When it comes to the brain it’s the HOW not the WHAT

I’ve just finished reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and it is an amazing book – well worth reading. However, most of us are not fortunate enough to have adequate reading time built into our professional duties so I thought I would share a few thoughts the book raised for me. It may provide food for thought and conversation at an upcoming holiday cocktail party … this may be why people tell me I am too serious at cocktail parties.

Keep in mind that I am going to talk about a few key points of a 600+ page book so take this post in that spirit. Many of us have heard the terms “left brain” and “right brain.” These terms refer to a debunked idea that the two sides of the brain are each responsible for different types of actions. Popular culture often suggests that logical, methodical and analytical people are “left-brain” people, while creative and artistic types are “right-brain” people. The trouble is that science never really supported this notion.

Enter McGilchrist and a really extraordinary book, which weaves together research and ideas from neurology, psychology, philosophy, primatology, evolutionary biology, myth, history, literature and the visual arts. The book’s main argument is that the left and right hemispheres of the brain are, indeed, different. But what is critical is not that the two hemispheres do different things. Both sides of the brain are involved in reasoning, and in processing images, emotion and language. What is critical to understand is that the two hemispheres engage with each of things in different ways.

McGilchrist begins with what has been one of the accepted and durable generalizations about the hemispheres: that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and that the right hemisphere tends to deal with entities as a whole. This difference may help to explain why the “left brain” has been associated with reading, and analytical thinking, which are about reduction and linear processing; and the “right brain” has been associated more with images, music and other arts, where disparate pieces of information are processed in a holistic manner.

The end result is that the left hemisphere tends to be a self-contained, closed loop system that focuses on what it already knows; as McGilchrist puts it “a sort of self-reflexive virtual world [hall of mirrors with] no available exits.” The right hemisphere provides an escape from this self-contained “virtual” world by allowing the brain to engage with a broader range of information and data from cultural history, the natural world, arts and religion. All of these require the mind to engage with external reality in a very different way than the reductionistic, mechanistic method favored by the left hemisphere.

McGilchrist emphasizes that this is not a statement about whether one type of engaging with the world is better than another. Both have always been necessary for our survival as a species. The left hemisphere’s tendency to focus, to categorize and fit information into an existing schema, to look for repetition and commonality allows us to live in the now to experience life in the moment. However, this has always been balanced by the right hemisphere’s awareness of a broader range of inputs and information, the ability to connect with the outside world, to think of possibilities and keep everything new. One without the other would have potentially led the species into danger and extinction. McGilchrist suggests that the problem today lies in the changed relationship between the hemispheres, which has been caused by scientific and social trends especially during the last three hundred or so years. By its very nature, the left hemisphere is likely to slide into a self-perpetuating loop of information that does not accept external information. If the left hemisphere becomes too dominant, the mind reaches a stage where it – literally – cannot engage with the world in a healthy manner.

McGilchrist argues that we live in a world that currently over-values skills and outcomes that engage left hemispheric functions. The book goes on to examine what a world experienced through the lens of a dysfunctionally strong left hemisphere looks like, in part by considering the experience of individuals with right hemispheric brain injuries. The picture he paints is depressingly true of much of what we see in the US today: an increasingly dehumanized society where mechanism, bureaucracy, obsession with structure and with “what” predominates over a concern for living things and beings and their interconnectedness. In McGilchrist’s words we see “a fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness.”

Educators, parents and policymakers talk a lot today about brain plasticity, which means that the experiences we provide children from their earliest days shape the relationship between the right and left hemispheres. And once one hemisphere gains an advantage it is a self-perpetuating dominance.

As I read the book, I could not help but compare the value given in our society, our schools and our accountability systems to two types of activities:

  • Reading, writing and computational math that fall more into the reductionist and linear processing mode of the left hemisphere
  • Engagement with the natural world, music, drama, sports, imagery and deep engagement with parts of the humanities, all which fall more into the holistic processing mode of the right hemisphere.

From children’s earliest days, parents are told that children must look at books, learn their letters and numbers. A whole commercial industry has sprung up to help reinforce this message and provide parents brightly colored and expensive tools to help them. Policymakers are pushing early literacy laws that add to this narrative. And advocates for “equity” and early accountability begin to classify children earlier and earlier as being “at-risk” if they aren’t demonstrating the ability to think about the world in terms of letters and numbers. Never mind if they can talk, sing, dance, draw or imagine Technicolor stories in their minds.

If McGilchrist is right – and according to the interdisciplinary roster of scientists and researchers who have read the book and extolled its virtues he should be taken seriously – we should all pause and take stock of where we are and what we are doing to children in the name of education. As parents, educators and policymakers we can continue to fixate disproportionately on skills and activities that foster left-hemispheric dominance. Or we can accept that we have lost our way in a cognitive hall of mirrors, and turn our attention back to the aspects of our world and our nature that nourish our humanity. McGilchrist would agree that the neurological pathway we choose today will ultimately define us as a species.

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