Sunday, January 8, 2012

Brain Hemisphere Lateralization and Culture

A reader asked if I would comment on Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, here.  It is an important book and one that supports a main argument of this blog; a summary of it with many links is here.  McGilchrist is a British practicing psychiatrist who had previously been a Reader in European literature; his interest in mind-body questions motivated him to change careers.

The Master is just that--a magnum opus of research and thought from an Old Master.  It is a broad based discussion of neuroscience & medicine, philosophy, theology, and literary criticism.  The book’s main thesis is that the human brain has two hemispheres that attend to the world in different ways, and that these different outlooks affect our culture.  When the left hemisphere is leading our thoughts then we have a world focused on order, authority and certainty.  When the right hemisphere is leading, then our culture is more empathetic and focused on wholeness.  Part One of the book describes in detail the outlook of each hemisphere.  Part Two is a grand survey of Western culture wherein he describes various eras as manifestations of either left or right hemisphere dominance.  He acknowledges that Nietzsche’s Apollonian and Dionysian archetypical cultures are left and right hemisphere cultures, respectively (pgs. 199 & 232).

A second thesis is that he believes that Western culture has become far too obsessed with left hemisphere perspectives, that we are in danger of succumbing to tyrannical forces, and that we need to get back to right hemisphere ways of viewing the world.

Obviously, I agree with the first thesis (the hemispheres do affect patterns of culture) and disagree with the second (because we have already returned to a right hemisphere based culture).

I’m not going to summarize Part One.  You can read for yourself his main descriptions of the hemispheres in these follow up essays:  

Paying attention to the bipartite brain, 2011
and see this 11 min video

which is a shorter version of this one

His descriptions do take us away from many of the simplistic stereotypes that are popular in non-academic medias.  The way that the two hemispheres attend to the world is truly interesting and has made me reconsider how I describe Apollonian and Dionysian cultures.  His descriptions place him fully within what I call the embodied mind movement within the neurosciences. 

Part Two starts with two chapters that actually establish an innovative theory of the evolution of culture.   Human communication is based in imitation, and, in ancient times, changes in the orientation of writing and reading suggest hemisphere dominance changes (he discusses the development of left to right, right to left, and vertical or horizontal patterns of writing).  Also, he suggests that the details of old paintings and rock art allow for the inference of hemisphere development. The real gist of his thesis comes next with the discussion of the following eras:  Renaissance (right hemisphere), Reformation (left hemisphere), Enlightenment (left hemisphere), Romanticism (right hemisphere), and Modernism/Post Modernism (left hemisphere).  In all cases but one he covers in detail main thinkers of each period; his discussion of Post Modernism is narrow and ill considered.  He admits his lumping is crude.  (I have a hard time thinking that blocks of time more than 100 years are classed as one side or the other unless we are taking a fractal perspective with, for example, an Apollonian micro cycle inside a larger Dionysian macro cycle).  My comments follow.

1.  McGilchrist is clearly a biconceptualist in the way that Lakoff uses that term.  Part One of the book is a wonderful example of Post Modern science.  I am all about embodied mind arguments.  Other than the theory of imitation, Part Two is an old-fashioned Modernist highbrow expose about high culture. Part One is a right hemisphere discussion of neuroscience; Part Two is a left hemisphere discussion of intellectual history.  In addition, his lack of understanding of Post Modernism is disappointing given that he doesn’t recognize it as a new type of Romanticism, as if he stopped his study of Western culture circa 1970.

2.  I used the term “Ill considered” above for a reason.  McGilchrist is a psychiatrist who has been around mentally ill people too long.  Like much of his profession, he tends to see much of society through the lens of his work.  When you describe and classify individuals in technical terms such as ill, sick, disorder, psychotic, etc. it becomes easy to extend the metaphor onto society.  Throughout the book, he alludes to left hemisphere culture in terms suggesting schizophrenia.  Modernists would be proud (or appalled) since they obsessed over mental illness--and now they are subtly classed as such.

3.  The “mechanistic” focus of the left hemisphere bothers McGilchrist as if we are all going to turn into ‘bots led by a tyrannical order.  Again, the neuroscientists are stuck on their mind-as-machine metaphor.  No one else is.  I, for one, prefer to think that my thoughts flow through my body, like blood.  Post Modern popular culture provides wonderful examples of how people resist machine metaphors (all the Terminator movies), or allow for human-machine integration (Cyborgs), or machines that are alive and make good romantic companions (Blade Runner).  Why do people treat machines as being alive? Is one important question in artificial intelligence research.  It’s a right hemisphere phenomenon. (Answer: They used to call it animism).

4.  McGilchrist does not provide a balanced view of the two hemispheres in the sense that he discusses the vices and virtues of the left but only the virtues of the right.  To him, normal balanced culture is right hemisphere culture.  Left hemisphere cultures tend to be out of balance.  However, don’t right hemisphere cultures have their vices as well? (of course they do, see 6 below)

5.  McGilchrist is apparently unaware of the work of Anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Edward T Hall.  Benedict used the Apollonian/Dionysian contrast to describe cultures in her 1934 book Patterns of Culture; it was a mainstay of the profession for two decades.  Hall recreated the same contrast in his 1976 book Beyond Culture but referred to it as Low Context Culture/High Context Culture (for some reason, he did not allude to Benedict’s work).  These discussions would have greatly helped McGilchrist.

6.  McGilchrist seems to embrace the Apollonian/Dionysian contrast with half a heart.   He doesn’t really adopt the fullness of either god.  He seems to think that Apollonian cultures will tend toward excessive order just as do mentally ill people when their right hemisphere is damaged or inhibited.  I for one find it hard to describe cultures in such terms but will play along here.

Most discussions of Apollonian culture and behavior focus on the order aspect.  We should also remember the moderation aspect.  All things in moderation was an Enlightenment saying.  Healthy normal Apollonians resist excessive behavior because it is disorderly.  During the modernist era, scientists resisted taking an argument to its logical conclusion because they knew it was silly to do so.  Even avant-garde modernist artists were chided if they went too far.  Excessive behavior was "crazy" and no one wanted that label.

“Excessive” behavior and ideas are characteristic of Dionysian cultures, consistent with the archetype of Dionysus.  Today, in our new Romanticism, we have values of excess such as shop ‘till you drop, no rules, no boundaries, just do it, pushing the envelope, unthink, and think outside the box.  These are normal healthy traits of a Dionysian culture.

The big difference between the two types is in their understanding and acceptance of entropy, their sense of openness.  Both Apollonian and Dionysian cultures create normal healthy living situations; the Awakenings that tie them together are a little higher in entropy but can still be non-violent, healthy, and intellectually creative.  The left side defines “Excessiveness” of course; the right side may think that such behaviors and ideas are within the normal range of acceptability.

McGilchrist fears the Orwellian specter and he is correct to do so.  Totalitarian cultures are sick and abnormal in that they destroy themselves; they can morph, evolve, from either Apollonian or Dionysian bases.  They also don’t last long in terms of culture history (not saying I want to live under one even short term).  I don’t think America is headed down that road.

Even though we, Americans, are in seasonal secular crisis as a culture, we are not there yet folks.  It is theoretically possible but I’m not thinking we get that far.  Old Modernists worry that we have gone too far with our excesses; and the Dionysian says yes there have been excesses but not too much; wait awhile and the wave will recede.  Our media tells us that the lunatics are running the asylum; that Wall Street psychotics and sociopaths are in control of the White House and congress.   There is no doubt that such people exist; I am not convinced that they, like Hitler, have taken control.  They have the illusion of being in control.

I actually think most of those greedy bastards are nervous that they will be lynched.  America has 300 million guns in private hands and a tradition of Don’t Tread On Me.  The Germans didn’t have that.  Also, Americans have literally hung bankers on Wall Street before (in 1876).  It’s been a while but it can happen again.  The oligarchy that exists today is minor compared to the one of the late 19th century led by the old Robber Barons.  The confusion that exists today is the recent recognition of the fact that it has all returned, and quickly.  Knowing that it exists is the first step in correcting it.  Remember, the secular crisis replaces a status quo (here & here).

I think that McGilchrist, like many people, is bedazzled by some of the subtleties of postmodernism, especially the modernist stuff that has been recast in postmodern ways.  For example, under Modernism, “rational man”, as preached by economists, used to be a moderate fellow who maximized smallish profits and tried to live within his means.  Under the postmodern Monetarist and New Keynesian ideologies people supposedly are hyper rationalists pursuing with leverage all or nothing financial gains without a care for the disruption to their families or society.  This is all smoke and mirrors to allow the greedy to take from the sheeple all they want.  Post Modern “rational man” is an intellectual eye dazzler, a phony, used by con artists to steal from others. (You know the saying:  if you can't blind them with your brilliance then baffle them with bull shit).

McGilchrist provides wonderful postmodern neuroscience.  His cultural analysis is modernist anxiety about mental disorder.