The Divided Brain in the Western World

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Here is a fascinating look at the development of the brain and its implications for the making of the Western world, as we know it. We know that the brain must have much to answer for in our development, but here, presented by renowned psychiatrist, writer and lecturer, Iain McGilchrist, we have a possible window to seeing just how much.

His theory is hung on the premise of the divided brain: the left brain governing fixed, isolated, static, known, lifeless interactions, in a closed system of sharp focus and perfect clarity, while the right hemisphere deals with ‘individual, changing, evolving, interconnected’ living beings in the living world; think of a bird that focuses on pecking at seeds with his left hemisphere, while keeping alert for the movement of predatory cats with his right.

McGilchrist attributes the issues that grip the Western world with the over-indulgence of the left hemisphere of the brain. He shows how we have created technology that looks awfully like the world of the left hemisphere. It is box-like, closed off, perfect in its clarity but ultimately empty for its inability to connect.

By becoming focused on the parts, our view of the living world is fragmented and does not produce a coherent whole. We find that we are exposed to large amounts of information, yet we do not know how to use it in a wider context to find wisdom. We prioritise the virtual over the real, the technical is all important and as a result bureaucracy flourishes.

McGilchrist quotes Einstein: The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. McGilchrist adds that we have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.

How can we disagree? It is not hard to see how we spend to protect the honour of the servant. We buy sharper focus, high-definition televisions with bigger, wider screens. We buy faster computers with instant wireless connections that can keep us in touch with our sharply focused technological platforms. We engage with touch screen phone applications, view life through a lens and invest in gaming devices with clearer and clearer multi-pixelated graphics that send us into fully contained zones; focusing us, always focusing us on, the mission in hand, however virtual.

We could perhaps use social networks as an argument of how we use our technology to expand our worlds. However, they only do so in a focused virtual space, a space that promotes our fractured individualism. The irony of our networking is very real. It is true that we use them to maintain friendships but how much so as a substitute for ‘real’ life interaction. Some do form friendships on social networks that spill into the ‘real’ world. I myself have benefitted from just such a friendship.

However, is it not more so the case that these virtual interactions leave us feeling empty? In using them to satisfy an addiction or lust for virtual-curtain-twitching, gossip mongoring, are we not indeed attempting to pursue happiness in a virtual reality that can only possibly lead to further resentment. Afterall, how can anything on social networks be anything but propaganda? We choose what we share, and whether that is over or under the parameters of what we gage our social-network friends to deem acceptable. We are acutely aware that our judgement is in the eyes of those individuals, the virtual surfers, who absorb everything through their own screens in much the same way we do.

One of my pet peeves at the moment is the need to photograph and video every experience in order to upload it to a virtual forum. Anyone who has ever had their view at a concert obscured by hands held high, grasping a mobile phone in order to record the performance, will surely know what I am talking about here and I must admit to being guilty of this need-to-record myself in the past. However, I have come to realise that I was also guilty of something much worse; I was missing what was truly meaningful: the experience itself. In my haste to document it for everyone else, I was denying myself the joy of fully participating. Have we not created a monster of the left hemisphere brain where our interactions with the living beings in the living world have become compromised with our need to share the moment in a virtual left hemisphere forum, mostly in order to prove that we are indeed living as we are expected? … and yet our sheer need to show it somewhat undermines our position. Don’t we just come out looking desperate? Desperate to spread our own propoganda? Desperate to prove ourselves? And desperate to be seen to justify our existence with the implied meaning: Look at me; I am living!

The ideas we get from McGilchrist is perhaps in support of causation, that every action and experience has a cause. With causation we are led to believe that destiny is predetermined, though not necessarily by a creator, but by scientific: biological and psychological development that we are not at liberty to change. If we were to try to make a change, the very action of rebelling would be anticipated by our life history and therefore pre-destined.

This journey into honouring the faithful servant of the left hemisphere may be a one way road but don’t we owe it to the right to try to get back the balance? For without its gift, are we not doomed to a focused life of disconnected virtual distress?

“Beneath every history, another history.”

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Hilary Mantel’s words can not fail to be an inspiration to any writer; they’re beautiful. They provide those shivers that force you to face your own humanity. I must confess that I started Wolf Hall only to get intimidated by its sheer size and abandon it, but after watching a Culture Show Special featuring an interview with the great woman, I picked it up again.

Mantel is a fascinating character, full of reflection and nuggets of pure wisdom. Her, as good as, visionary approach to writing makes her a compelling speaker on the subject of her art and her own autobiography. She confesses to making her surroundings boring, so that all excitement is reserved for her writing.

Inspired, today I am attempting this very technique and it is not as easy as it first sounds. First there is the visual stimuli. Not so easy to dispose of as my work space is crammed with the clutter of busy living: receipts, used train tickets, a bowl of hardening raisins, fabric, ancient scripts in Greek, cards, stacks of notebooks, paint brushes, a brochure for exercises classes at the gym, hundreds of little printed worlds and too many blank canvases.

As I type, the mobile phone beeps with a message. What could be in the text? The anticipation to read it, breeding its own excitement. Is modern-day living altogether too stimulating to indulge creativity? Has it all got too complicated, so as to dull our imaginations? There is certainly always something to do now. Something to listen to, to watch, to interact with. Where can we find the space to think, with so much to occupy us day in, day out?

Have we lost touch with the art of doing nothing? Does it follow that if we no longer have the space to think, the consequences for creativity are drastic?

Are We Broken?

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It seems that everyone this week is talking about ‘Broken Britain’. Several nights of looting, rioting and violence on the streets of London, and a number of other major cities, have invited criticism from around the globe and yet more bickering from the politicians’ clubs within the country. On the box we see countless images of the violence. Are we looking at political activists, rash revolutionaries, the desperate poor, ferral youths, or just plain criminals?

It is my feeling that we are probably looking at a mixture of all of the above, and plus some. There is a lot of anger throughout the land. The working body of tax payers are paying more for a poorer quality of service, both in the public arena and in the private; food prices are soaring thanks to the shady dealings of large corporate bodies like Tesco; bankers just keep getting their bonuses; first-time-house buyers can’t get on the ladder because the rungs are just too high off the ground and the boys’ club that run Britain just keep charging their expense accounts.

So it is perhaps clear, then, why people are angry? It would seem they have a right to be. …Don’t we? Or wasn’t it all just a little bit inevitable? This is consumerism. We bought into it. Didn’t we know really, deep down, that it was flawed from the first luxury purchase? We just wanted it… and we had to have it… right there and then! Buying things was a lot less time-consumming than looking out for each other. Arn’t we really a bit angry at ourselves?

Whoever we are the most angry at, it can’t be doing us too good as individuals. The system is surely corrupt but we don’t have to be. Smashing, burning and stealing may release some tension but it certainly does nothing to improve blood pressure, self worth or community relations between those disenfranchised and those struggling to make ends meet.

The Roman philosopher Seneca believed that anger was a type of madness. He wrote that anger is: “…wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of the dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it….it is equally devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent and diligent in whatever it begins, closed to reason and counsel, excited by trifling causes, unfit  to discern the right and true, the very counterpart of a ruin that is shattered in pieces where it overwhelms.”

Seneca felt that in order to combat anger we must use reason. We must wake each morning expecting the worse, expecting everything to go wrong. We must anticipate that the car won’t start and that then the bus will be late and that the curb will be slippery enough to send us sliding onto a now broken ankle. When the worst doesn’t happen we can feel pleased, that a victory has been won because things haven’t been as bad as what we imagined they could have been.

So, I’ve been giving Seneca’s method a whirl recently and my anger has seemed to subside with day to day living (although my sunny deposition has suffered somewhat). I don’t let my working day get to me so much. I’ve found calm in letting the little things go. …However, I can’t seem to make it work so well in imagining a country where Tesco has even more power, where the politicians eat up all the money from taxes and privatise all public services, where food prices are so high that sectors of society simply starve to death and where the banks freeze all accounts and use the funds soley to feed their big bonuses. …Unfortunately, it just doesn’t feel imagined enough to be at all comforting.

Perhaps another approach could work: I think it is important to accept the things you cannot change or else anger will indeed break you, as many of the arrested looters are discovering this week.

When it comes to changing the things you cannot accept, well that is a different story…

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