Left and Right, Brains and Politics
The left brain's feelings don't care about the right brain's facts: how neuroscience explains the political divide.
Winston Smith over at Escaping Mass Psychosis recently published a piece on McGilchrist’s fascinating work, intended to be the first in a series that I for one, am looking forward to reading. Perhaps you might be interested to read it too. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts on the subject, less a summary - which would be prohibitively difficult, there’s just too much there - and more riffing off of some of the implications.
A rather fascinating and extraordinarily long volume recently came to my attention, The Matter With Things by Prof. Ian McGilchrist. McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, known for his earlier work The Master and His Emissary, in which he presented the evidence for a profound cognitive split between the modes of thought and domains of responsibility between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Hemispheric asymmetry seems to go back all the way to nematode worms. Essentially every animal with a central nervous system demonstrates some degree of functional differentiation between the two halves of the brain. This is probably due to a fundamental problem every animal has to face: as McGilchrist puts it, one must 'get without being got'. In other words, animals must sort through the vast array of sensory data collected from the phenomenal world, and identify sources of food, which they then must focus their attention and activity towards acquiring. At the same time, all those parts of the world that are outside the current attentional focus can contain extremely important information - other sources of food, lurking predators, environmental threats, and potential mates. Ignoring these details can leave one open to lethal threats or blind to life-changing opportunities. The requirements of these two imperatives are mutually exclusive, and animal life has solved the seemingly irreconcilable by simply dividing the brain into two, giving each hemisphere primary responsibility for one of the tasks.
Thus, it is the right brain's function to maintain a coherent, large-scale, empirically driven, and accurate model of reality. The right brain does not prioritize consistency: if new data presents itself that violates the existing model, the right brain will happily accept the novel datum and update the model. At the same time, the right brain doesn't bother itself overmuch about the details of the world. It's the big picture that concerns it: not the parts, but rather the whole that contains them.
By contrast, the left brain's function is to break reality down into its components, in order to more effectively discard that which is irrelevant to a given purpose and focus on that which 'matters'. As part of this task, the left brain is a model-builder par excellence. It specializes in getting rid of extraneous detail in order to build simplified models of reality that can relatively quickly and easily provide useful heuristic predictions. As such, the left brain is rather in love with its models, and indeed seems to ascribe greater reality to the model than to the reality. Since the left brain is much better at discarding details it considers to be irrelevant in order to avoid unnecessarily complicating the simplicity of its beloved models, it is entirely comfortable simply ignoring facts that are inconsistent with the models.
One might say that the right brain sees the forest, and the left brain the trees. It would be even more accurate to say that the left brain sees only the tree that holds the fruit it intends to pluck, and indeed may well see only the individual fruit on the individual tree.
Another metaphor that suggests itself is that the the left brain is the Catholic Inquisition insisting that the Sun must revolve about the Earth, because to affirm the opposite would be to abandon a venerable model of the cosmos on which much theology had been constructed; whereas the right brain is Galileo, muttering E pur si muove ("And yet it moves") as he is ushered out of the theological court. Importantly to this metaphor, Galileo's support of a heliocentric solar system over a geocentric planetary model relied upon a number of empirical observations (the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter) but flew in the face of everything that was understood about physics at the time (for example, no one could imagine how the Earth's motion might be maintained, given its self-evident mass; the Newtonian mechanics that could explain such motion, on the grounds that an object in motion will remain in motion unless that motion is resisted, simply hadn't occurred to anyone). In other words, Galileo's advocacy for the heliocentric model was an appeal to the right brain: here are new features of the world that the old model cannot account for; even if we don't know how the new model works, we must adopt it to account for all the known facts. The Inquisition was the left brain responding, your facts don't match the model, and therefore they can't be true.
The left brain's feelings don't care about the right brain's facts.
It turns out that the two hemispheres, in addition to having very different functions, also have different personalities. The right brain, with its emphasis on accurate and holistic models, applies this tendency internally as well as externally: it is therefore more introspective, and more likely to prefer a realistic evaluation of the capabilities of the self and the prospects of the self in the world. As such the right brain's peculiar pathology is depression.
The left brain, on the other hand, tends towards an absolutely unrealistic optimism that is cheerfully blind to major obstacles. Not only does it want to pluck that fruit from the tree, it will pluck that fruit from the tree, and the minor details that the fruit is a hundred feet in the air, the tree is infested with poisonous snakes, and one's left ankle is broken after it rolled on the rock that the right brain tried to point out but the left brain ignored as it was fixated on that delicious fruit ... none of these are at all relevant to the left brain's conviction that it will get that fruit, damnit. Thus, whereas the right brain is prone to melancholy, the left brain's special madness is mania.
Reading McGilchrist's descriptions of the cognitive traits of the two hemispheres, I couldn't help but extrapolate a connection to the political divide that is ripping the Western world apart. Whether McGilchrist comments on this himself I have no idea; in all honesty, I'm only a couple of hundred pages into the couple thousand of his magnum opus. Yet it seems to me that the political divisions of left and right map fairly well onto the hemispheric divisions of the brain, and by happy accident do so in a direct fashion: the Left is left hemisphere dominant, and the Right is right hemisphere dominant.
First, consider the general outlook of the two camps. The Left is ever-fixated on the utopia that it is always certain is just over the horizon, and its iron-clad faith in the realizability of this utopia is its perennial source of emotional fuel. It is so sure of achieving utopia that it is willing to sacrifice a great deal (witness the hundreds of millions martyred by Communism in the 20th century alone) - in effect immolating that which actually exists in the cause of the merely imaginary. Taken too far this is clearly a form of destructive social mania, just as one would expect from an over-active left brain.
By contrast, the Right is and has always been far more prone to despair. The world is going to hell; everything is falling apart; the present is always worse than the past; the challenges of the world are always insurmountable. The bleak outlook of the conservative is precisely what one would expect from the right brain when it runs away with itself.
Next, consider the respective attitudes of the camps towards theory vs reality.
The Right continually complains that the Left's feelings don't care about facts, and there is no shortage of examples of this dynamic: the Left is only too happy to ignore the race realism of human biodiversity, the differences in aptitude and personality between the sexes, climate data that stubbornly refuses to comply with the predictions of computer models, violent crime statistics that continuously refute the simplistic equation that more gun control equals less murder, and so on and so forth.
By contrast, the Left is always complaining that the Right does not possess a coherent theory of reality. Indeed, one of the favourite words of the Left is theory, as in critical theory, with its various subsets such as critical race theory, critical gender theory, critical queer theory, and so on. The Left is absolutely obsessed with theory, and as the Right notes is all too happy to simply ignore any inconvenient facts that do not match that theory. On the other hand, the Left shoots back, the Right just has a bunch of facts, which it steadfastly refuses to assemble into a fully articulated model of the world. Instead, the Right's world view tends to be rather implicit: sensed and felt, in the manner of immediate apprehension via a sort of revelation, in rather stark contrast to the highly abstracted, explicitly formulated world view of the Left.
As we saw above, this preference of the Right for a world view that accommodates all facts regardless of internal consistency, vs. the preference of the Left for a world view that discards awkward data in favour of preserving abstract models, is exactly the distinction between the epistemological approaches of the right and left hemispheres.
Next, look at the different argumentation styles of the two sides. The caricature of the bugman demanding a source for every claim, and triumphantly claiming something has been debunked because a minor detail has been overlooked, is exactly the attitude of the left brain: it looks for any excuse to discard the fact that doesn't fit the model, and imagines that because a flaw has been identified in the part the whole has been discredited. In practice that often means that while the arguments of the Left are more or less correct at the detail level, they are riddled with errors due to the excluded but valid facts. The Left will reason with ironclad logic from absurd premises and never notice the problem.
On the other hand, the Right seems to be much more guided by a sense of intuition. We've all gotten used to QBoomer MAGA meemaws making rather absurd declarations about secret underground pedophile tunnels, and yet ... when one stands back and looks at the big picture they're trying to communicate, one of a fundamentally predatory and sociopathic ruling class, the outline seems to fit the broad strokes of reality much better than the alternative proffered by the Left. Similarly when it comes to wild stories about graphene biochips self-assembling out of mRNA injections or 5G being used for mind control ... the details are silly, but does anyone who's paying attention seriously doubt that population control, transhumanism, and the mass poisoning of humanity aren't primary goals for the ruling class? The 'white genocide' meme is another good example: while it might be a bit of a stretch to think that the native populations of Europe, North America, and Australia are to be imminently rounded up in concentration camps, does anyone really think that the ruling class doesn't have it in for the white population?
The point in the above examples is that they all indicate a greater concern with a more-or-less accurate depiction of reality at a high level, and a relative lack of concern with the level of accuracy of any given component of that picture.
This gets at another revealing distinction between the Left and Right: their respective attitudes towards 'conspiracy theories'. The original sense of this term was something like a paranoid theoretical narrative that linked together unrelated facts, while ignoring relevant disconfirming data. That's actually a pathology of the left hemisphere, which due to its high opinion of itself will always ascribe setbacks to hostile, and possibly covert, actions by dark external forces, rather than to any shortcoming in its own abilities. The modern usage of this term, however, is rather different, and is something more like 'any statement that contradicts official reality'. Simple factual observations, shorn of explicit interpretative slant, are readily denounced as conspiracy theorizing if they obviously challenge a given narrative. Similarly, competing narrative frameworks that challenge official narratives are classified as conspiracy theories. Broadly speaking, any suggestion that the ruling classes might have something other than the best interests of global humanity at heart are classed as conspiracy theories, as are any discussions of what the future hostile actions of the global elite might be.
Now recall, one of the right brain's key functions is threat detection: constantly scanning the peripherals, looking for that suspicious movement in the treeline or snap of a twig that might be nothing, but might also be a smilodon preparing to pounce. The right brain is very concerned with predators; the left brain, not so much (unless it can blame a predator for its failure to pluck that elusive fruit). Conspiracy theory, then, in the contemporary usage, is essentially the left brain telling the right brain to shut up when the right brain is trying to warn the left brain about that smilodon it's pretty sure it sees in the bush.
McGilchrist called his first book The Master and His Emissary to drive home an essential point. In a properly ordered psyche, the right brain is the master, because it is the right brain that maintains a coherent, accurate representation of the world. The left brain is the emissary: it is an appendage of the right brain, a useful tool the right brain can use to acquire what is necessary from the environment. However, the left brain doesn't see things that way. It considers the right brain's big picture to be perfectly irrelevant, a silly distraction from the important things in life - the objects of its fixation and the simple models it uses to acquire them - and is therefore always prone to attempting to usurp control. It isn't the left brain's fault: the left brain is by its very nature incapable of grasping the wider context, and therefore incapable of understanding its proper place in relation to the whole.
Looking at the society around us, with the overwhelming dominance of the maniacal Left, it is very clear that the emissary has displaced the master. We are spiralling into a deepening psychosis and have been doing so for my entire life. Just as the right brain must have the final say in a sane mind, in a properly ordered society, the political Right should always be in the driver's seat - using the Left as a tool to improve the social organism's place in the world, but never allowing the blind enthusiasms of the Left to pull society off a cliff. If we're all to avoid disaster, it's essential that the Right reclaim its rightful place.