Monday, April 18, 2011

The bicameral mind

What was mental life like before the breakdown of the bicameral mind?  We know what it's like afterward because each of us lives in a modern, post-breakdown mind.  But before was very different.

In the bicameral mind, the two hemispheres had evolved into two very different beasts.  As today, the left hemisphere was in charge of interacting with the world.  It controlled the process of speech.  It controlled the right hand, the hand that reaches out, the hand that tests the world, the hand that grasps, the hand that manipulates the pieces of the world.  It is not clear what else the left brain did.  What it didn't do was perceive or think about itself.  Without a sense of self, the left brain was free to act much as it does today, but without regret.  It probably was the source of the symbology (hieroglyphics) that are seen in the works of the ancient Egyptians, who lived before the breakdown.

As today, the right hemisphere perceived reality directly through the senses and lived in the flow of the world.  It learned and kept all the knowledge of how to survive and prosper in whatever world it lived in.  It knew where the stars reside in the sky.  It knew the myriad plants in the surrounding natural world.  It knew how to nurture growth in a garden or field and how to avoid predators.  In fact, it seems much like our present right brain.

What was greatly different before the breakdown was how the hemispheres interacted.  Remember that the corpus collosum, which is the primary connection between the cortexes of the two hemispheres, is relatively small compared to the things it is connecting.  Jaynes proposed that the primary communication crossing the corpus collosum before the breakdown was words.  He found that the area of the right brain corresponding to Broca's area (the left brain's speech center) is also capable of  speech even though it is not connected to the vocal centers.

Jaynes proposed that the right brain literally spoke to the left brain.  The left brain perceived this speech as coming from outside of the body and deemed the speech to be coming from a god or gods.  The content of the speech was largely imperative: do this, do that, don't do the other thing.  The left brain listened and obeyed.  Without a sense of self or ego, there was no resentment against the voice.  Moreover, the voice was generally right, meaning that what it said to do needed to be done for a good reason: planting, making offerings, and otherwise contributing to the community.

As today, the right brains of a community were closely integrated with one another.  Mostly, all the right brains in a community saw things the same way, so they behaved as something like a "hive mind", with each right brain directing its left counterpart to perform the actions which would benefit the hive.  Conflict among the members of a hive was uncommon since there was a shared vision and no egos to get in the way.

This is not to say there was no conflict.  Geographically separated hives were not likely to share the same sensibilities, so when they came into proximity they might fight or otherwise act out their differences.

Life before the breakdown wasn't idyllic: survival has always been hard.  But people didn't feel sorry for themselves or resentful.  Nobody was taking advantage of others, so if a group suffered, it suffered together.  When there was bounty, as during early Babylonian and Egyptian civilizations before the breakdown, people naturally organized themselves in to efficient hierarchical civilizations, with right-brain communication holding each level of the hierarchy together and connected to its leaders.  Jaynes proposed that the voice a person heard sounded like the voice of the leader in the hierarchy.  An ordinary person didn't separate that from the voice of the god that person represented.

The pyramids of Egypt were built well before the breakdown, and none were built after.  The mystery of how the pyramids were built makes more sense to me as a product of a hive mind living in a bounteous time than any other explanation I have heard.  We know the pyramid builders were not slaves, and they showed an amazing amount of organization over an extended time.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


So far I have described the modern view of how the two brains work, but I said when I started that I would say more about how we got here.  The next step in our journey is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.  First published in 1976, this is the book that made the separation of the brains a big story.  Research had shown throughout the 20th century that there was considerable difference between how the two brains worked, but Julian Jaynes provided the first comprehensive story about what the difference was and how we got here.  Iain McGilchrist (Master and Emissary) credits Jaynes with raising the issue of two brains and speaking cogently about it, even if he has some disagreements with some of Jaynes' findings.  If you are interested in how the two hemispheres came to be what they are today, you should read The Origin of Consciousness (OC) just to understand the issues, whether you believe his fantastic theory or not.

The first issue to consider is the meaning of consciousness.  Consciousness is used to refer to many aspects of brain/mind function, and there are as many definitions of consciousness as there are psychological theorists.  In order to understand The Origin of Consciousness, you must adopt Jaynes' definition of consciousness, if only temporarily.  I happen to think his is a fine and useful definition, but it is certainly not the only one.

Julian Jaynes defined consciousness as the internal sense of "I" existing in time, with all the internal verbal conversations that come along with that.  His definition is actually more complete and precise than that, and I encourage you to read OC to understand it more fully.  His definition doesn't refer to cognition or creativity, just to the sense of self around whom all stories are built inside the mind.

Jaynes proposes that we didn't have that sense of self until about three thousand years ago.  Before that, the sense of self and "I" didn't exist, in what he calls the "bicameral mind".  About 1200 BC there started a revolution in how the mind works, referred to as "the breakdown of the bicameral mind".  As a result of the breakdown, each of us gained a sense of self and new way of thinking.  Internal human life changed dramatically, and the modern world was born.

All of this is highly improbable by any rational measure, yet it seems to be the only comprehensive theory of human consciousness and history of neurological function on the table.  No one else has proposed, much less made headway with, a comprehensive alternative explanation of all the historical and modern evidence of who we are.  I won't ask you to believe all this: it is just too fanciful.  But you should consider it.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Leaping the chasm

In the previous post I presented the modern dilemma as seen from the perspective of the left/right brain divide.  It ended with the pessimistic statement "we are stuck where we are", which is the logical conclusion of the left brain.

I don't believe we are stuck.  There are many leaps possible, and more people are understanding the need for leaping.  If you are concerned about where we are heading, make your own leap.  Encourage the leaps of others.  If nothing else, refrain from keeping others from leaping.

More to come.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Cultural divide

In the previous post I described the balance between the use of the hemispheres in various creative endeavors.  Nearly all creative acts require both hemispheres to work in concert, but different media can engage the two differently.

In this post I intend to show that how we think about and live in the world affects the world, and vice versa.

First, here is a very terse and over-simplified summary of the balance of left and right brain in various stages of western civilization as identified in Master and Emissary.  Each stage has had a very different culture, based on the predominant thought patterns of the day.
  • Artistic expression started in pre-history as a left-brain phenomenon, though the rest of life was mostly right-brain.
  • By the time of ancient Greece, artistic expression had been integrated into the right hemisphere.
  • By the time of the Classical age, the left brain became dominant in areas outside of art.
  • Rome in the Augustan era (~1AD) was notably right-brained.
  • The rise of Roman state Christianity coincided with a shift to the left brain.
  • The Middle Ages were marked by intense rationality (left-brain).
  • The Renaissance marked a large swing to the right brain.
  • The Enlightenment was a large swing back to the left brain.
  • Romanticism was a swing back to the right brain.
  • The Industrial Revolution required and nurtured the left brain.
  • Modernism and Postmodernism reinforced the left brain.
So we find ourselves in a left-brain world.  McGilchrist suggests the possibility that we are stuck here because so many cultural forces, most notably technology, supported by postmodern art, conspire to keep us here.

How does culture affect our use of our brains?  I described in a previous post how the brain "chooses" which of many thoughts to express.  While the brain is not a blank slate, this "choosing" is subject to learning, and most of us learn to "choose" based on the dominant culture in effect when we grow up.  The culture is expressed through parents, teachers, friends, media, and institutions, and we proceed to both express the culture and impress it on those around us, including our children.  Thus culture is perpetuated in a reinforcing feedback loop.

Our "choosing" is a delicate balance: small changes can make big differences.  Small changes away from the cultural norm generally elicit negative feedback from society, restoring the norm in almost Darwinian fashio.  Small changes that support the cultural norm are often adopted, intensifying the norm.  McGilchrist argues that the natural tendency of the human mind is to restore the left-right balance, as shown by the variations over history.  But this tendency must contend with the restorative power of the cultural norm.

Our current culture is very left-brained.  Technology is pervasive, and almost every interaction with it draws us into our left brain as our eyes parse the ever-changing abstract screens on our computers and cell phones, then make our fingers run an obstacle course through arbitrary numbers and words.  Art challenges us with ever more abstract re-presentations of reality, taunting us with obsolescence if we can't analyze the latest deconstruction of the body and mind.

People aren't happy with the current state of the divide.  Our personal lives are chopped up into tiny familial pieces when our right brains crave community.  As part of my work I have seen studies of how people would prefer to relate to technology, but the cultural norm keeps those changes from happening.  Young people immerse themselves in games that exercise the right brain.  Yet complex games are now losing force to the imperfect forms of socialization and connection: Facebook and Twitter.  The tyranny of the desktop computer interface is losing to the slightly less insulting smart phone.  People vote with their feet and dollars, but they can only vote for what's on the ballot, and the choices are limited.

I will suggest that the energy engaged by the Tea Party movement is a reaction to the overly analytical world those people face.  (Ironically, the effect of the Tea Party movement, as guided by its moneyed masters, is to reinforce the cultural norm, but that's another story.)

One effect of an unbalanced divide is that we don't think straight, either individually or as a culture.  This means that when we are faced with difficult or catastrophic problems, we neither see them clearly nor respond to them effectively.  In a left-brained world, when the problems continue or get worse, we will analyze them further, perhaps to death, when no amount of local optimization will improve things, and only a wild leap to another place will help.  The left-brain will never leap, so we are stuck where we are.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

We all use both

When I first heard about "right brain", I wanted to be there.  I thought living in my right brain would make me more creative.  (I even use 'rightbrain' as my login some places.)  Now I learn that we all use our right brain all the time, so I started to consider the issue in a different light.

If we all use both, what determines the balance, and what affects the balance?  Master and Emissary has a very compelling description, which I will try to summarize in the next few posts.  First, let's consider some perhaps counter-intuitive implications of the divide.

Are novelists and playwrights writing from their left or right brains?  The written medium is all words, which would seem to be the province of the left brain.  Furthermore, the works (novels and plays) are linear, and linearity is the hallmark of the left brain.  The answer is that they use both in exquisite cooperation.  The best novels and plays are about grounded reality, which only the right brain can provide.  They evoke images in the reader's mind, and only the right brain can construct those images in words.  They employ metaphor, which only the right brain understands.  They offer humor, which is primarily a right brain function.  The left brain works with the right to linearize the story and put it into words on paper.

When we read a novel or see a play, we are also using both brains.  The left occupies itself with the words, leaving the right brain to immerse itself in the story.  The right brain understands language, but in a different way than than the left.  Language understanding in the left hemisphere is concentrated in Wernicke's area, which unpacks language in a manner similar to how the left hemisphere Broca's area packs it into speech.  Language understanding in the right hemisphere is more diffuse, connected more to meaning than syntax.  It is the simultaneous understandings of the left and right hemispheres that creates the rich and fulfilling response to a well written novel or play.

Non-fiction writing can have a different balance.  Telling a true story can be as evocative and compelling as any novel or play and the effect will be as balanced as they are.  However, much non-fiction writing concerns itself with how the world is constructed, and this appeals more to the left brain.  Some non-fiction writing is really communication of left brain re-presentations from the writer to the reader, in which case the right brain is hardly involved.  Most people find such writings hard to read.

Poetry can bypass the left brain entirely.  Most poetry offers some balance to the left and right brains, but the preponderance of metaphor leaves the right brain somewhat confused.  Some poetry offers no meaning to the left brain, in which case the left brain either shuts down or panics.  The right brain doesn't demand meaning, so it is free to rest in the shape and evocation of such poetry.  How we feel about a poem often depends on the ability of our left brain to disengage rather than rebel.

Creating and appreciating a piece of artistic pottery can also bypass the left brain.  Creation requires only the free flow of expression from the right brain to the hands, and appreciation is often just as pure.  But the picture is not so simple as it might seem.  The best pottery involves a bit of invention, and that is done with the right-left-right paradigm, often in a series of "failures" that are destroyed before the end result is ever seen.  So even the most pure artistic achievements are usually the result of the collaboration.

I write software for a living.  This last year I wrote a CAD system that ran to many tens of thousands of lines of code.  I carefully paid attention to the work in order to understand my own creative process.  I couldn't keep track of all the individual pieces of the project, but I never lost my overall understanding.  My head would ache while I puzzled some difficult problem, which I interpreted as my left brain being unable to cope.  At such times I would often take a break or go home, and most of the time when I got back, I would have a solution.  I interpreted that as my right brain working on the problem without my conscious involvement.  Left brains, including mine, are only capable of handling a limited amount of complexity.  Right brains have no such limitation.  Even engineering can involve high levels of coordinated activity between the hemispheres.

In fact, just about every creative act involves substantial involvement from both our brains.  Sometimes we just don't admit it.  How we see our brains working together can influence how we treat ourselves.  More importantly, it can affect how we treat others.  If we see our own success as a result of our left-brain analytic abilities, we will encourage and reward others based on our perceptions of their analytic abilities, and we will teach them only analytic skills.  If we see our own success as a result of our right-brain reasoning skills, we will encourage and reward others based on our perceptions of their reasoning abilities, and we will teach them only reasoning skills.  All of us need both, and our prejudices and misunderstandings on this issue can determine the future, as we will see in the next post.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How the left brain behaves

The left brain is easier to describe since it's all about words.  The left brain has a narrower, more focused, and 2D view of the world.  It only sees a small inner portion of the right visual field, corresponding to the small area of the cones.

The right brain is always finding things for the left brain to attend to.  It mostly does this by turning the head and eyes to look at something.  Whatever is inside the visual plane at the time of looking is either recognized or decomposed by the left brain into smaller bits until some bit is recognized.  Left brain recognition consists of mapping the recognized bit(s) into a set of symbols.  This is often done with context provided by the right brain.

The left brain carries a huge number of symbols, and it keeps track of a large number of relationships among the symbols.  So the right brain is able to recognize a plant, but it might not be able to recognize what to do with a seldom- or never-seen plant without the left brain turning some of the details of the plant, like leaf shape or color, into symbol references and connecting them to symbolic references to other plants in memory.  The left brain combines the recognized and referenced symbols to form a sense of the new plant and create a new symbol to represent the plant.

The left brain doesn't create a new symbol for everything new it encounters.  If a new item is deemed to be very much like another, it will adapt the previous symbol to stand for both things.  This involves making connections from the new bits it encountered to the adapted symbol and modifying the adapted symbol to include the new bits.  Thus, every time we encounter a new tree, our symbolic understanding of 'tree' enlarges to include it.  So while the right brain is busy remembering the true image of the new tree, the left brain is remembering the new bits of the new tree and generalizing 'tree' to be even less like any real tree than it was before.

Most of the left-brain symbols are associated with verbal terms.  I say "terms" because the association may be with either a word or a phrase (or a collection of words or phrases.)  When a symbol is activated by sensory input, the word(s) and phrase(s) are conjured along with the symbol.

The left brain operates at two levels.  The previous paragraphs describe the first level, in which the limited sense inputs of the left brain activate symbols and create new ones.  The second level 'plays' with this rich symbol collection, informed by the activation of symbols by the first level.  This playing goes on all the time, sometimes directed by symbol activation ("I see the cat") and sometimes operating without sensory input (daydreaming.)  And many parts of the left brain may be playing simultaneously with different sets of symbols.

The second level of left brain activity is what we normally think of as consciousness.  It is a jumble of individual words, fleeting thoughts, story lines, planning, reviewing, judging, etc., all happening at once.  The elements of the jumble typically involve words, lots of words, competing for attention.

The primary attribute of all these verbal mental processes in the left brain is that they are all based on the left brain symbols, not sensory input directly.  McGilchrist in Master and Emissary calls this use of the symbols "re-presentation" in order to differentiate it from direct perception ("presentation" of the world).  This is one of the attributes that makes the left brain so powerful: it can see and play with a world that doesn't exist.  But it also separates the left brain from reality.  The symbols are always approximations of reality, sometimes differing substantially from it, and this can lead to problems.

One of the ways the left brain connects its symbols is linearly, as if in time.  I say "as if" because the left brain's concept of time is strictly "ordering", not flow.  Time in the left brain is discrete and not continuous.  Events unfolding over time in the world become in the left brain a discrete series of symbolic events.  This (re)ordering of events is especially useful for planning and carrying out plans.  The left brain can "play" with the ordering of events, even constructing orderings that it hasn't encountered before.  Then it can step through such a series of events and carry out very precise processes that have never been seen before.

With all the verbal mayhem going on in the left brain, there has to be a way for attention to be focused.  In a previous post I referred to this process as "choosing" without going into what it involves.  In practical terms "choosing" involves activation levels of neural networks in the left brain.  Each neural network corresponds to one of the elements in the verbal jumble referred to earlier.  The activation level of a neural network depends on many factors: the strength and number of symbol activations, the emotional impact of the activations, and the state (mood) of the brain (meaning what other networks are activated.)  Not least is habituation, in which activations that we experience more tend to happen more.  Unless a network is continually reinforced, its activation decays with time, so it will likely be replaced by another network/thought/idea/concept.  Thus our attention moves from thing to thing.

One of our many choices is to attend to the right brain view directly.  When this happens, the words stop, we notice our peripheral vision, and other senses may report.  We almost always then notice something interesting.  The right brain will usually direct the eyes to it, which almost always activate a left-brain, verbal network enough to start some story ("That's a cumulus cloud".)  So we tend not to attend directly to the right brain's view for very long before we find ourselves attending to one of the many neural patterns in the left brain.

One characteristic of left-brain activity is that it takes a bit of time.  Sensory input has to activate symbols, which in turn activate multiple neural nets, which then have to be arbitrated among, each step of which takes time.  While the right brain can mediate appropriate responses to stimuli in a handful of milliseconds ("duck!"), the left brain can take hundreds of milliseconds to appropriately attend.  Thus, our normal lives (walking, driving, lovemaking, etc.) are mediated by the right brain.  At the same time the right brain is performing these actions, the left brain is participating as a voyeur.  This leaves it free to think about things that have nothing to do with the activity at hand or create stories about the activity that may not be entirely true.  Even if it attends and doesn't prevaricate, its experience is at best a series of symbol activations.

This brings us to a central conundrum: the left brain lies.  When you ask a person about an activity, it is the left brain that responds, because it controls speech.  To answer the question the left brain will have to mediate among various activations that occurred during the activity, and the right brain view is only one of them.  The choice of what activation to report is a complex consideration of survival, advantage, habit, time to respond, and myriad other factors.  If the measure is objective reality, only the right brain view is true, and the left brain may not choose to report it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

How the right brain abides

I wanted to provide a description of how the right brain resides in the world, but I failed.  To put it in a post, I have to use words, and words immediately make it all sound like the left brain.

If you want to get an idea of what your right brain is like, read My Stroke of Insight, especially the chapter "Morning of the Stroke".  At that point she was living entirely in her right brain, and she describes what she remembers it feeling like.  Of course, anything she writes is suspect because she has the same problem I do, her thoughts must be translated by her (largely recovered) left brain.  The description is also suspect because it is a description of a right brain that has just lost its lifelong partner, essentially a fraternal twin, and is both bereft and fighting for survival.

When you open your eyes, the right brain soaks in everything in the visual field.  It connects to the world it sees, and knows where it is in the 3D world.  It listens to the world.  It knows where the sounds come from, and connects the sounds to the 3D world it sees.  It feels every part of the world you are touching and adds that to its integrated understanding of the world.  The same with smells.  All this happens without any effort on your part, and it continues as long as you are awake. 

The right brain craves sensory stimulation. The head turns.  The eyes scan.  The fingers explore.  The body locomotes.  The right brain wants more connection.  It craves complexity.  The right brain will often rest in fractal complexity, such as a tree or a mountain or a flock of birds flying or a rich work of art or clouds.  The right brain sees a fully 3D world, with a full understanding of the concept of depth in all it perceives.

The right brain recognizes changes in the visual field.  In the periphery it will notice small changes in luminosity and shift the eyes (and head if necessary) to more fully see it.  It can recognize many things.  Some things like snake-shapes and spider shapes may come from our genes.  Others are learned (via the right-left-right paradigm).  For some of those things the right brain initiates instinctive or learned responses.  For others, it alerts the left brain.   All the while soaking in the world and seeking more.

The most complex thing the right brain recognizes is the face.  The right brain tries to find faces everywhere: human faces, pet faces, other animal faces, even insect faces, all turned at different angles.  It not only finds them, it identifies them from the subtlest of cues.  While it is identifying a face, it is also reading subtle (and not so subtle) emotional cues, so we can look at a face and instantly recognize what that being is feeling (though not flawlessly.)  Then we can tell where the face's eyes are looking in the 3D space that surrounds us.  Then we can read the dynamics of a face (and its body) to predict its behavior (again, not flawlessly), all before the name of the face owner pops into our conscious thought.

The same goes for all sensory fields.  The healthy right brain wants to touch and be touched.  It hears the environment.  It pays attention to the brain's mental states.  These things go on whether you are attending to them or not, and the right brain will try to get the attention of your consciousness when something interesting or important happens.

The primary effect of this robust connection with sensory input and attraction to complexity is that the right brain perceives connections with everything it surveys.  It doesn't 'think' about the connections in any conventional sense: it resides in those connections.  It a very real sense it is those connections.  The right brain doesn't perceive boundaries between itself and the world of its senses.  It doesn't even perceive boundaries between the various things it perceives.  It perceives patterns in a unified landscape of sensual data.

The right brain lives in time as much as it lives in the 3D space of its senses.  The right brain experiences time as a continuous flow of changing sensory input, reasonably calibrated with real time.  Events not only happen in order, but intermediate events are experienced and remembered for just about every two events.

The right brains spends its time and energy resting in the continuity of the connections it has with the greater world as the world changes over time.  It reports to the left brain many interesting patterns it recognizes, and it does this tirelessly, providing a reliable context for the more frenetic activity of the left brain.