The reasons why we have to halves of the brain are still a mystery.
It is clear that one half cannot be without the other. Experiments have shown that severing the “corpus callosum”, the part of the brain that connects the two, leads to chaotic consequences, among them a complete inability to make decisions.
For a long time, researchers believed that our left brain was responsible for analytic thinking, while the right was more about feeling. That theory proved to be too simplistic.
In his widely praised book “The Master and His Emissary – The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World”, the British writer and psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist draws the theory that it is the right half that is in charge.
According to McGilchrist, the right brain sees the world as a whole and establishes the connection to the outside world. The left half breaks things down into its details, takes them apart and analyses them, only to return the analysis to the right half which then integrates it into actual experience.
Psychologically speaking, one might say the the left half approaches life from a cognitive view, while the right focuses on experience. While the left side is elemental in language skills, the right is decyphering metaphors, humor and the implicit. Both perspectives are integral for psychological progress, and one cannot exist without the other.
McGilchrist then develops the plain science of the brain further and applies it to how it parallels the development of Western society. During crucial times of human advancement like the Renaissance or the period of Enlightenment, he writes, the brains halves were integrated and in harmony.
But as soon as regressive periods like the Middle Ages set in, the left brain took over. Even our postmodern age, McGilchrist argues, is dominated by numbers and materialistic thinking. The current economic and financial crisis, with its emphasis on digits and algorithms, is mostly focused on the abstract and too detached from the real word with its imperfections and inconsistencies.
While the author has plenty of critics in the world of science, his theory adds just another perspective to the field of consciousness research. Here, the current thinking seems to strive for an integration of the symbolic, metaphorical world into the tangible, material world.
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Last reviewed: 27 Jun 2013