Friday, March 9, 2012

Divided Brain, Broken World: How the War in Our Heads is Destroying Our Planet

There's a great deal of interest now in neuroplasticity (the brain's ability to grow and change) and particularly in restoring the processes and values of the right brain to every area of life. There are many ways to do this, including meditation, active engagement in the arts, spiritual practice, exercise -- especially yoga/tai chi/qigong, good nutrition, adequate sleep, and loving. In my current series of blog posts, I'm exploring the impact of story on the brain. The first article (January 2012, gave an overview of how story integrates the brain; this post brings clarity to the problem of the divided brain; and the third will look at story structure, the dramatic arc, and metaphor as gateways to right brain perception.

The evidence of decline is everywhere and growing:
~ A recent Washington Post article told of a creative, highly motivating young teacher who was fired because the tests scores of her mostly inner city students were too low;
~ Gifted and creative students stifled and channeled into unfulfilling professional careers instead of the ones for which they were meant;
~ Growing addiction to virtual reality at the cost of intimate relationships;
~ Increased incidence of depression and bipolar disorder;
~ Increasing materialism accompanied by inner emptiness;
~ Environmental destruction;
~ Loss of opportunities to engage in dialogue with people and groups who disagree on issues, reflected in paralyzing divisiveness and partisanship at all levels of government, economic, and community life;
~ Media narratives that rely on glib sound bites, highlight conflict, and ignore ambiguity, resulting in intensified demonization of the different "others," and a pervasive paranoia;
~ Most alarmingly, endless and now renewed threat of war.

This is the reality we humans have created for ourselves and all other living beings on this planet. And it's a pure reflection of the wildly controlling, and out-of-control, left brain, according to British psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. (McGilchrist gives a 10-minute summation of his thesis, with illustrations, at TED Talks.)

The right and left sides of the brain tell vastly different stories about reality. Each has its own values and priorities, its own logic and language. Although the left hemisphere is commonly thought of as the seat of language and rationality and the right as the center of creativity, in fact both are essential to creativity and each has its own logic. The difference is not in what they do, but in how they do it, according to McGilchrist. Most simply, the left brain gives narrow, intense focus while the right enables a global awareness of context and patterns.

McGilchrist describes balanced functioning of the brain in a chicken pecking for seeds in a patch of pebbles: its left brain is focused on finding the seeds among the stones; while its right brain is focused on other possibilities and predators. The left brain defines its territory; its right brain is ready to move to another.

As different as they are, the two hemispheres are meant to collaborate. Without the right brain, life is a dry husk of an existence, barren and joyless, strangled in structures that have no intrinsic meaning. Without the organizing power of the left hemisphere, the right brain is a dream state without end, disorganized absorption of sensory data, the nightmare of schizophrenia.

Throughout human history, in small tribal communities, through the arts and ritual, and living in nature, the two hemispheres of the brain were in dialogue. However, with the growth of science, industry, urbanization, and technology over the last three hundred years, the controlling left brain began to take over, marginalizing and devaluing the parts of life that rose out of the non-competitive right brain.

The result, as McGilchrist describes it, is a world reflecting the story the left brain wants to tell -- not the whole story of existence. This leaves us caught in an agonizing paradox: we search for happiness and find emptiness; yearn for freedom yet are trapped within a web of regulations, hierarchies, and material expectations; we strive for creativity but are stifled by judgment; long for intimacy, connectedness, and warmth but are addicted to technology.

The good news: the brain is not formed early in life, but is “plastic," able to adjust, modify, and regenerate for most of human life. It’s the core of our resilience in fact -– a trait needed more than ever in these unstable times. We can learn how to change and regenerate the brain, and as a result the world.

But what are we really talking about when we talk about the divided brain? I'm going to be very left-brained and offer you a grossly oversimplified map and narrative tour of the brain.

1. The left hemisphere tells a story of control and power. It's the part of the brain responsible for the structures and thought processes of basic survival and civilized society. Think bourgeois village, tract housing development, cubicled offices -- the standard built environments through which we move, the verbal and written languages we use to communicate, the focus we bring to work and love. It's the part of the brain we use when we're engaged in analytic and logical thinking, concentrate on precise details, create plans, articulate feelings and thoughts verbally in meaningful sequence, measure the results of our efforts. The left brain moves from the parts to the whole, arranging the pieces in a logical order, and drawing conclusions from the process.

The left brain has been successful in establishing its dominance because it shuts out what it doesn't know and its ability to simplify and categorize lends itself to framing public debates and media narratives. Next time a sound bite captures your attention, it's someone else's left brain communicating with yours.

The strength is the problem: left brain awareness is a closed system reflecting only itself, like a hall of mirrors, and cuts off all routes of escape, such as those found in ritual, art, spirituality, and nature. The result is a world that is increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, and meaningless - a world on the path to ruin.

2. The right hemisphere encompasses everything else -- nature in all its magnificence and chaos, the unconscious, the senses, imagination, and intuition. it's also connected to compassion. The right brain is the gateway to the limbic region of the brain, which holds our ability to attach to others. It's the realm of context and meaning. Right brain consciousness rises from the well of Oneness, the ground of existence, what many experience as God. It's by means of the right brain that we create metaphor, find meaning in experience, and gain access to our interior life. Through right brain consciousness, we feel our experience and understand it within a greater reality. The right brain also holds the ability to rejuvenate and heal. In fact, Dr. Dan Siegel, a neuropsychiatrist, says that healing is the restoration of the right brain.

The strength of the right brain -- its visual and metaphorical genius, its ability to see patterns and ambiguity -- is also its weakness in the face of left brain dominance. It speaks the language of metaphor rather than the language of debate; it works more slowly than the left and its awareness is both more global and more diffuse, making its contributions seemingly less effective in the fast-moving public arena.

3. At the bottom of a deep indentation separating the two hemispheres is a small sheath of fibers called the corpus callosum. The function of this organ is ambiguous: it both divides and connects the two sides of the brain. The corpus callosum transfers motor, sensory, and cognitive information between the brain hemispheres and is involved in several functions of the body, including eye movement and maintaining a balance between attention and arousal. With evolutionary changes, this organ has become larger and more dense; it seems to be functioning increasingly as a separator and less as a transmitter of information.

4. At the front tip of both hemispheres is the prefrontal cortex (in blue), the newest part of the brain, and the one area of the brain that distinguishes humans from other animals. Very simply, the function of the prefrontal cortex is to step back, inhibit impulses from the limbic regions of the brain to which it is attached, evaluate, and make choices. McGhilchrist describes two basic abilities residing in the prefrontal cortex: first, to manipulate the outer world and second, to sense the inner reality of another. It's the neural "decider": shall we act only in our own perceived self-interest (nudged on by the voice of the left brain) or shall we act from a foundation of compassion and the good of all (the urgings from the right)?

The prefrontal cortex gives human beings the capacity to be witness to our own experience, as well as to imagine a different and better reality. In other words, this is the story brain, which takes information coming in from all parts of the brain and creates a coherent narrative that drives action. In this epoch of left-brain domination, the prevailing narratives being spun by the world frontal cortex are separatist, fear-based, and filled with trauma -- past, present, and future. With a restored ability to "see whole," the concrete realism of left brain story could be integrated with the greater vision of the right.

The brain has gone through massive evolutionary change at different times throughout human history -- always related to how humans told their story. In recorded history, the left hemisphere began to take over when people made the leap from being oral creatures to becoming literate ones, when someone took a stick and made the first crude markings on stone. The left brain continued to strengthen with the advent of the printing press, with the Enlightenment, with the increased use of science to define experience, and finally with the growth of technology. We're at another evolutionary leap with the global connectivity offered by the internet. And we see everywhere the beginnings of a pendulum swing back to left and right hemisphere balance.

The question is, will it happen in time?


In the next and last article in this series, I’ll look at the structure, characters, and settings of story as a metaphorical journey toward integration of the two hemispheres, and why all people need to become storytellers as well as listeners before it's too late to tell a new story.

By Juliet Bruce, Ph.D. All rights reserved.