I am currently working my way through Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary. The theme of this book is the battle between the right and left parts of our brain. Mr McGilchrist thinks that in western civilisation left-brain thinking has become predominant, to the detriment of humanity. And yet, looking at the current state of politics, and Donald Trump’s recent announcement of United States security policy in particular, I am thinking that this a case of being careful what you wish for.
I am somewhat short of halfway through this book. It is an engaging read, but not a fast one. I may not doing him justice in the comments that follow – and when I finish, I will review it properly here. The big idea is this: the human brain, in common with all vertebrates, is split between two hemispheres. The right covers awareness of the world around us; the left focuses on completing tasks. Much of our conscious life amounts to a conversation between these two hemispheres. Mr McGilchrist sees the two hemispheres as rivals competing for domination in our own selves, and in the societies we create. He feels that the right side should dominate, as it is this side that puts things into perspective. But he sees everywhere the dominance of left-brain thinking, and that this is very destructive of what is of real value.
He has a point. The two-hemisphere system is an evolutionary success. That is because management is the marriage of two incompatible skills – those that require general awareness, and those that require detailed attention. The need for this duality is not well understood. The book produces some remarkable quotes from early research into the hemispheres, describing the right hemisphere as weak and nearly useless, which reveals much about prevailing thought. My professional life has been in business management. Almost all the advice and literature on this is a variation on left-brained thinking – the need for focus on key priorities, “SMART” objectives, and general discipline. There is some awareness that success depends on other things: values, creativity and managing risk. And yet there is little realisation that these skills require a different type of approach. Trying to reduce them to the terms of SMART objectives and the like will destroy them. This was dramatically illustrated by the banking industry in the great financial crash ten years ago. Risk management was treated as a technical task, and confined to strait-jacket of mathematical models, with results that were absolutely disastrous. To this day I don’t think this is properly understood by many managers and commentators. There has also been a similar misconception in artificial intelligence, which started off by thinking that left-brain thinking was all that the brain did, and all that needed to be done. Whether AI designers have got the implications of the duality fully on board I don’t know – but they have been making headway.
And yet. In common with most (all?) intellectuals who try to grapple with their emotional and intuitive side, including me, there is something very left-brained about Mr McGilchrist’s presentation. He reasons too much, and he does not question enough. As a result I think he’s missed something big. For all his distinctly partisan advocacy of the right-brain, he is firm that we need both sides of the brain. He is clear about what an excess of left-brain thinking means, but he has not thought enough about what happens with an excess of right brain-thinking. He equates it with a loss of effectiveness, but not much more. But left-brain thought is needed to bond societies together. Without it bad things start to happen.
This should be apparent from the dominant role the left brain plays in language. It should also be apparent from other disciplines where left-brain thinking predominates of necessity: science and the law. Both of these are about finding common ground and agreeing on things. Science is not so much about trying to find the truth about the world around us, but about developing a common body of understanding. That is what an obsession with objective evidence is about. It is trying to find something diverse people can agree on.
The right brain, on the other hand, is very much about subjective, personal experience. It helps form strong bonds between people who are already strongly linked, by place or experience, but generally does the opposite when those links are weak. Indeed nothing bonds, and defines self, like conflict.
Western liberalism is undoubtedly very left-brained, which means it is often bone dry. Think of Barack Obama, once he has stepped beyond his dreamy rhetoric; or the British campaign to Remain in the EU. Liberals are charged with a lack of emotional appeal. But that is almost its central point. Liberals want to bring diverse people together to live in harmony – and that means emphasising the dry and the dull: reason, rules and common ground.
Which brings me to Donald Trump. He stands for a reaction against dry liberalism, and the triumph of right-brain thinking. He is only interested in evidence and logic inasmuch as it supports his prejudices. Everything else is dismissed as “fake”. He relishes conflict with those that are different or who disagree. And this helps him form strong emotional bonds with his own tribe.
Mr Trump’s National Security Policy, announced yesterday, shows us some of what this means. Gone is the common enterprise to make the world a better place. China is not a partner with whom America can forge such a better world, but a rival who seeks to diminish America ‘s share of world resources. Free trade is not way that makes everybody better off, but a potential threat – a way that other countries can rob naive American policymakers. Of course, all of these ideas contain more than a germ of truth. Perhaps it is just another half-full or half-empty proposition. Indeed the BBC describes the policy as “pragmatic”. But right-brained thinking promotes conflict and conflict is sure to make the world a poorer place. For everybody.
The dialogue between the right and left parts of our brains is full of paradox. Left-brained thinking is very self-centred, but it is essential for harmonious living with our neighbours. The right brain sees the world as a whole, but it is one that is dominated by a single viewpoint. It is the tension that these paradoxes produce that makes the duality of our brains so powerful. Which leaves us with a final irony. The left-brained liberals are discovering their right-brained selves. Mr Trump and his ilk are producing a highly emotional reaction. And that reaction will in due course defeat him, allowing a more patient, constructive path to be resumed. The brain only works effectively as a partnership between its two conflicting sides. That should be the moral for our world.