Two Quick Follow-ups on the Divided Brain

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There are two important points that I did not make in my last post on Iain McGilchrist’s book entitled The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

1) McGilchrist spends considerable time taking the concept “selfish gene” to the woodshed. This idea was popularized back in the 1970s by Richard Dawkins through his book The Selfish Gene. The selfish gene idea holds that genes (mainly through Darwin’s natural selection) work for the benefit of the host organism and for no one else. McGilchrist calls this bunk and suggests that we should expect that a state of “left brain largely cutoff from right brain” would come up with this idea. This type of idea is effectively how an isolated left brain sees the world. McGilchrist argues for the “social gene” or “altruistic gene.” I have to admit, McGilchrist offers up the most cogent defense of the social gene theory that I have encountered. The best defense of the social gene that I know of (prior to McGilchrist) has to be the one offered up by Mary Midgley in her book entitled The Solitary Self: Darwin and the Selfish Gene. But as I mentioned in my last post, in order to mount a defense against such reductionistic concepts as the selfish gene, one would have to advocate for organismic systems theory a la Ludwig von Bertalanffy. If the idea of a selfish gene bothers you (as it does me), then give McGilchrist’s book a read.

2) McGilchrist has a lot to say about, of all things, objectification. The process of objectification has been an area of research interest for me for some time now. Here’s an example of objectification. Objectification occurs when a person (or group) reduces another person to a collection of parts and then defines that person based on one part to the exclusion of all others. The most well known version of this form of objectification is when men (typically) reduce women to their constituent parts and then assign value based on one part, such as breasts or buttocks or face. As another example, reductionistic science is largely about objectifying the natural world, breaking wholes into parts and assessing how parts behave in relative isolation. What I found fascinating is McGilchrist’s suggestion that objectification is a symptom of left brain cutoff from right brain. Left brain processes are largely about seeing parts isolated from wholes. McGilchrist makes the observation that persons on the autism spectrum tend to see objects in isolation. As an example, a person on the so-called spectrum may focus on a lamp or a painting when shown a picture of a scene where people are otherwise relating one to another. Relationships between objects in a scene are processed by the right brain.

Objectification in and of itself is not necessarily bad. As mentioned in my earlier post, reductionistic science has brought us many great wonders, nuclear energy but one of these. And people on the spectrum have done amazing things. Temple Grandin (a professor at Colorado State University who has designed animal processing plants) and Steve Jobs (of Apple Computer fame) come to mind. However, objectification can bring much destruction, as in the case of men objectifying women. All of this to say that I found McGilchrist’s take on objectification as a symptom of poor right – left communication to be very illuminating. It’s a frame that could lead to a lot of productive research in the area of objectification. And, ironically, reductionistic science will probably be used to conduct such research.

So, is there a right brain version of objectification? I would argue that there is. I would call it “holification”—seeing the whole to the exclusion of parts. There’s been some interesting research done concerning insecurely attached individuals and their ability to recognize danger. In an experimental setting, smoke is pumped under a door into a room where there is a group of people. Turns out insecurely attached persons are quick to recognize the potential danger and immediately suggest to the group that they leave. Turns out that securely attached persons are slow to recognize the potential danger and then once recognized suggest waiting for the experimenters to return because clearly they know what is going on. Only seeing the whole picture may prevent you from seeing an important individual object. This reminds me of Daniel Simons’ Monkey Business Illusion where a person wearing a monkey suit can stroll through a basketball game completely unnoticed because people are instructed to pay attention to the whole game. So, holification can have positive (e.g., seeing the big picture) and negative consequences (e.g., not seeing what is right in front of you, such as looming danger) as well. Bottom line: appropriate communication and task management between right and left is critical. As McGilchrist points out, right and left need each other. And at the risk of being a broken record, early safe and secure attachment relationships are the royal road toward robust right – left communication later in life. And, yes, Allan Schore has been saying this since the 1990s with the publication of his seminal 1994 book entitled Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self.

So, I just wanted to mention the two above points because I think they both are important. If either the selfish gene or objectification are topics that are of interest to you, definitely buy a copy of McGilchrist’s book.