“Divided States of America,” the front-page headline of the Spring Trends Journal, reflects an even deeper “Great Divide.” It’s beyond politics and economics. In this article, using insights from modern neuroscience, psychology and philosophy, we’ll look at an inherent “divide” within the human brain and how we can work with it more effectively. When we turn on cable news, we see and hear constant anger, disbelief, vitriol and handwringing over the Trump phenomenon. If we check out newspapers and news magazines, we read progressives and liberals labeling Trump as narcissistic, psychologically damaged and greedy. Conservatives call Trump’s critics big-government money-wasters, socialist apologists and conspiracy fanatics. Conversation is gone. Anxiety and name-calling are in. Self-righteousness is rampant. Open-mindedness is virtually absent. But the Trump phenomenon didn’t appear in a vacuum. “The Great Divide” we witness and participate in, while significantly a result of economic disparity that’s grown for decades, is actually the result of a deeper disparity in the balance between the two hemispheres of our brains that process information in different and important ways.
LEFT BRAIN, RIGHT BRAIN
While neuroscientists may disagree on specifics, they’ve known for decades that an anatomical line divides our brains into two regions: the left and right hemispheres. This fascinating and important structural divide, and the ways it affects how we perceive and react to the world, was first noted in the 1960s. Neuropsychologist and future Nobel Laureate Roger Sperry observed differences in mental capabilities and preferences of the two hemispheres after brain surgery. Sperry said each hemisphere is “…a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and… both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel.” In the last 20 years, thanks in part to advances in magnetic-resonance imaging, researchers have confirmed more precisely how the two sides divide responsibilities. As described by a leading researcher into the modern mind, Daniel Pink, “The left hemisphere handles sequence, literalness and analysis. The right hemisphere, meanwhile, takes care of context, emotional expression and synthesis. Of course, the human brain, with its 100 billion cells forging 1 quadrillion connections, is breathtakingly complex. The two hemispheres work in concert, and we enlist both sides for nearly everything we do. But the structure of our brains can help explain the contours of our times.” The left hemisphere of our brain at its highest function is logical, analytic, rational and verbal. It breaks down every situation into smaller, simpler, knowable parts and always moves toward certainty. Our left-hemisphere brain simply cannot tolerate ambiguity or complexity. In contrast, the right hemisphere is intuitive, imaginative and non-verbal. It operates out of curiosity, experimentation, playfulness and flexibility. The left hemisphere seeks to know and “control” reality. The right hemisphere seeks a “big picture” perspective. It’s open to change and collaboration. Why nature and evolution led to this clear divide, most apparent in the human brain, is a subject of debate. But it exists, and has been repeatedly confirmed by medical and laboratory experiments. And as we shall see, it is also clear that for quite some time, a deep trend has been operating regarding our divided brain. It has particularly escalated in the modern era, leading to a potentially devastating imbalance. The better we understand it, the better the chance we can turn it into our advantage. Let’s dive in.
THE DIVIDED BRAIN IN THE WESTERN WORLD
The line above refers to a fascinating book, “The master and his emissary” by Iain McGilchrist. He’s a medical doctor/psychiatrist and a former Oxford literary scholar. Using insights from neuroscience, history, psychology, philosophy and art, McGilchrist goes into great depth to reveal how modern cultures in general, and American culture in particular, have relied predominantly on left-hemisphere perception. That, he said, has led to our current age of anxiety. It threatens, he says, our long-term existence. The “master” of his title refers the right hemisphere of our brains. While both hemispheres are essential, the right hemisphere first picks up stimuli and information from the environment. It unconsciously starts to process it from a “big picture” perspective based on experiences and genetic memories. The “emissary” of the title refers to the left hemisphere of our brain. It consciously takes information from the right hemisphere and narrows it into more practical, analyzable useable bits. A general overview of how the two hemispheres work: Left hemisphere: Practical, analytical, protective, self-enclosed. Interprets the world based on what it can know with certainty; concerned with the “usefulness” of things. Right hemisphere: Intuitive, creative, empathic, worldly. Interprets the world based on a “big picture” perspective. Comfortable with social collaboration and complexity. Uses wisdom over knowledge. In general, the left hemisphere is more closely interconnected within itself; it is “wired” to deal with what it already knows. When we use our left brains at our best, we gain clarity and assurance. We then integrate our right-brain capacity for a wider perspective and more collaborative instinct. When we’re overbalanced into the left hemisphere, the fear of change and uncertainty makes us obsessive, controlling, self-centered and anxious.
THE TRUMP FACTOR
The election of Donald Trump, and the great divide that has our country and virtually the entire world in a state of almost perpetual anxiety, can be seen as the result of our minds being overly dominated by left-hemisphere thinking. That, as we shall see, has been a growing trend over the past 150 years. McGilchrist states, “Left-hemisphere thinking is clear-cut and direct. It divides and eliminates until cutting through to a simple, direct result. This ability serves us well when engaged with practical situations calling for clear, unambiguous results. But it becomes prejudiced, isolationist and fearful when confronted with situations requiring a big-picture perspective, empathy for others and the ability to collaborate. Left-hemisphere thinking always veers towards ‘certainty’ even in complex situations where a clear, simple result is impossible.” If we apply this description of left-hemisphere thinking to the key emotional issue Trump exploited as he ascended to the presidency, some interesting insights are revealed. “Build a wall!” As Washington Post Senior Editor Mark Fisher pointed out: “With or without Trump’s extraordinary appeal, Americans were determined this year to send the politicians a message about the pain caused by a decades-long collapse of certainties about what America looks like, what constitutes a family and how we earn a living.” As previously noted, our left-brain hemisphere looks for certainty and familiarity. If unchecked by integrating with more empathic right-hemisphere processing, people will react aggressively and often violently to uncertainty and change. Trump tapped into this. He focused on fear, launching his campaign with a promise to “build a wall” to keep marauding, rapist “bad hombre” Mexicans out of the United States. The “build a wall” Trump strategy goes far beyond Mexico. It goes to the heart of the primary generator of fear and anxiety gripping our culture: Globalization. This expanding movement of people, capital, services and information, generated by the most powerful technological force in human history, i.e. computer intelligence, is the key generator. From the right-hemisphere perspective of the brain, this expansion is a positive sign of greater access to understanding, wisdom and collaboration. Viewed from the left-hemisphere perspective, the gain in knowledge is a great asset. But there is underlying anxiety at the loss of national boundaries and the ability to create a self-enclosed, protective environment. For example, the most left-brain-oriented modern country in the world, the United States, is the only major country to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, a protectionist move against one of the most globally collaborative agreements in history. When our left-hemisphere brain perspective is not integrated with the right hemisphere’s empathic/collaborative/global perspective, the left side always will resort psychologically to a “build a wall/protectionist” mentality as a survival reaction. This shows up at the dinner table, workplace and social get-togethers, as well as the political landscape.
THE ROOTS OF IMBALANCE
This is a big story. What’s more important than understanding, as well as we can, how our brains and minds work? And how to use them most effectively amid a new global zeitgeist? The left hemisphere has an important role to play in evolutionary terms. The first cities were necessarily “walled” to protect against invaders. But overbalance toward this perspective — while eventually building conveniences and comforts of modern life based on self-centered competition — also have “walled” us off from the more open-minded big-picture collaborative thinking required in this new global era. According to McGilchrist (author of “The master and his emissary,” as previously noted), this problematic imbalance toward left-hemisphere thinking accelerated about 150 years ago in the Western world: “…It is the Industrial Revolution which enabled the left hemisphere to make its most audacious assault yet on the world of the right hemisphere… and underwrites the defining characteristics of the modern world… this movement was obviously, colossally, man’s most brazen bid for power over the natural world.” Out of the left-hemisphere grasp for power and certainty, the Industrial Revolution ensured a world in which interchangeable parts referred not only to industrial machines, but to people on assembly lines. Captains of industry and CEOs of expanding corporations could be much more “certain” of the bottom line. We’re well aware of the advantages this mindset offers: expanding economies, medical breakthroughs and modern conveniences. If left unchecked, however, we get the modern audacity of seeing the world as a bunch of things to competitively monopolize, regardless of the cost to environmental health and social injustice. When overloaded toward left-hemisphere thinking, McGilchrist writes: “One would expect a sort of dismissive attitude to anything outside of its limited focus, because the right hemisphere’s take on the whole picture would simply not be available to it.” I emphasized “dismissive” because it accurately describes the basic attitude of not only Donald Trump, but of his detractors as well. Why go into something “deeply” and intelligently when it’s so much easier and more comfortable to just dismiss all perspectives not our own?
PROMISE FOR THE FUTURE
So, if the self-centered, anxiety-producing mindset of overbalanced left-hemisphere thinking has been a continuous trend for such a long time, what chance is there to shift it back toward greater balance with right-brain perspectives? Daniel Pink, an expert in work, management and behavioral science, writes, “Last century, machines proved they could replace human muscle. This century, technologies are proving they can outperform human left brains — they can execute sequential, reductive, computational work better, faster and more accurately than even those with the highest IQs.” Computers can beat our best chess players, out-diagnose our best physicians, run our factories more efficiently and drive much more safely that we can. This is the most important reason those crucial swing voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are losing jobs and getting lower wages. In addition, many million more Americans, including attorneys, accountants, Realtors and hedge-fund analysts, among others, will suffer the same fate. This important trend points to the need for, and is already starting to affect, changes toward a more right-brain-oriented culture. Doesn’t it make sense that if millions of human jobs are going to continue to be lost to computer intelligence that we shift our economy to create work requiring right-brain attributes computers can’t match? As Pink points out in his article, “Revenge of the Right Brain,” “It is the task of the right hemisphere to carry the left beyond, to something new, something ‘other’ than itself… the left hemisphere delivers what we know, rather than what we actually experience.” Underneath the yelling, screaming, dismissive, angry culture we see and hear every night in the media, the workplace and public square comprise an emerging trend toward a more right-brain perspective. Again I cite Daniel Pink: “The Information Age has unleashed a prosperity that in turn places a premium on less rational sensibilities — beauty, spirituality, emotion. The curtain is rising on a new era, the Conceptual Age. If the Industrial Age was built on people’s backs, and the Information Age on people’s left hemispheres, the Conceptual Age is being built on people’s right hemispheres.” We see signs of this underlying trend as millions of millennials are consciously adopting a lifestyle attuned to a cleaner environment and a preference for meaningful experiences over the pursuit for material gain (see my article “Welcome to the Garden of Epicurus,” Trends Journal, Winter 2017). I also wrote about the emerging trend of how access to the world’s knowledge and wisdom, available at our fingertips through the World Wide Web, is forcing education systems to replace the mind-numbing requirement of memorizing rote facts and “fitting in” with a more open-sourced, creative strategy of helping students discover their true talents and interests (see “From Atoms to Bits,” Trends Journal, Spring 2017). The Harvard Business Review reported, “With (artificial intelligence) taking over routine information and manual tasks in the workplace, we need additional emphasis on qualities that differentiate human workers from AI — creativity, adaptability and interpersonal skills.” These are all right-brain related and many corporations understand this. And so, underneath the rancor and bitterness of the “Great Divide,” we see signs of an emerging new paradigm based on a revitalization of right-hemisphere perspectives. TJ