TWO TRIBES

It was back in the 1960’s that Roger Sperry and Joseph Bogen first conducted experiments on stroke patients with severe damage to either brain hemisphere. Perhaps their most fascinating finding was that the right brain has much broader capabilities than the left. When asked to copy a simple drawing of a clock face, patients who were solely dependent on the left hemisphere drew the right-hand side of the clock but completely missed out the left side and its numbers. By contrast, patients who were solely dependent on a healthy right brain drew the whole clock with all of its numbers. While the left hemisphere can only attend to our right side, the right hemisphere can attend to both left and right sides.

Dr. Iain McGilchrist has since explained that this may be rooted in the physiology of the brain. Although the two hemispheres are similar they are actually asymmetrical, containing different configurations of synaptic connectivity. While neurons in the left brain are strongly linked intra-hemispherically, neurons in the right brain are more inter-hemispherically connected, plus have stronger links to our limbic system. In other words, while the right hemisphere is more strongly connected to the other parts of the brain structure, the left hemisphere is more strongly connected to itself. The right brain’s more powerful connections to our senses, plus greater synaptic links to our emotions, may account for its broader focus and outward-looking, contextual orientation, compared to the narrow focus and  inward-looking, self-referring nature of the left hemisphere.

These differences in synaptic connectivity are also consistent with the opposing dualistic versus monistic approaches of each mind. The rather odd, lop-sided synaptic configuration enables us to simultaneously see the world as consisting of polar opposites, whilst also recognizing that the poles are actually connected. In simple terms if we consider any polarity, for example hot and cold, the left hemisphere ‘sees’ these polarities as two distinctly separate taps - one marked hot and the other marked cold. Simultaneously the right hemisphere, while recognizing the polarities, perceives them as if emanating from one single mixer tap, which can deliver hot or cold at either extreme but also countless temperature blends in between. Consequently, the left mind is the seat of our dualism while the right mind processes phenomena as one monistic whole. The relative independence of the left mind also causes it to ‘see’ the right mind as separate and distinct from itself, while, to the more interdependent right mind, the left is simply a complementary part of the same whole to which it belongs - a yang to its yin. While the right mind appreciates the differences between what each mind does, its orientation is towards leveraging the power of their opposite approaches to synthesise both perspectives into one unified and harmonious whole.

As a result, our dualistic left mind is the source of our competitive impulses while our monistic right mind is the source of our desire for co-operation. In any ecosystem, organisms must alternate between competitive and co-operative behaviour to survive, but the two are not equally valuable to either the individual or the collective. A healthy system always requires competition to take place within an overarching spirit of co-operation. Both of our minds ultimately seek to enhance our survival, but they do so by balancing valuable, yet opposite, impulses and it is ultimately the holistic synthesis of their outputs (conducted by the right mind) which optimize our wellbeing. Our left mind protects us by focussing narrowly on ‘me and mine’, while our right mind protects us by recognizing that none of us can live successfully if isolated from an ecosystem to which we are deeply connected. Contrary tendencies towards selfishness or altruism, order or flexibility, individual versus collective freedom and many other such polarities, all therefore vie with one another for our attention. While our competitive left mind perceives all options as opposites in a ‘winner-takes-all’ contest, our co-operative right mind processes options as points on a continuum to be blended. It is the interplay between left and right which maintains a healthy, dynamic stability within our human system. Our wellbeing is optimized when they are harmoniously integrated but, while this is our collective preference in large groups, rarely are we balanced as individuals, instead tending to hold a dominant preference towards one cognitive mode or the other.

Observant readers may detect a clear alignment between the respective approaches of our two minds, with what are generally considered to be ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ lenses on the world. It is certainly no accident that our key political polarities are derived directly from the operating modes of our two hemispheres. The brain is ultimately the source of all human creations and politics is no exception. Those of us with a dominant right mind will instinctively tend towards a more liberal or universalistic outlook, while people with a strong preference for the left mind are more often socially, economically or politically conservative. However, none of us ever thinks exclusively with either hemisphere and we are all capable of using both sides of our brain to reach appropriately nuanced conclusions. This superior quality of thinking does however necessitate a higher level of consciousness, and a willingness to expend the cognitive energy required to achieve a better blend. A degree of intellectual humility is also essential to overcome the effects of the ego, and to create a climate of respect in which co-operative behaviours can supersede our competitive instincts.