Inside the mind of Trump.

World Refugee Day 2018 sees an explosion of controversy over the Trump administration’s incarceration of migrants crossing the Mexican border and the forced separation of families. People worldwide are expressing their revulsion at images of caged children and audio recordings of them crying for their parents. Yet many observers also appear to be unmoved, claiming that the migrants are ‘illegal’ and therefore should be treated like criminals. Within the last 24 hours a female news reporter has broken down live on screen, unable to even report such stories, while a male commentator has been widely criticised for mocking a 10-year-old with Downs Syndrome who was separated from her mother. How is such diversity of perspective possible? The answer lies in the modus operandi of the human mind.

Our brains work by leveraging the mutual independence, but interdependence, of the two hemispheres to benefit from the contradictions they create. In its simplest expression, the left mind focusses narrowly while our right mind takes a much broader outlook and this is an evolutionary mechanism designed to help us survive. With a narrow focus we enhance our chances of finding food, while with a simultaneous wide focus we also reduce the likelihood of us becoming prey. Each mind produces a very different view of the world but, via the integration of opposites, we make sense of what we experience. Healthy, balanced thinking requires the blending of opposing cognitive impulses and it’s the failure to mix them appropriately which is the root cause of perspectival ‘extremism’.

Our right mind is more strongly connected to the real outer world plus the limbic source of our emotions, while the left mind is responsible for our inner world of abstract mental models. While both our minds ‘process’ human beings, the broader focus of our right mind perceives that we are all members of multiple groups which are ultimately nested within one global human community. Our right mind makes no hierarchical distinction between individuals, considering them all to be of equal value, but it ultimately gives primacy to the group over the individual. Our left mind also perceives individuals and groups but takes a narrower focus, prioritizing the individual over the group, and its categorizing function always distinguishes between groups. Its automatic homogenization within groups and polarization between groups, exaggerates the similarities of those in the same group and the differences between individuals in different groups. Groups are also automatically prioritized with in-groups always taking precedence over out-groups. 

The two minds therefore take a radically different approach to concepts such as freedom and justice. Both minds place great value on individual freedom but each has a unique lens on the matter. For the left mind, with its narrower focus and primacy of the individual, freedom is the right to be left alone with minimal interference from any outside group. The right mind, with its wider lens and deeper links to emotions such as empathy, more powerfully perceives the relationships between people so considers that individual freedom can only be achieved within an ecosystem which offers relative equality for everyone. From its broader perspective, the wellbeing of the individual is interdependent with the health of the whole ecosystem, while the left mind’s primary interest is in protecting us and those closest to us. So, with this as its priority, it is automatically more self-centred than the right mind. Its narrower focus prioritises the interests of ‘me and mine’ over the interests of others, while its natural categorization and lower empathy means that people, beyond those it knows personally, exist less as unique entities and more as faceless members of homogenous groups.

In short, while our left mind prioritizes personal freedom for those in our in-groups, our right mind wants freedom for everyone. This is a crucial distinction and makes sense of the United States’ decision to withdraw from the UN’s Human Rights Council. There is clear alignment between the respective approaches of our two hemispheres with our conservative versus liberal lenses on the world, and it is no accident that our key political polarities are derived directly from the operating modes of our minds. Our brain is ultimately the source of all human creations and politics is no exception.

The peculiar perspectives of the left and right mind are similarly reflected in their approach to justice. In the left mind, reductionism automatically offers separation as our favoured solution for ‘criminal’ behaviour, so incarceration (which ensures a physical barrier between a ‘me and mine’ and the undesirable ‘other’) is the logical solution. The left mind doesn’t see out-group members as individual mothers, fathers or children but as a homogenous group marked ‘refugees’, so it has no qualms about denying personal freedom to such faceless collectives. Lacking in empathy, the left mind genuinely does so without feeling guilty because, from its dualistic perspective, such categories of ‘bad’ people threaten the rights of ‘good’ people and it is perfectly legitimate to deny them the freedoms we demand for ourselves, to maintain collective order for the majority. Naturally, the ‘majority’ tends to correlate strongly with our in-groups. Conversely, the integrative right mind seeks to create harmony through unification, so is instinctively co-operative in comparison with the competitive left mind. The right mind therefore believes that empathy and love are more valuable tools than force and separation, in ordering society.

Global society is currently experiencing a titanic battle for dominance between the left and right minds. The left brain/right wing impulses of Trump’s administration, the UK’s ‘Brexiteers’ and the Italian Interior Minister’s call for a census of the Roma population are dialectic responses to the increasing liberalisation of global society. An unfettered left mind will invariably lead to the disintegration of human communities worldwide and result in further violence and suffering. Only the synthesising qualities of the right mind are capable of elevating human consciousness to the level required for the harmonious integration of our species. Which path will we take?