I’ve been thinking a lot about the brain lately. Since an aneurysm burst inside my head 5 years ago, I guess you could say I almost lost my mine. One thing that continues to fascinate me is the difference between right-handed and left- handed people, especially when they are couples, like Whitley and I are. We find that since our gestures “mirror” each other, when we try to work on a physical task together, we become hopelessly entangled. I found a writer who thinks the world is in a similar mess.
Even reading the paper over breakfast is a problem: We each want to read it on the same side. It’s my left and his right, with the result that the newspapers physically overlap. But we can’t change: I could no more read the paper on the right side of my plate than he could on his left.
I read a fascinating article by Iain McGilchrist in the Wall Street Journal in which we questions the basic reason for the brain being divided into two halves and says, “Almost every function once thought to be the province of one or another hemisphere (language, imagery, reason, emotion) is served by both hemispheres not one.” So why do we have two? He comes to the conclusion, based on scientific evidence, that the right hemisphere of the brain sees the whole picture, while the left hemisphere focuses more on details.
Then I read an article by David Robson in New Scientist Magazine in which he says, “The observation that groups of brain cells seem to have their own version of quantum entanglement, or ‘spooky action at a distance,’ could help explain how our minds combine experiences from many different senses into one memory.” “Spooky action at a distance” refers to the fact that when a photon is into two halves, everything that one half does is instantly done by the other half as well, no matter how far apart they are. According to Robson, this happens with neurons as well: “Experiments have shown that the electrical activity of neurons in separate parts of the brain can oscillate simultaneously at the same frequency.” It’s almost like having a “twin” inside your own head!
McGilchrist goes further and compares the two halves of the brain with competing cultures throughout history. He states that “without the right hemisphere, we are socially and emotionally insensitive and have an impaired understanding of beauty, art and religion. Meanwhile, without the left hemisphere, we struggle to bring detail into focus. If a culture were ever to rely excessively on one take alone, there would sooner or later need to be a correction.”
In the brilliant film “The White Ribbon” which attempts to explain why the German public accepted Nazism, Austrian director Michael Haneke seems to be saying that post World War I culture was too rigid and rule-bound: in other words, too left-brained. In this case, the “correction” was World War II and the subsequent partition of Germany.
McGilchrist writes, “In the West, there has been such an imbalance. And as a consequence, over the past 2,500 years, there has been a kind of battle going on in our brains, the result of which has been, despite swings of the pendulum, an ever greater reliance on the left hemisphere.”
He feels that the tug of war between the halves of the brain started with the culture of ancient Greece. At first, art and science were basically in harmony: “The philosopher Thales was able to predict correctly an eclipse of the sun,” but “trouble was brewing.” Starting with Plato, “philosophy shifted from a respect for the hidden and implicit to an emphasis on what can be made explicit alone.”
This evolution (or perhaps the better term is DEvolution) occurred again in ancient Rome. Rules and rigidity gradually replaced creative searching and thinking. He sees this happening yet again in the Renaissance, when at first “there was an openness to things as they are, not in theory.” And later, in Elizabethan England, “In Shakespeare, unique individuals repudiate the stereotypes demanded by the structure of the play: Shylock commands our sympathy.” But the pendulum always seems to swing back to the left (brain): “With the Reformation, there again saw a shift in mentality towards what is certain, rigid, fixed and simplified. The left hemisphere was fighting back. Ambiguity was no longer a sign of richness, but of obscurity. Imagination was mistrusted and metaphor became a lie.”
Today, he says that in the US we “tend to see the world as a heap of meaningless fragments. There is an inevitable rise in bureaucracy. In going all out for what we believe will be our own happiness, we exploit the world and see ourselves as alien to it, rather than seeing that our happiness depends on being part of it, and therefore in helping it to thrive. This is the world of the left hemisphere, ever keen on control.”
His phrase “metaphor became a lie” reminds me of my near- death experience, when my deceased cat Coe took me on a journey to the World of the Dead, where I saw people waiting for the next bus or train, loaded down with bulging suitcases and shopping bags. I knew they wouldn’t be able to catch that train until they were willing to put their baggage DOWN. If I tell someone this story, their left brain will tell them that this was an image produced by various subconscious emotions, hormones and firing neurons at a time when death seemed imminent. But if they listen to their right brains, the message comes through loud and clear: Look at the big picture, ignore all those pesky details, engage your emotions and dare to take a leap into the unknown.
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