Neuroscientist argues the left side of our brains have taken over our minds

Neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist argues that Western society has become too dominated by the left hemisphere of our brains — obsessed with data and sorting things into categories. Meanwhile, the right hemisphere of our brains which understand relationships and context has been sidelined.

'We behave like people who have right hemisphere damage,' says Iain McGilchrist

Dr. Iain McGilchrist argues that many of the problems our society faces stem from the fact that the left hemisphere of our brains has come to dominate our minds and lives. (Matter of Fact Media Inc.)

*Originally published on October 22, 2021.

Science has long known that the human brain has a left and right hemisphere. The conventional wisdom has been that the left hemisphere is the seat of logic, language, and advanced cognition — the things we need to make a living and make a life in our day-to-day lives. 

The right hemisphere, meanwhile, is where our more creative, artistic, and intuitive lives reside.

But Scottish psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist argues evidence shows the right and left hemispheres actually amount to two brains. The right and left brains perform the same basic functions, but in very different ways. How we interpret and experience the world depends on whether those two brains are working in balance, or whether one is dominant or damaged. That, in turn, shapes the world we live in.

"The two hemispheres have styles — takes, if you like, on the world. They see things differently. They prioritize different things. They have different values," said McGilchrist in The Divided Brain, a television documentary adapted for IDEAS and now streaming on CBC Gem.

"The left hemisphere's goal is to enable us to manipulate things, whereas the goal of the right hemisphere is to relate to things and understand them as a whole. Two ways of thinking that are both needed, but are fundamentally at the same time incompatible."

Monty Python’s John Cleese (right) tells Iain McGilchrist how he came to realize that the right side of his brain made him a great comic actor and writer, in the documentary The Divided Brain. (Matter of Fact Media Inc.)

McGilchrist's widely-read book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, makes the case that the left hemisphere has taken over our minds and reshaped the world in its image in a way that is good for neither humans nor the planet and everything that lives on it.

"A way of thinking which is reductive, mechanistic has taken us over," said McGilchrist in The Divided Brain. "We behave like people who have right hemisphere damage.

"[It] treats the world as a simple resource to be exploited. It's made us enormously powerful. It's enabled us to become wealthy, but it's also meant that we've lost the means to understand the world, to make sense of it, to feel satisfaction and fulfilment through our place in the world."

The left brain pays sharply focused attention to detail and sorts and organizes people and things into neat, orderly categories.

But McGilchrist says the left brain doesn't understand relationships. It's the right brain that understands context and the big picture — our relationships with others and how we fit into a complex, non-linear world in which everything is connected. 
Einstein said that the rational mind is a faithful servant, but the intuitive mind is a precious gift, and we live in a world that has honoured the servant but has forgotten the gift.- Iain McGilchrist

Reaction to McGilchrist's ideas range from enthusiastic or intrigued to dubious or dismissive, but his theories are getting traction — most notably his contention that the most intractable problems of the modern world, from climate change to political polarization, result in large part from an imbalance between the left and right brains.

"Einstein said that the rational mind is a faithful servant, but the intuitive mind is a precious gift, and we live in a world that has honoured the servant but has forgotten the gift."

Other guests in this episode:

Rowan Williams is a former Archbishop of Canterbury.
John Cleese is a comedian, actor, and former member of Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Onur Gunturkun is a neuroscientist at Ruhr University Buchum.
Michael Gazzaniga is a neuroscientist at University of California, Santa Barbara.
Jonathan Rowson is a philosopher, author and chess grandmaster.
Jurg Kesserling is Head of the Department of Neurology and Neurorehabilitation at Rehabilitation Centre at Valens, Switzerland.
Peter Rajsingh is a political scientist at New York University.
Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist, author and public speaker.
Colwyn Trevarthen is Professor Emeritus of Child Psychology and Psychobiology at University of Edinburgh.
Guy Claxton is a visiting professor at Kings College, London.
Joseph Henrich is professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.
Leroy Little Bear is Professor Emeritus at the University of Lethbridge.

* This episode was produced by Chris Wodskou.

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