A series based on Iain McGilchrist’s conclusions about a left brain dominated world
In the conclusion of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, the question is asked, “What would the left hemisphere’s world look like?” if the left hemisphere of the brain “became so far dominant that, at the phenomenological level, it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere’s world altogether”.
In this series of posts I’d like to break down his conclusion and discus just how closely our world is conforming to the left hemisphere’s perspective.
To make sense of the quote below please review the previous quotes:
Well I’ve probably stretched this series out a little too long, so let me wrap it up here and finish off the end of the matter. If you’ve been following along you will have seen how McGilchrist’s description of a left hemisphere world is frighteningly like the world we live in. I guess McGilchrist can confidently say, “I rest my case”. So let’s put the final nail in the coffin as we finish off this tour of the left hemisphere’s perception of the world and recognise that truly the emissary has usurped the master in our collective head.
Reasonableness would be replaced by rationality, and perhaps the very concept of reasonableness might become unintelligible. There would be a complete failure of common sense, since it is intuitive and relies on both hemispheres working together. 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, and unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind. (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
I’ve just finished listening to the book by Matt Walsh, What is a Woman, based on the documentary which I’ve not yet seen but am now motivated to. His investigation suggests that in the world of gender identity there truly has been “a complete failure of common sense”. In fact this movement is only a flagship leading a much larger flotilla of unreasonableness and nonsense in so many areas of western society and politics. And the evidence of anger and aggressiveness that accompanies such unreasonableness is also a hallmark of the left hemisphere and the extreme left of politics (as they aggressively accuse the right of the very aggression they themselves exhibit – remember the left hemisphere never takes responsibility and will deflect, pass the buck, and accuse anything and everything but itself).
And isn’t it so true that in the midst of clown world destructive thinking and action there is an unwarranted optimism accompanied by intolerance and inflexibility. The characteristics of the left hemisphere and our current sociopolitical state is startling.
The sense of autonomy is complexly related to both hemispheres, but crucially dependent on contributions from the right hemisphere. An equivalent to what is called ‘forced utilisation behaviour’ in individuals might be seen: an increasing passivisation and suggestibility (if it’s there, you must use it, do it). There would be a lack of will-power in the sense of self-control and self-motivation, but not of will in the sense of acquisitive greed and desire to manipulate. In relation to culture, we would expect people to become increasingly passive. They would see themselves as ‘exposing’ themselves before culture, like a photographic plate to light, or even think of themselves as ‘being exposed’ to such things.
We could expect a rise in the determination to carry out procedures by rote, and perhaps an increasing efficiency at doing so, without this necessarily being accompanied by an understanding of what they mean. (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
Certainly the point about people becoming increasingly passive has been evident here in Australia and no doubt in many other places around the world. As the powers that be lord it over the people, passing more and more restrictive and totalitarian laws, the people demonstrate a lack of will-power and incredible passivity. Nevertheless passionate about being a ‘good citizen’ as decreed by health authorities, but maybe this is partly the propensity to carry out procedural rules over and above exercising autonomy. Again, all characteristics of the left hemisphere being the master and commander.
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. (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
For a long time now the left hemisphere bias has been undermining the transcendent, the realms of religious thought and practice. Interestingly though there is a resurgence in psychology and psychiatry for psychedelics (it’s a huge emerging industry, driven primarily by profit, no doubt) that can open up the mind to the mystical, intangible, spirit world. For the controlling left hemisphere this doesn’t sound like a good direction to take, but I guess for Big Pharma this is an enormous opportunity. It does, however, provide “novelty and stimulation” from a nauseatingly bored life stripped of meaning. There may be another agenda for psychedelics that have to do with opening people up to the spirit realm – but that’s a discussion for another post.
Experience or things that we would normally see as having a natural, organically evolving, flowing, structure, would come to seem composed of a succession of frames, a sum of an infinite series of ‘pieces’. This would include the passage of historical or cultural, as well as personal, time, and organically flowing shapes or forms, and ultimately the development, growth and decay of all things that are alive. This corresponds to the Zeitraffer phenomenon1. It is coupled with the loss of the sense of uniqueness. Repeatability would lead to an over-familiarity through endless reproduction. (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
Remembering that it is the right hemisphere that has a handle on the flow of time – the left hemisphere doesn’t ‘get’ time and sees things like frames on a strip of film that are strung together, rather than a continuum. The inability to comprehend the passage of time may well have a detrimental effect on the perception of history, our vital links with the past, and the cause and effect relationships between past, present and future. Could the erasure of history by totalitarian propagandists be a whimsical reflex of the left hemisphere? We are amazed that people today do not see the parallels of what’s going on today and some of the 20th Centuries most dramatic expressions of totalitarianism. Is there a problem with their capacity to appreciate the past? Not amnesia, but something fundamentally like the left hemisphere’s ignorance of the flowing and organic past that has a direct connection with the now. There could be something more psychopathological going on here than we have realised.
As a culture, we would come to discard tacit forms of knowing altogether. There would be a remarkable difficulty in understanding non-explicit meaning, and a downgrading of non-verbal, non-explicit communication. Concomitant with this would be a rise in explicitness, backed up by ever increasing legislation, de Tockqueville’s ‘network of small complicated rules’2. As it became less possible to rely on a shared and intuitive moral sense, or implicit contracts between individuals, such rules would become ever more burdensome. There would be a loss of tolerance for, and appreciation of the value of, ambiguity. We would tend to be over-explicit in language we used to approach art and religion, accompanied by a loss of their vital, implicit and metaphorical power. (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
Again I think this progression toward overly explicit rules, regulations, legislation, over moral sense and implicit social contracts, has been afoot for a long time. But now we see it in full bloom. What a death there is to the intuitive life. Indeed we are at the hands of soft despotism (see note below).
I’ll let the final paragraph speak for itself. We have, after all, touched on every point made below in previous commentaries. This has been the progression of western culture since the first industrial revolution, and seemingly accelerating incredibly in the past few decades. The parallels between modernism and schizophrenia is not only fascinating but frighteningly too close for comfort. We glibly say the world has gone mad. I wonder if it is more true than we dare acknowledge.
We would become, like Descartes, spectators rather than actors in all the ‘comedies’ the world displays. Art would become conceptual, having lost the capacity for eliciting the metaphorical power of its incarnate qualities. Visual art would lack a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives would become the norm. Music would be reduced to little more than rhythm; art music would attempt to transcend it, but harmony and melody would be lacking. Dance would become solipsistic, rather than communal. 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. Wild and unre-presented nature, nature not managed and submitted to rational exploitation for science or the ‘leisure industry’, would be seen as a threat, and consequently brought under bureaucratic control as fast as possible. Language would become diffuse, excessive, lacking in concrete referents, clothed in abstraction, with no overall feel for its qualities as a metaphor of mind. Technical language, or the language of bureaucratic systems, devoid of any richness of meaning, and suggesting a mechanistic world, would increasingly be applied across the board, and might even seem unremarkable when applied to descriptions of the human world, and human beings, even the human mind itself.
This is what the world would look like if the emissary betrayed the Master. It’s hard to resist the conclusion that his goal is within sight. (Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)
1. The Zeitraffer phenomenon is the altered perception of the speed of moving objects – probably arising from dysfunction of brain networks subserving visual perception of speed.
2. Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by “a network of small complicated rules” might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called ‘hard despotism’) in the sense that it is not obvious to the people.
“…after having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp, and fashioned him at will, the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community. It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate to rise above the crowd. The will of man is not shattered but softened, bent and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrial animals, of which government is the shepherd.” -Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835)
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