BY Jim Harding Ph D
We now know that our evolved brain is somewhat split, with a right and left hemisphere. Interconnected and always communicating through the corpus callosum, these hemispheres nevertheless nurture different qualities of consciousness. The right hemisphere is more linked to visual and spatial orientation whereas the left is more linked to thought and speech. Meanwhile, each hemisphere coordinates the other side of the body; it is an exquisitely evolved system.
RIGHT AND LEFT HEMISPHERES
Without oversimplifying this, our logical and more linear left hemisphere tends to nurture awareness of individual identity, including our orientation through time. This can shape a consciousness of separation, which in turn leads us to query or makes assertions about “I”; “What am I? I am what?”?” For simplicity let’s call this the “existential hemisphere”.
The right hemisphere tends to nurture awareness about the present moment, to process the sensory explosion and field of energy within which we all exist. This can shape a consciousness of connection, which leads us to query or hold beliefs about “this”; “What is this? This is what?” Again for simplicity let’s call this the “environmental hemisphere”.
After brain scientist Jill Taylor suffered a hemorrhage in her left hemisphere she watched her awareness of the separate “I” disappear and finally had to surrender to the cosmic “we”. After surgery it took her eight years to recuperate. See her 2008 Ted Talk “A stroke of Insight”.
Our self-awareness about our unique existence can take us in very different directions; it can go from “I am nothing” to “I am everything”. Both extremes are dangerous to us as individuals and to our communities. Whether we separate or merge our identity, we are setting ourselves and others up for surplus suffering. Compassionately respecting each other’s human rights is very different than dissociation or, on the other extreme, merging with totalitarian-like rule.
Right hemisphere awareness is more free-floating and thus linked to music, creativity and belonging. We have always needed awareness of our tribe-community and our habitat and this awareness can keep us from being self-absorbed. In an evolutionary sense we have clearly needed both kinds of awareness – as a vulnerable, individual organism and as an interdependent social being.
Once we evolved into a fully mobile, bi-pedal social animal we had to scan the immediate environment for food and danger and to build and maintain our essential social support networks. However, the human infant is the most vulnerable and dependent of any primate and must be cared for at length while our “big brain” grows and develops. Without our big brain we can’t become fully human; in that sense our big brain and our need for society are inextricably linked.
Yet as a highly socialized animal we are also vulnerable. Rather than having an open, probing, scanning awareness, we can become conditioned to believe that “this is what the groups says it is”, or “this is what authority says it is”, or “this is what the belief system I was born into says it is”.
The combination of the two brain hemispheres created the capacities for human survival, expansion and the quick (60,000 year) colonization of the planet. However, this also created the conditions for subservience and mass delusion. Climate denying is one big example. The crucial question now is, can the revolution in neuroscience encourage the self-awareness and self-regulation required to be sustainable as a species?
Wisdom can be seen as finding balance in the orientations – the verbal and visual, the logical and artistic. I think it is helpful if we think of this as balancing the existential and the environmental. This is not at all straight-forward, for the reactive or reptilian brain and the emotional and memory-shaping mammalian brain are always influencing our thoughts and behavior. While we are inclined towards existential and environmental awareness, we are also being pulled between arousal (amygdala) and foresight (neo-cortex). It is indeed quite a balancing act.
If a child grows up to feel and believe that “I am threatened” and “this is a dangerous place”, then finding balance will be much harder.How society is ordered, one’s formative experiences, and the depth of the human support one has, will all shape how one feels about “I” and “this”. We can all be distracted and even immobilized by strong beliefs about the “I” or the “this”. And yet, as we learn more about our complex selves, our interdependence and how the two brain hemispheres can work together, we can all move towards balance.
Our beliefs matter. We can tend towards the narcissistic and/or delusional. We are always being challenged to maintain our orientation in time (mortality) and space (presence); our personal and communal wellbeing depends on this. The power of the “tribe” can lead us to merge the “I” with a restrictive view about what “this is”. We can racialize or demonize others, relegate others to another status, gender, class or nation. And we can even embrace and violently defend such limiting self-other identities. We see this aggressive parochialism in our midst; I’ve seen it in local politics.
But our two brain hemispheres somehow got us to where we are. Deepening our awareness about these evolved capacities, and how we can go off the rails, is vital for our sustainability. Even in the midst of the turmoil in the present world, clarity about how our complex brain operates and can pull us in differing directions, can help us steer ourselves in a more careful way.
We are always somewhere between arousal and self-regulation, between animalistic survival and curious inquiry. When we are shut down and resigned to habitual beliefs about what “I am” or what “this is” we become more self-annihilating. But we all know that we have a higher capacity, upon which we can continue to build. Mindfulness and compassion, together, can be seen as a way to balance the existential and the environmental awareness that comes with the push and pull of the left and right brain hemispheres. The prospects are exciting.
In Part 3 I’ll explore what we can learn from our hominoid ancestors.