How left brain are you? It’s entered the popular language now- ‘I’m a bit aspergery’, ‘he’s definitely on the autistic spectrum’. It has even become a badge of honour- we’ve seen aspergers heroes in two Scandanavian crime thrillers and now Ben Affleck is an autistic spectrum assassin we are supposed to love. The message is that to really survive and thrive in the modern world you need to be…left brain. It’s a simplistic fantasy- most people with autistic disorders have a hard time of living- but it reflects our intuition that the world is becoming very left brain, too left brain- and we need to change somehow to cope. Either by becoming more left brain....or by flipping the left brain the finger...or by finding a way to reconnect to the right brain.
The right and left brain dichotomy has been talked about since ancient Greek times. Victorian physicians knew and commented on the possible functional differences between the two hemispheres. But only with experiments in the 1950s and 60s on people who had the link between the two hemispheres- the corpus callosum- severed, did scientific (ie. left brain) acceptance come to the notion that there are radically different jobs being done by each hemisphere. But since the notion of right brain activity is antithetical to a left brain view of the world a lot of left/right research has been bad mouthed and sidelined by academia. But it won’t go away (things that are true have that quality) and even if it only gains acceptance as a metaphor, it is still a vastly useful one. Malcolm Gladwell uses a very left brain style – footnotes, references to prestigious scientific papers- to try and depict right brain phenomena- and he must be congratulated. But in the end, the right brain is really only known on its own terms- no science, no references, no discussion and theory- the right brain is about an overall, holistic, instant, intuitive grasp of things- found in sportsmen, artists, dancers and musicians- people who can make magic. Because to the left brain, the right brain looks like magic. It must be a trick, it can’t exist.
There are schizophrenic patients who have to ‘think’ each step before they make it- this can be characterised as an extreme left brain dysfunction. I remember learning aikido in a very left brain way- only when I stopped caring so much and just ‘tried stuff without thinking’ did I actually get better. Of course the left and right brain always work together, but this can be harmonious or utterly discordant. Usually the aim is to master the left brain basics, the symbolic tools- writing, drawing from life, playing notes on the piano- before the right brain can take over and make something beautiful and meaningful happen. But all too often we get caught in left brain whirlpools and traps. Take shopping- a left brain substitute for many things, a kind of symbolic action. Every experience now is very quickly diverted into shopping. You want be a painter- here’s a full kit and easel. You want to go climbing- here is the latest rope and technology to buy. You like fashion- well these are the labels that are hot. The whole designer label thing is a fascinating example of the leftbrainisation (sorry) of the right brain activity of appreciating beautiful things. The whole notion of a beautiful garment is reduced to a symbol- a left brain abstraction.
The left brain likes to shuffle abstractions- it likes language and symbolic languages. It likes to make an abstraction from ‘real life’ – hence the strong left brain element in art which battles or harmonises with the right brain connection to beauty and the whole, the fact that everything is connected rather than disconnected. The left brain sees, names and numbers the 1000 parts of the butterfly, the right brain sees – and appreciates- the butterfly. Now mostly we do a bit of both, but increasingly there are jams and problems. Take the notion of a Phd. Many lust after those initials- they want the equivalent of a designer label. To pay for it they do 4 years (or more) hard work in private, virtually, for writing a book that 1.2 people (other than themselves) will read. Most Phds are never cited in other work. They are essentially a useless left brain madness…that just happens to underpin the whole of academia. The right brain knows that most Phd theses – the interesting ones – would be better written up a short article, preferably with lots of pictures. Ideally perhaps as a documentary…or simply, as happened in the past, a series of interesting conversations and maybe a talk or two.
The left brain demands for order and for everything to be coded into language makes for ridiculously long contracts, laws that are passed that no single person has ever read, and for the general belief that everything is banned or illegal unless it has been ‘allowed’. One interesting story I like is that of a homemade car builder who says that the first question people ask is ‘it must be really hard to get licensed’. They never ask about the 1000 hours it takes to build the car. In fact the licensing process is quick and easy- the officials are intrigued and knowledgable and pass the car without a hitch.
People imagine that the bureaucratic socialism of the Eastern Block had no counterpart in the west- it does- bureaucratic capitalism. Red tape is just the trimmings, so to speak, but the mindset of dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’- just in case- becomes transferred from areas where it matters (checklists for aircraft engine maintenance) to places where it doesn’t- school, the workplace, even social life.
Not that there isn’t a backlash. There is- left brain escape mechanisms- and we are awash with them. Drink, drugs, antisocial behaviour, violence….and the more benign variants: travel, art courses, obsessive exercise, back to nature survivalism. The problem is: a left brain escape doesn’t necessarily lead to a right brain experience. Or even a better function of left and right brain together. Various left brain, what one might call, viral routines, colonise anyone who attempts to effect an escape from left brain discipline. Viral routines include messages about things having ‘no meaning’ (the left brain cannot supply meaning, only the right brain can- hence as we have moved into being a more left brain society we have encountered increasingly in the last two centuries an epidemic in ‘meaninglessness’). Other viral routines include hoarding (you never know when you might need it), mild OCD, obsessive reliance on consumer sites and reports. Anything that promises a false security in place of the right brain functions of trust and instinct.
When one is overwhelmed by left brain requirements to be neat tidy and ordered one can flip and become really messy and disorganised. It’s a kind of protest. And it does take some strain off- but then living in a mess exacts a cost- its time consuming and embarrassing after a certain point. Paradoxically keeping a place minimalist, tidy and spare of ornament can leave the right brain space to flourish. Hence the ascetic and super tidy nature of many monks cells (and prison cells too). The left and right brain are functioning together here- as a whole- as they should. However another vicious viral routine is the one that says ‘there’s no good reason for that’ or ‘I have more important things to do’. So the left brain escape of mess becomes a left brain supported hell.
In order to connect to the right brain we have to do some left brain work first. It can be minimal- and should be- but it has to be done. My neighbour set himself the task of emptying his loft so it only had the chistmas decorations in it- which he could retrieve each year. He sold, gave away, dumped a mountain of stuff. He told me “Just the thought of it all piled up, overhead, bearing down on me. I had to get rid of it.” People talk about ‘peak stuff’ and they mean the point where possessions begin to take more out of us than we get out of them. Organising, cleaning even thinking about them- all takes energy and attention we increasingly feel we just don’t have.
So we reach a stage I call ‘switching off’. This is when only absolute novelty or a shock of some kind will penetrate through to us. We have essentially switched off general interest in the world because it requires too much left brain attention, left brain thinking- order, plans, routines, references, passwords- it’s just not fun. It doesn’t nourish our right brains. There is no meaning, beauty and life and wonder and awe in such things.
Look at people in the street of a big city- many are ‘switched off’. Often taking refuge in their phone. Only the pickpockets, photographers, street workers, kids seem to be alert to all around them. It’s OK to be focussed- the left brain does that very well so that a task can be completed, something can be learnt. It is a very necessary skill. But when ‘being focused’ becomes ‘ being switched off’ and no longer open to life then a necessary skill has become an aberration.
It’s also devastating for brain health. When we stop being open we start to live more and more in circumscribed familiar routines. Our brains begin to atrophy. We cease to be able to learn anything new.
Micromastery is about rejoining the right and left hemispheres in small, under-the-radar activity that stops you alerting all the left brain superstructure we tend to burden ourselves with nowadays ‘doing things properly’ ‘ mastering the basics’ etc etc. Instead a micromastery is a quick and easy way to gain a skill that uses both right and left brain. You regain your confidence in being able to learn new things. You begin to see you don’t need all the safety net of left brain pedantry after all.