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What is life really about?

What is life really about? Walking on the beach this morning I had a sort-of epiphany, an experience of what I interpreted to be the two worlds created by the left and right brain. I realised there really are two distinctly different ways I can be in the world:

One way I could be in the world, as I walked along the beach, was to let my mind think  about various things in my life: the targets to be met with my thesis, my plans to get to the end of the beach and tick off my day’s exercise checkbox. I walked enjoying the background beauty of the ocean, feeling happy about how good the fresh salty air is for my lungs, with a view to feeling healthy and being able to better achieve the next thing on my list.

Another way I could be in the world was to walk with a less-purposive, open focus on beauty of my surroundings. As I switched into this mode, I found myself pondering some deep questions: What does it really mean for human beings to be the “universe getting to know itself”? How does thinking of ourselves in this way change the way we, as a species, live? I felt a tear in my eye, I wasn’t sure why.

I looked at the apartments with views of the magnificent ocean, do the people that live there appreciate their privilege? Do they experience it in the kind of way that I had been walking, enjoying the beautiful background as they work to fulfil life’s requirements, ticking off checkboxes needed to maintain that life, to pay the mortgage, to feed their family, be successful at their jobs, and so on? How would a more balanced-brain affect that experience? I think it would be a subtle difference – it would be in moments like the one I was starting to have.

I began to really take in the beauty of the beach, smiling at the sea gulls pecking at bluebottles. I thought about the idea that I, myself, was expressed in the gulls, in the sand, in the stormy clouds that were appearing.

I decided to stop walking, and sit on the sandbank instead. I gazed out toward the horizon.

I closed my eyes and let an orange haze overcome by being. I felt the boundaries of my body’s skin fade into the background and a sense of unity come to the forefront. I am at once separate and connected—to everything around me, everything before me, and everything after me.

I felt myself observe and be in “the moment”—not as a singular thing—but as a flow, the continuous moment in the movement of time.

Time flows like the sea, a sustained present, inseparable from the past and future. Like the ocean’s mighty waves, time has no beginning and no end, it does not pause, it moves in and out, an expression of its own depths, of the atmosphere, and what lies beyond.

These two different ways that I could “be” as I walked along the beach correlated with the processes that Iain McGilchrist discusses in terms of our left and right brain hemispheres.

As I walked along the beach with my left hemisphere in charge, I was abstracted from the real world, using my time to tick boxes, calculate income, expenses, and the costs vs benefits of possible decisions, trade-offs between walking, eating brownies, working on my thesis, looking after my son, spending time with friends and family, renting vs trying to buy an apartment in one of the most expensive cities in the world. All these things that are important to our lives, but which are not actually real—they are not what life is actually about.

As I walked along the beach with my right hemisphere dominating, I had a sense of broad openness, allowing a spontaneity of thoughts and actions, letting the world’s true beauty touch my innermost essence of being. This is real, it is what life is all about.

I almost skipped the walk and went straight to the library, to make the most out of the few hours I had baby-free. If I had done so I’d have missed out on this experience of earth’s beauty, missed out on this epiphany, and I wouldn’t have known what I’d missed. I could have done the walk with a view to getting my day’s exercise, and again I wouldn’t have known what I’d missed in this experience and reflection upon what I see to be the real significance of life.

Letting myself walk without purpose had provided a space for development and understanding of myself, the world, and even my thesis and McGilchrist’s work, in a whole new and much deeper way.

The right hemisphere presents the world that is real and the left hemisphere represents abstracted parts of that world, the right hemisphere open and the left focuses on achievement within predefined bounds.

We need both hemispheres. We need our left hemisphere to help us organise, to give us things like the checkboxes that we use to hold ourselves accountable and achieve aims that we set out to achieve. Even more importantly, we need our right hemisphere to provide the context for these aims and actions, and to allow us to experience the joys that life offers us. 

I suppose what I learned in this epiphany was how to switch into a more right brain mode of being, and the value of doing this.

If we spend our life letting our left brain tick boxes then we will keep ticking until the last checkbox “death” is ticked. Complete!

Instead if we switch into right brain mode we can cultivate the art of living, sensing, experiencing, being conscious, reflexive, truly appreciating the beauty, valuing the connections, and being the flow of the continuous present.

Perhaps in a balanced brain mode, the work of our left brain can be in the service of the right brain, the abstract working for the real, parts working for the whole, instead of the other way around. For that is what life is really about.

Why the right (brain) is right…

Are you a right-brain or left-brain type of person? Is there such a thing? Are there differences between our left and right brain hemispheres? Does it matter?

Research into the left and right brain hemispheres was popularised in the 1970s, it exaggerated and reified the two sides of the brain as if some people were “right-brain” dominant: creative, image-based, intuitive, emotional; and other people were “left-brain” dominant: mathematical, language-based, logical.

Research has since found both sides of the brain are involved in creativity, both involved in language, logic, and mathematics – only that they are involved in different ways.

This said, it remains that our cortical hemispheres are asymmetrical; they not only look different, but they act and see the world in very different ways.

The left-brain puts its focus on the parts, narrows its vision in order to understand details, and use tools and objects for a predefined purpose.

The right-brain focuses on the whole, widening its vision to understand contexts, and keeping an open focus so to act without “an end in view”.

Recent work in neuroscience, for example on stroke survivors and using new technologies that light up when different parts of the brain are being used, are illuminating this in exciting ways.

The seminal work of Dr Iain McGilchrist in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World explores this new research and links it to the impact that different brain lateralisation functions, which are influenced by culture, impact the evolution of that culture. This has revolutionary implications both our personal experience of the world, and the way that we collectively impact the world.

I was honoured to meet Iain McGilchrist about a year ago, and I even got to have dinner sitting directly opposite from him and next to the brilliant Australian philosopher Arran Gare – whose work on process thought and the global ecological crisis my PhD is directly based on. (Another one of my nerdy-versions of sitting with the celebrities!)

McGilchrist posits uses recent findings of neuroscience to explore the differences between the hemispheres. He illuminates how the current relationship between the hemispheres has led to some of the most deeply-entrenched problems humanity is currently facing.

First it is important to make clear, as McGilchrist does again and again that the idea that the left hemisphere gives us reason and language, while the right hemisphere gives us images and emotion is false: we need both hemispheres in order to deal with these things, from reason and emotions to interpreting language and images. McGilchrist writes: ‘every identifiable human activity is actually served at some level by both hemispheres’ (1).

The question is not what each hemisphere does, but in what way does it do it? The hemispheres do things in very different ways.

The primary difference is that the left hemisphere (LH) has a narrow focus, and the right hemisphere (RH) a broad focus.

The LH sees the parts, focuses on them, explores their details, operates in a targeted manner. We need our LH to coordinate our bodies, operate tools, and complete almost much any action. In order to do this, the LH carefully removes things from their contexts, dealing with ‘pieces of information in isolation.’ The RH on the other hand, ‘sees things in their context’ and deals with entities as a ‘whole, the so-called Gestalt’ (4).

Humans are not the only ones to have different brain lateralisation operations. McG uses the example of a bird who uses its LH to focus on a seed and operate its beak to open it. At the same time the bird uses its RH to be vigilant of predators, to engage in social interactions and so on.

In this RSA 21st Century Enlightenment animation to McG’s TED Talk you can get a good introduction to these ideas:

The key differences can be summarised as:

Right Hemisphere (RH) Left Hemisphere (LH)
Broad focus – emphasis on the interconnected whole Narrow focus – emphasis on the separate parts
Big picture long-term view Local short-term view
Parts are understood in context of their whole De-contextualises parts, focus on specifics
Sees all as interconnected processes, always in flux Sees all as comprised of separate static entities
Presents experience Re-presents experience
Understands the whole first, believes the parts may only be understood in the context of the whole Understands the parts, adding up this understanding to understand the whole
Builds provisional understandings, sees truth as a process, an ongoing quest without an end Builds its understanding from a place of certainty
Interested what is new Interested in what is known
Is boundless, open to potentiality and possibility Works within boundaries, grasps within what has already been prioritised
Affinity with what is living, with what actually is Affinity for the mechanical and artificial
Responsible for intersubjective processes such as self-awareness and empathy Responsible for discriminating, making the separate parts clear and precise
Sees a net of interdependencies with deep connections Sees fragmented separable entities grouped into classes
More responsibility for implicit reasoning such as problem solving More responsibility for explicit reasoning such as logic
Understands indirect meanings such as metaphors, humour, sarcasm, etc Relies on more direct and literal meanings and use of language
Favours individuality and uniqueness, works with specific examples, hence is more personal Favours an anonymity, works with abstract categories and types – hence is more impersonal
Both/and approach – sees the cohesion between the LH and RH, integrates LH contributions Either/or approach – sees LH and RH as in competition, and the RH to be unnecessary
Concerned with the “howness” of the process Concerned with the “whatness” of things
Principally concerned with the intrinsic value of life Principally concerned with utility / instrumental value of others
Integrates the self and body – sees the body as a living whole that is inseparable from our mind Disconnects the self and body – sense of being the body’s “owner” and the body reducible to its parts
Sees the self as intrinsically inseparable from the world, in continuous relationship in space and time Objectifies the self, sees the self as a separate entity, an expression of will
Accepts uncertainty and change, holds several possible truths together as tentative Strives for certainty, needs to be right and interprets itself as right even when clearly wrong
Appreciates time as ongoing, an undivided flow, something lived through with past, present and future that is the context of all meaning in life Breaks up time into units, measurable, as if a sequence of static points, separate momentary events
More realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware Ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its short-comings
Considers the whole as more than sum of its parts Considers the whole to be the sum of its parts

Note: this table contains near literal formulations from chapter 2 and 4 of McGilchrist (2009).

The Right Hemisphere as the Unifying Hemisphere

An important point that McG makes is that the RH sees the complementary nature of what the LH does, it enables it to do so and integrates LH knowledge into its big picture perspective. On the other hand, the LH sees the RH as a competitor, as a threat and as unnecessary to its more targeted and abstracted perspective.

McG extrapolates this from physical examples of the RH and LH interactions. For example he points out that the RH makes both eyes move together. Another example is that in split-brain patients the RH attends to the entire visual field while the LH attends only to the right visual field. Following a RH stroke, and is reliant only on the LH, they will see only the right side of their visual field – something called “hemi-neglect”. Drawings of such patients show that they fail to see the left side of a clock, a house, a cat, etc.

If on the other hand one has a LH stroke, and is reliant on only their RH, they will still see the full visual field and draw a full picture. For example these three figures were drawn by the same person – the first with both hemispheres, the second with only the LH (the RH was inactivated) and the third with only the RH (with the LH inactivated):

Why is this important?

We change the world by changing the way that we attend to it, by changing the type of attention we give it.

If we let our LH dominate over our RH, we may find ourselves narrowly-focused on abstracted aspects of our lives such as money, the future, the past, economic theories, technical details, and representations of experience, rather than the actual experience of life in each present moment. As a result we may feel alone, alienated from other people and from nature, anxious over what other people think about us and about our own mortality. Furthermore, under the rule of the LH we would act out of narrowly-defined  self-interests, as our global economic framework assumes. This enables the perpetuation of structural forms of violence such as poverty and environmental destruction, for example as it leads people to purchase products based on price, creating demand for corporations to make profit regardless of the working conditions of offshore factory workers and environmental impact of both the production and consumption of these goods.

If we were to develop a more balanced-brain approach to using our LH and RH, we may find our lives change quite significantly for the better. With the LH and RH working together, we would use our RH’s conception of the world as a whole, integrating the detailed insights of the LH into that bigger picture.

Perhaps if we did this we might find ways of integrating the long-term, global happenings  (for example, environmental destruction, perpetuation of inequality, and so on) with our individual actions. Maybe then we can support policy changes that regulate corporations, prices, and so on such that they prioritise people over profits

Want to read more?

Read more in this short free PDF: Divided Brain, Divided World Or get the book, it’s no light read but it’s certainly rewarding!

Some time ago I wrote these two blog entries on similar issues:

“Three Fork”: conversation beyond the norm


Left, Right, and Identity