Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Culture and the Divided Brain

One of the important themes on this blog is that the asymmetry and lateralization of the human brain influences broad patterns of culture; that while cultures always display characteristics of both hemispheres, at any given time a culture will lean left or right hemisphere; and, that major cultural change is often seen as a transition to one macro pattern to the other.  I discussed these issues here and here.  Following from Nietzsche, left hemisphere cultural patterns are called Apollonian and right hemisphere patterns are Dionysian.  Iain McGilchrist provides the best discussion of Nietzsche’s two patterns and the hemispheres, here.  Additionally, Apollonian is known as Low Context culture and Dionysian is High Context culture based on the work of Edward T Hall, here.  Cultural transitions from one emphasis to the other are called Awakenings, here & here.  In addition, don’t forget Levi Strauss and his two types, the Engineer and the bricoleur, here.

Human thought is mostly unconscious; and it is mostly metaphorical with a small amount of literalism.  Cultural patterns can also be thought of as complex metaphors.  Thus, to say that the brain influences culture it is through the creation of and perpetuation of metaphors.  One good example of broad complex metaphors is the contrast in American culture between the Strict Father metaphor and the Co-parenting metaphor that is also generally associated with republicans and democrats, here.  The strict father is an authoritarian orderly metaphor (left hemisphere) and the Co parenting metaphor is a right hemisphere one steeped in empathy.  Also, note the simple understanding of the bible; the Old Testament is left hemisphere and the New Testament is right hemisphere, authority versus empathy.

Every culture is a complex whole comprised of hundreds, maybe thousands, of complex metaphors that lean one way or the other, hemisphere wise.  One thing to remember is that complex metaphors can change over time, they can be made up of many sub complex metaphors that also change and maybe confound the issue by leaning the opposite way—the Strict Father pattern may have sub metaphors that lean right hemisphere because a touch of empathy is needed.

Awakenings are when a culture’s basic set of complex metaphors switch from one orientation to another, such as, in American history, from Romanticism to Modernism (from emphasizing the right hemisphere to the left one) during the Progressive Era, circa 1890-1920.  During the Awakening metaphors satisfying both hemispheres are stressed, thus the era is exceptionally energetic and cultural entropy increases, here.

This basically sums up one important idea that drives this blog.  The others are the Cultural seasons model, turnings, and the Generations model, both espoused by Strauss and Howe, here.


  1. Wanted to share a recent post of mine with a slightly different parenting metaphor, but thought you might appreciate. http://www.ordinaryparent.com/lessons-learned/angry-bird-parenting/

  2. Yes, angry birds is a good metaphor. Thanks. LM