Friday, November 8, 2019

Control, Chaos and our Hemispheres

     Clinicians love to cure - definitively fix - the sick, the broken. And many of us, at least when we feel broken, want to be fixed-up once & for all! We all dearly love 'agency,' the sense of control, the ability to reach out, grab & hold onto what we want, and push away anything we don't.
     At some level, we may realize that the above is based on an unrealistic, over-simplified, mechanistic, reductionist model. Life's complexity extends well beyond our comprehension, never mind control. However, we dread the idea of being overwhelmed by chaos - being helplessly out of control as our world crumbles around us. So to have a sense of agency, we tend to restrict our attention to manipulating - conceptually & physically - discrete details. But with this narrowed focus, many of us forget about or even become strongly averse to the big picture that includes the most meaningful dimensions of life that cannot be controlled or even be put into words! Our current Western society tends to overuse the perspective of our left hemispheres, and at best ignores, at worse ridicules & actively suppresses the perspective of our right hemispheres. This lack of balance causes serious conflicts: rigid partisanship (political, religious, ecological, ethnic, racial, gender, economic, and even academic / educational: 'hard' sciences vs 'soft' sciences & arts) instead of harmonious tolerance, balance & collaboration. It seriously impacts the education of health-care professionals:
     Extreme positions (eg towards control) often produce unintended, undesired results (eg chaos).

     Iain McGilchrist spent 20 years researching & documenting the neurological & Western cultural rationale for a healthy balance between the two hemispheres, perhaps summarized in Reinhold Niebuhr's 'serenity prayer':
          Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
          courage to change the things I can;
          and wisdom to know the difference.

     “Attention is not just receptive, but actively creative of the world we inhabit. How we attend makes all the difference to the world we experience. And nowadays in the West we generally attend in a rather unusual way: governed by the narrowly focused, target-driven left hemisphere of the brain.
     Forget everything you thought you knew about the difference between the hemispheres, because it will be largely wrong. It is not what each hemisphere does – they are both involved in everything – but how it does it, that matters. And the prime difference between the brain hemispheres is the manner in which they attend. For reasons of survival we need one hemisphere (in humans & many animals, the left) to pay narrow attention to detail, to grab hold of things we need, while the other, the right, keeps an eye out for everything else. The result is that one hemisphere is good at utilizing the world, the other better at understanding it.
     Absent, present, detached, engaged, alienated, empathic, broad or narrow, sustained or piecemeal, attention has the power to alter whatever it meets. The play of attention can both create and destroy, but it never leaves its object unchanged. How you attend to something – or don’t attend to it – matters a very great deal.
     Because of the way we prioritise the left hemisphere’s take on the world, we have ceased to appreciate the meaning of continuity and flow, instead prioritising discrete chunks of experience we call things. This has serious consequences for how we see our selves as human beings and our relationship with the wider world. … the world in which we live in the West is shaped by a set of beliefs about reality which we know from experience, and feel intuitively, to be almost certainly false. Though the consequences of this are widely deplored, we seem strangely powerless to resist it. We are as if in a trance, whistling a happy tune as we sleepwalk towards the abyss."
     Iain McGilchrist. “The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.” Yale University Press, 2019. (An exceptionally worthwhile read IMHO)

     “It’s just not compatible with the left hemisphere’s view that there could be anything wrong with itself. It has a polished, perfectionist view of what it’s doing. It’s therefore very unwilling to accept the contrary argument. As a society I would say, I believe we exemplify this mentality in our world. 
     In a nice piece of research ... they sent questionnaires to over two thousand executives to see how much they knew about their own industries. Managers in the advertising industry were 90% confident they were correct, but were actually wrong 61% of the time; people in IT 95% confident they were correct, only 20% were right; 99% of them overestimated their success. This is the world we’re now living in. 
     Now how did we get trapped in this worldview of the left hemisphere, which is that of the static, the fixed, the certain, the isolated, in competition with others, a detached, unempathic, unflowing world, which has only one value – that of utility? As opposed to a world in which things are seen as seamlessly interconnected, flowing, never certain, constantly changing, but with which we have a relationship of care. 
     How did we get into this trap? I think there are briefly a few reasons: one is that it gives us power, it makes us powerful, and that is hugely seductive. This is the hemisphere about getting. The left hemisphere controls the right hand with which we grasp; it controls the bits of language (not all of language) the bits with which we define things and pin them down, and say we’ve grasped them – so it’s the grasping part us. That makes us powerful but it’s version of the world is also extremely simple. It’s that it’s made out of bits which can be understood, and then we’ve got there. And all the bits that don’t fit with that are sheared off from the model. And so it’s possible at the end of the day to go, ‘I’ve explained everything,’ because actually you’ve only explained the things you’ve allowed into your model. Another thing is that it’s what I call ‘the Berlusconi of the brain,’ because it’s the one that controls the media. It’s the one that actually does the talking and constructs the arguments, so it’s a piece of cake for it to make its points, whereas it’s quite difficult for the right hemisphere to express things that are subtle, often contradictory and implicit. And I think the fourth reason, at the moment, why we are trapped in this is because we’ve evolved a world out there which reflects the left hemisphere’s world inside. So all around us we have the rigid, lifeless, fixed, represented world which is that of the left hemisphere.”
       Iain McGilchrist @ Schumacher College: Things Are Not What They Seem
      “… we know intuitively that there is a dimension of ourselves and of nature which eludes us because it is too close, too general, and too all-embracing to be singled out as a particular object. This dimension is the ground of all the astonishing forms and experiences of which we are aware. Because we are aware, it cannot be unconscious, although we are not conscious of it – as an external thing. Thus we can give it a name but cannot make any definitive statement about it … 
     Our only way of apprehending it is by watching the processes and patterns of nature, and by the meditative discipline of allowing our minds to become quiet, so as to have vivid awareness of ‘what is’ without verbal comment.

     … seen as a whole, the universe is a harmony or symbiosis of patterns which cannot exist without each other. However, when it is looked at section by section we find conflict.
                       ‘for the world is a shen vessel 
                        and cannot be forced.’
     ‘Shen’ presents problems for the translator... I take it to mean that innate intelligence (or li) of each organism in particular, and of the universe as a whole, which is beyond the reach of calculation."

       Alan Watts. “Tao. The Watercourse Way.” Pantheon Books, 1975.



  1. If we truly love ourselves, in spite of our flaws, then we can love others in spite of theirs ~ Jewels Garden

    1. Biology is pretty potent. When in left-hemisphere-dominant mode, we're out of touch with ourselves, others, other living entities - the big picture in general; when the hemispheres are in healthy balance, we're in a healthy relationship with ourselves, others, etc.

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