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TWO MINDS IN ONE BRAIN: The Hemisphere Hypothesis

Updated: May 16, 2023

By Michael C. Patterson

The MIND OVER MUDDLE podcast series from MINDRAMP is inspired by the scholarship of Iain McGilchrest, particularly his hemisphere hypothesis as explained in his 2009 book, THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY and is 2019 opus, THE MATTER WITH THINGS: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. It’s an amazing work.

As one reviewer put it, quote - “It’s very simple: this is one of the most important books ever published. And, yes, I do mean ever.”

McGilchrist’s hemisphere hypothesis is a foundational framework for our exploration. It is the rudder that keeps our ship on the right course. As such, it would be good to spend some time exploring the hypothesis.

McGilchrist’s simple statement of the hypothesis is that:

“The bi-hemispheric structure of the brain makes possible attending to the world simultaneously in two otherwise incompatible ways.”

As he points out, however, this statement is deceptively simple. The grand hypothesis gives rise immediately to a number of further hypotheses.

The “Bi-hemispheric structure of the brain.” The human brain, like most brains is divided into two hemispheres. Each hemisphere attends to the world is “incompatible” ways. One hemisphere, the RH, offers a view of the world that is grounded in sensory input. It is a better reflection of what is actually going on. For the sake of simplicity, we will call this the “real world view.”

The other hemisphere, the LH, is like a virtual reality version of the real world. It steps back from what is actually going on and creates re-presentations of the world that can be used to examine, investigate, and to make plans for the future. We will call this the virtual reality view.

So, the two hemispheres offer us the simultaneous benefit of a real world view and a virtual world view that are profoundly different from one another. Both operate at the same time. We live and operate in the real world and, at the same time, are informed and guided by insights and instructions offered to us by the virtual reality version. When the two perspectives are coordinated, we get a richer perspective on what is going on. But, this perspective must, ultimately, end up in the right hemisphere with the real world perspective. We live, after all, in the real world, not in a virtual reality world.

There are times, however, when the two hemispheres fail to collaborate. Most often this happens when the LH decides to take over. One characteristic of the RH is that it understands the value of the LH perspective and strives to cooperate. The LH, however, prefers the world of its own invention and is happy to go it alone.

When the LH takes over, we become alienated from the real world and get lost in the matrix of a make-believe world. For, what I hope are obvious reasons, living in a make-believe world is confusing, disorienting, alienating and often bizarre. Living in a world seen exclusively through the LH is like living the world of a schizophrenic or someone who has experienced profound damage to the right hemisphere. We will go into more depth on these point in subsequent podcasts.

Suffice it to say, for now, that the LH perspective, without the moderating effect of the RH perspective, is pathological. It causes all kinds of conflict and confusion and makes us do crazy things. LH dominance causes pain and suffering in individuals. And in The MIND OVER MUDDLE podcast series we explore ways that we can restore a collaborative flow between the hemispheres and, in so doing, decrease some of the pain and confusion we suffer.

At the same time, we need to look beyond the individual to the collective pathology that plagues our society. Individuals who are under the say of LH dominance create societal structures and institutions that reflect the skewed perspective of the LH. History seems to swing from balanced societies to unbalanced societies and we are stuck in the latter condition. LH perspectives has infiltrated all aspects of our civilization and is causing us all to go crazy. What is so dangerous about this historical swing towards LH dominance is that we have invented tools powerful enough to cause our own destruction and the destruction of life on earth. Self destruction is not a healthy behavior. So, in addition to looking at individual solutions, we will also try to figure out ways to rebalance hemispheric collaboration as reflected in our politics, economy, laws and philosophies.

In very broad strokes there are three strategies for restoring hemispheric balance. Simple to state - perhaps not that simple to achieve. But, they do, at least, provide clear objectives. So, to restore collaborative flow and cooperation between the two hemispheres of our brain, we must:

1. Resist LH dominance

2. Embrace RH modes and bolster the influence of RH thinking, and

3. Encourage collaboration of the two modes, giving the final say to the RH.

Make sure that the Empress avails herself of the advice and guidance her Deputy provides - but make sure she has the final say. She is the one grounded in reality.

Once we have identified these three strategies, we can begin to recognize them in a number of historical mind-management systems. The MIND OVER MUDDLE podcast will explore, for example, how Buddhism, Taoism, Zen, Christian mysticism, psychotherapy, art, exercise, and even psychedelic rituals strive, in their own way, to rebalance hemispheric perspectives that have become muddled. Fortunately, for us, these remedies are already available and have long histories of use, experimentation and refinement. People have made them work.

So, I hope you have a better understanding of Iain McGilchrist’s hemisphere hypothesis and how we plan to use it in this podcast series to figure out ways to un-muddle our minds, to reduce suffering, conflict and confusion and learn how to live long and, just as important, to live well.

I hope you will join me in this exploration buy subscibing to the MINDRAMP Podcast.

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