How a Design Perspective Integrates the Left-Brain/Right-Brain Dichotomy
Is it possible that the entire apparatus of the modern industrialized world has been built on a flawed use of the brain? In particular, might the modern West be overly dependent on the left hemisphere of the brain at the expense of the right?
That is one of the intriguing theses put forward in the documentary The Divided Brain, produced by Matter of Fact Media and available to rent or purchase through Vimeo.
The film is based on the work of Dr. Iain McGilchrist, an Oxford fellow in psychiatry. McGilchrist has achieved the feat—increasingly rare in today’s academic environment—of becoming a specialist in an array of separate disciplines, including neurology, art, social history, and literary criticism. In the course of his studies, Dr. McGilchrist has become convinced that the pathologies of our modern age can be traced to an over-dependence on the left part of the brain.
The left hemisphere of the brain powers the functions for the right side of our body (right hand, right foot, etc.). It is also the source for logical thinking and sharply focused attention to detail. The left brain uses analysis to manipulate and control the world. It excels at classifying things and making distinctions. If dominant, as in people with autism, it is reductionistic. By contrast the right hemisphere of the brain powers the left half of our body, and approaches the world through the lens of imagination, emotion, intuition, and metaphor. The right hemisphere of the brain is open-minded, and is adroit at perceiving things in context. The two parts of the brain connect with each other through the corpus callosum, a bundle of nerve fibers beneath the cerebral cortex in the brain. Although there are many myths associated with the left-brain / right-brain concept, the basic distinction is well established in the field of neurology.
The argument in The Divided Brain is that the various crises facing the modern world—political, economic, social, spiritual, and environmental—have their roots in over-reliance on the left-brain. The documentary argues that we have built the type of society we would expect from people with right hemisphere brain damage—a society over-reliant on linear-thinking, calculation, and attention to detail, often at the expense of more holistic methods of engagement.
It is hard to dispute this diagnosis of the modern situation. As more of life’s functions are outsourced to computer code, and as our mastery over nature unfolds along the lines of a sterile utilitarianism, our society is resembling the type of environment someone with right-hemisphere brain damage might design. But while The Divided Brain, makes a compelling case for the problem, the solution presented in the film is less than convincing, given the lack of a design framework.
Is the Left Brain Bad?
The solution offered in the documentary is not always clear. Sometimes the film suggests that the answer lies in better integration between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. But elsewhere the film presents a more radical view, namely that the left brain has a particular outlook on the world that is false. Based on this more radical position, there are a number of scenes suggesting that the left brain is actually bad. For example, we hear scary music while the left brain is being discussed, but peaceful music and colorful scenes when the narrator is describing the right brain. As the film progresses, it takes a doomsday turn, showing examples from history where over-dependence on the left brain led to the collapse of different civilizations.
If, as the film seems to advocate, we were to construct a society based on right-brain dominated behavior, what might this look like? We glimpse an answer to this questions towards the end of the film when Dr. McGilchrist interviews a Native American who shares how a right-brain approach can underscore the animist worldview of ancient paganism, where there is no final distinction between humans and rocks, or between animate and inanimate objects. Freed from the left brain’s obsession with finding differences and making distinctions, a right-brain-society can achieve a more holistic worldview based on the oneness of all things. This, they suggest, is the type of worldview we need, even though it is antithetical to the type of approach the left brain wants us to adopt.
Confusing and Inconsistent
It is not always clear what the film is trying to suggest. If the messaging were simply that the left brain offers an outlook on the world that is false when disconnected from the modulating influences of the right, then while this is true, the same could also be said of the right brain when considered in isolation from the left. Yet the film never critiques the cultural or historical excesses that have emerged from excessive right-brain dependence. In fact, in numerous places, the film seems to suggest that disconnection between the two hemispheres is actually good as long as that disconnection privileges the right. For example, at one point in the film, a lady with left-brain damage is interviewed, saying how her experience of the world has become “wonderful” following the destruction of her left brain.
Once this left-brain-bad/right-brain-good antithesis is set up, the messaging of the film shifts in its identification of the problem. It leaves behind the thesis presented in the first half of the documentary, namely that the problem is insufficient integration between left and right hemispheres. Instead, it begins suggesting that the problem is the left brain itself, including its false outlook on life.
Ultimately, this means that the film-makers are simultaneously arguing for two incompatible positions. On the one hand, they want to be able to say that the problem with the modern world is lack of integration between the two hemispheres of the brains—a kind of institutionalized over-reliance on the left-brain without the modulating influences of the right. But on the other hand, they collude with the very disconnection they eschew insofar as they set up the left and right brains in opposition to each other, with the left being our enemy, the source of a false outlook on the world, and the barrier to the freedom offered by the brain’s right hemisphere. This opposition between the two hemispheres is presupposed in the tagline for the documentary: “The film one half of your brain doesn’t want you to see.”
Useful Yet False?
This left-brain-bad approach makes sense, given the lack of any design perspective from the narrative of the documentary.
According to evolutionary theory, there are many false beliefs about the world that emerged because they were useful to our species’ survival. One example that is often used is the idea that porcupines can shoot their quills. Though porcupines cannot shoot their quills, the belief that they can has utility value in terms of survival, since it helped humans keep their distance from these dangerous creatures.
The makers of The Divided Brain seem to want us to understand the left brain in the same way. They suggest that originally humans did not have a left brain, which only emerged out of the human need for survival. During our race’s primitive struggle to survive, the left brain helped us achieve mastery over nature. Accordingly, the left brain offers a perspective on the world that is useful but not necessarily accurate. Dr. McGilchrist adds to this in his TedTalk by emphasizing that the very division of the brain was something that occurred over the course of evolution, based entirely on survival needs.
There is a kind of cold logic to this reasoning that C.S. Lewis discussed in the second chapter of his book Miracles. Lewis argued that if our brains are the result of unguided processes that occurred randomly over millions of years, then to the degree that such processes are ultimately irrational, there is no reason to think that the basic structure that finally emerged is suited to perceiving truth, nor that the human brain is particularly customized for accurately perceiving the world. After all, the ideas and thoughts that may be useful for survival may not necessarily correspond to truth, as in the porcupine example above. Bereft of any design framework, we might easily suppose that there are certain flaws in the final structure of the human brain, including perhaps the flaw suggested in this documentary, namely that the left-brain has an outlook on the world that is false.
But let’s see how a design perspective can reframe this debate, and move us toward a more positive appreciation for the left brain as part of God’s good creation.
A Design Perspective on Left-Brain / Right-Brain
In the Genesis creation account, God’s creative activity is manifest in his creation of numerous divisions. God divided the light from darkness (Gen. 1:4). He divided the waters under the firmament from the waters above the firmament (1:7). He divided the day from the night (1:14). And finally, God divided the human race into male and female (2:18-21). Each of these divisions formed a complementarity that is part of the creation God declared to be very good (1:31).
Though the left-brain/right-brain binary is not specifically mentioned in Genesis, it is not hard to understand the brain’s two-fold structure in light of the other bifurcations mentioned in the text. Like the male-female complementarity, the left-brain and right brain were designed to work in harmony to provide us with an accurate understanding of the world.
Among the tasks given to mankind in the creation narrative are taking dominion of the earth, naming and classifying, child-rearing and nurture. While all these tasks entail both hemispheres of the brain, some more involve the functions of the left hemisphere or the right, just as some tasks are more suited for women and others for men.
When sin entered the picture, we find that some temptations appeal to the left-brain and some to the right-brain. For example, the first temptation appealed to Eve’s aesthetic sense (a predominantly right brain activity) when she saw that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “pleasant to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Left-brain temptations can be seen in the tendency–so apparent in the chapters of Genesis leading up to the flood–to treat people like objects to be used, sorted, and exploited.
To say that the left brain has an outlook on the world that is false is only correct if we are talking about the left brain isolated from the modulating influences of the right. However, that observation does not justify the conclusions of The Divided Brain since the same could be said of the right brain when disconnected from the mediating influences of the left. Both parts of the brain need to work in tandem, which is the function of the corpus callosum.
While The Divided Brain does seem to sometimes diagnose the problem as a lack of sufficient integration between the two hemispheres, the film is not consistent since it also argues that we need to mute the left-brain for a more intensified right-brain approach — thus assenting to the very disconnection it claims to lament. Dr. McGilchrist seems to collude with this very division in his TedTalk when he refers to the left hemisphere as a “closed system” that is ultimately “empty.” Well certainly, if the left brain is cut off from the right brain, we can accurately refer to it as a “closed system,” but we might say the same of the right brain when cut off from the left.
Ironically, the binaries, simplistic classifications, and false dilemmas presented in The Divided Brain are symptoms of an excessively left-brain approach bereft of the modulating influences of the right. The documentary offers the type of theory we might expect from someone with right-brain damage: missing the bigger picture in its eagerness to over-classify our world, ourselves, and our problems. It offers a rather simplistic diagnosis of our cultural pathologies only to miss the bigger picture. (This irony has not been missed by the neuroscientist Raymond Tallis when he reviewed McGilchrist's work last year.)
Were we to actually embrace the type of right-brain utopia suggested by The Divided Brain, it could lead to a type of neo-romanticism, a primitivism in which there are no distinctions, no borders, no differentiations between truth and falsehood, or between man and woman. Does that sound familiar? I would actually argue that the culprit in many of our modern pathologies is not the left brain or the right brain, but lack of sufficient integration between them, leading to a culture simultaneously characterized by both right-brain excesses and left-brain excesses.
Overall, The Divided Brain is an intriguing film, and worth watching for all the interesting information presented about the brain. But we encourage our readers to watch the film with discernment, and to interpret the information through the lens of a design perspective. From a design perspective, we can understand that the twofold structure of the brain is not simply the result of our survival needs, but a loving outgrowth of God's creative activity in giving us a world—and a brain—in which all parts harmoniously interact.Robin Phillips
has a Master’s in Historical Theology from King’s College London and a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is the blog and media managing editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a regular contributor to Touchstone and Salvo. He has worked as a ghost-writer, in addition to writing for a variety of publications, including the Colson Center, World Magazine, and The Symbolic World. Phillips is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches (Ancient Faith, 2020), and Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (Ancient Faith, 2023). He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/the-divided-brain