by John Ward
Have you ever thought that Barbra Streisand is unhinged on many levels? That when politicians say their enemies “just don’t get it”, sometimes they may be scientifically correct? An accelerating speed of discovery about our brains and their various bits is starting to explain a lot about how Homo “sapiens” is going wrong.
It’s always very dangerous to try and apply a scientific codification to humanity, but I’m going to make an exception to the rule today. As David Hockney says, “Before you break the rules, it’s important to learn them thoroughly. Otherwise, you break them for no good reason”. So I have two good reasons for breaking this rule: first, it’s to do with the study of neuroscience/anatomy, which is by definition directly Homo sapiens related; and second, the media coverage of current events is so completely lacking in any original and documented approach to the question, “Why do people in public life act like robots and think like statues?” it’s as well to grab anything useful that floats by.
What just floated by my lifeboat is something way beyond ‘useful’. I have a contact in Spain to thank for this, who has pointed me at the ideas of one Dr Iain McGilchrist.
Brain experts have known for some time that rigid adherence to the pop-science idea of ‘Left brain rational/Right brain emotional’ as a form of separation is empirically unjustified, as in highly inaccurate. But rather than being like most builders I’ve had (knock everything down and then disappear) McGilchrist points out not just how and why the old ideas are wrong; he shows what the more accurate scientific findings can tell us about applied social anthropology in general, and the limitations of policy-makers in particular.
It’s important to record this kind of stuff, because it highlights the difference between narrow IQ and eclectic wisdom. (The addiction of Hillary Clinton and Harriet Harman to disproven behaviourist theories about gender and sexuality applies here)
Let’s start with why the corpus callosum exists – that is, the collection of nerve fibres that keep our two brain hemispheres in constant touch during the waking hours. These channels of communication exist to receive what the one hemisphere has to say, and then transmit to it (if necessary) a “think again” alert.
The analogy of dual control in a driving school car is not a bad way to think about this. Damage to the corpus callosum is an ever-present sign in Alzheimers patients….and common in cases of schizophrenia. It helps to explain the delusional behaviour of those suffering such conditions….because the Left hemisphere can’t text the Right one to say “this is a surreal idea, stop it”. As McGilchrist puts it, “it is a primary function of each hemisphere to inhibit the ill-considered responses of the other one”.
Hold that thought (with whatever hemisphere best suits you) and bear with me while I summarise what the real division of responsibilities between Left & Right brains is.
When my Dad presented with dementia, it struck me quite early on that, while he couldn’t remember my name, if I said, “You father, me son” his face would light up, and he’d say, “Yes, that’s right”. This shows that he had more serious damage in the Left hemisphere than the Right….and/or, he could no longer grasp the relationship between the precise/specific and the implicit/general….due to erosion of the corpus callosum.
But looking now at the different ‘talents’ of each hemisphere, I find myself raising some ugly (yet highly plausible) hypotheses about élite failures in contemporary business, politics and government.
The overall suggestion I’d make is that – as with all things anatomical – nerve fibres, connections, accidental damage, genetic faults (and thus balance in such matters) are going to vary by individual personality. And these will, in turn, produce particular talents and tendencies across the entire field of human endeavour. Such could mean everything from unexpected bonuses to untold social, military and ecological damage.
Let me offer a few specific, contemporary examples.
Observe the established features of the Left brain, and imagine a group of people with strong access to them, but some dodgy nerve-fibres making their access to the Right brain below normal. I would say that gives an excellent pen picture of a climate-change extremist, a neoliberal globalist, a Labour /Democratic Party activist, and/or a diehard EU Remainer….in fact, the archetypal bureaucrat-cum-ideologue.
It also sums up a helluva lot of military officers, diplomats, doctors and surgeons with whom I’ve done battle.
Now consider the bias when reversed to give genetically high access to the Right, but with comparatively feeble access to the Left. Here I think you get a reasonable picture of the cartoon show-business celebrity or movie-star who gets behind every worthy cause, but struggles to see the difference between a pacifist and a jihadist: all empathy but zero precision. It would also describe many students I knew when younger (including me), most social workers, and the less talented end of advertising creative people.
Now think about how the Left-brainer ideologues can easily outwit and influence the Right-brainer fluffies. Think the Clintons, think Democrats….or in reverse, think Trump, think blue-collar Republicans.
Perhaps worse still, think about the changed role of education in our cultures today, and the strong bias toward what is deemed “correct” rather than questioning orthodoxy. We know (following the fall of Ceausescu in Romania and the work done with neglected care-home children) that younger brains use plasticity growth to affirm those new behaviours they have been taught. Are our young electors maturing with an inbuilt bias towards acceptance of what the Establishment says?
What McGilchrist dramatises wonderfully in this presentation raises so many intriguing, optimistic and horrifying possibilities, a short blogpost isn’t really doing the subject justice. He points out, for example, that only humans have frontal lobes to the brain adding elements of socialised inhibition to stop violence and abuse…..most tellingly allowing us to outwit enemies peacefully, compete safely, and cooperate successfully – if we use them in the correct balance. Bankers (to take one example) show a higher tendency to features of frontal lobe syndrome – where genetics or damage have removed the inhibitions. As a former carer for someone suffering from this, let me tell you it is not amusing. But it does explain a lot of bank failures.
Most controversially of all, however, it does raise two conclusions that should worry everyone who has an “ideal” Left/Right balance:
- It suggests that both neoliberalism and socialism are nothing more or less than bad science.
- It suggests that the Giga-Rich, Alt Staters, many political leaders and not a few celebs are extremely damaged human beings.
We probably guessed those conclusions anyway. But it is nevertheless both satisfying and concerning to have the at least partly confirmed by science.