Hall of Mirrors

Michael Metzger

In The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel, the Joker lures Batman into a hall of mirrors. His plan is cunning – disorient and destroy. Last week, we looked at how the West has become a culture that leads-with-the-left-hemisphere. It’s lost in a hall of mirrors according to Iain McGilchrist. It’s not a good situation, but there is a way out.

McGilchrist is a researcher in neuroimaging and author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. He says Western culture is trapped because the emissary has overthrown the master. For eons, metaphor (what neuroimaging reveals is a right hemisphere function) led the way in how we think. Words (a left hemisphere function) followed. Words were always the emissary. The order in which these two operate – master and emissary – is key. Today, that order has been flipped.

The ‘flip’ is found in neuroimaging. It reveals the two hemispheres complement each other but also compete in a winner-take-all contest. The one “getting in first” controls how we think. If the right hemisphere gets in first, it includes the left. If the left wins, it excludes the right, creating a culture that could “lead ultimately to a large bias overall” for words over images. This is exactly what has happened in the West.

Distinguishing between left and right hemispheres might seem trifling until we examine the two in detail. Neuroimaging does this. It affords researchers unprecedented images of unilateral (one side) brain damage so that we can distinguish between right and left hemisphere functions. For example, when an individual loses all hemisphere function on one side, the brain continues to operate, but only from the other side. Neuroimaging reveals how the right and left hemispheres see the world in different ways, and what each is singularly equipped to do.

For instance, it is only in the right hemisphere that we understand meaning as a whole and in context. The left sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a ‘whole’ – something very different. The left “re-presents” the world in principles and abstractions. This means lead-with-the-left cultures cannot make sense of the world in any comprehensive sort of way. Their take on reality tends to be basic, particularized, and without nuance. This seems to explain why so many in the West prefer talking about principles, worldviews, and concepts.

It is only in the right hemisphere that we see patterns. The left sees particulars. The left hemisphere sees dichotomies (either/or). The right sees distinctions (both/and). The left leans toward efficiency. The right thinks effectiveness. This might explain why many businesses make noises about purpose but they’re mostly focused on profits. Simon Sinek is right that purpose is at the center of a healthy business, but in a lead-with-the-left culture, purpose is reduced to an idea or abstraction.

It is only in the right hemisphere that we understand the moral of a story as well as the point of a joke. Patients with right-hemisphere damage “cannot make inferences,” McGilchrist writes, a prerequisite for grasping moral lessons as well as getting a joke.

It is only in the right hemisphere that we understand music. Music requires context to understand the meaning. The left hemisphere has a tendency to break things up “into units and make machines to measure it.” This seems to explain why many Westerners view the arts as utilitarian – how they can be used to move people toward a desired end. It is only in the right hemisphere that we understand art’s intrinsic and aesthetic value.

It is only in the right hemisphere that we understand connotation and ambiguity. The left hemisphere is driven by data, like Jack Webb in the old Dragnet series – “Just the facts, ma’am.” It “needs certainty and needs to be right,” McGilchrist writes. This seems to explain why many in the Western faith tradition look for unambiguous interpretations of difficult Bible passages. Those who lead-with-the-right can “hold several ambiguous possibilities in suspension together without premature closure on one outcome.”

It is only in the right hemisphere that we consider other options. “It alone can bring us something other that what we already know,” McGilchrist writes. The left hemisphere looks for “the single solution” that seems to best fit what it “already knows – its process is predictive.” It is only the right hemisphere that actively watches for discrepancies, acting “more like a devil’s advocate” – a precursor for paradigm shifts.

It is only in the right hemisphere that we gain a sense of our body as something we ‘live.’ In the left, the body is something from which we are relatively detached. This seems to explain why so much of the modern Western faith tradition is disembodied – focusing on the mind (sermons and studies) – but practicing few ancient, embodied liturgies.

Those who lead-with-the-left also have difficulty using numbers except in the simplest sense. The right hemisphere has an “intuitive sense of numbers and their relative size.” The left hemisphere, by contrast, has no intuitive sense of what they mean in the larger context. They think of numbers as absolutes, McGilchrist writes. The right hemisphere sees numbers as signifying relations – what they mean in the larger context of cultural trends. This seems to explain why so much of the modern Western faith community measures how many attend, rather than who attends church anymore.

McGilchrist makes it clear that we benefit from right and left hemispheres – metaphor and reason – working together. In the right, we make sense of the world. With the left, we make things. It’s both/and. With the right, we experience the world – “live, complex, forever in flux, forming and reforming wholes.” In the left, “we ‘experience’ our experience,” he writes, “a ‘re-presented’ version of it, grouped into classes, on which prediction can be made. This kind of attention isolates but it also enables us “to make things.” The two hemispheres work well together – but only if the right “gets in first.” And that’s not happening in today’s Western world that leads-with-the-left.

The modern Western world “has blocked off the available exits,” McGilchrist warns, “the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand.” There is a solution, and it’s found in another hall, King’s Arthur’s Great Hall. We’ll visit it next week – and revisit the ancient way out.

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5 thoughts on “Hall of Mirrors”

  1. 2 questions:

    1) What is a principle if not a description of a pattern? I don’t clearly see the distinction between principles and patterns – as they both seem to be abstractions.

    2) Purpose ought to be at the center of a healthy business. How does that purpose not get “reduced to an idea or abstraction.” Are you advocating that a purpose ought to be communicated in literally a visual image instead of something verbal? Practically, how does someone express their purpose?

    Thanks, Mike.

  2. Interesting. I have had a difficult time getting my mind around this recent series you have been doing. I went from this blog to an e-mail from Manahatten Declaration which referred to “Symbols Matter”. As I went to the “Symbols Matter” page, I thought,”Perhaps this is an illustration of what Mike is talking about.
    Here is part of the “Symbols matter”:

    Josiah Wedgwood was an English potter and entrepreneur who applied his gifts to the promotion of the abolitionist movement. His medallion depicting a slave kneeling in chains asking, “Am I not a man and a brother?” would become the defining image of a campaign that forever changed the world. Benjamin Franklin summed up the significance of the logo in suggesting it was “equal to that of the best written pamphlet.”
    Wedgwood’s medallion cut through the rhetoric to the truth at the center of the abolitionist cause. It also provided an identifier. By displaying the logo one became publicly affiliated with the movement. As the movement grew, the ubiquity of the medallion provided a sense of inevitability. The culture shifted, and afterwards, William Wilberforce and his companions in the legislature successfully changed the nation’s laws.”

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