I'm fascinated by the human brain. It's a mini-universe. A mini-universe that is me. So what I'm fascinated by is the same entity that is doing the fascinating, which is to say...me.
Go figure. I can't.
There's no way I can get outside of my brain and look upon it objectively. Nobody can, not even supposedly elevated mystics and meditators. Show me someone without a working brain and you're showing me someone dead.
However, neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other scientifically-minded students of the human brain know a lot about its structure and functions. I've read quite a few books about the brain written by people expert in modern neuroscience.
But the book I'm reading now is appealingly different.
It was recommended in a comment on one of my posts. Whoever did so, thank you (I've forgotten who you are) because I'm really enjoying "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World."
Iain McGilchrist, the author, is described as an "experienced psychiatrist and a shrewd philosopher."
After reading just 60 pages of the 462 page book (plus lots of footnotes) I can tell that McGilchrist indeed knows his neuroscientific stuff, is an excellent writer, and has the ability to interpret brain research in a strikingly fresh fashion.
Right away I was struck by the author's repeated references to Western World. Since brains don't differ in humans (so far as I know, at least), why should the West have been affected differently than the East by the divided brain?
I don't know if McGilchrist will address this question, but he does spend eight pages in the back of the book talking about What we could learn from Oriental culture. Which is, basically, to not let the abstractions created by the left hemisphere of the brain overwhelm the concreteness of the right hemisphere.
The pattern of psychological differences between Oriental people and Westerners suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the hemispheres. It is striking, for example, that the Japanese language does not have an established method for composing abstract nouns, and has no definite or indefinite articles, considered to be a crucial step in the emergence of abstract nouns in Greek.
The Japanese have nothing that corresponds to the Platonic Idea, and in fact no abstractions in general: they have never developed the dichotomy between the phenomenological world and the world of ideas. Nakamura writes:
The Japanese are willing to accept the phenomenal world as Absolute because of their disposition to lay a greater emphasis upon intuitive sensible concrete events, rather than upon universals. This way of thinking with emphasis upon the fluid, arresting character of observed events regards the phenomenal world itself as Absolute and rejects the recognition of anything existing over [and above] the phenomenal world.
The sharp dichotomy in our culture between the ways of being of the two hemispheres, which began in Ancient Greece, does not appear to exist, or, at any rate, to exist in the same way, in Oriental culture: their experience of the world is still effectively grounded in that of the right hemisphere.
I'm learning, though, that both hemispheres normally are involved in just about everything the brain does. So when people say "I'm a left brain person" (or a right brain person), this isn't literally true. It's the division of labor between the hemispheres that's key, not an absolute distinction between them.
McGilchrist has a lot to say about how the divided brain relates to the divisions we sense in both the world outside and inside of us. I've only scratched the surface of what is in his fascinating book.
But here's one insight I've gotten from what I've read so far that fits with a recent post: "Oneness" is an abstraction. "Manyness" is reality.
Often people look upon the right side of the brain as being the spiritual side, all intuitive, holistic, big picture'ish. That's sort of true, yet also largely false -- if "spiritual" is taken to refer to an other-worldly realm.
As noted in the passage above referring to how Japanese people view reality, a main mission of the right hemisphere is tuning in to concrete here-and-now'ness. Nature, in other words. Not abstractions like "God," "soul," "spirit," "morality," "love," and such.
These notions are the province of the left hemisphere. In this section McGilchrist points to how left-brained religious belief is:
The right hemisphere prioritises whatever actually is, and what concerns us. It prefers existing things, real scenes and stimuli that can be made sense of in terms of the lived world, whatever it is that has meaning and value for us as human beings. It is more able to assimilate information from the environment without automatically responding to it, and, posssibly as a result, the developing right hemisphere is more sensitive to environmental influences.
At the same time the left hemisphere is more at home dealing with distorted, non-realistic, fantastic -- ultimately artificial -- images. This may be because they invite analysis by parts, rather than as a whole. But it does appear that the left hemisphere has a positive bias towards whatever is bizarre, meaningless or non-existent, though the data here are particularly hard to interpret because most studies have not sufficiently distinguished confounding elements.
...The left hemisphere, because its thinking is decontextualised, tends toward slavish following of the internal logic of the situation, even if this is in contravention of everything experience tells us.
...The left hemisphere can only re-present, but the right hemisphere, for its part, can only give again what 'presences'. This is close to the core of what differentiates the hemispheres... Abstraction is necessary if the left hemisphere is to re-present the world
... The right hemisphere deals preferentially with actually existing things, as they are encountered in the real world.
Both hemispheres of the brain are vitally important. But we need to recognize when the left brain, through its re-presenting, is leading us astray from the real world.
That's what religions, spiritual practices, and mystical paths do when they aren't focused on how life is actually lived, but veer off into those distorted, non-realistic, fantastic, artificial images McGilchrist spoke of in the passage above.
Then we get divided off from reality, because of the left-hemisphere dominance of our divided brains.
c'est moi. you're welcome.
and thanks for reviewing it, since i haven't read it myself, having more positive reviews makes it more likely i'll actually read it someday. :-)
Posted by: sgl | September 01, 2012 at 08:56 PM