Below is an extended quote from Chuck DeGroat’s latest book Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self.
I’ve been hearing quite a bit about brain research and the implications for the life of faith, namely that both brain hemispheres are equally important for how we see the world—they should not be polarized and neither should hijack the other.
So, the left brain, which is associated with analysis, logic, reason, precision, categorization, etc., will dupe those of us who crave certainty that it is “superior” and supremely competent to assign value and meaning to the world around us. The right brain, which is associated with creativity, intuition, tolerance of ambiguity, etc., will be seen by these types of people as of a lower priority and value in “meaning-making.”
But these hemispheres are “two different modes of experience” and “each is of ultimate importance.”
The tendency in western culture is to placed high value in the ultimacy of analysis, which has certainly affected how people perceive the value of religious faith—both by insiders and outsiders. I comment on this phenomenon in The Sin of Certainty (pp. 28-29), and DeGroat explains it more clearly below. [Quick heads up: In his upcoming (September) book Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science, Mike McHargue (“Science Mike”) also looks at this issue and how understanding brain science helped bring him back to faith, which both skepticism and belief can coexist.]
We all learned at some point in elementary school that our brain was, at the very least, split in two. Perhaps we heard generalizations like this: Your right brain is your creative and artistic brain and your left brain is your logical brain. This was the classic position, in fact, and few are aware that it has been contested. In recent times, however, this quick-and-easy explanation has been dismissed by brain lateralization researchers who dispute the traditional two-hemisphere theory in a favor of a more integrated theory. Their take is that both sides of the brain are involved in our many activities, from logical thought to artistic creation to intuitive connection. Few today would disagree that both sides of the brain are involved in all of our many activities. Both the left brain and right brain are engaged in language, engaged in reasoning, engaged in creating. This is a crucial insight.
However, Iain McGilchrist’s extraordinary work The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World has reframed this debate, adopting the new perspective with a twist. He writes
My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. (Kindle locations 210-212.)
In other words, while both hemispheres are engaged in our many activities, they are engaged in different ways, with the very real possibility of hijacking the other. The right brain sees context while the left focuses in with precision. The right brain makes big connections while the left makes careful and logical observations. The right brain holds paradox while the left chooses sides. As McGilchrist writes, “So the left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right. The right hemisphere makes it possible to hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.” (Kindle locations 2275)
Now, this is a quite extraordinary dance if, indeed, the two hemispheres are lovingly and cooperatively dancing together. Sadly, though, the left brain tends to hijack the process. Armed with its precise rationality, it convinces us and the world of its superior importance. And we, who long for certainty and precision and clarity in times that are uncertain, join Team Left Brain. The tragic outcome is a brain (and by extension, a society of people) polarized.
Albert Einstein once anticipated this when he said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a world that honors the servant, but has forgotten the gift.” The servant, our logical left brain, takes an increasing meaning-making role in our thinking, our feeling, and our willing. The once-cooperative duo find themselves embroiled in a struggle for power. And instead of valuing both important contributions, we live from the hemisphere we think will give us advantage.
Indeed, it has been of great benefit to human beings throughout history to have both a more intuitive and artistic brain and a more logical and precise brain. The delicate balance allows us to both enjoy a sunset and understand the phenomenon of the earth’s rotation. This balance gives us the freedom to fall in love while at the same time making the very rational decision to leave the one we love because he is abusing us. But at certain points in history, McGilchrist contends, the left hemisphere becomes the dominant hemisphere personally and societally. He writes
Here I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere. (Kindle location 286)
The fascinating and important insight for busy and exhausted people like you and me is this: While we looked to our left brain for the insights we need to progress and grow, we’ve (quite unwittingly) succumbed to its most negative aspects – its propensity for division, fragmentation, expediency, and certainty. As a people, we’re feeling the emptiness that comes when our control projects are thwarted. And instead of embracing our ‘other half’ with renewed vigor in an attempt to hold life’s paradoxes and navigate its perplexities, we’ve recommitted to mastering life, figuring it out, controlling, competing, and expediting. We’ve looked for the newest latest techniques and gadgets and insights to give us that illusive control we long for.
And it’s not working.
Wholeheartedness: Busyness, Exhaustion, and Healing the Divided Self