Bicameral Brain

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Alexander Beiner:

"McGilchrist argues that we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater in not taking seriously the fundamental role our bicameral brain plays in our lives. Understanding the different ways in which the left and right hemispheres of perceive, gives us an essential insight into not just into ourselves, but into our history and the development of culture itself. McGilchrist argues that civilisation thrives when these two hemispheres are in balance. When the left hemisphere’s perspective begins to dominate, and we rely too much on rational, reductive knowing, civilisation starts to fray.

The Left Hemisphere

In very broad terms, the left hemisphere is focused on what we already know. It has narrow, focused attention to detail. It perceives bodies as an assemblage of individual parts. It is a master of abstraction, constantly breaking things (and people) into their component parts. It has clarity and the power to manipulate things that are already known, explicit, and general. However, it is also a closed system, and finds it hard to conceive of this things it doesn’t know. Despite this, is certain that it definitely does know. It is important to point out that both hemispheres are involved in both reason and emotion, so the old model of the left hemisphere as the coldly rational side is inaccurate. It does, however, have a kind of coldness to its perception. McGilchrist describes the left hemisphere’s gestalt as ‘perfection bought at the price of emptiness’. McGilchrist argues that the left-hemisphere has come to dominate our way of perceiving. It lies behind the materialist paradigm that influences so many of our ways of thinking. It lies behind the cold, machine-like certainty in our own maps. If we walk through the woods selecting for and relying on the kind of knowing that our left hemisphere gives us, we will likely venture further and further into darkness, all the while firm in our certainty that we’re on our way out.

The Right Hemisphere

The right hemisphere, McGilchrist points out, is more responsible for interpreting what we don’t know. Its focus is sustained, broad, open, vigilant and alert. It sees things in context, understands implicit meaning. It thrives with metaphor, and understands body language. In a particularly cogent example, McGilchrist draws on case studies of artists who have had a stroke in the left hemisphere (meaning the right hemisphere becomes more dominant). Very often their art becomes more creative, unusual and bolder. He compares this an example of a man who had a stroke in his right hemisphere so that the left hemisphere had to pick up the cognitive slack. When the doctor came in and asked, ‘how are you feeling?’ he responded without any irony, ‘with my hands’.

The right hemisphere lives in an embodied world; a world full of individuals, not just categories. Its universe is never fully graspable, never perfectly known. It has a broad, contextual understanding, and sees people as people rather than assembled parts." (


Left vs Right

Alexander Beiner:

"McGilchrist has argued that we’ve been drifting “further to the left hemisphere’s point of view” — hyper-rational, reductionist and certain. Nowhere is this more evident than in a raging Twitter feud between two or more memetic tribes.

McGilchrist points out that anger and aggression are heavily lateralised to the left hemisphere. Contrary to 1980’s pop science, the left hemisphere does get emotional. However it does so in a kind of constructed fantasy world. It is, despite its certainty, not particularly reliable and tends to jump to conclusions. Research shows that the right hemisphere is actually more sophisticated at judgement.

As McGilchrist often says, the answer is not to swing the pendulum the other way and call for a right-hemisphere dominated society. It is to find a balance and harmony between the two perspectives we carry around. Taoism provides a useful model: opposites don’t need to exist in opposition, they imply one another. The split in our brains is ancient and not easy to overcome, so this requires awareness and practice." (

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