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.

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