History’s Longest Running Whack-a-Mole Game (“Dualism”) Continues. As Usual, Friends of the Right Brain Are Kicking (Left Brain) Posteriors and Taking Names

The physicist-turned-healer (G*d rest his soul—he’s no longer with us) fulminated against eating too much garlic. He said gorging on “the stinking rose” is a very bad thing for the brain.

He reasoned this way:

Garlic contains a poison called sulfone hydroxyl. The sulfone hydroxyl ion, he alleged, can penetrate the brain’s blood barrier. Heavy garlic eaters, he warned, should be prepared instantly to lose millions of the very cells that link the brain halves. Loss of those cells, he averred, will lead to “desynchronization of the left and right brain hemispheres”—AND WE ALL KNOW HOW DANGEROUS THAT IS!!!

I’m afraid I find this one of those “time-to-debunk” moments. About the garlic, that is. But not about the idea of brain lateralization.

Debunk it all you want but the idea of finding value in looking at what the brain halves are and represent and do isn’t going away. Not in the popular news. Not in the cultural and worldview wars. Not even in the medical and other scientific literature. The concept is simply too useful. In illustration, argumentation and calculation, there’s nothing quite as easy as “cleaving the apple”—that is, dividing things in half. Dichotomizing.

[In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right away that most of Brain Technologies/Brain Me Up assessment models have important right brain/left brain components.]

The brain forever has dichotomies on its mind
The ancient Taoists did it with yin/yang. Religious types with good/evil. Philosophers with mind/matter. Particle scientists with wave/particle. Psychologists with nature/nurture. Law officers with good cop/bad cop. On and on and on. You just had to know that it was only a matter of time before “dualism”—or … harrumph! … co-eternal binary opposition—infested neuro discussions like kudzu.

Maybe, as one thoughtful observer has suggested, even as old dualisms get knocked down, “it seems that there is something about the wiring of the brain that leads to new dualisms springing up.” Talk about Whack-a-Mole!

That was certainly what the late George Kelly, the father of personal construct psychology, thought. “Our psychological geometry is a geometry of dichotomies [italics mine] rather than the geometry of areas envisioned by the classical logic of concepts, or the geometry of lines envisioned by classical mathematical geometries.” (Double harrumph!)

So what’s been happening lately in the popularized right brain/left brain arena? No mystery there. Same thing that’s been going on ever since the late Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy. As usual, at least in literary and salon circles and the post-modernist-influenced domains of academia, friends of the right brain have been kicking the glial cells out of the left brain.

Bashing in the name of balance
Consider the late Dr. Leonard Shlain. The San Francisco surgeon first graced us with Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light. Then he weighed in with The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. Shlain’s bias was not even thinly veiled: he thought the left hemisphere of the brain had run amok for 5,000 years, and it was time to put it in its place. In fact, he argued that this is happening as we, the people, move away from dependence on the left brain’s fixation on its symbolic unit of choice: the alphabet. And move toward the right brain’s symbolic unit of choice. The image.

If Shlain had done surgery the way he went after the—quote—linear, abstract, logical pro-masculine left hemisphere and extolled the praises of the—quote—holistic, visually oriented, iconic pro-feminine right hemisphere in his books, they just might have considered removing all sharp-edged objects before letting him in the O.R. In fact, by the time he got to the end of Alphabet/Goddess, he seemed to recognize that he had “expended considerable ink bashing the left brain.” So he pleaded for a balance in using both sides of the brain, despite such a stance having so clearly eluded him in his writings on the subject.

But then Shlain’s love affair with the right brain paled in comparison to Iain McGilchrist’s. A London psychiatrist, McGilchrist wrote the recently published The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

In an interview just out on the blog Bookslut [Editor’s note: If you think her naming choice was piquant, wait ‘til you see her logo!], McGilchrist anguished over having had to take so many risks in his 600-page tome. For example, after castigating left brain researchers for thinking about the two sides of the brain as machines, he took the risk of turning the hemispheres into personalities, “with desires and values of their own….” And promptly uses this literary license to—right!—bash the glial cells out of the left brain personality.

Left brain origins for post-modernism?
He told Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin: “The left hemisphere sees only a very simple version of reality, is black and white in its view, tends to arrogant certainty, a view that it ‘knows it all already’ and doesn’t have to listen to anything new, and is in denial about its own short-comings. And it has a tendency to paranoia if it feels its position is being threatened….

“I do find it very hard to be optimistic at present, because, as I say in the book, the left hemisphere’s view pretends to have it all sown up, and people are taken in by that, especially when it appears to come from the mouth of ‘science’ (usually biologists—the discoveries of physicists forced them long ago to abandon the Victorian mechanistic model, but the life sciences are slow in catching up). Not that the current arts scene is much better—post-modernism is no challenge to the left hemisphere’s view, but, as I suggest, an expression of it.”

And while it is less pugnacious, we shouldn’t overlook neuropsychiatrist Michael R. Trimble’s The Soul in the Brain: The Cerebral Basis of Language, Art, and Belief. More cautious than some of the brain wars’ luminaries, Dr. Trimble nevertheless focuses lovingly on what he calls the “seven L’s”—Language, Laudation, Lying, Laughter, Lachrymation, Lyric and Love. And each of these, he asserts, is “quintessentially driven by the right hemisphere.”

So the debate over which brain half is on top and which is to blame for the things humans do and which needs to be encouraged to contribute more or contribute less and how well they are connected and so forth continues unabated. And it’s not just the cultural warriors interested in doing the math.

Using your earlobes to tug your brain into shape
Professor Yash Gupta at Johns Hopkins’ B-school cites Apple Computer’s ability to use both its left and right brains as the reason for much of its success. A researcher at Cleveland Clinic thinks autism may be a result of the brain halves’ inability to “talk” adequately with each other. Humpback whales have been found to be either left-handed or right-handed (and probably right/left-brained, too). And the halves of songbirds’ brains don’t “lateralize” normally, or their voices, if they don’t get a chance to imitate the vocalizations of their caregivers in infancy.

So what’s a body to do if it feels its brain halves are not sufficiently in sync—that is, aren’t “balanced,” to use a favorite right brain way of phrasing it?

Well, there’s always Master Choa Kok Sui’s “superbrain yoga” exercise. It involves crossing your arms, tugging on your earlobes and doing deep-knee squats for three minutes, five if you can. Details are here.

Just please don’t eat the daisies—or overdose on the garlic.

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At Brain Technologies/Brain Me Up, we came early to the right brain/left brain party and plan to stay late. Talking about brain habits and choices this way is simply too valuable and constructive to our clients to ignore. So all of our personal and team assessments seek to get the brain to think more constructively about itself. Look in the mirror. Take the measure of not only its halves but its wholes. When you are ready to experience the power of knowing your own brain, we recommend starting with The BrainMap®, which is available both online and in paper versions. For more information, please go here.

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One Comment

  1. Dr. Sean Brophy says:

    Dear Dudley,

    I was most pleased to see your reference to the work of the late George Kelly.

    If they aren’t already acquainted with Dr. Kelly, your readers might like to know that the measurement tool used in the Psychology of Personal Constructs is called a role repertory grid. This is used to measure a person’s construing of people, things or events (their “psychological space”).

    In the most comprehensive recent text on Kelly’s grid, A Manual for Repertory Grid Technique (John Wiley, 2004, p. 5), Fay Fransella, Richard Bell and Don Bannister described the model underlying Personal Construct Psychology this way:

    “The model…is explicitly the idea of every person being his or her own scientist. George Kelly, the founder of this psychology, believed that we strive to make sense out of our universe, out of ourselves, out of the particular situations we encounter. To this end each of us invents and re-invents an implicit theoretical framework which, be it well or badly designed, is our personal construct system.

    “In terms of this system we live, we anticipate events we determine our behaviour we ask our questions. It is in terms of this same system that we evaluate outcomes and elaborate changes in the interpretative system itself. Thus we are ’scientists’ who derive hypotheses (have expectations) from our theories (our personal construing). We subject these hypotheses to experimental test (we bet on them behaviourally, we take active risks in terms of them). We observe the results of our experiments (we live with the outcomes of our behaviour). We modify our theory (we change our minds, we change ourselves) and so the cycle continues.

    “Kelly devised repertory grid technique as a method for exploring personal construct systems. It is an attempt to know oneself or to stand in another’s shoes, to see their world as they see it, to understand their situation, their concerns.”

    Kind regards,
    Sean Brophy
    Dublin

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    Thanks to my long-time friend and colleague, Sean Brophy, for providing this succinct summation of George Kelly’s model. Dr. Brophy is one of today’s leading authorities in the application of George Kelly’s model in organizational behavior as well as one-on-one personal and executive coaching.

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