Dr Iain McGilchrist’s work on neuroscience has widened the scope of theoretical knowledge of the brain and its functions. His books are written in simple terminology accessible to the layman. In describing insights into the relationship between the hemispheres of the human brain, McGilchrist lays out theories that are integral to an evolving understanding of the subject. His conclusion is that civilisation itself is in danger if current trends in human cognitive behaviour continue. More optimistically, he explains how humanity has been here before and survived.
The established view, in academia, was that the left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for language and logic while the right is geared towards creativity and artistic ability and the dominant hemisphere shapes the talents and personality of the individual.
McGilchrist, in his book The Master and his Emissary explains that both hemispheres are involved constantly. The right assesses what the brain is attending to and passes information to the left hemisphere. The right side is open to new information, while the left acts on the stored knowledge.
From this highly simplified relationship, human behaviour arises. The left hemisphere appears to act in a very adamant, confident, competitive manner, while the right, open to new experience and information, recognises its fallibility through exposure to the multitude of things it does not know, and is more cautious and enquiring. Over the last two millennia, with a few exceptions (the Renaissance, for example) left hemisphere-style thinking has become increasingly dominant as humanity has become more mechanised and gained scientific knowledge, increasingly asserting certainty in our perception of the natural world around us.
Narrowing of perception: dominance of the left hemisphere
This dual brain function is theorised to have evolved from the need for prey animals to constantly pay attention in two ways simultaneously; to survive the animal must eat but also ensure it is not eaten. The brain developed into two hemispheres with the left hemisphere controlling the right side of the body. This half of the brain seems to be responsible for recognising and grasping food, nest-building materials etc., while the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body and stays open and alert to what is happening in the wider vicinity and especially notes novelty, which could portend good or evil.
In his later book The Matter With Things, McGilchrist proposes that our civilisation is drifting towards catastrophe due to a dominance of the left hemisphere causing a narrowing of perception. Ideas that should be explored, that are postulated or highlighted by right hemisphere thinking, are out-competed by the certainty asserted by a left hemisphere-style thinking that is adamant it is correct.
We struggle to contend with depth, a right hemisphere function, and prefer to view problems as binary issues instead of a spectrum of possibility. Metaphor and abstraction, where depth of interpretation lies, are interpreted as rigid belief or disbelief in a reductive form as a literal proposition. Thus, art and creative output are simplified or ignored due to their perceived complexity.
Influence on current economic thinking
The parallels between McGilchrist’s thinking and other aspects of modern life are striking. It is easy to conflate the stubborn refusal of economic academics to seriously consider the proposals made by Warren Mosler, Bill Mitchell and the other founders of the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) school of economic thought, as these insights have captured extensive attention outside of academia in recent years.
It appears that the orthodox narrative is so entrenched that it has become unquestionable dogma for a vast majority of the economists in positions of influence. I perceive this to be a symptom of dominant left hemisphere thinking (or perhaps diminished right hemisphere influence) having read McGilchrist’s work.
Left hemisphere thinking can stifle innovation
These issues seem to have affected other disciplines. Dr Jordan Petersen’s criticisms of the state of universities and standards of academic practice appear to correlate with the MMT example above. The reliance on publication of papers and books for career advancement and faculty tenure, ensures that publishing heterodox thinking is a high-risk strategy, likely to lead to sub-optimal outcomes.
The foremost journals and specialist publications favour papers and articles in support of the orthodoxy, therefore the best way to promote career progression is to toe the line supporting the status quo; keeping the powder dry on any explosive new ideas until tenure is secured. By that time a reputation has been constructed, based on a foundation of the dominant thinking of the period. The risk of a loss of status is then a high price to pay for sticking one’s head above the parapet of the orthodox tower.
Competition and the desire for financial reward seem to be, at least partly, symptomatic of left hemisphere thinking in these cases, however, the traits of certainty and an unwillingness to explore alternatives are at play.
The potential global perils that may await
In the wider world the parallels continue to become apparent. The left hemisphere bias has infiltrated the institutional foundations of dominant nations. The right hemisphere traits of collaborative effort, empathy and reciprocity are recessive in the modern Western world. The dominant spirit of highly competitive, self-serving, short-term hedonism has led those with a left hemisphere bias to positions of influence and control in society.
Whether this leads to selectively murderous fascism, or the mass-slaughter of communism is irrelevant. We are led to believe these deadly social constructs are at opposite extremes when, in reality, they are merely different political forms of the same style of thinking taken to excess.
A large but diminishing sector of the population remains in touch with the influences of the right hemisphere, however empathy and people-centric attitudes render them relatively impotent. Their uncompetitive traits leave them vulnerable to the ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude in the modern environment. Gradually this population are pushed to the margins of society and with current neoliberal policies reducing the social safety-net, there is little hope if they fall off the edge.
Inequality and poor governance – right or left will dominate?
Economic migration amplifies the social impact of this phenomenon. Those attracted to another region or country in the hope of personal gain in wealth, status or lifestyle are placing these left hemisphere values above those of community-responsibility, family and embeddedness.
Over time the political traits of the population concentrate and regionalise as the left hemisphere-led thinkers of the nation migrate and coalesce around areas of high investment, while areas of under-investment have stronger community potential but little encouragement to advance without the pride and purpose local industry can provide.
The people in each group have diverging requirements from government and cannot be adequately represented by an authority that they feel neither support or understand them. This is the cause of much of the social unrest in developing countries. Populations rebel against the exploitative asset-stripping required by Western corporate neoliberalism, while their basic domestic needs are not met.
It is also the foundation of the surge in support for independence in Scotland in the neoliberal era. Scotland and the Scottish people are not well-governed from Westminster. For the Union to survive, the forced division of the people of the UK must be recognised fully and measures put in place to mitigate the effects. Independence supporters must understand that Scottish Independence under the same system, acting as a mini-UK, is not enough in itself. It could easily make matters worse.
McGilchrist’s work provides substantial backing for the idea that government should be at an extremely local level, whether Scotland is independent or not, to represent citizens adequately. People in Orkney do not think in the same way as those in Ayrshire and have very different needs despite both being coastal communities with no city dwellers. We must allow communities to develop independently and allow cultural difference to emerge, or re-emerge, if our new Scottish nation is to be a success.
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