MWP 1.3.h The Middle Way and the Brain

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At various points so far I have already mentioned the relationship between the two brain hemispheres and aspects of the Middle Way. Here, however, is a good point to pull some of that information together, and give a slightly fuller account of how I think the scientific evidence on the functions of brain hemispheres help to explain the Middle Way. Here I am hugely indebted to Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary[1], and what I can offer here is more a philosophical interpretation of his account of the hemispheres than anything directly based on the scientific research he uses. For a more detailed account of the science I would refer readers to McGilchrist’s landmark book itself, and his detailed references and bibliography.

As McGilchrist underlines, to use this evidence about the brain to help us understand psychological and philosophical questions is not necessarily to reduce these questions to ones of brain functioning. It is not to say that the Middle Way, for example, is “just” a matter of making physical adjustments in the brain. It also certainly does not imply that the solutions to philosophical and psychological problems are medical ones. Instead, an awareness of our brain structure and its effects gives one more angle on the conditions in which we operate, to consider alongside the others available to us. Reading McGilchrist has convinced me that this angle is a helpful and informative angle, particularly as most of his findings tended to confirm conclusions that I had already reached in Middle Way Philosophy by other routes.

Although we rely on both the brain hemispheres constantly and they interact on a moment by moment basis, when one generalises about the hemispheres, their functions, and the effects of the dominance of left or right hemisphere, it is as established by our experience over a longer period of time[2]. The two hemispheres have distinctive functions, despite the possibility of considerable duplication between the hemispheres, in the sense that each hemisphere has specialised in specific functions which it performs more effectively, and also inhibits the opposite hemisphere from performing[3]. Much of our evidence about these functions arises from observations of patients with strokes, lesions, or other conditions which have wholly or partially disabled one hemisphere, making it easy to observe in isolation the functions and limitations of the remaining one. 

The left hemisphere is more self-referential and independent, having less white matter, which is suggestive of more internal rather than external connectivity. The right on the other hand has more external links, and co-ordinates action between the two hemispheres[4]. The right hemisphere can cope with left hemisphere tasks and approaches much better than the left hemisphere can cope with right hemisphere tasks. The left hemisphere tends to assume that objects will have enduring properties – it thinks in terms of types and categories. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, deals with each new experience afresh and treats every object or person as a unique individual. Meaning for the right hemisphere is contextual, whereas for the left hemisphere it is part of a closed system of representation.

The left hemisphere is often thought to be the language hemisphere, but this is an over-simplification. It handles abstract and familiar language and connects language grammatically, so it is essential for language formation, but the right hemisphere nevertheless deals with unique referents, unusual words, new words and metaphorical relationships. The dominant tendency in the left hemisphere is to be focused and explicit, whereas the right hemisphere specialises in diffuse, implicit and unconscious processing. The left hemisphere maintains memories of facts, the right hemisphere personal memories. The left hemisphere engages in explicit sequential argument, whilst the right hemisphere is better at reasoning with an unconscious element, especially problem solving and the spotting of anomalies.

The right hemisphere engages with others as persons and with other living things as autonomous and alive, whereas the left hemisphere is much more concerned with manipulation and will treat everything as a manipulable object. This is also related to the way that the left hemisphere tends to divide things into parts whilst the right hemisphere sees things (or people) as wholes. The right hemisphere thus handles social relationships, is capable of empathy, emotional arousal and emotional perception. The left hemisphere can instead largely offer only superficial, ‘willed’ emotions and anger if its will is blocked. The general mood of the left hemisphere is superficial optimism, whilst the right hemisphere engages in any kind of pessimistic or ‘negative’ emotion, as well as the more profound positive ones.

Music is overwhelmingly processed by the right hemisphere, except by professional musicians. The right hemisphere can relate events in time and thus handles narrative, but the left hemisphere can only sequence things in a decontextualised logical way, and lacks a sense of temporal relationships between events or the continued existence of people over time. The right hemisphere also deals with motion, having control over the whole body when necessary, whilst the left hemisphere thinks of relationships between types of thing as static.

The left hemisphere is dogmatic, drawing mistaken conclusions from limited evidence and sticking stubbornly to them, whilst the right hemisphere is always open to new evidence. The left hemisphere is rule governed and inflexible, whilst the right hemisphere can tolerate ambiguity and can hold different possibilities together imaginatively without premature judgement. The left hemisphere’s certainty is related to its narrowness of focus – it has to limit the options in order to focus effectively and act at one point. The right hemisphere’s openness, on the other hand, enables it to respond to unexpected dangers and difficulties.

Given these differing features of the hemispheres, then, it seems obvious that the source of metaphysical beliefs is the left hemisphere, and the reason for the continued dominance of these beliefs is dominance of the left hemisphere over the right. The left hemisphere’s tendency to predominate follows from its function as the source of will and power. McGilchrist argues persuasively that despite the right hemisphere’s crucial importance in interacting with the world, the left hemisphere tends to predominate because of its constantly self-reinforcing system of representation supported by positive feedback[5]. However, it clearly dominates more in some individuals than others, and in some places, times and cultures more than others. Given that metaphysical beliefs, with their tendency to self-reinforcement, their polarisation, their certainty, and their immunity to changes from experience, are the key tools of the left hemisphere in maintaining predominance over the right, it is clear that the Middle Way involves a central role for the right hemisphere.

The Middle Way is thus not the Middle Way between the right and left hemispheres, but rather the Middle Way between different metaphysical beliefs promoted by the left hemisphere. If we recall the left hemisphere’s inability to understand change over time, it becomes clearer what the right hemisphere must mediate between: metaphysically opposed views, or dualism of whatever sort, held inconsistently by the left hemisphere at different times and maintained tenaciously by the ego as the only truth at that time. Of course, conflicting metaphysically opposed views may also be held by different individual left hemispheres at the same time, but the mediation involved in these cases is similar.

McGilchrist discusses mental illnesses or disabilities that illustrate the effects of excessive left hemisphere dominance and right hemisphere dysfunction: schizophrenia, anorexia, autism, and multiple personality disorder[6]. What these all strikingly have in common is a fragmentation of awareness over time, leading to grossly inconsistent identifications, beliefs and behaviour. People with these conditions have partly or wholly lost the integrative functions of the right hemisphere: its contextuality, empathy, imagination, awareness of change over time, and sense of meaning based on the body. But we are all multiple personalities to some degree, as to the extent that we are dominated by the left hemisphere we maintain inconsistent desires, meanings and beliefs. It is clearly the right hemisphere in connection with the left at these different times that maintains the capacity to integrate them to a greater or lesser extent.

But it is not simply a matter of right hemisphere dominance replacing left. It would be very easy to get into a froth about the importance of defending the right hemisphere and keeping the left in its place: but this would be an expression of the left hemisphere, not the right, and in the longer-term it would serve the interests of the left hemisphere, which Midas-like turns everything it touches into a mere idea. We should not underestimate the capacity of the left hemisphere for appropriating the right, nor trust any thinker who offers us metaphysical bouquets for the right hemisphere – unwrapped, they will not turn out to be flowers, but rather guns in the shape of flowers.

To support the Middle Way here requires an imaginative and compassionate recognition of the left hemisphere’s contribution. Indeed, every single fragmented, dogmatic, wilful expression of the left hemisphere contributes its energy towards the integration which the right hemisphere merely enables. Only the left hemisphere supplies a representation of the world and enables a focused practical response to it. Only the left hemisphere enables articulation and reason. The contribution of the left hemisphere towards the development of objectivity is just as necessary as that of the right. It is peace and co-operation that will cause metaphysics and its associated conflict to wither away, not a call to arms. That is why metaphysical agnosticism, which tries to separate the dualistic from the non-dualistic aspects of left hemisphere activity, provides the way forward. It is here that I think McGilchrist, in the final two chapters of his otherwise outstanding book, makes a few misjudgements. McGilchrist believes that the modern world of the West shows runaway positive feedback leading to increasing levels of left hemisphere dominance, with disastrous effects on Western society. His interpretation of modernity, however, focuses relentlessly on the left hemisphere features of modernity at the expense of others, and adopts a disproportionately negative approach to them. But if the Middle Way is the most effective way to address conditions, it seems to me clear that in the modern world, despite those features which suggest excessive left-hemisphere dominance, we must be following it in some ways that we have never before managed. True, we have many features of left-hemisphere dominance: alienation, bureaucracy, relativism, bureaucracy, mass production, virtualisation, disorientation, individualism, depersonalisation, passivity, and paranoia. However, we also have unprecedented degrees of health, longevity, education, democracy, observance of human rights, empowerment of women, scientific and technological development, security, communications, access to empowering information, and cultural opportunities. The left hemisphere has contributed hugely to addressing these conditions – in general it just needs to be more effectively integrated to address a few more. The Middle Way requires the recognition, amongst other types of metaphysical agnosticism, that neither the dogmas of pessimism nor those of optimism are entirely correct.

[1] McGilchrist (2009)

[2] Ibid pp.10 & 213-227

[3] Ibid. pp.16-31

[4] For this and all the following statements about the functions of the hemispheres, see ibid. ch.2 for more details and further references.

[5] Ibid. p.229-233

[6] Ibid. pp.403-7

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