Ideas that add up #196

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant, but has forgotten the gift.

Albert Einstein (smart geezer!) quoted in Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Divided Brain‘ on RSA Animate (21/10/2011)

Which is to say that we prize and reward the achievements of rational thinking more than those of intuition, in a self-reinforcing cycle that distances us from where we were and where we want to be. We get the material gains but lose our way. The integers take control. That’s why it’s all out of whack. 

It doesn’t take much to make a happy human. We don’t need heaps of toys, huge houses, fancy cars. We don’t need religion, or malls, or extreme sports. We don’t need fame, or fortune, or even a particularly long life. Some of that’s nice, some of the time. But it’s a distraction. A diversion from the true path. Because all that you need, really need, for a happy human, is a bunch of free stuff. Friendship, community, mother nature. A few children and animals mooching around. Smiles and laughter. A sense of purpose. Plenty of playtime. Fresh air and fresh food – food that no-one has to work too hard to find. And love – not so much for one other person as for life itself, in all its impish, plucky, transient astonishingness.

We had all that, once. Yet we ended up crafting a world in which value attaches less to the stuff that counts and more – much, much more – to the froth. Uncle Albert depicted it in terms of an imbalance between (artificial) reason and (innate) inner sense. Judging by the McGilchrist video-thingy, there’s a further tweak to be made to this picture.

McGilchrist sets the reason/intuition imbalance in the context of a division of labour between the left and right hemispheres of the brain (yes, that old chestnut – updated). The narrowing of focus that enables a hen to peck a grain or a grub from the dirt, is managed from the left brain. That minute object of attention is something that the creature already knows is important to it. In humans, it’s the same capacity we deploy to handle tools and operate mechanical equipment, and also to plan and carry out detailed tasks. For all of us, birds and mammals alike, this ability to concentrate like crazy, when necessary, has a vital survival function.

At the same time, the pecking hen has to expand her awareness to scan the surroundings for danger and opportunity, and this is managed from the right brain. The unknown may also turn out to be important, so she remains alert for background anomalies and possible mental connections. This too is a vital survival skill. In humans it manifests as a disposition for the living world, an openness to variety, a tolerance for uncertainty and an ability to adapt.  

It appears, according to McGilchrist, that in the past few centuries we’ve made for ourselves an emphatically “left-hemisphere world”:

If I had to sum it up I’d say the world of the left hemisphere is dependent on denotative language and abstraction; yields clarity, and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless.

The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, that in the nature of things is never fully graspable, never perfectly known, and to this world it exists in a certain relationship.

The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is however within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but the perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness.

So, the left-brain system for dealing with focussed tasks and inanimate objects, is disproportionately activated by the physical and mental demands of our agricultural, industrial and post-industrial societies. Inevitably, we have come to value the modes of thinking that are most compatible with left-brain mental architecture – those that build understanding through the accumulation of a million tiny sequential tasks. Rational thinking.

Meanwhile, our right-brain capacity for organic, holistic comprehension is devalued and discouraged, squeezed into a corner of the mind. The sacred gift, as Einstein wisely called it, gets forgotten.

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