A Fresh Look at the Split Brain and the Frontal Lobes


An old friend indirectly led me to the video I’ve embedded at the bottom of the page. It’s a very easy to follow cartoon version of a lecture by Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. When I listened to it for the third time a few minutes ago to get quotes for this article, I found myself transcribing the whole text: it was that good. Mercifully, I’ll refrain from making you read the whole thing, since watching it is much more entertaining and, I think, enlightening, since the cartoons engage both hemispheres of the brain.

We need to use both sides of the brain

Both hemispheres are important

McGilchrist jumps right in and addresses the issue of the “debunking” of the split brain theory, saying that “the division of the brain is something neuroscientists don’t like to talk about any more”; the reason being that it simply isn’t true that one side of the brain is solely associated with reason and the other strictly limited to emotion. After that fact was established, “in a fit of despair” people gave up talking about it. Nonetheless, he argues, “the brain is profoundly divided” and, more worryingly, continues to become more lopsided, until today we live in a left-brain dominated world.

What’s wrong with that? Well, as McGilchrist points out, the right hemisphere “has a disposition for the living rather than the mechanical”, can see things in context, understands metaphor and can grasp implicit meaning. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, “yields a world that is ultimately lifeless.”

After re-introducing us to the split brain, Dr. McGilchrist starts talking about the frontal lobes. This was where his talk got really interesting for me, because I’ve had a frontal lobes dilemma lately. Based on my experience with “amygdala tickling”, I had come to the conclusion that frontal lobe activation automatically made one more compassionate and loving. However, neuroscientists refer to it as the “executive center” and see it as being impartial or amoral. McGilchrist seems to agree, saying that “the purpose of the frontal lobes is to inhibit the rest of the brain.” It stands “back in time and space from the immediacy of the experience.” This results in a decision maker who is able to do either of two things:

  1. It can “outwit the other party” (he calls this the Machiavellian mind).
  2. It can empathise (he refers to this as the Erasmian mind).

This came as a revelation to me and pieces of so many puzzles started falling into place – so many puzzles, in fact, I don’t even want to go into them all here or you’ll die of boredom. However, I do want to mention this (from another article I’m working on):

I learned amygdala tickling from Neil Slade‘s website. He emphasises stimulating both hemispheres by visualising tickling both the right and left amygdala. Most meditation techniques emphasise detaching yourself from your habitual “mind chatter” (a left brain activity) which is always good advice and probably helps bridge the gap between hemispheres, but personally, I think we need to make more active efforts to redress the imbalance. As Dr. McGilchrist says, the left hemisphere is “entirely self consistent largely because it’s made itself so” and “it’s very vocal on its own behalf” while “the right hemisphere doesn’t have a voice.”

Why is this so important? Please watch this video to the end and you’ll see why. Don’t panic – it’s only about 10 minutes long and is very entertaining:

About Rob

Born in Southern California, Rob Schneider migrated to Australia in 1985. He is currently living in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he works as a freelance content writer.
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3 Responses to A Fresh Look at the Split Brain and the Frontal Lobes

  1. Neil Slade says:

    (From “Tickle Your Amygdala”, book by Neil Slade, Feb. 2012)

    RIGHT BRAIN versus LEFT BRAIN

    Before technology, people related to the natural world, and were connected to it. The embraced the whole of the exterior, and saw how they fit it, because they could NOT control it.

    In the really old days, the rituals of magic and religion controlled the environment by primarily modifying how you viewed and related to what you saw. Rather than controlling things, you instead controlled your PERCEPTIONS of how things are and how you fit into the bigger picture. In that way, as quantum mechanics has now illustrated, this had a real effect to one degree or another on how your world worked.
    As humans learned to control the environment with technology using their left brain, they moved away from seeing themselves as an indivisible integral part of the world, as their right brain sees things.

    Back when we were largely non-technological hunter-gatherer-farmers cave and hut people, it was “one person- one vote”. You carried roughly the same weight as your next door neighbor.

    As humans figured out how to make better spears, armor, and other technology that allowed small numbers of people to control vastly larger numbers of people and creatures, suddenly, the advantages of left brain mechanics looked mighty tempting.
    If you could figure a way to make a better weapon, suddenly, your survival and your happiness looked as promising as that big mountain gazing over the defenseless fruited plain.

    It was no longer how big your heart was and how well you fit into your environment, but how well outfitted your goon squad was and how well you manipulated everything on the other side of the fence not on your team.

    Left brain ruled, and things haven’t changed much.

    This has led to an imbalance which has reached its pinnacle at this point in history. We are at a tipping point where we are capable of utterly destroying the environmental balance, and ourselves in the process, simply because we have operated under the left brain illusion that we can control everything.

    The internal imbalance is reflected in the external imbalance. It is one and the same.

    How can these frontal lobes processes (left and right brain) of Cooperation, Imagination, Creativity, Intuition, and Logic can be used in EVIL ways. Cooperation is indeed a frontal lobes process- But people COOPERATED with Hitler. How could that be good?
    As I’ve come to realize, this is not because of increased frontal lobes processes, but rather, because of an INCOMPLETENESS of it, an imbalance of the hemispheres.

    As brain research has now made clear, if you don’t connect with ALL of your frontal lobes, specifically, the Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex- you then act in anti-social ways, and potentially in pathologically harmful ways. It is the MPFC that allows you to empathize with others, and this is what keeps you from building and dropping THE BOMB as an experiment on your “enemy” to see if it really works.

    Those who don’t include and think of others, have failed to fully circuit into their WHOLE Frontal Lobes. They are still stuck to a degree with their “Little Me Eye”.
    Those who view themselves as primarily separate from the whole have not transcended into the “Big Magic I”, that includes EVERYTHING and EVERYONE.

    “Cooperation” in the most limited sense doesn’t mean JUST to GO ALONG with SURVIVAL of the LOCAL GROUP- that is racism and Hitler, That’s the Little Me Eye.
    “Cooperation” in the truest and most powerful sense means to GO ALONG with SURVIVAL of THE BIG GROUP- Everyone and everything. That’s the Big Magic I.

    “Cooperation” is in fact a directional vector: Your survival/happiness direction going in the same DIRECTION as The Big Picture, not just what is one inch in front of your nose.
    One inch in front of your nose– that’s what the left brain tends to see, that’s the specialty of the left brain. However, a nearsighted brain is a brain waiting to be run over by the next truck that comes barreling down the street. To achieve long term happiness and survival, the left brain processes must be balanced with the right brain, to healthfully live in The Whole Picture.

    It’s not that the left brain can’t see The Big Picture- it’s just that it has a tendency to ignore it, before it has a chance to join up with its right side brother.

    The corpus callosum only is problematic if the two halves cannot merge, like a married couple that always fights.

    When one transcends, both hemispheres merge, into a stereoscopic image.
    Then, the left brain can explain and spell it allout with logic and words: Little Me Eye versus Big Magic I

    Now, watch this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyyjU8fzEYU
    This was a very important video for me to see- because these days, practically every brain researcher is telling you that “Happiness is in the left side of your brain” and “People who are more happy, show more left frontal lobes activity.”

    Dr. Richard Davidson, a big honcho in brain imaging, will tell you that “a marker for happiness is more left frontal lobes activity”. Unfortunately, Davidson soon contradicts whatever point he is trying to score, because he next informs non-adepts, as he likes to call the general population of non-meditators, that the better you use your brain, the LESS active it becomes. Hmmm, let me check my brain… be right back… oh wait, I would be better if I use less. Gosh, now what do I do?

    Davidson’s observations are particularly irritating, because his sterling examples of expert happiness achievers s are those guys whom he cites as having practiced for 10,000 hours in the Lotus position or more.

    So, um, what all were these novices doing to become adepts at Nirvana?

    Well, again according to Davidson, they spent the first 10,000 hours using their brains a LOT MORE so that then after 10,000 hours they could use it LESS. Davidson forgets to mention that you can’t get to point B (less) without having gone through point A (more).
    It’s like saying, “People who aren’t hungry, don’t eat.” According to Davidson’s logic, I guess a marker for people who are FULL is that they don’t EAT.

    Davidson also points out the Tibetan Monks who meditate show more left frontal lobes activity, as if this were something we should all strive for.

    Okay, now I’m really confused. NOW what do I do? Use my left brain more?
    What about Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor? (Video link above) She had a stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain, and her left hemisphere virtually stopped functioning altogether.

    According the Davidson and others, we should expect that she would be profoundly and instantaneously depressed and unhappy because she lost that left brain happiness machine generator.

    Except that’s not at all what happened.
    What she immediately experienced was profound bliss and oneness with the universe. (Fortunately, what remained of her left brain managed to convince her to dial 911 for the ambulance.)
    So, reconcile THAT one.

    I’ll help you.

    The right brain IS ALREADY THERE. It doesn’t have to work nearly as hard as the left brain to experience Nirvana. When you’ve already walked to the top of the hill, you don’t have to work so hard getting there. You ARE there.
    So of course, people who aren’t experiencing happiness in their left frontal lobes have to work that part of their brains to catch up with the half that’s already waiting at the end of the line, at the destination, the right half. (Why do you think they call it the “right” half anyway?) That might explain why the monks and all the other “happy experts” have more activity in their left frontal lobes as compared to their right frontal lobes.

    Except, again according to Davidson, the REALLY expert monks show less activity than the beginning monks. So it appears, once the left brain realizes it’s already there in front of Nirvana, it doesn’t have to do any work at all, or at least, it enjoys taking out the garbage.

    So is happiness something to be achieved with more frontal lobes activity as the controlling left brain has fooled itself into thinking, and as Davidson indicates is a marker for happiness? Or is the left brain just spinning its wheels pointlessly, like the kid trying harder and harder to extricate its fingers from those Chinese handcuffs- the harder you pull, the more you’re fingers are glued together…

    Maybe the problem isn’t that we are not using our left brain enough, but rather that we have been using it TOO MUCH all along.

    Didja ever hear about JUDO? That’s when you use your opponents energy to defeat him. Two guys in a ring, one guy knows judo, the other guy weighs 300 pounds and comes flying at the judo guy like a freight train out of control. The judo master just sticks out his pinkie and in one graceful little flip of his finger, sends the hulk flying over the ropes. He didn’t use a fraction of the energy or force to win the match.

    Maybe our left brains should just take a closer look at that judo match, instead of spinning its wheels for another 10,000 hours trying to become an expert at happiness, doing as little as the right brain in the first place.

    I think I would rather take my dog for a walk, than watch my legs fall asleep for an hour or more every day.

    • Rob says:

      “I think I would rather take my dog for a walk, than watch my legs fall asleep for an hour or more every day.”

      If you do that in your street clothes, no one will notice. If you dress in a Tibetan monk’s robes (or a swami’s or a Zen Buddhists or a contemplative Christian’s [choose your favourite]) you might start a fad. “Walking your dog is the secret to happiness and enlightenment” would become the latest thing. You could then teach specific dog walking techniques, a neuroscientist could do a brain scan of you while you were walking your dog and then declare that whatever area of your brain lit up the most was the “God Spot.”

      It is the left brain’s job to compartmentalise things. Like Iaian McGilchrist said, it’s a closed system. What area of the brain lights up when someone has a near death experience? None. I suppose Jill Taylor Bolte’s left brain was on fire while it was being destroyed, but what about afterwards?

      I agree. Those neuroscientists (or their dogs) are barking up the wrong tree.

      On a related note, I tried Holosync for about a year. Basically, it is an outrageously overpriced system that entrains the brain to the deep sleep delta frequency. The biggest selling point is “meditate deeper than a Zen Monk” because Zen monks get into a theta state. Therefore, delta was supposed to be even better. Then, when I received my second set of CDs, a freebie was included that you were meant to try once a week. This entrained the brain to the gamma frequency, which is faster than the beta of normal waking consciousness. Why? Because someone had measured the frequency of meditating Tibetan monks and that was their predominant frequency. Therefore, gamma was the new frequency for enlightenment.

      It’s all too silly.

  2. Pingback: The Battle of the Brains | A Cookbook of Consciousness

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