Inspired by the talk by Meghan O’Gieblyn that I mentioned a couple of weeks ago (the one about Simone Weil, focus, and attention), I’ve been reading The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, by psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist. It’s a book about the distinct functions—you might say the competing worldviews—of the two hemispheres of the brain. I’ll write more than one Tuesday letter about this illuminating book; in this episode my goal is to give just enough background to get to an etymological rabbit trail that I found fascinating.

No doubt you are familiar with the idea that the brain is divided into two hemispheres that control different functions. The left side of the brain is responsible for logic, language, linear thinking, facts, math, etc. The right side of the brain is the seat of imagination, feeling, intuition, visual images, holistic thinking, artsiness, etc. The popular conception is that the left brain is the adult in the room, whereas the right brain is a kind of pixie dream girl, making the world a little brighter and more fun, but not especially serious.

While keeping many of the facts in the paragraph above (the left brain, for instance is indeed responsible for language and linear thinking, and the right brain is indeed responsible for intuition, imagery, and holistic thinking), McGilchrist reframes the whole thing in ways that lead to different conclusions.

For McGilchrist, the dualities between the two halves of our brains derive from the fact that, in order to make our way in the world, we have to pay two different kinds of attention that are very much at odds with one another. I touched on this idea two weeks ago. “Open” attention is aware of its surroundings and able to receive make sense of whatever realities present themselves. “Focused” attention is that faculty that allows us to manipulate realities that we already understand (or think we understand) in order to get what we need.

McGilchrist explains this idea using the image of a bird pecking for seed. The bird is narrowly focused on distinguishing seed from gravel and getting that seed into his gullet. That is left-brain work: the bird knows his business, and he is going about it. He is probably using his right eye to look for seed, since the right side of the body is controlled by the left side of the brain. With his left eye, however, the one controlled by his right brain, he is constantly scanning his environment for predators, or perhaps for a mate, or friends from the birdbath, or a jack-knifed birdseed truck—whatever might come along that is not within the bird’s control. Because one brain can’t pay both kinds of attention simultaneously, we have two brains.

Another way to see the difference between the left brain and the right is to consider the difference between a map and terrain. The right brain makes maps. It reduces the terrain to a schematic that you can use, and that gives you some control over the trip you want to take. A map is exceedingly useful and pretty much lifeless. The experience of the actual trip happens mostly in your right brain, from the aesthetic pleasure of the landscape, to the expansion of your personal horizons, to the idea for a new story you get from your exchange with the gas station attendant, to noticing the oncoming truck that has swerved into your lane. The map can prepare you for none of these things.

So if the right brain is the seat of creativity and openness to experience and human connection and so many other states of mind that are crucial to the work of the writer, how is it that the left brain is the seat of language and the right brain is the “silent” hemisphere? McGilchrist argues that the right brain is not as silent as it would appear (I’ll spare you the details for now). Even so, the fact remains that when you use language, whether speaking or writing, your left brain is firing more than your right brain.

Think back to that bird pecking at the seed. His left brain is working hard to help him extract what he needs from his environment. We human beings have a lot more resources for getting what we need. We have hands (and opposable thumbs!) with which to manipulate the things of the world. Our left brains perfected tools that multiply our manual advantages over our physical environment. By the by, even though tools are the bailiwick of the left brain, tools would have had to be invented in the right brain; the left brain is not in the business of processing new experience. McGilchrist remarks on the way that novel information, concepts, and experiences originate in the right brain but migrate to the left brain once they become familiar.

If tools are a force multiplier for the human hand, language, logic, and linear thinking are even greater multipliers. The great apes’ ability to manipulate objects and even to use very simple tools is impressive, but their kind of manipulation is nothing compared to the manipulation we can achieve with words and logic and linear argument.

According to McGilchrist, to connect verbal manipulation with the physical manipulation of objects is not mere wordplay. The part of the left brain that controls grasping and tool-use is right next to the part of the left brain that controls language. It is remarkable how much of our language about communication is tied to the language of grasping. “It is not an accident that we talk about ‘grasping’ what someone is saying,” writes McGilchrist. All the words related to comprehend and apprehend are built from the Latin prehendere, “to seize.” Expression contains the hand-related word press. (Incidentally, whenever I think about the etymology of expression, with that image of ideas being pressed out of the mind and into the world, I can’t help but envision the Play-Doh accessory that extrude Play-Doh hair from a plastic head.) Intend and contend derive from the Latin tendere, “to reach out with the hand.” When you have trouble expressing yourself, you can’t put a finger on it. If you have trouble making sense of an idea, you can’t get your hands around it.

McGilchrist sums up thus:

The idea of ‘grasping’ implies seizing a thing for ourselves, for use, wresting it away from its context, holding it fast, focussing on it. The grasp we have, our understanding in this sense, is the expression of our will, and it is the means to power. It is what enables us to ‘manipulate’—literally to take a handful of whatever we need—and thereby to dominate the world around us.

Yikes. I have underestimated just how sinister all you writers are. Is there hope for the rest of us? Tune in next week to find out.

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