Monday, January 16, 2012

Food for Thought

Barbara Oakley recommends Iain McGilchrist’s book, “The Master and his Emissary” (© 2009, Yale University Press). When Dr. Oakley makes a recommendation, you follow up, even when it’s a story about the human brain.

I know. You’re thinking, “What’s the big deal with the brain?”

It turns out that the things we’ve been taught about the brain may not be true. It also turns out that Iain McGilchrist is just the iconoclast to bend our perceptions.

His book is lengthy (534 pages in paperback), but here is a TED Talk summary. It gives a good introduction to the subject and should pique your interest.

McGilchrist took over twenty years to collect data and write this book. His thesis is that describing the brain as having a right-side creative component and a left-side analytic component is simplistic, if not totally inaccurate.

He characterizes the brain as being two functionally separate organs, with the right brain taking a dominant role (The Master) and the left brain deferring (The Emissary). The job of the right brain, in many instances, is simply to inhibit the left brain in such a way that a desired behavior is achieved.

Why is this important? It’s because “bad things happen” when the left brain becomes too dominant. There needs to be a balance, both for the safety of the individual and for society as a whole.

McGilchrist imbues a personality to each side of the brain, with the left being dogmatic in cataloging and referencing its knowledge, while the right side is more adventurous, seeking encounters with things that are new and unrecognized.

The left brain wants to generate outcomes based on its understanding; what it believes is true. The right brain is still trying to figure things out. It wants to know what is possible in a world that has not already been experienced and catalogued by the left brain.

The left brain is authoritarian; the right brain is exploratory.

With that background, here is a right-brain exercise: What if we place American politics into this model?

Without too much of a stretch, we can visualize how things align: The Constitution would be associated with the right brain.

Our founding fathers had to cope with the existential threats of the American Frontier and also wanted to shield us from authoritarianism. They created a system of representative government that vested power in the people and gave its citizens the flexibility to manage the unknown.

Most people would agree this was exploratory thinking. The concepts were untried. The Founding Fathers were “right brain people.”

Aligned with the left side of the brain are those who want to extract power from that which is known. There is the recurring inclination of left-brain authoritarianism to take what is available, and work it for maximum advantage. We get a sense of that when one branch of government tries to diminish the Constitutional authority of another. We see a kind of “creative authoritarianism.”

Which works best for “the host?” Does the human body fare better if the left brain is dominant? Does our country fare better if authoritarianism wins?

McGilchrist’s book plants a seed of curiosity. Left brain authoritarianism might seem to protect us, but it can fail when we encounter unknown or unexpected events. Right brain exploration expands our understanding, but it might get us killed in the process!

“The Master and his Emissary” gives an appreciation for the human experience and how our brains adapt to the risks that confront us. What is the best way to solve our problems? It comes down to whether we think authoritarianism or “people-power” is best.

In America, we get to decide that balance with elections.

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