On The One Hand… And On The Other… And In Between

This Is Your Brain… And Your Brain On Metaphor!

“This is your brain…” Imagine a freshly hatched egg rolling on the kitchen counter  To the left is a skillet set on a stovetop and there’s butter already simmering on its stick-resistant and concave surface.   Some legendary actor then cracks the egg shell with one hand, allowing the yoke and stuff to spill into the hot skillet.   The egg fries quickly — sunny-side-up — and the voice-over of the commercial continues, “And this is your brain on drugs…  Any questions.”

Yes, as prevention programs go, this one beat Nancy Reagan’s “Just So No!” hands-down.

Metaphors, 1.

Moralizing Slogan, 0.

And yet, before we, in the creative arts, run up the score, I’d like to consider a book on the brain that has been acclaimed neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, neuro-imaging researchers and even by such egg-heads as the editor of Poetry Magazine, Christian Wiman.   The book is published by Yale University Press and is written by Johns Hopkins mega-star in the above fields, Iain McGilchrist.  It’s entitled, “The Master and His Emissary,” which is odd, considering it has nothing to do with the despicable institution of slavery, nor with any messengers who might have made special deliveries.  Nothing literal like that at all.

On the contrary, the subtitle saves the day (not to mention the marketing department’s ass):   “The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World.”  And it is here — in that criss-crossing, apple-saucing of the two hemisphere’s of your primary internal organ, your grey matter, that the rubber meets the road… that the kettle becomes black… that the chicken (coming first) traverses the road, lays the egg (coming second), which gets fried in the skillet, next to the kettle on the adjacent back-burner…   The point is, once the author clears his throat, everyone who has ever set a coffee mug down upon a literary journal of any reputation should stand and salute.  Or bow and genuflect.   McGilchrist is brilliant, as the mere progression of chapters in the table of contents can testify:


Chapter 1 Asymmetry and the Brain

Chapter 2 What do the Two Hemispheres ‘Do’?

Chapter 3 Language, Truth and Music

Chapter 4 The Nature of the Two Worlds

Chapter 5 The Primacy of the Right Hemisphere

Chapter 6 The Triumph of the Left Hemisphere


Chapter 7 Imitation and the Evolution of Culture

Chapter 8 The Ancient World

Chapter 9 The Renaissance and the Reformation

Chapter 10 The Enlightenment

Chapter 11 Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution

Chapter 12 The Modern and the Post-Modern Worlds

Conclusion:  The Master Betrayed


Now, to cut to the chase, I will summarize what I recall of McGilchrist argument in brief:  Cultures in the west have biassed the left hemisphere of the brain, which emphasizes a pseudo-map-making of the world, or whatever it is that we experience through experience.  Subsequently, based upon this map, which is a reduction of the Real World, we calculate, legislate, evaluate the reprobate and so on.   The results have not been good.  Enough said.

Enough.  Except that there actually is more to say on the subject.   And the gist of McGilchrist’s scientific and historical analysis leads him and the reader to believe that, in fact, human beings were originally intended to allow the right hemisphere of the brain to dominate.  That is, when we experienced the world once upon a time, as REAL WORLD, without reducing it to functions and to functional language, we had music and poetry and art…  For heavens sake, take a gander at the cave walls in Lascaux, France!  Go to any kindergarden class with a box of crayons and a harmonica!   I’m probably preaching to the choir, or to the Masters of Fine Arts students…

But the amazing thing is that McGilchrist is not.   He’s not saying that the left brain bias is evil and the right brain is good.  He’s saying that the two hemispheres have evolved to work in tandem, with the right side commanding the left, setting the agenda more in the direction of beauty and truth and not so much basic career-building technique.

Of course, it should be no secret why I loved working through all the neuro-imaging gizmo-jazz to get to the poetry.   And when I finally did arrive at chapters 8 through 12, my mind reeled with the possibilities:

“The breakthrough in Romantic thinking to the essential connectedness of things enabled them to see that those who are in awe of any great object — whether it be God, or the vastness, beauty and complexity of nature — do not set themselves apart from it; they feel something that is Other, certainly, but also something of which they partake.”

Awesome, eh?

Now I know why macro-economics didn’t come naturally to me.

McGilchrist [let Dr. Jonathan Johnson take notice] absolutely loves Wordsworth.  He writes on Book I of The Prelude:

“I believe that what Wordsworth is actually doing here is talkinga bout the relationship between the two hemispheres.  Narrowly focussed attention is the province of the left hemisphere, and an increase in stress, fear and excitement actually inhibits the spread of neuronal recruitment in a manner that favors this very closely targeted kind of attention within the left hemisphere.  Yet while the left hemisphere is pre-occupied with its quarry… the right hemisphere is actually freed, its vigilance also in a state of enhancement, to see the scene afresh, once more authentic, not overlaid by familiarity…”

Ah, familiarity.  In shopping for groceries, familiarity helps.  In deciding who remains on the Christmas list, familiarity’s the grandest of left-brain skills to deploy…  But, in writing and in reading poetry, fiction or even creative non-fiction, familiarity is death!  I spit on you!

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess how utterly impressed I am with McGilchrist’s take on theology and linguistics as the two disciplines bang into one another in the night.  You may be surprised:  this scientist is a devout critic of the institutional church, who still holds out hope.  He claims of the major players of the Reformation:

“The problem… lay not in statues, the icons, and the rituals themselves, but in the way they were understood.  They had lost their transparency as metaphors, which are always incarnate and therefore must be left to act on us intuitively — neither just material or just immaterial, but bridges between the realms.”

Bingo!   This is your brain… and this is your brain on metaphor.  Who needs the drugs!


One response

  1. Well done. Bravo!

    November 29, 2011 at 4:40 am