Thinking about Thinking

Our ability to think is something we all take for granted yet rarely do we ever think about our thinking. We just, well, think. How much better might the world be if more people stopped to think about the quality of their thoughts before allowing them to manifest in damaging actions?. We all have two brain hemispheres which process everything we experience in directly opposite ways. Our left hemisphere takes a narrow focus while the right hemisphere pays broad attention and there are good evolutionary reasons for this modus operandi, dating back to when we were hunter-gatherers. In summary we need a narrow focus to find our source of food, while simultaneously scanning our environment to avoid falling prey to larger creatures. This simple, dual mechanism evolved to aid our survival and, while most of us no longer have to escape from lions on the African savannah, it still drives our thinking and everything we consequently create. The narrowly-focussed left mind is the source of all our conservative impulses, while our liberal instincts arise from the bigger picture perspective of our right mind. Our thinking is ultimately the net effect of these contrary cognitive modes and must be consciously blended to ensure high quality output. We might ponder the logic of an adversarial political system which effectively pitches one brain hemisphere against the other and be a little less surprised at the inability of Parliament to work across parties for the good of us all.

Evolution also designed our brains to be lazy (again conserving energy to aid our survival) so we often leap to conclusions and fail to check our unconscious impulses, leading to imbalanced considerations and polarized attitudes. In The Master and His Emissary Dr. Iain McGilchrist provides powerful evidence that it is primarily through our right mind that we engage with the outer world, via its stronger connections to our senses and the limbic source of our emotions. Through the ‘real world’ experiences of our right mind, we prioritise living organisms over inanimate objects, feel emotions such as empathy and are attuned to the fluid inter-relationships between organisms. This provides the holistic outlook which underpins all of our universalistic or liberal impulses. However, the real world also provides a sensory overload which is too complex for us to cope with, so our left mind decontextualizes what the right mind offers, literally re-cognizing its experiences to assess them against abstract schematic structures of associative memory. Core to this function is categorization, our energy-efficient method of making associations at the collective rather than the individual level. This enables us to process categories such as ‘cars’ ‘cats’ or ‘Muslims’ without having to deal with the energy-depleting nuance of individual, ‘real world’ vehicles, felines or people of Islamic faith. We couldn’t function without this brilliant process but it does mean that our left mind is relatively detached from reality and unemotional in its processing of phenomena, which can become a problem when those phenomena are people. When we categorize we automatically homogenize everyone in a group – assuming them to be more alike than they actually are – and we also polarize between groups – assuming them to be more different than in reality. Our left mind also creates hierarchies, prioritizing those groups of which we are a member, so ‘me and mine’ takes precedence over the ‘other’.

On its own our left mind is therefore the source of the narrow self-interest we all show from time to time, which must be moderated by empathy for others and our ability to see the bigger picture. On its own the right mind can be oversensitive and emotional, requiring calm, reasoned consideration to counteract its impulsiveness. The uncaring conservative narcissist and the bleeding-hearted liberal snowflake aren’t merely caricatures, but the authentically polarized outputs of inappropriately blended thinking. We all have two brain hemispheres, no-one thinks with only one and we are all perfectly capable of balanced, whole-brain thinking. However, we often do develop a preference which our lazy brains allow to become amplified when we fail to apply the moderation of the opposite mode. Political extremism, on both sides of the debate, is simply the outer-world expression of a brain hemisphere insufficiently stabilized by its partner.

Critically, it is our right hemisphere which provides the essential third-phase blending function (right-left-right) and to achieve balanced cognition we require access to a higher level of consciousness. The big challenge for human beings is therefore “how do we elevate our consciousness and re-establish the right hemisphere as our dominant cultural influence?”. Only by enacting solutions to this question will we have a realistic chance of building societies in which respect for the individual and tolerance of pluralism co-exist, and in which healthy competition takes place within an overarching spirit of mutual co-operation. This is the critical challenge facing global humanity and one which must be tackled by people of all political hues, but particularly those on the liberal left who already have a head start over their conservative counterparts. There is no single ‘silver-bullet’ solution but adopting an organic worldview, practising meditation, enhancing our creativity and increasing the influence of women are just some of the practical steps we can take.