Last Two Points on Divided Brain … I Promise

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OK, two last points on Iain McGilchrist’s book entitled The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World … I promise.

1) Throughout his book (at least up to page 335, which is where I stopped) McGilchrist mentions something almost in passing that I believe has hug implications: depression could be framed as left brain cutoff from right brain. Apparently when the left brain (home to such things as words and logic) cannot report back to the right brain (home to wholes and paradox) it goes into a depressive state. [1] Here’s the communication pattern that McGilchrist sketches out: First the right brain takes in a whole scene or gestalt. It passes that gestalt to the left brain for processing. The left brain assigns value to certain objects in the scene, say, an object that could be dangerous. The left brain then passes its “objectifications” if you will back to the right brain in the hope that the whole scene model will be appropriately updated. What McGilchrist suggests is that when the left brain cannot report back to the right for further processing, it first goes through a depressive state that is often followed by the left brain making up its own form of gestalt. Needless to say the gestalts that the left brain comes up with are, well, left brain-ish: dogmatic, rigid, inflexible, ordered. And, sure, the right brain can do the same and come up with gestalts that are overly optimistic, idealistic, dare I say, naive. Again, proper right – left communication is critical because each provides a reality check for the other.

I’m reminded of a lecture I heard by neurobiologist Louis Cozolino delivered up in Santa Fe. Cozolino told us that when the mid brain structure consisting of the amygdala (the brain’s main fear center) is cutoff from upper brain structures (such as the frontal lobes), the amygdala can begin concocting its own stories of what is happening in the world. And these stories are, as you might expect, filled with doom and gloom. Whether right to left or upper to mid, good brain center communication is critical.

Now, this idea of left cutoff from right leading to depression has big consequences. Why? Well, simply because antidepressants do nothing as far as getting right and left to communicate and play well together. The same could be said of feeding kids copious amounts of behavioral drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. This is why the prevailing wisdom holds that, yes, antidepressants and behavioral drugs can act as crutches, but true healing will only take place when therapeutic modalities designed to get right and left (or mid and upper) working well together are also employed. Believe it or not, body or movement-based modalities seem to work best. Talking is great, but it tends to be rather “left.” Talking while walking or otherwise navigating the real world? that’s the ticket.

My next comment is nothing more than wild speculation. When I read McGilchrist’s descriptions of left brain separate from right, I could not help but think of Bowlbian attachment theory and its focus on what happens when there are separations between a young child and his or her attachment figure. Most Bowlbians believe that the attachment figure acts as a surrogate brain for the developing brain of the childchild. If this is so then child-attachment figure separations may in some way mimic what happens when right and left brain centers become separated. Food for thought I’d say.

2) McGilchrist does not address psychodynamic theory directly but he does mention Freud’s work quite often. This got me thinking. What if we take Freud’s ID <==> EGO <==> SUPEREGO model and put it into a divided brain model. ID would be the right brain. This makes sense because the ID is often looked at as being close to the body and emotions. The SUPEREGO could be the left brain with its focus on rules, regulations, proper procedure, etc. Now, this puts the EGO into the role of bridging between right and left. EGO strength then could be looked at one’s ability to bridge right to left and vice versa. Hmmmm?!? Interesting.

Now, Freud’s model has been criticized on the grounds it demeans the ID and the ID’s close association with our so called animal instincts. The idea is that if the individual does not develop an EGO strong enough to control or tame the ID, society or the SUPEREGO would have to step in and take control. However, right brainers, like McGilchrist, George Lakoff, Antonio Damasio, and Allan Schore [2], suggest that in terms of brain center harmony, it’s the right brain that runs the show. In their model, the SUPEREGO would be the right brain. These right brainers would probably say that we should expect Freud’s formulation because Freud’s left brain was largely cutoff from his right. But in Freud’s defense, that was generally true of the entire scientific edifice that surrounded him. And if we look at Bowlby’s work, he fought against the reductionistic science that surrounded him and advocated for a more right brain approach to science, namely organismic systems theory. No matter how you look at it one thing remains the same: we need a strong EGO to bridge right to left or even upper to mid brain. And, no, crutches like antidepressants and behavioral drugs are not going to do it. At the risk of being glib, you’ve got to walk and talk your therapy. Again, this is where body or movement-based therapies excel.

I’ll leave it at that. I’ve gotten a lot out of McGilchrist’s book even though I haven’t finished it. I would highly recommend it although it can get a bit highbrow for my taste. I do chuckle when I read books that in part rail against the left brain and its love of words by using, well, lots and lots of well ordered and well organized words. A clear case of left brain revenge.


[1] – I’m not a big Trekkie guy but as I was writing this post I began thinking about the first Star Trek movie where V’ger, this massive entity, could not report back to its creator. V’ger traveled throughout galaxies and collected up tons of data (left brain) but had no right brain to report back to. I’ll leave it there so as to not offer up any spoilers if you have not seen the first Star Trek movie, which I recommend. I’m old enough to say that I watched the original Star Trek TV show as the episodes originally aired. I guess that makes me a legacy Trekkie ;-)

[2] – I noticed that Allan Schore recently released a book entitled Right Brain Psychotherapy. I haven’t read it yet but I may put it on my reading list.