The ultimate split
Seven hundred million years ago nature had a problem to solve. How to keep animals alive when all the other animals wanted to eat them. Evolution had created these new living things, and it had given each animal the means to power itself by eating plants and other animal. Now it needed to give them each a fighting chance so they could avoid being eaten.
The solution nature came up with has helped animals survive long enough to reproduce and for almost nine million different species to evolve, so it’s been pretty effective. But, like so many things, humans take a good idea and mess it up.
Nature’s good idea was bilaterality. Two sides to one brain. One side to drive the animal to search for food and shelter, the other side to watch for threats and be cautious. The left side of the brain can focus, it is interested in finding things, it enables a bird to spot a piece of grain among the grit or a twig for building a nest. The right side takes the wide view, it watches out for the danger of the fox and startles the bird to flight more quickly than analysing the specifics might do. If animals only had one or the other of these two sides to their brains they simply wouldn’t last long enough to evolve.
This asymmetrical design for brains stuck, and still exists today in every single animal with a brain.
In human brains, the right side maintains a broad view the world, and over a sustained length of time. It experiences the world as continuous, flowing, changing, and it comprehends metaphors and myths. It is how we understand art and poetry, how we sense the bigger picture. The left side has a narrow focused attention of the world. It sees tiny fragments and static snapshots of our experience. It only understands the explicit and literal, and gives us science and maths. Although asymmetrical, these two halves are designed to work together to provide as complete a picture of reality as any human could need.
And, what did humans do with these two necessary and complimentary ways of experiencing the world? We split them into two mutually exclusive binary opposites.
Since the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th century, left-brained thinking with its rationality, science and technology came to be seen as the superior way of thinking. Like the bird finding grain and twigs, it offered a way to extract more resources from the world, but on overdrive. And wanting the power and control it represented, the white males associated themselves with rational thinking. Demonstrating left-brain thinking became a way to have power over other people and the world, claiming objectivity and the ability to reveal the truth. Right-brain thinking was downgraded as being just about feelings. It was associated with women, and with being emotional. Creative endeavours were less important, myths and rituals were dismissed as primitive story-telling.
Not allowing right-brain thinking to contribute to the way our society thinks prevented us from getting that bigger picture of what the resource extraction and chauvinistic power would do to the planet and society. This split in how we think, of choosing between opposites, and of choosing rationality, created the modern world as it is today. With all the technological marvels and advancements in society, and with the climate catastrophe and inhumane inequality.
Iain McGilchrist, the psychiatrist and philosopher, argues that we should move towards using right-sided thinking more. He says that left-brained rationality alone is insufficient, and that seeing only the “meaningless heap of stuff for us to exploit” provides a different version of the world that misses the “vast, richly complex, moving, flowing tapestry of meaning to which we are connected”. Using right-brain thinking, he says, “every individual has the capacity to unfold another facet of the infinitely complex whole that is this cosmos.”
But choosing right-side thinking over left-brain might not be the best way.
We might choose not one way over the other but to appreciate both for what they bring us. We could develop our capacity for allowing more grace and play in the way we experience the world, accept more of the sublime that defies explanation. But at the same time we could hone our rationality, get better at explaining how our world works. And we must accept the tension that arises between the two. That tension isn’t a bad thing, it’s part of the design, it’s how our brains are meant to work. It’s the interplay of the two halves that gives our brains their fullest power.
So, rather than seeking to use one way of thinking, we should allow ourselves to use all that our brains are capable of. Birds don’t differentiate between paying attention to searching out food and watching out for danger, they move effortlessly between using both sides of their brain. All of our brains are capable of all this too.
Maybe the myth of us only using a small percentage of our brains is some truism that there is so much more that we can do with our brains if we stop believing the narrative that we have to be one thing or another. We are either rational, logical thinkers or creative, emotional types but we can’t be both. We’re either good at maths or good at art, but never good at both.
We, as a society and as individuals, can be good at thinking in many different, complementary, conflicting ways. We can accept rational, narrowly-focused thinking and broad, creative, connected thinking. We must. Without thinking with both our left and right brains we will never be able to build a better future as everything we create is the result of our current left-brained bias.
We should go back to our roots and appreciate both sides of our brain for reshaping our thinking for the future.