Dr. Iain McGilchrist published a book in 2009 titled “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.” Completed after more than 20 years of work, Dr. McGilchrist’s book devotes 500 pages to the study of the human brain. His work is remarkable for its dramatic hypothesis: The human brain is two separately functioning organs.
In the same fashion that human beings have a left arm and a right arm, the brain has a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere. The hemispheres are similar, but function separately. The central tenet of McGilchrist’s research comes in the Introduction to his work:
My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognizably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.Dr. McGilchrist sees the right hemisphere as “The Master” in his thesis, with the left hemisphere as “The Emissary.” The right hemisphere is more adventurous, directing our actions and seeking to understand and formulate the human experience. The left hemisphere is more rigorous, attempting to map our behavior to a known set of rules and guidelines.
While Dr. McGilchrist does not use this analogy, I see the left hemisphere as the authoritarian side of the brain. The right hemisphere is curious and welcoming; the left hemisphere is more rigid and self-centered. The left hemisphere lacks self-doubt.
The characterizations used by Iain McGilchrist are a departure from conventional descriptions of the hemispheres of the brain. We are taught that the hemispheres represent a “creative side” and an “analytical side.” The left brain is more data-driven while the right brain is artistic.
McGilchrist extends this concept by formulating a mediation process where the left hemisphere tells the right hemisphere how to perform based on the reality known to the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere must compare this understanding to the situation that is currently presented, and decide whether to act based upon what it “knows” or what it “sees.”
It brings up the Marx Brothers line, “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
That is the genius of Iain McGilchrist’s work. He relates the interactions of our brain to well-understood human behaviors. We understand how the hemispheres relate to each other because we have our own personal examples of that kind of behavior.
The right brain must dominate our early childhood because the left brain is still an empty slate. The right brain must use a parent or guardian as a proxy for the left brain because the left brain is not developed and is not able to share its experience.
As we get older, we depend more on our left hemisphere. It is our life experience. It helps us navigate unexpected events that we encounter. It also keeps us functional as we lose the desire for right brain stimulation.
But as the left brain deteriorates, we must adjust. Maybe we forget the more obscure rules in the game of Bridge. Maybe we forget important dates. We have to keep written lists because our left brain becomes less reliable.
Returning to the idea of “The Complete Picture,” we see that research on the human brain is, for the most part, restricted to reporting on individual outcomes. We have documentation of an individual suffering brain damage, and research that tracks the individual’s recovery. We know that people recover from a hemispherectomy, and that physical limitations result.
What is less understood is the behavior shift that occurs from brain trauma. How does the brain compensate for damage? Does the “Master and his Emissary” model go out the window? Surprisingly, a government agency may have the answer for us.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is an agency of the United States government that is responsible for biomedical research. In 2009 it sponsored the Human Connectome Project (HCP) with a five-year task of developing a network map of the human brain.
That effort led to a demonstration of brain activity featuring unique differences between male and female participants. The study, with the unwieldy name of “Sex Differences in the Structural Connectome of the Human Brain,” was presented to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. It shows activity between the left and right hemispheres being higher for female participants in certain tasks. Male participants showed less cross-hemispheric activity.
With mapping capability demonstrated for gender differences, it should be straightforward to analyze differences based on authoritarian behaviors. The idea that the left brain dominates authoritarian action can be tested!
The way is now clear to move beyond case studies of individual behavior. We can continue to study those individuals who struggle with internal dominant/deferring behaviors, but can also move to studying behaviors between individuals. A husband and wife engaged in interpersonal negotiations can be mapped as they engage in dominant/deferring behaviors.
Groups can be studied. We can contrast the differences between those groups involved in gang-related activities and those in routine social interaction. We can begin to understand group dynamics in a way that is vastly superior to the analysis of polling data.
Beyond small groups, we have the phenomenon of complete societies behaving in a certain fashion. Why do human beings tolerate despotism? Why do we become attracted to situations that are destructive to us?
Depending on whether we are dominated by our left or right hemisphere, we get completely different outlooks on life. And at the center of these behaviors is whether or not we have self doubt.
Self doubt is the province of the right brain. The left brain is self-centered and rigid in its understanding of the world. There is a sense of “self” which the left brain does not question. Its representation of the world is “reality,” and outside of this representation is a world dispatched as “The Other.”
The right brain has to act as a judge of the representations of the left brain, comparing what it sees on its own with what the left brain has catalogued as “reality.” If there is sufficient evidence that the left brain’s representation is faulty, the right brain can make the left brain adapt to the “new reality.”
This give-and-take is what we consider as normal behavior. As human beings, we have strong beliefs and feelings based on our life experience, and modify those beliefs only when confronted with strong evidence to the contrary. This is why our dominant/deferring brain activity changes with age. When we are young, the left brain is developing its “reality” and must adapt as new situations are presented by the right brain. When we are older, the right brain expects the left brain to use its experience to keep us going. The right brain goes on hiatus.
But back to the issue of self doubt: Authoritarians lack it. It’s as if the right brain completely defers to the left brain.
Consider the case of people following a cult leader to their own self-destruction. An authoritarian leader might convince cult followers of the imminent destruction of the world. Only when the cataclysm fails to materialize does the left brain have to adjust. In the case of an event like the 1978 Jonestown Massacre in Guyana, death interrupts the opportunity for the brain to reconcile. Authoritarian behaviors can have deadly consequences.
It is therefore important to understand why human beings are attracted to authoritarian leaders. Certainly there can be a fear factor, where intimidation is used to coerce the follower. But this is not always the case. Often a person will be drawn to an authoritarian figure without coercion.
Understanding the brain as a construct of two hemispheres can help us see that people will follow an authoritarian leader simply because the authoritarian becomes a proxy for the right brain. Following the leader is the less complicated path to take. We don’t have to engage in the work of analysis and interpretation; we simply sit back and let the authoritarian take charge.
It appears that authoritarians relish this phenomenon. Having other human beings relinquish their personal power can be quite seductive. Furthermore, when authoritarians see that power exercised by other authoritarians, it becomes an object of admiration. We sometimes see “the authoritarian salute,” an automatic, reflexive behavior where one authoritarian leader uses a deep bow from the waist to show respect for another.
In 2014, Russia under Vladimir Putin annexed the country of Crimea. The United Nations voted on a non-binding resolution that decried the annexation. Of the 193-nation General Assembly, 11 nations voted against the resolution. They were Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Nicaragua, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe. A strong case could be made for the existence of authoritarian leadership in each of these countries.
Interestingly, we don’t find this of academic concern. While we see authoritarians in various stages of power, from the autocratic ruler of a nation to the school bully, we still don’t find this worthy of study.
And yet, obvious questions abound. Who are these authoritarians? How do we identify them?
Is Reese Witherspoon an authoritarian? In the early morning hours of April 13, 2013, she was arrested for disorderly conduct in connection with a field sobriety test administered on her husband, Hollywood agent Jim Toth. She attempted to intimidate the arresting officer, asking him “Do you know my name sir?” and “You’re about to find out who I am.”
What about the case of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.? On July 16, 2009, Professor Gates was arrested by Cambridge Police Sergeant James Crowley. Sgt. Crowley had responded to a possible break-in at Professor Gates’ home.
Professor Gates had forced his way into his own home after finding the door jammed. A neighbor saw this action and notified police that a robbery was in progress. Sgt. Crowley responded, and asked Professor Gates to step outside.
The professor became perturbed and accused Sgt. Crowley of racism. The Sergeant’s report indicated that Professor Gates felt he was being arrested “because I’m a black man in America.”
Both Ms. Witherspoon and Professor Gates exhibit authoritarian behaviors in these two instances. They act with impunity and believe they are not wrong. But should they be classified as authoritarians, or is their authoritarian side simply dominant at the moment?
We easily assign an authoritarian classification when the power of the authoritarian is unchecked. In the Twentieth Century, we have the examples of Idi Amin, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung, and Adolf Hitler (among others). Tremendous human suffering results when authoritarians act with impunity and destroy the lives of those individuals under their control.
But what about instances where the authoritarian behavior is less obvious? We often witness these behaviors in private, and don’t find anything remarkable unless they are reported as infractions of institutional rules.
Maybe it is bullying at a public school or some type of criminal behavior. It doesn’t become newsworthy until the authoritarian is limited by the power of a higher authority.
With limited academic study and no metrics for analysis, our experience with authoritarians is mostly anecdotal. We are missing “The Big Picture.”