Divided (mind) we fall

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In a new RSAnimation, psychiatrist Iain McGilchristc revises the great divided brain debate, something I discuss in my book, Mediacology. To recap, in the ’70s the idea that the left and right brain hemispheres serve different cognitive functions entered into popular culture (represented by books such as Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain). In The Global Village, Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers run with this concept, arguing how different kinds of media favor or bias the cognitive processing of our brains. Reading and writing are distinctly left brained, whereas nonlinear media like TV and music are favored by the right hemisphere.

Leonard Shlain presents his main thesis

Many authors posit that writing has turned us into an overly rational and patriarchal culture. In the Alphabet Versus the Goddess, neurosurgeon Leonard Shlain argues that writing mimics the same mental processes of hunting: the pen replaces the spear.

McGilchrist doesn’t contradict these arguments. Rather he points out that it’s not an either or situation. Sight and sound are processed by both sides of the brain, but what happens is that the left hemisphere handles detailed and focused thinking, whereas the right hemisphere deals with field-like vision or hearing. Consider how we differentiate between seeing and watching, and listening and hearing.

What I find intriguing about the animation (a mix of both right and left brain media), is the possibility that sustainable behavior comes from cultivating right brain thinking. This is what I argued for in my book, but this video does a much better job of articulating how that’s possible. My main point was that traditional media literacy was mainly left-brained, because it focuses on reductionist deconstruction techniques, whereas new media involve right brain skills, and therefor should be incorporated into the concept of media literacy.

He points out that the right brain’s job is to inhibit immediate responses to situations so that we can use our wit and empathy to work out solutions. It also helps map and simplify the world so that we can make better sense of it. Metaphor, implicit meaning, body language, embodied experience, and a disposition for living rather than mechanical reality characterize the right brain approach to the world.

The machine model is self consistent because it made itself so. It’s what he calls the “Berlusconi of the brain” because it controls all the “media”– the right hemisphere doesn’t have a voice. The left brain model of the world is like a hall of mirrors, a reality bubble. And this is exactly the kind of problem I see in media theory which rarely challenges the mechanical model of cognition and communication. This is also why I believe media theory has not significantly tackled ecology (not in the “systems” sense, but in the sustainability sense).

Finally, McGilchrist argues knowledge within the left hemisphere is a closed system that demands perfection. By contrast, the right hemisphere’s understanding of the world is an open system.

In the end, it’s not reason versus imagination, he says, but both working together. You can’t have one without the other. The problem with our current world system is that it’s based on a closed, machine-like model of the world built by an unbalanced, and ultimately, insane mind. To restore sanity, we need to re-balance how we perceive the world and ourselves.

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