Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Right brain/left brain and Religion/faith

For some years I was on a discussion list that purported to find a way to unity amongst Christian denominations.  At one time it had representatives from a range of churches, but in recent years there were mainly traditionalist Anglicans, some Catholics and occasional visits from extremists of various sorts.  It was going nowhere in terms of Christian unity, so I asked a Baptist friend who had no fear of engaging in dialogue to join as I wanted to  see what would  happen.  Well, it became obvious that the long term members could only think of  'the church' in terms of carefully defined and delineated structures, bound with clear rules. I could see at last why the purpose of this discussion list would never be realized, as they could not think outside the very precisely measured box they had constructed for themselves.

Today, I happened on a talk given by an English psychiatrist about the physical and mental structure and architecture of the human brain and mind - the old left brain/right brain dichotomy updated where the dichotomous was amputated from this understanding and replaced with a holistic view - but one which noted the particular features each hemisphere brought to this whole.

After watching it, I realized that the members of the fruitless discussion list all saw their faith from a left hemisphere dominant mode of thinking.  They were rational, but not reasoning - that is, they focussed on the particular and could not see the whole.  A properly functioning brain uses both to give us a full idea of the nature of life.  The left brain according to this psychiatrist [Dr. Iain McGilchrist] functions to focus narrowly and perceive in a wholly scientific mode - a kind of dissection of life into component parts, a view of life as a machine to be studied and which functions in a machine like fashion.  The right brain has the primary function of seeing holistically - of seeing life in a whole context.  Both are necessary to living, but our modern world gives primacy to the left hemisphere's view.  Hence we have constructed a world - which he opines began with the industrial revolution and the lifestyles necessary to the operation of industrialism - which has as its essence, the cogs in a machine view of life.  The now secondary right brain which sees life as a holistic, integrated, interoperating system, has been relegated to entertainment, rather than the serious business of functioning in the world.

Dr. McGilchrist did not talk about religion.  But immediately I began to see the left brain dominant position of the members of this list I had finally abandoned.

In religion, extremists are modernists in this sense - an irony indeed, in that they view religion as a rigid set of rules and practices that must be controlled and never deviated from - while ordinary believers, see religion in its context, as a part of a whole and full life, but which can be altered to fit reality, as it is part of reality.  A balanced mentality sees the left brain need for some structure, some large box to put it in those terms, or you do have chaos, but also sees that like all of life, context is vital and flexibility is more so to function within a context.

Anyway, I will probably view this talk again - and if I can scrape together the money, buy his book [alas, my finances are handled by my right hemisphere!].

I found the video in the excellent Big Ideas series by TVOntario - far better talks in my estimation that the much better known TED talks as the speakers here go into greater depth, not being limited to 10 or 15 minutes of sound bites while striding around a stage....

Here is the link:

Dr. Iaian Gilchrist: The Divided Brain