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Left & Right Brains - A Law of Nature?

· Brains and minds

Humans, and many other species, have available at least two perceptual windows on the universe: the Right hemisphere and the Left hemisphere.

Jill Bolte-Taylor, brain scientist and Left-hemisphere stroke survivor, after she became intimately and separately acquainted with her own brain hemispheres, describes the Right hemisphere:

“…adventurous and celebrative of abundance…empathic and accurately decodes emotion. My right mind is open to the eternal flow whereby I exist at one with the universe. It is my intuition and higher consciousness…My right mind is open to new possibilities. It is not limited by the rules and regulations established by my left mind that created that box. It appreciates that chaos is the first step in the creative process…(and) cares about our mental health as a society, and our relationship with Mother Earth.”

On the other hand she says that the Left hemisphere:

“…is a magnificient multitasker…and focuses on differences and distinguishing characteristics…thinks sequentially.”

But also, “the most prominent characteristics of our left brain is its ability to weave stories…designed to make sense of the world outside of us, based upon minimal amounts of information…our left brain is brilliant in its ability to make stuff up, and fill in the blanks when there are gaps in its factual data.”

Whether or not located on the left or right sides of the brain, there do seem to be two ways of being.

The so-called Left hemisphere is all about bringing the ego into existence and defining it, it’s rank/power/authority, and defining the physical limits of the body. The Left hemisphere compares every moment with the previous moments, and so concocts memories into plausible narratives that extend into the future. It’s all about doing. Part of the difficulty of the human condition is that we believe these narratives, even though they are pure fiction.

The Left brain has language and so, in coordination with the narratives it constructs, it produces planning, worrying, blaming, agonising.

But the so-called Right hemisphere is tied up with the present moment - the nature of existing right now. It’s about being. The Right brain understands our place within webs of relationships.

Our minds use both of these schemes simultaneously. When we find ourselves trapped in patterns of automatic response, usually negative or cynical, that’s the Left brain dominating us. The Left brain is a phenomenal problem solving and organiser, but this comes at a cost.

Unfortunately the Right brain has no language, so the Left brain is able to pull a great trick: it fools us into ignoring our Right brain, or even disbelieving in its existence.

This is the interesting question: does this dichotomy say something fundamental about the universe itself? If consciousness is a fundamental entity, like an electron, then it must do.

Split-brain experiments have proven that our brains contain at least these two distinct personalities, and most likely very many - hence all the competing voices: “Get out of bed! Stay in bed. Eat that doughnut. Don’t eat it! You need to read more books. You need to see your friends more often. You need to consider yourself more!”

We each feel that we have a single seamless perception, but that’s an illusion.

Daniel Kahneman characterises the two selves as the ‘Remembering and experiencing selves’:

Kahneman’s ‘Remembering self’ (telling stories of the past and the future) is the Left hemisphere of the brain, and his ‘Experiencing self’ is the right hemisphere, keyed into the here and now.

Ethnic systems the world over have understood throughout history that there are several ways of being in the world, and have expressed this in various ways.

Buddhist and yogic/Vedantic ideas suggest that the universe was created as a single conscious entity, but fractured into innumerable parts that, without teaching, cannot see past their apparent separateness. Further, it is destiny for these parts to slowly find their ways back together into a union.

Asimov had a solution to this in his short story The Last Question: as the universe runs towards the final heat death trillions of years from now, all the minds in the universe will eventually merge with a a final universe-spanning computer.

The wise men of Hawaii - the Kahunas - teach that there are three levels of self/soul. We are only normally aware of the middle one (Uhane - conscious - the Left brain?). We attempt to contact the upper level (Aumakua - super-consciousness) but can only do so via the lower level (Unihipili - subconscious - R brain?).

The Kahuna super-conscious is considered to be older, wiser, parental. The conscious has reasoning and logic but cannot remember. The subconscious can remember but not reason.

Jung talked about the conscious (middle self, or Ego), personal unconscious (middle self), and the collective unconscious. In this scheme, the conscious is what Freud called the Ego, and it's this that generates a sense of separateness (Left brain). The conscious presides over the personal unconsciousness (Self, or Right brain?). The collective unconsciousness has also been called the Divine Ground, and the Self abuts against the Divine Ground.

broken image

So, the Ego wants to contact the divine, but it can't do that directly. The contact must be mediated through the Self. (Diagram from Steve Pressfield's wonderful 'The War of Art'.)

In other words, the Left brain can't communicate with the divine, nor even conceive of what that might entail. But the Right brain can, if temporarily, merge with the divine.

We live mostly inside our conscious, and this - like the Left brain - tricks us into believing that it’s the totality of our awareness - that it's all that we can be. But systems of thought throughout all times and cultures have repeatedly suggested that we don't just have one mind, but are contained within this triple structure.

There’s usually an upper house that we seek to reach, but can do so only via the lower level.

We meditate or undergo ascetic practices to seek harmony and unity, but mindfulness teachers teach us that we must first ‘drop into the body’.

The Christian Father-Son-Spirit trinity is a similar system. The son, Jesus, is a proxy for the human race, and to merge with the Father we must invoke the Holy Spirit.

The cosmologist and philosopher David Deutsch makes an argument in his book The Beginning of Infinity that there are intangible concepts that are as fundamental as any law of physics. He gives the example of beauty. Beauty, in the form of flowers, transcends species, being available to both insects, birds and people.

Personally I think that the real commonality might lie deeper - perhaps patterns in general. There are many examples of beauty - attractiveness amongst members of any particular species for example - that are undoubtedly meaningless across species. But there are surely many other similar entities equally fundamental, growth, abundance, diversity, convergence, potentiality, for example.

Most of what we observe in the universe loses comprehensibility if we attempt to reduce it to particles, therefore we must attempt to understand it as something fundamental at its own level. The nature of feedback, and probably consciousness, for example.

Therefore could it be that Left brain perception and Right brain perception are fundamental cogs in the machine of the universe?

Indeed Prof Deutsch makes a mathematical argument that all physics can be simulated, and that, as the human brain is an generalised simulation machine, therefore all physics is knowable.

So, if we can make reasoned and possibly true, arguments linking the human brain to fundamental physics, might it be that minds, embodied by brains, are fundamental entities?

For Darwinian survival of individuals, perhaps it’s essential that beings evolve an means of discriminating between ‘me’ and ’other’? This is the job of the Left hemisphere.

And if beings exist within a network, they also must surely have a perceptual system for understanding the relationships in which they’re embedded? The role of the Right hemisphere.

But what is the bare minimum for intelligent consciousness? Isn’t it that, as Gregory Bateson wrote, consciousness exists within a hierarchy of logical types. That minds, which are these hierarchies, receive information from the environment and continuously adapt to it - that this adaption is in fact learning.

Does this presuppose the Left and Right brain ways of perceiving? Maybe not.

Or maybe they are. Perhaps these Left and Right brain ways of perceiving are elemental, existential, universal, within the universe? As fundamental as wave-particle duality and gravity.

If we encountered alien minds, would we find that, like us, they have these same two modes of perceiving?

Alternately, could there be other forms of mind, as complex as human, which use a different system? Perhaps other - alien - minds could divide the information universe up differently?

How does an octopus see the world? We and they diverged two to three-hundred million years ago. So presumably an octopus, provably intelligent, perceives the world radically differently.

Probably I should read this book:

A related problem is that within human experience fear and anger can't coexist. This is because these two emotions are generated within the amygdala, which can only hold one at any moment. But is this mutual exclusivity an existential fact of the universe, of is there a possible brain connectivity that allows fear and anger to be experienced simultaneously?

Just as our emotions are probably more complex than those of a mouse, so brains more powerful than humans’, or super-intelligent AI, might experience emotional states, and superpositions of states, entirely different from ours.