Wednesday, November 14, 2012



As I write about brain architecture, new physics, psychology and history, I hear a nagging critic that tries to convince me I’m unworthy saying: “These are realms for scientists and people with PhDs.”  There seems to be a warning that goes “Leave it to the Professionals!” and “Don’t try this at Home!”

Our Modern World respects the separation and division between fields of study. With the rise of the left brain came categorization and compartmentalization. Disciplines have been divided into micro-specializations. (It’s a good rule of thumb in the English language is if a word is long it derives from a Latin and is more cerebral than visceral.)  When the two sides of the brain were more balanced there was a greater emphasis in having a wide range of knowledge and experience.  The generalist ruled rather than the specialist. 

Iain McGilchrist, who wrote the brilliant THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, commented in an interview that the research into left-right brain architecture was set back in the 1980s by the popularization of the topic.  After the major research by Gazzaniga and Sperry in the 1960s, the social sciences, humanities and arts adopted the research and applied it to their areas. (It made sense with what they already knew.)  It did not matter that books like DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF YOUR BRAIN made the new brain research accessible or that it provided an entrance to an idea that allowed and encouraged so many to express themselves artistically through drawing.  Real scientists did not want to be perceived as delving into pop science.  Serious science can only be understood by scientist.

The same thing happened with research into the emotions. 

Even Mr. McGilchrist, who balances the training of a Psychiatrist/Neuroscience researcher with having been an English Don who taught at Oxford, was unable to avoid the criticism on his research and his conclusions in his erudite and meticulously written book.  The biggest criticisms seemed to state that what we currently know about the brain can’t possibly be translated into a view of our how we humans have lived or can live.  I thought the purpose of all human endeavors was to express how we can live in our time.
E. O. Wilson wrote a book in 1998 that he called CONSILIENCE.  He chose this word and title to describe “a literal ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.”  He chose this word over coherence due to the rarity of usage had preserved its original meaning.[i] 

He theorized that to solve the really big problems that face us in the new millennium the combine the natural sciences will need to collaborate with the social sciences, humanities and arts (gods forbid).  This was a bold move for a man of science, though not a new thought.  It was an idea that he shared with the thinkers from all time periods where there was a balance between the left and right brains, such as the Golden Age of Greece, the Renaissance or the Enlightenment. 

We must also accept that it is not only the scientists that shun the non-scientists.  Most intellectual people are completely oblivious to basic scientific knowledge.  We are doing much better than when C. P. Snow delivered is influential lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, that brought attention to the divide between the Sciences and the Humanities.  He criticized the so-called “intellectuals” of being ignorant the most basic scientific principles.[ii] 

I appreciate Snow’s argument.  About twenty years ago, I realized that I had absolutely no understanding of the theory of relativity or even the beginnings of quantum mechanics.  I knew they were important discoveries and theories of our time.  As a purported intellectual person, I felt I should have a working knowledge of these huge advancements in our description of how our world works. 

For a while, Adele and I ran a group we called the Whole Actor Research Project (WARP).  We met regularly with a group of actors to explore and research alternative rehearsal and performance techniques.  Our research pulled inspiration from the current advancements in the physical and social sciences.  Our actors had advance training in their field (most had terminal degrees - Master of Fine Arts in Acting) and extensive professional experience.  In our studies, the finely tuned physical and emotional intelligences of our actors had access to more finely tuned information than most people.  This was especially helpful in our studies on impulse and emotions.

The challenge is in finding ways for the fields to speak with each other. I appreciate the scientists’ distrust of the arts.  We are speaking from opposite experiences and I could say opposite sides of the brain.  Also, artists in trying to be accepting, fail to exert the quality control and rigor to match the scientists’ standards.  We artist need to step up our game to play with the scientists because our voice and information is needed to create a true consilience.  It will be in the unification of all of our perspectives that will help to express our age and help us to solve our challenges. [iii]

[i]I recommend reading E. O. Wilson’s book.  It is a great read.  Here is a little more information on Consilience.
[iii]This is an interesting TED Talk where the scientist Nalini Nadkani has worked with artists of different types to expand her work on conserving the tree canopy environments.

1 comment:

  1. E.O. Wilson is one of my Conservation Biology heros. Having spent a large portion of my youth in the theater and now being a science major I am continually amused at how large the crossover is for these two bodies of knowledge. Thanks for the thoughtful essay. xo Kathy


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