The divided brain and the courage to think differently
The idea that reality is subjective, even illusory, is an intriguing one and not just confined to religious and philosophical discussions. Scientists, too, have their views on the subject, including Iain McGilchrist from John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Here he explains how the bihemispheric structure of the brain influences our understanding of the world in such a way that it “isn’t often the way we think it might be.” In essence, his argument is that the two hemispheres of the brain aren’t balanced. Rather the left dominates the right and largely dictates how we perceive our surroundings.
McGilchrist says that three problems, in particular, shed light on why this is: “neglect of context, mistaking the map for the real world and laziness of action.”
Neglect of context
McGilchrist says context is very important because it changes everything, even the meaning of words, such as in the US where a cereal box labelled ‘large’ is, in fact, the smallest available. Lack of context can make things hard to understand. And sometimes context can make things hard to see. “But it’s not just the seeing, the appearances that are changed by context. The sort of way in which we look at things, the nature of our attention changes the world,” he says.
By way of example, McGilchrist refers to his hometown of Talisker on the Isle of Skye, which means ‘sloping rock’ and is named after the mountain behind his house. He says, “To [Norse seamen], it was an important point of navigation. To many people who’ve come for hundreds of years to paint it, it’s a many-textured form of beauty and colour. To the people who used to live there, it was the home of the Gods. To a prospector, it might be a potential source of wealth. None of these is a real mountain. You can’t find a real mountain apart from the way you attend to it.”
What has this got to do with the fact that our brain is divided in the middle? Here McGilchrist refers to our attention or rather, what are our two kinds of attention and the extent to which they affect and alter the world we perceive. Take birds, which just like humans and other animals have divided brains. They not only need “a certain very specific kind of narrow focused attention” in order to, say, pick up seeds, they also require “a broad, open, uncommitted attention” to, say, ward off predators.
Humans are the same in that our “left hemisphere is evolved for us to manipulate the world, to get things and to use them. The right hemisphere is evolved for us to understand our relationships with our mates, with our enemies, with humanity at large.”
Mistaking the map for the real world
McGilchrist explains that everything we perceive and experience is, first, registered by the right hemisphere before “it gets abstracted, generalised and put into a category” courtesy of the left hemisphere. This is “because the left is interested in creating a representation of the world. A representation is what we need in order to use it, in order to manipulate it.”
The problem is that this representation often “takes precedence over the multifarious complexities of the world as the experience.” A good analogy for this is our reliance on a map when driving in an unfamiliar area; we focus mainly on the map without paying too much attention to the world passing outside the car window.
The laziness of action
McGilchrist says that due to habitual busyness and not being focused enough on the broader picture, we thwart the creative process, which depends on “attentive space” in order for something meaningful to grow.