You can make a pretty strong case for saying that the human brain is the most complex object in the entire universe. It contains 100 billion nerve cells (called neurones). Each of these neurones contains a vast electrochemical complex and powerful micro-data-processing system. As complex as each cell is it would fit on the head of a pin! And in spite of all the research in the last century there is much we still do not understand.
Someone who has thought about this a lot is Iain McGilchrist. He is a psychiatrist, doctor, writer and former Oxford literary scholar. (We were also contemporaries at medical school in Southampton in the 1980s, but our paths did not often cross). In this fascinating animated 11 minute lecture from the Royal Society of Arts McGilchrist explains the main themes from his book, “The Master and His Emissary”. It is about the functioning of the human brain. His in depth training in both the arts and sciences makes him uniquely qualified to write on this subject.
McGilchrist has produced a huge masterpiece, and this article and video can only give a simple broad overview. However, one of his key points is that the implications of brain science are highly significant in understanding the development of Western culture.
The main focus of discussion is around the two cerebral hemispheres. By carefully reviewing over 50 years of brain research McGilchrist explains how a simplistic understanding of the left side being just concerned with, for example, reason and language and the right side just with emotion and visual imagery is too simplistic. Both sides of the brain have elements of these abilities, but it is also true that there is a significantly greater emphais of function on one side compared to the other. The purpose of the corpus callosum that connects the two sides of the brain is to inhibit the over emphais of one side of the brain. However, the corpus callosum has been shown to have got less influential over time and the left hemisphere has become in our day and age much more dominant.
Why does this matter?
The left side of the brain looks at the world in a logical, linear and literal manner. It uses language to define, categorise and manipulate the world in a fixed, static, isolated and uniform nature that left unbalanced and unchecked leads to conformity, deadness and emptiness.
In contrast the right side of the brain tends to emphasise the general over the specific; looks at the inter-connectedness of everything and is always open to new possibilities and options.
The problem that arises, according to McGilchrist is that because of the overemphasis of the left side of the brain, we have lost our overall perspective on what in life really matters. Examples include:
A widespread push to pursue personal happiness and pleasure, leading to great unhappiness and dramatic increases in mental illness.
A desire for greater freedom and autonomy, but limitations by greater bureaucracy, monitoring and complicated rules.
An explosion of available information, but a relative lack of wisdom on how to synthesise and interpret it in a meaningful way.
McGilchrist is keen to emphasise that he is not saying one side of the brain is better than the other. Both are necessary, but what has happened is that we have got so focussed on rationality and explanation, we have lost the big picture of what life is really all about. Or quoting Einstein, “The intuitive mind is a sacred mind and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” However, modern society has by and large placed greater emphasis on the servant and in doing so forgotten the gift.
Another interview with McGilchrist that unpacks this in a more conversational way is here.
For more on what a right brain view of the world might look like see: