How our brain’s anatomy has been quietly shaping modern culture

If I am right, that the story of the Western world is one of increasing left hemisphere domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.’
Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary

I was overdue for reading ‘A Whole New Mind’ by Daniel Pink. It really is a gem of a book for those of us who want to let the light into this world — lofty eh? The book is about how the last few decades have mostly belonged to a certain type of person with a certain type of mind(set): techies churning out code, tax attorneys crunching numbers, management consultants typing reports, and financiers blithely fiddling with the global economy as if it were their very own investment portfolio; you get the idea! The ‘knowledge workers’, as dubbed by the famed Peter Drucker, are ‘‘people who get paid for putting to work what one learns in school rather than for their physical strength or manual skill.’’ What sets them apart from the rest of the workforce, is their ‘‘ability to acquire and apply theoretical and analytic knowledge’’, Drucker wrote. They might never become a majority, but they nonetheless ‘‘will give the emerging knowledge society its character, its leadership, its social profile.’’ Drucker, had once more, hit the nail on its head, for the mind(set) and worldview of the ‘knowledge worker’ indeed seems to have dominated much of the cultural spirit, workplace dynamics, and social contours of our times. For roughly a century, the usual suspects of Western society have favoured a mental take on life trademarked by these knowledge workers, whose ‘glowing’ academic and professional credentials are being deployed to manipulate information and set the pace for contemporary culture.

But that’s (hopefully) changing and the change might just be taking place inside our skulls. We’ve long known that our brains are actually divided into two hemispheres and in the last 10 odd years, advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI), have demonstrated how each side divides responsibilities. I like to think of it as our mind’s division of labour. The left hemisphere endorsed by the ‘knowledge workers’ is ‘logical’ (whatever that means!), sequential and analytical, whereas the right is emotionally expressive, nonlinear, perceptive, and integrative — distinctions exhaustively caricatured by popular psychology and managerial discourse through the proverbial right vs. left brain-thinking divide. — And, of course, we summon both halves of our brains for even the dullest of activities. But the inherent cerebral differences between the two hemispheres of the brain breed a compelling metaphor for grasping our present and steering our future. Today, the defining skills of the previous era, i.e., the Information Age — the ‘left-brain’ capabilities employed by a certain breed of ‘knowledge worker’ — are essential but no longer sufficient. Because the Information Age has given way to the ‘Conceptual Age’ and the capacities we once disdained or thought frivolous — the ‘right-brain’ qualities of creativeness, emotional intelligence and meaning — increasingly will determine who thrives and who flounders. In other words, moving forward, we will require, as Dan Pink eloquently puts it, ‘‘a whole new mind.’’ And the anatomy of our brains, offers a rather zealous metaphor for how we make decisions and the ways in which those decisions then shape our world in profound ways.

A similarly shrewd metaphor is attempted by Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, in which the author takes a stab at outlining a more promising line of argument, dissecting the relation between our two brain hemispheres in a new light, not just from a neurological perspective but as a crucial shaping factor in our culture. McGilchrist challenges trite stereotypes about the dominance of the left hemisphere, dubiously known to be the voice of reason and logic, while the right pretty much sits there all gooey and warm, reading romance novels. And his book gives the subject a different if somewhat nifty slant because ‘‘the route from brain to behaviour is mediated by phenomenology and values.” We’re literally of two minds!

Have you ever had the feeling that the world is acutely out of sync in ways you cannot quite fathom? Have you thought of the neglect of arts and humanities over science and business as being somewhat shortsighted and unmerited? With equal parts intelligence and insight, McGilchrist explores what he sees as the essential hubris of our age — the left and right hemispheres of our brains have fundamentally incompatible worldviews and the author suspects that the reflective implications of this divide have been quietly shaping Western culture. The untold story of our times is “about how the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured left hemisphere has gradually usurped the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic, but relatively tentative and inarticulate right hemisphere, in a way that the left hemisphere is gradually colonising our experience.” That’s not a biological statement about our left hemisphere getting bigger or denser or better attuned to its right counterpart but instead a philosophical claim — what McGilchrist suggests, is that the left hemisphere’s “way of being is more culturally contagious than the way of being of the right hemisphere.” The idea is that, for the past few decades, our educational system and workplace cultures have implicitly and rather explicitly persuaded us, that it is the left hemisphere’s way of thinking that is more ‘accurate’ and better attuned to the realities of our times. And so, gradually this perspective has moulded our culture in such a way that our culture started to respond to it as the prevalent one. All the while, pretty much everyone (including myself) has -without fail- been nodding along. But how did we get here in the first place?

We’ve known for quite some time that our brains are wired as to enable us to perceive our world in “two quite distinct, complementary but ultimately incompatible ways.” We also know that to function, both parts must work harmoniously together. But, the worldview of each of these parts isn’t equally merited. The right hemisphere makes one of these worldviews possible and without it I wouldn’t be able to make this argument — not coherently at least! — That’s because ‘the right’ is able to pull in more information and interpret it holistically — in a sense, ‘the right’ sees things more comprehensively and acutely and supplies the contextual and reflective meaning to the things we perceive. To wit: (as those left-brain lawyers say) we summon our left hemisphere to make sense of and manipulate the world and the right hemisphere to give meaning to our experience and recognise how each part relates to another as well as appreciate our relationship with the system as a whole. So, the two hemispheres differ in what they perceive, but also how they perceive it; that is, what they make of the reality they create from their perceptions.

The left part has a narrow focus and is keen on getting certainty. It’s a typical know-it-all and would never bear to admit ignorance. It’s so stubborn that it would rather fabricate a story than seem uninformed. But, in reality it only sees bits and pieces of the puzzle of life, which it then tries to dutifully put together to complete the puzzle. Though ultimately, it is unable to do so on its own because ‘the left’ disregards context and reduces things down to their simplest common denominator, which robs them of meaning. And without meaning, the puzzle’s left unsolved. “The left focuses on detail at the expense of the bigger picture and on procedures rather than meaning.” The left is our stubborn bureaucratic partner and the argument here is that the left’s bureaucratic take on the world has slowly but surely become the dominant worldview of Western culture. The left’s obsession with forming a set of logical propositions and with reductionism seems to have proven quite efficient in “using the world as if it were another resource to further our plans”, McGilchrist writes. And it seems we have constructed a world in which our left utilitarian logic reigns supreme, but is this logic necessarily the wiser of the two? Have we collectively bought in to the belief that the right hemisphere’s preoccupation with interpreting sentiment, discerning answers and perceiving holistically “is lovely but a side dish to the main course of intelligence(?) What distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to reason analytically. That’s what makes us unique. And paying too much attention to those artsyfartsy, touchy-feely elements will eventually dumb us down and screw us up.

Practical examples of how the left’s worldview has been warily tinkering with the world include the 2008 financial meltdown. The belief that algorithms can predict human behaviour was naively pervasive among financiers, which led them to disregard the complexity and unpredictability of human nature and overlook (often purposely) the importance of trust — trust can’t be reduced to an algorithm; it’s by nature a very human faculty. Similarly, we can observe the workings of the ‘bureaucratic mind’ in everyday organisational micromanagement (or mismanagement) which, fuelled by the relentless obsession with the ‘bottom line’, belittles and kills creativity and innovation in arts and sciences and ensures predictability, mediocrity, and sameness. Consider also, the so-called SAT-ocracy in the US: for any middle-class American to get their first leg up the land of ‘knowledge work’, they need to work hard to pass a slew of tests, all essentially measuring what we commonly refer to as left-brain aptitudes. Just look at the similarity of the last two initials of these ‘aptitude tests’: There’s the PSAT, the GMAT, SAT, LSAT and MCAT. Dan Pink, author of ‘A Whole New Mind’ says of these tests: “they require logic and analysis and reward test-takers for zeroing in, computer-like on a single correct answer. The exercise is linear, sequential and bounded by time.” And these tests have become the tollbooths for entry into the ‘good life’ — the one that promises a good batch of prestige and conveniently satisfies many of your material and other yearnings, only leaving you craving for more, and more, and then some, until it risks deadening your capacity for true and lasting fulfilment.

Here’s the kicker: most ‘advanced’ nations are still spending ample time and resources to produce an army of ‘left-brained knowledge workers’ whose capacity for creative thinking and meaning-making, counts little to the road to career success. Instead, it seems, we’ve developed a chronic compulsion with ‘objective’ knowledge that enables us to manipulate data and ultimately the world. It’s according to Dan Pink, “a definition of success spelled MBA” — (Boring!) And surely, this understanding has somehow worked up until now, imperfections aside. But, the ‘left-brain’ abilities and worldview this arrangement encourages and cultivates, are no longer sufficient if we are to adequately address the complex challenges we now face.

Today, we’ve moved away from the logical and linear capabilities that were crucial in fuelling and shaping the Information Age. And so, today’s economy and culture must also be moulded by a different mental toolkit. Moving forward in the ‘Conceptual Age’, means that demand for abilities like emotional intelligence, empathy, big-picture thinking, imagination and at times, even smidgens of utile irreverence, will (I hope) usurp demand for the logical, reductionist and bureaucratic mind that has so far been quietly shaping 21st century culture. And that the so-called ‘right-brain thinking’ will increasingly determine who flourishes and who’s left behind, intellectually malnourished and unfit. We need to collectively muster our mental powers of reflection in order to tackle the complex adaptive challenges of contemporary life and we need to be educated on how a certain outlook on the brain might enlighten our attempts to adapt to the realities of our age and re-engineer our culture.

But, to be clear, this is not another exaltation of feeling at the expense of ‘rationality’ and of a vision of a world in which poets in Porsches are fervently tugging at our heartstrings, while trained economists are pouring us cold ones at our local boozers. However tempting it is to talk of the left vs. right brain divide and to position the two brain hemispheres as the opposing halves of a bad marriage, they are actually two half-brains meant to work in concert as a single, integrated system - in fact, neither part of the brain can pull it off without the other - The left part knows about ‘logic’ and the right knows about the world. Put the two together and you get a lean mean thinking machine! Use them in isolation and the result can be sketchy if not somewhat absurd!

In other words, leading a wholesome and fulfilling life depends on properly utilising both hemispheres of the brain. But the contrast in how the two parts operate, offers a formidable metaphor for how we choose to navigate our lives. While the MBAs and engineers of this world might have a knack for computer-like logic, sequence, speed, precision, and reductionism, others perceive and do things in ways that are more unstructured, instinctive, emotionally expressive, and holistic. The latter tend to become artists, inventors, narrators, social workers and intellectual beachcombers of sorts. And their individual dispositions then shape our personalities, families, educational systems, workplaces, and ultimately our culture in profound ways. The future belongs to this second group of people who is of this different mindset, slightly tilted towards the right — emotionally intelligent executives, big-picture thinkers, innovators, designers and storytellers will now be in charge of addressing the rich challenges of our times by embracing a whole new worldview and by creating a space in which the mind can flourish without shoving the soul aside.