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Insight Cascades, pt. 3 — Hemispheres

Published: 2022-10-03

You shouldn't listen to the left hemisphere of your brain, except when it comes to your daily bread.

You may be familiar with the pop-psychology caricature where the right side of the brain is the creative and emotional one, and the left hemisphere the one in charge of logical thinking. Forget all of that.

Medical studies of brain structure indicate that it’s not about which realms each side controls, but how they approach things: the right hemisphere figures out the whole, the left hemisphere provides precision on specific issues.

Here’s a video of psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist talking about it:

The right hemisphere of the brain can include observations of the left side in its insights, but the left side cannot see what the right one is doing. The left hemisphere controls language, but it cannot grasp metaphors or jokes. The left hemisphere lies, the right one does not. The right hemisphere is connected to the world, the left one abstracts it.

The right brain is not necessarily virtuous, but the left cannot be. It’s too focused on the detail, the execution.

A bird needs focus to find an edible seed among the pebbles. It also needs an overall sense of the environment to know when to fly away to avoid being eaten.

The left hemisphere sees fragments, atoms, decontextualized and static things, abstracted, mechanistic, simplified. The right hemisphere sees a constantly moving picture in its proper context. It perceives the bits in between that make something rich and living.

Yet without the narrow focus of the left hemisphere, one cannot have useful categories of things.

We need both.

Rigor alone is paralytic death, but imagination alone is insanity.

Gregory Bateson, Mind and Nature

We’re good at standing back from the world, mapping and modeling it. Yet confusing the models for reality has caused many of the world’s great failures. On an individual level, it’s impossible to figure out your life before you live it.

Looking back, I realize that the unhappiest times of my life were characterized by an overreliance on verbalized logic and rational thinking, as I curtly dismissed any internal signals I couldn’t explain and reason about. Perhaps the mere existence of these posts is a symptom of the same kind of need to find words for things, but at the very least these ideas and frameworks have enabled me to better grasp the kinds of signals that come from within.

Again, the purpose is not to start operating by vibes only, but to complement the narrow focus with a wider context. We don’t need to know why something works to be able to tell it works. Learning the why is a great next step.

I highly recommend McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary for a thorough exploration of these themes. A newer one called The Matter With Things looks even more promising in terms of increasing our understanding of the world.

An ideal model could be to experience the world with the right hemisphere, send leftward for processing, then back to the right for synthesis and context.

Blindly following reason over intuition leads to behavior often accompanying mental disorders. Modern societies are imbalanced in this way.

We can also go back a couple of thousand years to find similar insights.

CC BY-NC 4.0 Kasper Viita