As I listened to reports of conflict in Jerusalem earlier this month with the rare convergence of Easter, Passover and Ramadan taking place, I noted with unease how the media thrives on reporting the polarisation and division within societies and cultures across the world.
With its roots in science, psychiatry and philosophy Ian McGilchrist’s ‘The Master and his Emissary’ (2013) is in essence about reconciling people and planet; proposing a radical rethinking of the relationship between our two brain hemispheres to offer us a fresh perspective on division and cooperation beyond the personal to the collective realm. McGilchrist argues that valuing collaboration between the two sides of the brain could abate the catastrophic consequences of our dominant left hemisphere culture.
Whilst simplified notions of ‘hemispheric asymmetry’ had long been debunked by advances in neuro-imaging, McGilchrist continued to be nagged by this question; why had the human brain become more not less divided over the course of human evolution?
McGilchrist describes the left hemisphere, with its control of the right ‘grasping’ hand, as the predator part of our brain with an ability to focus attention and abstract detail by setting itself apart from the world. Thinking in words and processing information sequentially, it uses past experience to generate conceptual maps to predict the future, disregarding what it doesn’t know or understand to create a knowable universe that can be controlled. Giving rise to an ‘I Am’ certainty, the left hemisphere when unchecked can, McGilchrist says, have a shadow side of ignorance and arrogance, isolating parts from wholeness in a way that allows humans to mine and pollute the planet .
In contrast, the right hemisphere has an open awareness befitting of ‘prey’ mind where holding uncertainty, ambiguity and paradox may just be life saving. Receiving present moment information through the nervous system, the right hemisphere is embodied experience; learning kinaesthetically and thinking in pictures and metaphor. As a somatic therapist I know well the silence that falls when I ask a person to describe the sensations or emotions they are noticing in their body; the left verbal brain is searching for words to match the bodily experience but can’t always find them when often image arises much more easily. The right hemisphere is vital to our sense of connection to and non-verbal communication with others. As humans we are hardwired for emotional and physical connection and research shows this is to be an inter-personal right brain to right brain interaction with the right hemisphere developing first and faster and remaining dominant during the first few years of life as we attach to our caregivers.
With its innate sense of belonging, the right hemisphere is in touch with the world’s mystery and is identified by McGilchrist as the true master. His theory proposes a divided brain (and society) can only find balance when the left hemisphere remembers its role as emissary and returns its analysis back to the master to be viewed within the complexity of living systems. With brain opposites in a dynamic process of exchange, a more unified consciousness can arise, one symbolically represented in the sign of YinYang and the prayer gesture.
I invite you to join me in noticing from which hemisphere you are offering or being offered a view of the world in any given moment, and perhaps with more awareness of which place we are attending from, we can contribute towards a collective shift from division to healing and wholeness.
Finally!…I highly recommend you watch Jill Bolte Taylor’s TedTalk, My Stroke of Insight, a moving account by a neuro scientist of her personal experience of a right hemisphere stroke and what she discovered when cooperation between the two sides was not possible.
Ali ROSE is a Registered Somatic Therapist, combining talking, clothed touch and movement to support you physically, emotionally and psychologically. Recognising body and mind as inseparable we give space to what the body knows and support the body-mind integration of life experiences. Click HERE to find out more about her individual therapy work.