When you know something inside out, you really know it. A great many organizations claim to really know something about innovation. Truth is, most have only inside knowledge. Innovation arises from circles of exchange, knowing things inside out.
Last week I described innovation as requiring “Mr. Inside & Mr. Outside,” two views coming from the brain’s two hemispheres. Innovation requires knowing something inside out, with both hemispheres exchanging views. Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist as well as Oxford literary scholar and researcher in neuroimaging, says this exchange has tailed off in the Western world. There’s a widening gap between the left and right hemisphere.
McGilchrist is the author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The title is drawn from a tale told by Friedrich Nietzsche of an arrogant emissary who overthrows his benevolent master. McGilchrist recasts Nietzsche’s story with the master as metaphor, which is more of a right hemisphere function. Language is the emissary, and more a function of the left hemisphere. The Enlightenment overthrew this arrangement, to the detriment of the kingdom.
The Enlightenment disdained the inexactness of metaphor, preferring what it believed – incorrectly – was the precision of language. The ancients didn’t see it this way. Enlightenment thinkers dismissed them as darkened by religion and unenlightened. They presumed to be smarter than those who came before them. Disdain bred arrogance, so the emissary overthrew the master, metaphor. McGilchrist says this has led “ultimately to a large bias overall” for words over images in the Western world.
This bias leads to blindness. There’s a dynamic in the brain where the two hemispheres complement each other but also compete in a winner-take-all contest. McGilchrist says the one “getting in first” controls how we think. If the right hemisphere gets in first, it includes the left. But if the left wins, it excludes the right. This is happening in the West. We have mostly inside knowledge. Thus, we talk about innovation, but, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. We’re kidding ourselves.
When the left wins, it pushes away from the right. We see this in neuroimaging. The corpus callosum is the wide bundle of neural fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres. It facilitates an exchange between the two hemispheres. But findings from neuroimaging indicate that the corpus callosum is shrinking, leaving a widening gap between the left and right hemisphere. The left, left to itself, is in La-La Land.
The self-deception is due to the left hemisphere, which uses “that part of language to grasp things, or, as we say to ‘pin’ things down,” notes McGilchrist. Our left hemisphere tries to pin down in language what it assumes to be important. And therein lies the rub. To know what is important or innovative, we have to first rely on the right hemisphere.
Innovation, a Latin word drawn from the Greek renewal, requires what McGilchrist calls “the newness of the right hemisphere.” It plays “devils advocate, always on the lookout for things that might be different from our expectations. It sees things in context. It understands implicit meaning, metaphor, and body language.” On the other hand, “the world of the left hemisphere is dependent on denotative language and abstraction. It yields clarity and the power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, isolated, static, decontextualized, explicit, and general in nature but ultimately lifeless.” The left plays an important role, but only after learning what is important. It’s the emissary.
That’s why the right hemisphere is the master. “The right hemisphere by contrast yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate living beings within the context of the lived world – but in the nature of things never fully graspable, never perfectly known.” The right hemisphere operates in an open system – the left in a closed system. The right includes the left, thinking in images that are sent to the left hemisphere, where they are “re-presented” in “virtual” categories expressed in language. These constructs are returned to the right for review. It’s supposed to be a never-ending reciprocating cycle. But due to the left winning the race, the Western world is now trapped in “hall of mirrors,” a “virtual reality,” according to McGilchrist. If you want to listen to McGilchrist detail this a bit more, check out this RSA Animate:
“Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange,” writes Margaret J. Wheatley, “where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before.” She’s describing knowing something inside out. Today, with recent findings in neuroscience, we recognize that completing the circles of exchange requires including the outside view. It’s the only way individuals as well as institutions can claim to really know something.
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