The Battle of the Brains

16 December: Please read the follow-up post, Were the Pyramids Built by Aliens, after you read this post. You may be surprised by the answer!

I received a much appreciated article length reply to a recent post from Neil Slade, so drop everything, go to A Fresh Look at the Split Brain and the Frontal Lobes, scroll down to the comments and read what he has to say.This post is only randomly connected to his comment, so don’t consider it a summary or a critique – just vaguely connected thoughts.

He starts off with a title, RIGHT BRAIN versus LEFT BRAIN, hence the title of today’s post. However, the battle I’m referring to is the battle that goes on between separate brains – yours and mine – and how to perhaps end it. Neil writes:

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.

What I can’t understand and what nobody has adequately explained to me is what motivated people to invent weapons of mass destruction in the first place. What instigated this disastrous shift from right brain to left brain thinking and how did we function before we became so entrenched in our left brains?

In The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes speculates fairly convincingly that until about 3000 years ago, individual consciousness in humans didn’t exist. Until then, our right brains ruled and we did things unconsciously. Just as our hearts beat and our blood circulates without our conscious intervention, we ate, slept, built stuff and even created elaborate myths and legends without even thinking about it. He cites early versions of texts like the Iliad that are written very differently than more recent versions or more recent additions to prove his point.

There are holes in his theory and it remains a controversial one, but that may have something to do with his definition of consciousness and perhaps a lack of recognition of a transition period or the possibility that just as a few people today have “paranormal” abilities, a handful of people back then may have been as freakishly self-centred as we are today. At any rate, my cursory reading of Jaynes’ opened up worlds of possibility to me.

Let’s take the pyramids, for example. The rational explanations for how they were designed and built are pathetic at best, especially when you consider the weight of the stones and the consistent geometrical patterns that occur in pyramids throughout the world. It is more rational to believe that they were built under the supervision of aliens than it is to believe that some big honchos got their engineers to design them and then forced tens of thousands of slaves to build them. Think about it. Wouldn’t ten thousand slaves require a hundred thousand soldiers to keep them in line?

aliens in egypt?

Aliens in Egypt?

It’s also more rational to believe that left brain (or left brain style) reptilians who had already messed up their own planet came here and messed with our DNA either just for fun, as an experiment, or because they wanted to dominate us and use us for their own nefarious purposes than it is to believe that the right brain – left brain switch just happened all by itself.

If I remember correctly, Julian Jaynes speculated that a cataclysmic event forced the switch, but I don’t buy that. The right brain is far more equipped to deal with the unexpected than the left brain, which can only operate from one known to the other.

Spider webDoes it sound implausible that the pyramids could have been built without extensive planning and design work or that an epic poem or song could arise spontaneously? All you have to do is watch a spider build a web or listen to a bird sing a song and you’ll see that it’s entirely possible. Is it possible for a bunch of people to work together in harmony without rules and regulations imposed from above? Think about the incredible achievements of an colony of ants or bees and you’ll see they are far more efficient workers than we are. Speaking of bees, did you know that they are suffering from “bee colony collapse disorder” thanks to our wonderful pesticides and other chemical goodies? That’s the most plausible theory, anyway.

At the beginning of this post I promised you a possible way to end the battle of the (individual) brains. Well, here it is. I try to make it a point to insert “in my opinion” in all my, well, opinions, no matter how dear to my heart they are. For example, it hurts when I stub my toe and I form a firm opinion that the stone is a more solid object than my toe and is therefore able to hurt me. However, as Einstein pointed out, “Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.” On a molecular level, there isn’t much substance to either my toe or a stone.

A big termite mound

A BIG termite mound

When you read that I found it more plausible that aliens helped make the pyramids above, did you heartily agree with me, laugh and cancel your subscription to my newsletter or something in between? Had it been something in between, we could have started a dialogue. It wouldn’t be as good a solution as simply knowing, like mound building termites know exactly what to do even when they’re not within shouting distance of each other, but it would be a start in the right direction.

When we realise that our opinions and those of others are just opinions and nothing more, we become humble and open minded. This automatically puts us in a cooperative frame of mind and perhaps, if we practice it enough, we can shift back into having a symbiotic relationship with one another instead of fighting all the time.

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: