Our brains have numerous functioning parts, all of which serve us at any one moment. But decades of research reveal the existence of two basic brain “operating systems”—two fundamental ways in which the whole brain processes incoming information. Because of this phenomenon of brain dominance, most of us tend to favor the input of either our “dualistic” left-brain (which focuses on parts instead of wholes) or our holistic right hemisphere. This means that typically only half of our innate intelligence informs our thinking—and since the left-brain operating system dominates most males, our culture has itself become left-brain dominant.
How Whole Brain Thinking Can Save the Future explores this left-brain bias in our civilization, revealing it to be the root cause for centuries of war, racism, and political polarization—and eons of misunderstanding between the sexes. While most of our technological and scientific progress is driven by left-brain thinking, the great advances to come will require that we consciously harness both sides of our brain to greatly improve our cognition. Award-winning author James Olson goes on to explain how we can achieve greater internal harmony between the two operating systems of the brain—both as individuals and as a culture—thus showing us how ad why thinking with our whole brains will lead us to peace and to the ultimate healing of our relationships and our world.
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How Whole Brain Thinking Can Save the Future
Why Left Hemisphere Dominance Has Brought Humanity to the Brink of Disaster and How We Can Think Our Way to Peace and Healing
By James Olson
Origin PressCopyright © 2017 James Olson
All rights reserved.
Brain Lateralization: The Big Picture
Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.
— Albert Einstein
In 1981 Roger Wolcott Sperry was awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine for his pioneering work investigating the effects of the lateral split in the human brain on consciousness. Among his discoveries, he found that the two brain hemispheres could actually be viewed as separate, conscious systems. While seeming to work as one, their individual contributions were so different that they were sometimes in conflict. Nobelprize.org gives us an insider's perspective on the truly revolutionary significance of Sperry's discoveries:
Until these patients were studied, it had been doubted whether the right hemisphere was even conscious. By devising ways of communicating with the right hemisphere, Sperry could show that this hemisphere is, to quote him: "indeed a conscious system in its own right, perceiving, thinking, remembering, reasoning, willing, and emoting, all at a characteristically human level, and ... both the left and the right hemisphere may be conscious simultaneously in different, even in mutually conflicting, mental experiences that run along in parallel."
Many individuals have played a role in discovering that the two hemispheres provide us with independent systems of perception, but one of the earliest of many steps that led to this discovery was the surgical separation of the brain hemispheres of a cat by Sperry's graduate student Ronald Myers in the mid-1950s at the University of Chicago. Research was done "to test how information from one eye came together inside the brain with information from the other." A lateral division was made in the brain so that information coming into the cat's left eye went only to its left brain and information coming into the right eye went only to the right brain. Meyer's tests confirmed that the division "eliminated the normal information mixing at the base of the brain." This discovery unleashed a barrage of research and eventually led to the conclusion that the two hemispheres were each conscious.
Prior to these findings, the right hemisphere of the brain (referring here to the way the brain is organized in most people, but not in everyone) was viewed by many scientists as decidedly inferior in function to the left hemisphere, largely because of the association of the left hemisphere with language in most people. (That is why, for example, strokes often cause impaired ability to speak and use language: most strokes affect the left hemisphere.) But, while certain linguistic abilities originate primarily in the left brain, language involves far more factors than the ability to choose or speak a word or sentence, and without the right hemisphere's contributions many linguistic abilities — the ability to understand metaphor, for example — would disappear. Perhaps the most unique contribution of the right hemisphere is the ability to comprehend the whole — to present a holistic, whole-picture view, without which the left hemisphere, with all its superb ability to analyze and dissect, would get lost in its narrow perspective. This difference between hemispheres has been shown again and again to be critical, even when taking into account all the ways that the brain's hemispheres can engage in duplicative functions.
As with other revolutionary ideas and discoveries, this split-brain research — or, rather, the ideas and beliefs that it spawned — soon took the public by storm. And with good reason. By the 1960s, psychedelics, meditation, biofeedback, mysticism, and Eastern religions were all spreading across America and Europe, and the climate was ripe for exploring holistic thinking. The idea that the right brain hemisphere — far from being the minor, secondary, or even "stupid" half of the brain — could transform our lives, enhance our experience, increase our creative abilities, and create a state of meditative equilibrium, was irresistible.
As a result, by the 1970s a whole industry of right-brain-enhancement books and products began to appear, and even educational and cultural theories — from the worthy to the ridiculous — began to sprout that would, at least in theory, add to the understanding of ourselves.
Among the most positive developments — and foreshadowing a key theme of the present book — was a recognition, at least in some quarters, that the individual cannot be separated from the larger culture, and many of the imbalances we see in everything from family life to international affairs and the way we treat Mother Earth are due to our culture's favoring of the left brain hemisphere (a subject that we will delve into in great detail in this book).
Nevertheless, the appeal of the brain-lateralization discoveries in the popular mind eventually created credibility issues and resulted in a backlash among many mainstream scientists, who ignored, dismissed, or undermined these findings. Brain-lateralization research did not come to an end, but it certainly was greatly slowed down. Indeed, this backlash was in no small part a result of the left brain's over attention to small details at the expense of the whole, which it was incapable of seeing and reporting on.
One can find precedents for scientific shifts in attitude where subjects once considered worthy were then later marginalized. For example, a little over a century ago, within parts of the scientific community there was much interest in research into the psychic realm and on the positive value of mystical and altered states. An excellent example of science's constructive role in exploring these areas is the pioneering work of America's preeminent experimental psychologist, William James. But fears and other factors eventually contributed to a near-total rift between mainstream scientific studies and sympathetic explorations into the religious life and the paranormal. Although serious research into these areas is done today, these areas of inquiry are still verboten among most mainstream scientists.
The understandable desire of the public to know more about the functional differences between the hemispheres and the scarcity of available peer-reviewed information generated excessive speculation and created a gap between the interest of the public and that of the scientific community. It takes time to conduct experiments and then replicate them to the point where it can be said that something has been more or less scientifically proven. Starting out with relatively little data and dealing with a highly complex subject, it is not surprising that scientists found themselves unable to come to agreement on how to characterize the two hemispheres.
With speculation so far ahead of the hard, peer-reviewed science, the scientists tended to take a skeptical stance toward any possibilities that the peer-reviewed literature had not confirmed. Scientists tend to pride themselves on their rigor, but it can lead to the false assumption that objectivity — and therefore truth — can be discovered only through adherence to rigorous protocols. Speculation, like anecdotal evidence, seems to suggest the opposite of rigor, thus triggering an automatic reflex of condemnation — never mind that some of the greatest scientific breakthroughs have been achieved by dreamers who were not afraid of speculation.
There are also, undoubtedly, simple human elements at work here. Scientists, like nearly all of us, are subject to garden-variety peer pressure, especially where prestige (the esteem of their colleagues), promotions, and funding are involved. Thus there is great pressure to create bodies of professional, formal, peer-reviewed, and peer-approved research based on strict protocols and methodologies.
For all these reasons, functional lateralization itself has become suspect among a large percentage of the scientific community and science journalists. In today's academic climate, the study of the brain's broad hemispheric differences is still discouraged, not unlike the way that academia often rejects interdisciplinary studies — as if the truth were found only in the narrowest, most dissected view. Media writers in turn have their own pressures, which have led to many distortions over the years on both the "lay" side (speculation run rampant) and the "science" side (excessive dismissiveness) of the discussion.
As I have already suggested, one of the purposes of this book is to redress this imbalance. Another is to bring the big picture more fully into our personal, cultural, and political life — meaning, to promote a greater awareness of the context and its relationships. And, as Iain McGilchrist states, "Part of that context is the nature of the mind that does the knowing." This very basic fact has been recognized by philosophers for centuries, but it has become all but ignored in many mainstream scientific circles. We cannot know reality without knowing the mind, which includes knowing the brain. It is my intention here to reassemble that which has been disassembled. We will take a fresh look at the paired structure that Sperry discovered and, through a better understanding of its dichotomy, seek its unity.
How does this book's focus differ from the usual scientific discussion? For one thing, scientists tend to focus on the tasks that the hemispheres perform for us, the things they do. I am going to focus on the processes they use to manage those tasks, and the character of those processes. Each hemisphere's system has its own unique processing characteristics governing what it/we are seeing and doing at any moment. Another way of describing this difference might be in terms of its energetics. We will be seeking to understand the character of the energies through which the hemispheres accomplish their tasks — energies such as focused and diffuse, linear and nonlinear, polarizing and unifying, egoic and altruistic, violent and peaceful.
We will also look at some of the more fascinating recent scientific studies and some potential implications in personal areas, such as sexuality, that influence — and in turn are influenced by — the collective, cultural "brain." We accept the results of recent scientific studies that suggest the brain consists of "multiple dynamic mental systems" — but we also recognize that aggregates of things can simultaneously be both multiple and paired, and even a unity, such as we find in a team (of more than two people) sporting event. Thus, contrary to the prevailing view, recent research does not nullify, but rather it elaborates on, the split-brain findings of the mid-20th century.
Two Versions of Reality
As mentioned earlier, perhaps the most telling significance in the brain's lateral split has to do with the very different perspective of each of the brain's hemispheres. The right brain (in a typical individual) provides the big picture and the overarching context — in other words, it provides a holistic perspective. It sees the world as a unified whole, and where apparent divisions exist it can find common ground. The left brain performs a complementary function (although it often appears contradictory instead of complementary): it identifies and explains the parts and catalogues differences, and its function is to "take things apart" — in other words, to search for differences and uncover details. We refer to this perspective as dualistic because it creates polarities. In noticing differences, it obsessively finds "reasons" for things that may in some cases prove groundless. For example, in experiments in which the hemispheres have been isolated from each other, the left hemisphere has been shown to confabulate (fabricate) reasons for choices that the right hemisphere actually made, unbeknownst to the left, but that the left hemisphere thinks it made. Neither hemisphere alone can make us fully human, or give us a truly human culture, or discover what is true or wise. Neither hemisphere alone can set us on a course of human or spiritual progress, or give us solutions for saving our planet or creating a better future. Yet (and it bears repeating), in today's academic, political, and cultural climate, one hemisphere — the left, with its narrow, hyperfocused perspective — has taken on the role as the single arbiter of truth.
To discover the "why" of this imbalance in our personal and collective lives, we will examine how each of the hemispheres, through its operating system, acquires, processes, and conveys information from two sources, one internal (based on the forces of genetic dominance that give us our acquired nature) and one external, or cultural (based on nurture, or the messages of our culture). As each of these perspectives streams information to us, it in turn generates a response that is seen in our behaviors.
Our genetic dominance affects the relative balance or imbalance of information we receive from our two operating systems (or brain hemispheres). Ideally, the hemispheres work cooperatively. In many ways they already do, or we would be very limited in our ability to take in information, assess its importance, or communicate through the nuances of language and gesture. But most of us tend, in varying degrees, to favor one type of information processing over the other, and the consequences of this state of affairs can hardly be overstated.
In spite of the restrictions on our mental vision imposed by our genetic dominance, we have a variable perspective that we can exercise. Its restrictions are mostly self-imposed. There are ways to direct our attention that enhance and balance our brain function. We have all experienced "aha" moments when suddenly everything falls into place, or when we suddenly "get" what it's like to be in another's shoes, or when we are flooded with empathy for an individual we previously couldn't relate to, or when we suddenly discover the flaw in an argument or a calculation. This is holistic thinking, but it is also a unified consciousness in which both parts of the brain work seamlessly together in perfect cooperation. The problem is that these moments often seem random or dependent on outside factors beyond our control. What we need is the skill sets to be able to access this whole brain perspective at will. This requires that we learn how to direct our attention — a process that we will be discussing later, especially in the last chapter.
Our perspective informs our perception, or at least it does when we are paying attention. Perception is what we get when we process our perspective in light of our experience and bias. We might characterize the creation of perception as the personalization of perspective. Based on our perception, we then develop a response — a plan of action.
The Three Sources of Perspective
We have seen in the Introduction that our perspective (on the holistic/dualistic spectrum) derives from three sources: (1) our default (fixed) position on the spectrum, which is the result of genetic dominance and for most of us tends to be one-sided (dualistic or holistic); (2) the cultural feed that tells us what everyone else thinks and feels about the object of our attention — and a significant part of this cultural feed is also one-sided in our dualistic-dominant culture; and (3) our ability to access the full range of perspective (including the genetically recessive as well as dominant ends of the range) at will. Whereas the first of these sources is fixed by our genetic inheritance, the second source (involving cultural input) contains both fixed and variable elements. And the third source is entirely variable and depends on our exercising our own free will, combined with experience gained through practice.
Having this third source of perspective under our control allows us to consciously compensate for our genetic inheritance as well as for the limiting cultural inputs we have received at least since birth. We bring the freewill aspect of perspective to mind very simply through where we choose to direct our attention. It is our free will that enables us to access and incorporate both primary perspectives and achieve unity consciousness. Elsewhere in this book, especially in the final chapter, we will learn more about how to do this. But presently we will be devoting most of our attention to perspective's genetic base, since this base underlies the cultural and freewill perspectives we are trying to understand and use.
Attention and Perception
Our perception comes about as a result of the integration of information from these three sources of perspective into the body of information that is our belief system. Since the third, freewill source of perspective is under our control, and since we are largely able to accept or reject cultural inputs, our overall perception is a process over which we have considerable control. Perception is the result of the application of our experience, thought, and feeling to our perspective. In other words, perception takes place within familiar, personal territory, whereas perspective takes place at a level prior to personality. Perception may occur instantaneously, or over eons of evolution.
Our personal patterns of attention and perception are repeated at the cultural or collective level. Here too, consciousness is divided along the lines of the split of our brain into a team of two functionally different systems, each with its own perceptual characteristics. The broad political divide between liberals and conservatives is an example of this.
Excerpted from How Whole Brain Thinking Can Save the Future by James Olson. Copyright © 2017 James Olson. Excerpted by permission of Origin Press.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Holistic and Dualistic Systems in Action 19
Chapter 1 Brain Lateralization: The Big Picture 21
Chapter 2 The Nature of Holistic Operating Systems 35
Chapter 3 The Nature of Dualistic Operating Systems 47
Chapter 4 Gender War 61
Chapter 5 The Complexities of Sexual Orientation 73
Part 2 How Perspective and Brain Dominance Produce Polarization 87
Chapter 6 Parts, Wholes, and Holons: Satisfying Our Need for Wholeness 89
Chapter 7 Sacred Geometry's Role in Perception 101
Chapter 8 The Roles of Perspective and Perception in Cognition 111
Chapter 9 Polarization: The Separation of Unity into Duality 121
Chapter 10 Dualistic Operating-System Patterns Revisited 139
Chapter 11 Further Considerations of the Holistic Feminine 153
Part 3 How Brain Dominance Shapes Culture 165
Chapter 12 Understanding the Cultural Brain 167
Chapter 13 How Brain Dominance Affects Our Perception of Abortion 185
Chapter 14 The Brain behind the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex 195
Chapter 15 Making War: The Default Response of Left-Brain Dualism 219
Chapter 16 Finding Peace, Being Peace 269
Selected Bibliography 295
About the Author 334