Sometimes you hear, "He's a left brain person" or "Creativity comes from the right brain."
Neuroscience is a lot more complicated than that, but it's still fascinating to read descriptions of the specialized functions in the two sides of the brain.
Such as Michael Gazzaniga's "Spheres of Influence" in the June/July issue of Scientific American Mind. He describes research on split-brain patients where the major connection between the two hemispheres, the corpus collusum, is severed in order to treat intractable epilepsy.
This allowed Gazzaniga and his collegues to study how the two hemispheres dealt with a problem that has a lot of relevance to religion.
We have subjects try to guess which of two events will happen next: Will it be a red light or a green light? Each event has a different probability of occurrence (for example, a red light appears 75 percent of the time, and a green 25 percent of the time), but the order of occurrence of the events is entirely random.
There are two strategies that can be used here.
Frequency matching involves guessing red 75 percent of the time and green 25 percent. But since you don't know what color is coming up next, there's a high propensity for error that lowers the success rate below 75 percent.
It turns out that maximizing is a better strategy. Here you simply guess red every time, which ensures an accuracy rate of 75 percent -- since that is how frequently red appears.
Animals such as rats and goldfish maximize. The "house" in Las Vegas maximizes. Humans, on the other hand, match. The result is that nonhuman animals perform better than humans in this task.
Use of this suboptimal strategy by people has been attributed to a propensity to try to find patterns in sequences of events even when they are told the sequences are random.
That's what the left brain does: try to produce order out of perceptions. It analyzes, makes stories out of sequences of events, comes up with elaborate hypotheses.
Just like religion.
"Miracles" are woven out of the cloth of rarely observed, but entirely natural, phenomena. Destiny or karma is fashioned by interpreting everyday events in an other-worldly fashion. Instead of simply seeing things as they are, left-brain religiosity makes a whole lot more out of them than is actually there.
By going beyond simply observing events to asking why they happened, a brain can cope with such events more effectively should they happen again. In doing so, however, the process of elaborating (story-making) has a deleterious effect on the accuracy of perceptual recognition, as it does with verbal and visual material. Accuracy remains high in the right hemisphere, however, because it does not engage in these interpretative processes.
We need both sides of our brains. Each hemisphere has its own role to play in producing a unified consciousness of reality.
It's important to keep in mind, though, what is happening in our minds when we look at simple things in a complicated left-brain way.
An Indian man in a turban giving a talk on a stage becomes God in human form, divinely inspired. In similar fashion, a Catholic elected to a high office by his peers comes to be seen as infallible in certain circumstances.
The right brain just sees. The left brain sees and then makes up a story about it.
Sometimes that is useful. But not when there's no substance behind the story -- just a desire to tell tales.