and drawings to being immersed in millions of photographic images. We went from seeing a couple of plays a year and maybe a dozen vaudeville shows (if you were lucky and didn’t believe it a sin) to the unending flicker of light and story on the screen with the advent of films and television. The personal computer followed by the World Wide Web has given us multiple images and sounds all that we controlled with our two hands. Our activities have become more about the aural sound and the visual image rather than the written word.[vii]
This technology depends on the right brain more than the left. In response, the right brain has ascended to challenge the modern supremacy of the left brain. This is the first time this has happened in recorded time. In the decline from the classical era to the dark ages, it was the left hemisphere that receded to beneath the level of the right, not the right ascending. What’s happening now is new.
The remarkable changes of the last century were caused by this new balance between the two hemispheres as the right developed to challenge the left. However, this has caused a conflict between the two hemispheres for supremacy. We are sitting in that conflict of opposite views of our world and how we should live. How we resolve this battle will effect what happens Next and what the conclusion of the section will address.
[i] The right brain considers impulse and the entire body. The left brain, other than its obligatory control over right side body functioning, does not consider the rest of the body. In experiments with split brain patients (a person whose brain has been surgically or chemically separated to divide the two hemispheres, usually to relieve the damage of epilepsy) the left brain does not even acknowledge the left side of the body as being part of itself. The right brain encompasses the whole body. So, the right brain is ready to include the whole body as part of the conscious mind. The left brain thinks it can go it alone. From here we get characters such as: the evil Doctor who is only a brain in a jar and Darth Vadar
[ii] Edward O. Wilson has a great chapter that emphasizes this in his book CONSILIENCE: The Unity of Knowledge. It follows the rise and fall of the Marquis de Condorcet, whose ideas led the revolution until he found himself on the wrong sides of the guillotine.
[iii] It is amusing how persistent this idea is. In our current, presidential competition one side is emphasizing the work of the independent entrepreneur building their business without the help of anyone versus the assertion by the other side that no one builds a business or anything without the collaboration with others, including the government.
[iv] The American Civil War was in a way a right v. left brain conflict. The North was pushing for a unified, one nation government with a strong executive. The South was fighting for state rights and the differentiation of strong states over a weak central government and a weaker executive. The technology and violence of the left won. We became one nation and not a collection of states. We began to say the United States is rather than the United States are.
Don’t misconstrue the previous comment to say that the South was solely right brained and good while the North was left brained and bad. Please avoid these huge generalities. This is a far more nuanced conversation considering tendencies. It could be said the problem with the South was that they took some very right brained ideas and solidified them into a left brain dogma. Had they kept their right brain open minded they might have been able to find a compromise rather than going to war. They might have also been able to see that their slaves were also part of themselves.
[v] There is an interesting difference between right brain creativity and left brain invention. While they rely on each other, they are different processes driven by the opposite sides of the brain; in one you create/design/make/generate and in the other you engineer/calculate/manufacture.
[vi] There are many great books on this. While I had understood the idea earlier, it was Leonard Schlain’s book, ART AND PHYSICS: Parallel Visions in Space, Time and Light, that really finally made this make sense. After years of studying and reading about Modern Art and Modern Physics, his book helped me truly understand the two fields and their parallel relationship.
[vii] I was recently reading an article about how the inclusion of film/video from the Vietnam War on the Nightly News impacted the attitudes about the war. It made it real for people. This impact of technology occurred during the Civil War when Matthew Brady’s photographs of Antietam were first published in newspapers. Another example is the impact of Edward R. Murrow’s radio broadcast during the Blitz at the start of the Second World War. However, the “shock and awe” of the Iraq war and video of drone strikes has seemed to distance us from the violence of war. Is it our oversaturation of fake image from television, film and video games or is it that our left brain processing of images has made us less empathetic?