Iain McGilchrist brings us up to date on our divided brain in his book The Master and His Emissary.
He tells us that the left hemisphere's point of view is simplistic, fragmented, linear, two-dimensional, decontextualized, abstract, disembodied, inanimate. It focuses on pieces, parts in its job of getting us what we want.
The right hemisphere deals in understanding, it looks for meaning, seeing context, wholes, the big picture. It is responsible for our sense of beauty, poetry, music and the richness of life.
The right brain is the Master, who moderates and makes sense of the piecemeal, reductionistic approach, of His Emissary, the left brain: Do I really want a second piece of cake? Do I need to win this argument?
We, along with animals as basic as fish, have this divided, asymmetrical brain because we must perform two radically different mental functions. On one side, we must manipulate the world with our directed intention. We need focus. On the other side, we must consider what is beyond our current awareness, be open to learning something new, to revising our priorities. The grazing gazelle must keep alert to potential dangers.
Last Monday, I attended an open house at Villas Xichu, a new account of mine. Gloria, the "mother" of that private park, asked me to come a little earlier than I had intended. When I did, I found things less ready than I thought they would be. A real team player, I jumped right in, starting with helping the artist Miktlan set up his exhibit. After an hour, guests began to arrive, most invited by the publicity I had published for the event.
Villas Xichu's grounds are enormous. The attendance was sparse. Feeling personally responsible for the guests' experience, it fell to me to give them tours. This I proudly did, showing them through the interior of a villa or two. The view on opening the street door to the orchard/vegetable garden, a two-acre, rural space, alongside the main compound, really is a knock-out.
Being good at chatting it up, and having such a wonderful subject, I enjoyed myself immensely. As I was releasing one group, sending them off to explore the exhibits and grounds, I would attract some newcomers, calling out, "Tours. Tours."
My pleasure was heightened, because among these guests I discovered some fans of my writing; one fellow enthusiastically informing me "I don't read much else, but I read your articles every week."
Here is an email I received the next day:
Thank you for the tour today. Villas Xichu is gorgeous. The owner has excellent vision, taste and execution. It was a pleasure to see it.
Still, as much fun as it was, after three, non-stop hours, I was hungry. Wandering up towards the main entrance, I saw that crocks of food had been brought out and that the saleswoman from Sindashi was already eating.
Pressed for time, with guests still arriving, I walked over and asked the Mexican woman on the other side of the service table what she had in the crocks. She informed me. Then I informed her what I would like. Instead of complying, she hesitated and said something about needing to call someone from the nearby kitchen.
I was still in work mode, moving fast internally, hyper-focused. My left brain saw the food, a piece of life that I wanted. At that moment, I neither knew nor cared what issue concerned the young woman on the other side of the service table. I told her that I could serve myself, and I did. Taking just rice, beans, nopales and tortillas, not the mole main courses, because I'm largely vegetarian, I was sure that I wasn't depriving anyone else in doing so.
I heard later, from Gloria, that the server was upset. When she told me that the team at Villas Xichu are like family, all precious pearls, I apologized. Mulling it over the next day, I concluded that the server's dilemma had only been whether to charge me as a guest or to feed me for free as a worker.
But that was the next day. At the moment, after finishing my rice and beans, as a member of the team, I went back to work. I invited two guests, who had paid for their moles and eaten beside me, on a tour.
That episode is an example of the left brain-right brain dichotomy. There, hungry before the serving table, I did lose sight of the bigger picture. I was simplistic, fragmented, linear, two-dimensional, decontextualized, focused on getting what I wanted. I should have been more aware of the whole, the big picture, more open to what I did not know as a new member of the team there at Villas Xichu.
McGilchrist brings other examples. In fact, he blames our society's disintegration on our having become over-reliant on the fragmented, getting-what-I-want view of the left hemisphere and the loss of meaning associated with the right.
It does appear that we are suffering a fascism of the left brain. This would account for our disintegrated, piecemeal approach to the problems confronting us, including Covid. It's not that the science is wrong. It's that we have the wrong approach to science.
"There is no way we can talk about physics except in the language of poetry."
"Religions talk in terms of metaphors, parables and myths because that is the only way in which certain profound truths can be conveyed."
The profound truths that are revealed by beauty, music and poetry, along with meaning and understanding themselves, are denigrated. It is chic to insist that nothing exists beyond dumb matter, that purpose is a fairy-tale we tell ourselves. Post-modernism insists that life is only a war of all against all.
We know that people with meaning in their lives live longer and healthier. We know that without purpose, people are often depressed and suicidal.
Nor is significance or meaning only some fairy tale that we invent to make the randomness of life less horrible. Scientists now recognize purpose in the universe itself. Existence is biophilic and noophilic, tending towards the production of life and intelligence.
Mexican culture is right-brained, holistic, inclusive, full of courtesy and context, making it hard to get things done. Mexicans always begin their email with a salutation, "Good afternoon, I hope you are very well..." Looking for new salutations, so as not to repeat yourself when you are exchanging a series of emails can get awkward.
North of the border they get right to the point. However, focused on the point, over-reliant on the left brain, we extranjeros miss the big picture. If we are being honest, we know that Mexican culture sees life more fully, more richly, than does ours.
McGilchrist says that our brains are always evolving. After listening to hours of him speaking on Youtube, I think mine has. I feel more able to invoke, to conjure up my right hemisphere; to take a step back, and up, from my particular concern and ask how it fits into my larger goals.
The hemispheres need to work together. Most great mathematical and scientific insights, including Einstein's Relativity, are profoundly indebted to imagination and intuition.
The Master sends out His Emissary, who returns with information. The Master evaluates this information and then sends out His Emissary, again.