We have evolved two ways of attending to the world, the philosopher and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist tells UnHerd, each reflecting a separate hemisphere of our brains. In ancient times it was the laser focus of the left brain that helped us hunt and target our prey accurately, while the “broad, open” attention of the right brain kept us safe from predators and watched over our young. But today, we have become dangerously over-dependent on left-brain thinking, when really – “rather like we use a computer” – the left side is designed to carry out the work of the wiser right side. It’s very good at understanding “a repair manual for a lawnmower”, but metaphors and poetry? Leave that to the right.
It was, ironically, during the Enlightenment that left-hemisphere thinking crept into dominance. It’s the kind of concentrated, sequential way of operating that makes you rich. But it also makes you overly analytical, and as the mathematician AN Whitehead has observed, “a civilisation flourishes until it starts to analyse itself”. We have lost sight of the experiences that make life worthwhile: closeness to nature, a rich culture and “some sense of something beyond this realm”. By taking a “sledgehammer” to all that, we have been left with endless public debate. This is not healthy. The really important things in life – “the divine, love, music” – don’t lend themselves to black-and-white categorisation and analysis.