The Decline of Civilization’s Right Brain: Animated

The mind, they say, is a house divid­ed: The right hemi­sphere of the brain is pre­dom­i­nant­ly intu­itive; the left, pre­dom­i­nant­ly ratio­nal.

In his recent book, The Mas­ter and His Emis­sary: The Divid­ed Brain and the Mak­ing of the West­ern World, the British psy­chi­a­trist and writer Iain McGilchrist looks at the evo­lu­tion of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion through a neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal prism. In McGilchrist’s view our left hemi­sphere has, over the past four cen­turies, pro­gres­sive­ly pushed aside our right hemi­sphere. “My belief,” McGilchrist told The Morn­ing News last year, “is that it has now tak­en over our self-under­stand­ing, for a vari­ety of rea­sons, and is lead­ing us all down the road to ruin.”

McGilchrist is quick to point out that the old left-brain, right-brain clichés of the 1960s and 1970s were great­ly over­sim­pli­fied. Recent research has shown that both sides of the brain are deeply involved in func­tions such as rea­son and emo­tion. But the dichoto­my is still use­ful, McGilchrist says, and should not be aban­doned.

“The right hemi­sphere gives sus­tained, broad, open, vig­i­lant alert­ness, where­as the left hemi­sphere gives nar­row, sharply focused atten­tion to detail,” McGilchrist says in a new RSA Ani­mate fea­ture (see above). “Peo­ple who lose their right hemi­spheres have a patho­log­i­cal nar­row­ing of the win­dow of atten­tion.”  McGilchrist sees this nar­row­ing process occur­ring at the soci­etal lev­el. The left brain, he argues, con­ceives of the world as a set of decon­tex­tu­al­ized, sta­t­ic, mate­r­i­al, abstract things, where­as the right brain holis­ti­cal­ly embraces a world of evolv­ing, spir­i­tu­al, empath­ic, con­crete beings.

Both hemi­spheres are nec­es­sary, McGilchrist says in the Morn­ing News inter­view, “but one is more fun­da­men­tal­ly impor­tant than the oth­er, and sees more than the oth­er, even though there are some things that it must not get involved with, if it is to main­tain its broad­er, more complete–in essence more truthful–vision. This is the right hemi­sphere, which, as I demon­strate from the neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, lit­er­al­ly sees more, and grounds the under­stand­ing of the left hemisphere–an under­stand­ing which must ulti­mate­ly be re-inte­gret­ed with the right hemi­sphere, if it is not to lead to error. The left hemi­sphere is extra­or­di­nar­i­ly valu­able as an inter­me­di­ate, but not as a final author­i­ty.”

McGilchrist is not with­out his crit­ics. The British philoso­pher A.C. Grayling writes in the Lit­er­ary Review, “Unfor­tu­nate­ly, if one accepts the log­ic of his argu­ment that our West­ern civil­i­sa­tion has declined from a right-hemi­sphere to a left-hemi­sphere dis­pen­sa­tion, we do not have to imag­ine what the for­mer would be like, because his­to­ry itself tells us: in it most of us would be super­sti­tious and igno­rant peas­ants work­ing a strip farm that we would nev­er leave from cra­dle to grave, under the thumb of slight­ly more left-hemi­spher­ic bul­lies in the form of the local baron and priest.”

After The Mas­ter and His Emis­sary was pub­lished, McGilchrist dis­cov­ered a quo­ta­tion attrib­uted to Albert Ein­stein that he felt neat­ly sup­port­ed his the­sis. He uses this quote at the end of his RSA talk: “The intu­itive mind is a sacred gift and the ratio­nal mind is a faith­ful ser­vant. We have cre­at­ed a soci­ety that hon­ors the ser­vant and has for­got­ten the gift.” But did Ein­stein actu­al­ly say that? The Inter­net is awash with dubi­ous Ein­stein quo­ta­tions, and we were unable to locate the orig­i­nal source of this one. If any read­er can ver­i­fy its authen­tic­i­ty (by cit­ing the orig­i­nal text, speech or con­ver­sa­tion) please leave a note in our com­ments sec­tion. Mean­while, you can watch McGilchrist’s entire half-hour RSA lec­ture here.

via Brain Pick­ings

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Comments (5)
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  • LB says:

    Incred­i­ble, one of the most thought-pro­vok­ing things I’ve seen in a long while. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, those pro­voked thoughts are only like­ly to be pon­dered in my left hemi­sphere…

  • Mike Springer says:

    Hi Andreea,
    Thanks for the infor­ma­tion. It does­n’t con­nect the quote to Ein­stein him­self, but per­haps it’s a clue.

  • Lesley Young says:

    Artists are so deval­ued in this time of his­to­ry. Like a car with­out a dri­ver — art is reduced to “prod­ucts” and is devoid of con­tent. The inter­net and it’s left brain fas­cism, has almost demol­ished the val­ue of music.

    A Cana­di­an singer-song­writer.

  • I Prefer Unknown says:

    Whether the quote was orig­i­nal­ly came from Ein­stein is irrel­e­vant for it does­n’t make what the state­ment said any less true. You give far more impor­tance to the indi­vid­ual than the mes­sage that one presents.

    The brain is two dual aspects of the same thing and we need both to work har­mo­nious­ly togeth­er. To say one is far more impor­tant than the oth­er is stu­pid. This is like say­ing that the Mas­ter is far more impor­tant to the Slave, when a Mas­ter does­n’t mean any­thing if it does­n’t have any­one to enslaved to and the Slave is noth­ing with­out a Mas­ter to serve to.

    In a first glance of per­spec­tive, it seems that one is far more impor­tant than the oth­er but this is actu­al­ly only illu­sion due to how a per­son would per­ceive things. The oth­er need the anoth­er oth­er for it to func­tion and work togeth­er. Like how both the male and female beings are need­ed to give the con­cep­tion of a baby.

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