“If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural. If we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous… There are two equally dangerous extremes: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”
The organ that is all about making connections inside of us, our brain, is profoundly divided. But if we focus on this detail — on the “whatness” of it — as we might be tempted to do, we will miss the knowledge and implications of it — or its “howness.”
To innovate, we need to shed some light into the nature of our thinking. This alone is a very good (and some may argue necessary) reason why understanding the forces at play can keep us in the game over the long haul.
Contemporary arguments debunk the myth that creativity resides in one hemisphere and rationality in the other. Because we think we know, we we stopped looking. But that doesn't mean there aren't important distinctions in the role each hemisphere plays in our lives. It's the things we don't know we don't know that will get us. It's a fascinating topic and it calls us to patiently revisit some assumptions based upon oversimplification.
Renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist says the divided nature of our brain has profoundly altered human behavior, culture, and society. In The Master and His Emissary, he says we now know that every type of function —including reason, emotion, language, and imagery— is subserved not by one hemisphere alone, but by both.
Both hemispheres, it is now clear, can deal with either kind of material, words or images, in different ways. Subsequent attempts to decide which set of functions are segregated in which hemisphere have mainly been discarded, piece after piece of evidence suggesting that every identifiable human activity is actually served at some level by both hemispheres. There is, apparently, vast redundancy. Enthusiasm for finding the key to hemisphere differences has waned, and it is no longer respectable for a neuroscientist to hypothesise on the subject.
This is hardly surprising, given the set of beliefs about the differences between the hemispheres which has passed into the popular consciousness. These beliefs could, without much violence to the facts, be characterised as versions of the idea that the left hemisphere is somehow gritty, rational, realistic but dull, and the right hemisphere airy-fairy and impressionistic, but creative and exciting;
In reality, both hemispheres are crucially involved in reason, just as they are in language; both hemispheres play their part in creativity. Perhaps the most absurd of these popular misconceptions is that the left hemisphere, hard-nosed and logical, is somehow male, and the right hemisphere, dreamy and sensitive, is somehow female.
If there is any evidence that could begin to associate each sex with a single cerebral hemisphere in this way, it tends to indicate, if anything, the reverse – but that is another story and one that I will not attempt to deal with in this book. Discouraged by this kind of popular travesty, neuroscience has returned to the necessary and unimpeachable business of amassing findings, and has largely given up the attempt to make sense of the findings, once amassed, in any larger context.
He then sets out to illustrate how the way in which each hemisphere uses its different function, and to what end, that matters. The relationship between the two hemispheres is where things get interesting.
Nonetheless it does not seem to me likely that the ways in which the hemispheres differ are simply random, dictated by purely contingent factors such as the need for space, or the utility of dividing labour, implying that it would work just as well if the various specific brain activities were swapped around between hemispheres as room dictates.
Fortunately, I am not alone in this. Despite the recognition that the idea has been hijacked by everyone from management trainers to advertising copywriters, a number of the most knowledgeable people in the field have been unable to escape the conclusion that there is something profound here that requires explanation.
Many world renown neuroscientists have come to see the involvement of both hemispheres in everything we do, but also to appreciate the differences in roles.
McGilchrist believes there is a world of difference between the two and his work related to understanding what's involved took him through a multidisciplinary study of apparently unrelated ares like neurology and psychology, but also philosophy, literature and art, and even, to some extent, archaeology and anthropology to make his case in The Master and His Emissary.
He says, the left hemisphere has an emphasis on doing, on things mechanistic, it can only see static, isolated things, explicit things, and things it knows. Though unaware of its dependence, we could think of the left hemisphere as an ’emissary’ of the right hemisphere. The world of the left hemisphere is fixed, decontextualized, and characterized by denotative language where abstraction yields clarity.
The right hemisphere by contrast yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, incarnate, living beings within the context of the living world never perfectly known. It is the Master. It gets process, metaphor, the interconnected nature of things, and implicit knowledge. Wholeness and conceptual thinking, but also to grasp things we will never fully know, are the responsibility to the right hemisphere.
Research bares this distinction —the left hemisphere is good at dealing with specifics, tools, and machines, while the right hemisphere gets the depth of natural experience and the embodied world. Impaired function in either one results in an incomplete version of the world. To understand how the two relate, we can look at the role of attention in determining the context of our lives.
Our reality changes based on the amount of attention we put on it. Conversely, what we find in the world changes how we see things. It's a self-reinforcing loop.
For example, when we use just the left hemisphere, we control the media, we look to stay self-consistent. The more we do so, the more we are trapped into the self-reinforcing loop. What we don't know can come back to bite us. Which is why we need to recognize our ignorance to stop sabotaging ourselves.
Innovation is a process that begins when external pressure or internal decay disturbs the relation between a community and its context or environment, a relationship maintained by some convention. Which is why it's a good idea to involve the ever vigilant right hemisphere whose job is to constantly scan what goes on, whatever that might be, to stay open to change —whether negative or danger or positive— so we can respond appropriately to it.
Without the right hemisphere we have a drive to optimizing what is known; we have perfection, says McGilchrist, but emptiness due to complete self-reference.
The relationship between the two hemispheres —the one that can know things, and the one that is forever in flux— happens in the corpus callosum. This is where things come together. One of the main, if not the main functions of the corpus callosum is to inhibit. 35% of the brain's frontal lobe function is to inhibit, to help us stand back in time and space.
We rarely recognize innovation while it’s happening. Instead, innovation is often a label applied after the fact, when the results are clear and the new convention has become established.Which is where being removed from things a little helps us recognize what is going on.
We can use this function to be Machiavellian, to hold ourselves back long enough to read our opponent's mind and outwit them. For example, we can be second to market and get enough things right to prevail over the innovators like Facebook did after Friendster. So along with context and quality, timing makes a big difference.
But that is not the only benefit we get from distancing ourselves in time and space.
Being somewhat removed from things is what gives us the profoundly human gift of empathy. Distance helps us empathize with someone else. The distance from the world is necessary. When we're right up against it, we just bite. Standing back allows us to see better, to appreciate what is going on.
To make decisions, we need an oversimplified version of reality, we need maps. It's no good to have every single little detail. We need just enough specifics and reference points within a broader understanding of direction and environment.
But it would be a mistake to think that one hemisphere is better at imagination and the other is just for reason. We need both hemisphere for imagination and both for reason. The nature of the two worlds as described offer two versions of our world, which we obviously combine in different ways all the time.
What happens when we prioritize the virtual over the real?
Our left brain, particularly in the West, is very vocal and convincing. There is also a hall of mirrors going on —the more we get trapped into this, the more we undercut the situations and evidence that doesn't reflect back what we already know. Reason is important. However, we do need to see the big picture, to return to a broader context.
McGilchrist suggests that the drive to language was not principally to do with communication or thought, but manipulation, the main aim of the left hemisphere, which manipulates the right hand. Which is why we are better served —and serve our human capacity to hold ourselves to the space and time between things— when we engage in conversation between implicit and explicit, when we bring the world of the possible closer to what is possible for us.
As Einstein said, “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” It looks like we've created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. Like the two hemispheres need to co-operate, so we need the broader understanding that comes from purpose, from aligning values with value that we can get back the ability to think creatively.
Innovation is the process of putting new ideas into practice. it requires creativity for the doing part, but initiates and benefits tremendously from imagination, which is the primary gift of human consciousness. Conversation is a way to bring the gift of our intuitive mind back.
[illustrations via RSA animate]