Divided Brain, Divided World

February 12, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

It is always a great feeling when a piece of work that has been long in the making finally goes public. This particular report was a real labour of love. It emerged from your scribe being deeply impressed by a set of ideas about how the brain relates to the world(and vice versa) and wanting to do whatever I could to help others to share in that understanding.

Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be heard explores the practical significance of the fact that the two hemispheres of our brains have radically different ‘world views’. It argues that our failure to learn lessons from the financial crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in mental health conditions may stem from a literal loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, articulate, instrumental world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, holistic but relatively tentative world view of the right hemisphere.

The report features a dialogue between myself, Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, and Psychiatrist and author Iain McGilchrist, about the practical and policy relevance of his critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. This discussion informed a workshop with policy-makers, journalists and academics and led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique and clarification of the argument, and illustrations of its relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.

For the purposes of promoting the report, I have frequently been asked to encapsulate the argument in as few words as possible, but this is not at all easy and feels like crafting the last of many Russian dolls. Iain’s argument is most fully expressed in a huge book that is about 350,000 words long, our report (including appendices) is about 45,000 words, a previous blog post gave an overview of the argument in 1400 words, and the RSAnimate (over a million hits) lasts about 12 minutes. So you can whittle it down, and the RSA has done what it can, but a simple elevator pitch is dangerous because there is so much nonsense out there about left and right brain thinking that anything too brief runs the risk of being misinformation.

The Process

Thankfully, in the report we have much broader capacity to develop the ideas, and in the afterword I reflected as follows:

The book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it.

“During the course of reading Iain’s work, the process of preparing and conducting the dialogue, organising the workshop, and compiling and writing this document, I have often felt somewhat overwhelmed by the effort, but never underwhelmed by the goal. The theory is big, difficult and audacious and most people don’t quite know what to do with it. So, there have been times where it has felt like the drive to extract importance out of the interest has been in vain, but when I reflect on the initial motivation, and the potential prize, it feels more like we just have to try differently, or better.”

You see, the book is magisterial, and the argument utterly fundamental, so anybody who spends their time trying to effect social change should at least be aware of it, and have some sense of what they feel or think about it. You can think of it as a grand theory for our times. The argument is pitched at too general a level to ever reflect a single direct cause of a single phenomenon, but once the narrative as a whole seeps into you, it feels like it is relevant to everything around us, and you want everybody else to be able to see the world through that lens.

One of the respondents, Independent Researcher Simon Christmas FRSA captured the value of this kind of contribution well (p67):

“It has given me a better way of grasping many things I had already thought or felt. By doing so, it has made those thoughts and feelings clearer and more meaningful. Iain himself notes that there is little in the book that one might not arrive at by some other route. I think that is key to its impact: it speaks to an audience who have already fumbled
their way to an intellectual discontent for which Iain’s argument provides a shape, a story, a narrative.”

Practical Implications:

We tried our best to make sense of the ‘so what?’ question and made some headway that I hope others might build on. In the report, John Wakefield’s (former political journalist) extended feedback piece(p71) gives a particularly careful account of the extent to which we should expect practical implications from such a nuanced and high-level thesis, but for the press release we were naturally a little more direct:

“This issue has deep significance for anybody working to affect social change. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic but relatively tentative and inarticulate world view of the right hemisphere. This cultural trend can be illustrated in a range of current policy issues, for instance:

  • An obsession with exam results in school education
  • The creation of absurd forms of bibliometry and citation counting in higher education research assessment exercises.
  • Funding cuts for arts and humanities courses that struggle to justify themselves in instrumental terms.
  • Pervasive ignoring or denial of the scale of our climate change problem.
  • Political failure to think through the implications of the fact that beyond a minimal threshold higher income does not equate with higher wellbeing.
  • Political failure to question the imperative for economic growth.

We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can. Iain McGilchrist

Hopeful Pessimism:

Some might think the report has a negative quality, in that it’s basically a critique of the modern world and the direction we are heading, but at its heart it is hopeful, constructive and even optimistic: Iain closes the dialogue as follows:

“I call myself a hopeful pessimist. In respect of where we are currently headed, yes, I am a pessimist. In respect of our potential to adapt and change quickly, I am hopeful. I sense that people are sick of the current worldview in the West… In response to my book, people of all walks of life all over the world have written to me. They are looking for a change in direction, and I think all I have done is to give them courage to believe in what they already really know at some level – something which has not been articulated in quite the same terms before. In many ways my message is a very positive one. We have been sold a sadly limiting version of who we as human beings are, and how we relate to the world. Inside each one of us there is an intelligence, in fact a superior intelligence, that sees things differently from the way we have been sold – if we would only listen to it. Let’s hope that we can.”

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A Note on Reading the Report: 

I really hope as many people as possible can read the full report. However, if you just press ‘print’, you’ll get about 48 pages double-sided, so it is worth thinking of what you most want to read by going to the contents page in the PDF first. The dialogue with me and Iain is split into three parts: 1) The argument(p8) 2) Challenges to the argument(p23) 3)Practical Implications(p31). The Reflections section (p51) includes 14 feedback pieces including Ray Tallis, Mark Vernon, Tom Crompton, Rita Carter, Theresa Marteau and others. The Appendices (p80) feature details of a three-hour workshop discussion where Guy Claxton, Mark Williamson, Matthew Taylor and many others spoke, and has been included to capture some of the best ideas generated collectively, but will probably only be of interest to those who are truly committed!

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