The Soft Totalitarianism Of The Left Brain
Two or three years ago, I wrote about this fantastic book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist. It came out in 2009, to rapturous reviews. Here is a link to Dr. McGilchrist’s website.
This is how it presents the book (the introduction of which you can download from the site):
This book argues that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values.
Most scientists long ago abandoned the attempt to understand why nature has so carefully segregated the hemispheres, or how to make coherent the large, and expanding, body of evidence about their differences. In fact to talk about the topic is to invite dismissal. Yet no one who knows anything about the area would dispute for an instant that there are significant differences: it’s just that no-one seems to know why. And we now know that every type of function – including reason, emotion, language and imagery – is subserved not by one hemisphere alone, but by both.
This book argues that the differences lie not, as has been supposed, in the ‘what’ – which skills each hemisphere possesses – but in the ‘how’, the way in which each uses them, and to what end. But, like the brain itself, the relationship between the hemispheres is not symmetrical. The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an ’emissary’ of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere – the ‘Master’ – cannot itself afford to undertake. However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master. And he has the means to betray him. What he doesn’t realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself.
The book begins by looking at the structure and function of the brain, and at the differences between the hemispheres, not only in attention and flexibility, but in attitudes to the implicit, the unique, and the personal, as well as the body, time, depth, music, metaphor, empathy, morality, certainty and the self. It suggests that the drive to language was not principally to do with communication or thought, but manipulation, the main aim of the left hemisphere, which manipulates the right hand. It shows the hemispheres as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world. Through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, it reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere – at the expense of us all.
It’s a fantastic book. Well, a reader last week e-mailed to suggest that I go back and re-read the final chapter, in which Dr. McGilchrist — writing in 2009, mind you — speculated on what a society tyrannized by the left brain would look like. The reader said it’s startlingly relevant to us today. McGilchrist argues that in the West, we have begun to manifest symptoms of collective schizophrenia. Here are some excerpts from the McGilchrist book, with some commentary by me:
The normal relationship of reality to representation has been reversed. At the beginning of this book, I summarised the left hemisphere’s role as providing a map of the world. That map now threatens to replace the reality.
My contention is that the modern world is the attempt by the left hemisphere to take control of everything it knows so that it is the giver to itself of what it sees.
His argument is that the intuitive right brain (the Master) communicates with the logical left brain (the Emissary), which sorts the intuitive impressions and makes it possible to live in reality. A healthy person, and a healthy society, lives in a state of balance between the two. But since the Enlightenment, we have privileged the left side and its way of knowing so much that we are badly out of balance, and in fact becoming mad. What the neuroscientist says in the excerpt above is that the left brain is obsessed with control, with making all crooked lines straight so it can master them. We are in a condition now in which the left brain takes its own construal of reality to be reality itself, and silences anything from the artistic, religious, intuitive side of the brain that challenges its dominion. Here is the dilemma:
One [the right brain] says ‘I do not know,’ the other [the left brain] ‘I know – that there is nothing to know.’ One believes that one cannot know: the other ‘knows’ that one cannot believe.
What is beyond reasonable doubt, however, since it has been established by repeated research over at least half a century, is that schizophrenia increased pari passu with industrialisation; that the form in which schizophrenia exists is more severe and has a clearly worse outcome in Western countries; and that, as recent research confirms, prevalence by country increases in proportion to the degree that the country is ‘developed’, which in practice means Westernised.
McGilchrist says we have in texts from the ancient world clear descriptions of what we would recognize today as bipolar disorder, but no descriptions of schizophrenia. It is possible that this is a psychological disease of modernity. Why would this be the case? McGilchrist says modernity (including industrialization, secularization, and so on) functions to sever the individual from a sense of place, of history, and
the roots of all meaning in shared values and experiences, the vast implicit realm from which imagination draws its power. Once this rupture has occurred, it can no more be remedied by a conscious effort of the will than a flower plucked from the plant can be made to grow again by being stuck back on the stalk.
Modernity entails “an unfaltering belief in the future complemented an uncompromising scorn for the past,” he writes. Twentieth-century totalitarianisms (Nazi, Communist) were radical expressions of modernity: an attempt to annihilate the past to control the present and the future in the name of ideology — that is, in the name of a fully human construal of the world.
And today? What would a left-brained world look like? Among Dr. McGilchrist’s predictions in 2009:
The concepts of skill and judgment, once considered the summit of human achievement, but which come only slowly and silently with the business of living, would be discarded in favour of quantifiable and repeatable processes.
I think here of Hannah Arendt’s list of qualities of totalitarian thought: of how loyalty to the ideology and the political leader are valued over actual skill. We see this today in the loyalty oaths to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity that academics are more and more being required to take. We see this in the growth of diversity bureaucracies within institutions, to compel all to accept and obey the ideology. McGilchrist:
The essential elements of bureaucracy, as described by Peter Berger and his colleagues (see p. 390 above), show that they would thrive in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. The authors list them as: the necessity of procedures that are known, and in principle knowable; anonymity; organisability; predictability; a concept of justice that is reduced to mere equality; and explicit abstraction. There is a complete loss of the sense of uniqueness. All of these features are identifiable as facilitated by the left hemisphere.
The left hemisphere prefers the impersonal to the personal, and that tendency would in any case be instantiated in the fabric of a technologically driven and bureaucratically administered society. The impersonal would come to replace the personal. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living. Social cohesion, and the bonds between person and person, and just as importantly between person and place, the context in which each person belongs, would be neglected, perhaps actively disrupted, as both inconvenient and incomprehensible to the left hemisphere acting on its own. There would be a depersonalisation of the relationships between members of society, and in society’s relationship with its members. Exploitation rather than co-operation would be, explicitly or not, the default relationship between human individuals, and between humanity and the rest of the world. Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people.
The scientist wrote this in 2009! This is exactly where we are today. Here is a passage from Live Not By Lies:
For example, an American academic who has studied Russian communism told me about being present at the meeting in which his humanities department decided to require from job applicants a formal statement of loyalty to the ideology of diversity—even though this has nothing to do with teaching ability or scholarship.
The professor characterized this as a McCarthyite way of eliminating dissenters from the employment pool, and putting those already on staff on notice that they will be monitored for deviation from the social-justice party line.
That is a soft form of totalitarianism. Here is the same logic laid down hard: in 1918, Lenin unleashed the Red Terror, a campaign of annihilation against those who resisted Bolshevik power. Martin Latsis, head of the secret police in Ukraine, instructed his agents as follows:
Do not look in the file of incriminating evidence to see whether or not the accused rose up against the Soviets with arms or words. Ask him instead to which class he belongs, what is his background, his education, his profession. These are the questions that will determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning and essence of the Red Terror.
What race are you? What is your sex? What is your family background? These increasingly determine your fate in the progressive soft totalitarianism.
Back to McGilchrist, who predicted in 2009:
Such a government would seek total control – it is an essential feature of the left hemisphere’s take on the world that it can grasp it and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed.
Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm. Measures such as a DNA database would be introduced apparently in response to exceptional threats and exceptional circumstances, against which they would in reality be ineffective, their aim being to increase the power of the state and diminish the status of the individual. The concept of the individual depends on uniqueness; but according to the left hemisphere’s take on reality, individuals are simply interchangeable (‘equal’) parts of a mechanistic system, a system it needs to control in the interests of efficiency. Thus it would be expected that the state would not only take greater power directly, but play down individual responsibility, and the sense of individual responsibility would accordingly decline.
Family relationships, or skilled roles within society, such as those of priests, teachers and doctors, which transcend what can be quantified or regulated, and in fact depend on a degree of altruism, would become the object of suspicion. The left hemisphere misunderstands the nature of such relationships, as it misunderstands altruism as a version of self-interest, and sees them as a threat to its power. We might even expect there to be attempts to damage the trust on which such relationships rely, and, if possible, to discredit them. In any case, strenuous efforts would be made to bring families and professions under bureaucratic control, a move that would be made possible, presumably, only by furthering fear and mistrust.
What happens when the state moves to seize your children, on the grounds that based on evidence it has gathered from sorting through the data it has collected from your online activities, and what Alexa has heard in your household, you are raising them to believe bigoted things that threaten the social order. You don’t think this can happen? It happened two years ago in Norway. You can bet that they will try this here too, eventually.
Back to McGilchrist, from 2009, forecasting a social order dominated by the left brain:
Anger and aggressive behaviour would become more evident in our social interactions, since of all emotional states these are the most highly characteristic of the left hemisphere, and would no longer be counterbalanced by the empathic skills of the right hemisphere. One would expect a loss of insight, coupled with an unwillingness to take responsibility, and this would reinforce the left hemisphere’s tendency to a perhaps dangerously unwarranted optimism. There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind.
We would expect there to be a resentment of, and a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder: Weber’s ‘disenchanted’ world. Religion would seem to be mere fantasy. The right hemisphere is drawn forward by exemplars of the qualities it values, where the left hemisphere is driven forward by a desire for power and control: one would expect, therefore, that there would develop an intolerance of, and a constant undercutting, ironising, or deconstructing of such exemplars, in both life and in art. Pathos, the characteristic mode of the right hemisphere, would become impossible, perhaps shameful. It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of nausea and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation.
Above all, the word and the idea would come to dominate. Cultural history and tradition, and what can be learnt from the past, would be confidently dismissed in preparation for the systematic society of the future, put together by human will. The body would come to be viewed as a machine, and the natural world as a heap of resource to be exploited.
McGilchrist — speaking as a neuroscientist, not a political or a religious thinker — goes on:
In the real, practical, everyday world what I have called the ‘return to the right hemisphere’ is of ultimate importance.
… It seems, then, that, even in its own terms, the left hemisphere is bound to fail. That will, however, not stop it from persisting in its current path. And the task of opposing this trend is made more difficult by the fact that two of the main sources of non-materialistic values, which might therefore have led to resistance, are both prime targets of the process that the left hemisphere has set in motion. We have no longer a consistent coherent tradition in the culture, which might have passed on, in embodied and intuitive form, the fruits of experience of our forebears, what used to form the communal wisdom – perhaps even common sense, to which modernism and post-modernism are implacably opposed. The historic past is continually under threat of becoming little more than a heritage museum, whereby it becomes reconstructed according to the stereotypes of the left hemisphere. And the natural world used to be another source of contact with something that still lay outside the realm of the self-constructed, but that is on the retreat, and many people in any case lead lives almost completely devoid of contact with it.
The Western Church has, in my view, been active in undermining itself. It no longer has the confidence to stick to its values, but instead joins the chorus of voices attributing material answers to spiritual problems. At the same time the liturgical reform movement, as always convinced that religious truths can be literally stated, has largely eroded and in some cases completely destroyed the power of metaphoric language and ritual to convey the numinous.
One last passage from McGilchrist:
I have tried to convey in this book that we need metaphor or mythos in order to understand the world. Such myths or metaphors are not dispensable luxuries, or ‘optional extras’, still less the means of obfuscation: they are fundamental and essential to the process. We are not given the option not to choose one, and the myth we choose is important: in the absence of anything better, we revert to the metaphor or myth of the machine. But we cannot, I believe, get far in understanding the world, or in deriving values that will help us live well in it, by likening it to the bike in the garage. The 2,000-year old Western tradition, that of Christianity, provides, whether one believes in it or not, an exceptionally rich mythos – a term I use in its technical sense, making no judgment here of its truth or otherwise – for understanding the world and our relationship with it. It conceives a divine Other that is not indifferent or alien – like James Joyce’s God, refined out of existence and ‘paring his fingernails’ – but on the contrary engaged, vulnerable because of that engagement, and like the right hemisphere rather than the left, not resentful (as the Old Testament Yahweh often seemed) about the Faustian fallings away of its creation, but suffering alongside it. At the centre of this mythos are the images of incarnation, the coming together of matter and spirit, and of resurrection, the redemption of that relationship, as well as of a God that submits to suffer for that process. But any mythos that allows us to approach a spiritual Other, and gives us something other than material values to live by, is more valuable than one that dismisses the possibility of its existence.
I strongly urge you to read The Master and His Emissary. Here is a fantastic 11-minute animated video that lays out Dr. McGilchrist’s thesis:
He says at the end, quoting Einstein, that the right brain is a “sacred gift” and the left brain is a “servant” of that gift. What we have done is created a world in which the servant has lost the gift and become a tyrant. Dr. McGilchrist calls for a rebalancing.
How do we achieve that rebalancing? He does not say. Can anyone? The point to be taken here is that what we are living through now is not merely a political crisis, and it cannot be solved through politics alone.
UPDATE: Listen, leftists, if you have a serious criticism to make about McGilchrist’s work, or my use of it here, I’m happy to approve of it. But I’m not interested in publishing your usual knee-jerk flak, which I’ve been getting since I put this up. Don’t waste your time. If you want to know more about his thesis before commenting, download the book’s introduction at this page.
UPDATE.2: Folks, honestly, do yourself a favor and read more about McGilchrist’s book before you dismiss it. It is much richer and more complex than some of you think. Here is a review of it in The Guardian, by philosopher Mary Midgley. Excerpt:
The book’s title comes from the legend of a wise ruler whose domains grew so large that he had to train emissaries to visit them instead of going himself. One of these, however, grew so cocky that he thought he was wiser than his master, and eventually deposed him. And this, says McGilchrist, is what the Left hemisphere tends to do. In fact, the balance between these two halves is, like so many things in evolution, a somewhat rough, practical arrangement, quite capable of going wrong. The bifurcation seems to have become necessary in the first place because these two main functions – comprehensiveness and precision – are both necessary, but are too distinct to be combined. The normal sequence, then, is that the comprehensive partner first sees the whole prospect – picks out something that needs investigating – and hands it over to the specialist, who processes it. Thus the thrush’s Left is called in to deal with the snail-shell; the banker’s Left calculates the percentage. But, once those pieces of work are done, it is necessary for the wider vision to take over again and decide what to do next.
Much of the time this is indeed what happens and it is what has enabled brains of this kind to work so well, both for us and for other animals. But sometimes there is difficulty about the second transaction. Since it is the nature of precision not to look outward – not to bother about what is around it – the specialist partner does not always know when it ought to hand its project back to headquarters for further processing. Being something of a success-junkie, it often prefers to hang on to it itself. And since we do have some control over this shift between detailed and general thinking, that tendency can be helped or hindered by the ethic that prevails in the culture around it.
McGilchrist’s suggestion is that the encouragement of precise, categorical thinking at the expense of background vision and experience – an encouragement which, from Plato’s time on, has flourished to such impressive effect in European thought – has now reached a point where it is seriously distorting both our lives and our thought. Our whole idea of what counts as scientific or professional has shifted towards literal precision – towards elevating quantity over quality and theory over experience – in a way that would have astonished even the 17th-century founders of modern science, though they were already far advanced on that path. (Thus, as a shocked nurse lately told me, it is proposed that all nurses must have university degrees. Who, she asked, will actually do the nursing?) And the ideal of objectivity has developed in a way that would have surprised those sages still more.
This notion, which now involves seeing everything natural as an object, inert, senseless and detached from us, arose as part of the dualist vision of a split between body and soul. It was designed to glorify God by removing all competing spiritual forces from the realm of nature. It therefore showed matter itself as dead, a mere set of billiard-ball particles bouncing mechanically off each other, always best represented by the imagery of machines. For that age, life and all the ideals relevant to humanity lay elsewhere, in our real home – in the zone of spirit. (That, of course, was why Newton, to the disgust of later scholars, was far more interested in theology than he was in physics.) But the survival of this approach today, when physicists have told us that matter does not actually consist of billiard balls, when we all supposedly believe that we are parts of the natural biosphere, not colonists from spiritual realms – when indeed many of us deny that such realms even exist – seems rather surprising.
UPDATE.3: Dr. McGilchrist himself e-mailed to say:
Thank you for pointing out the parallels between what I seemed to predict and the current circumstances. I say ‘seemed to predict’ because, of course, it was already happening. But the rapidity and totality of the loss of free speech – which means precisely nothing unless it means that you respect the right of people to say things of which you disapprove – is far more serious than I could have anticipated then. With that falls what we mean by civilisation. And, to their eternal shame, the great institutions of learning are conniving at, even accelerating, that downfall.
Another problem that I indicated is that the left hemisphere mode of thinking is not only out of touch with reality, but cannot even understand a nuanced position, in which there are degrees of truth. All context is ignored and only rigid doctrine permitted. Life however is, and always will remain, complex. Which is why we must all be allowed to say what we think without fear of bullying and intimidation. There is much to criticise in modern Western society, and you will know from reading my book that I am hardly blind to it. But free speech, and a passion for fairness, are two of its most valuable and irreplaceable qualities: almost unique in the history of the world. If misunderstood, they contain the seeds of their own destruction.
The Dutch have a saying, ‘trust comes on foot and departs on horseback’. I can hardly see it now for dust.
One point I would make in conclusion – and I know you know this, so it is for the reader’s benefit – I didn’t suggest that we were all getting to be schizophrenic. Rather I thought that, like subjects with schizophrenia, we were apparently incapable of understanding what the right hemisphere could tell us. Unfortunately for us, the right hemisphere is more intelligent, more insightful and more in touch with reality than the left. All of which is explored in my next book.