Last week I promised to pose a question. Here it is. In Genesis 2:19-20, we read that Adam named the animals. How do you imagine he did this? What image comes to mind? Your answer indicates which hemisphere in your brain is presently winning.
According to Iain McGilchrist, a neuroscientist and author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, there is a winner-take-all contest that’s always been waged between the brain’s two hemispheres. Left and right complement one another while competing with each other. Over the last 500 years, the left hemisphere has won the contest in the West. This presents a problem.
To flourish, humans have to hold “two incompatible types of attention on the world at the same time.” The left provides narrow, focused attention and “is directed by our needs.” The right hemisphere provides broad, open attention and is “directed towards whatever else is going on in the world apart from ourselves.” This complementary arrangement is complex however as the hemispheres compete with each other, trying to “get in first” and control how the entire brain thinks. If the right “wins,” it includes the left and thinks “whole brain.” If the left gets in first, it will, over time, exclude the right so that the whole brain thinks “left-brain only.” This presents a problem, writes McGilchrist, “as there is, literally, a world of difference between the hemispheres.”
Those who lead-with-the-right experience the world in an embodied sense – as something alive and complex. Those who lead-with-the-left are detached from the world. Last week I cited evidence indicating much of modern evangelicalism is a lead-with-the-left faith. Asking how you imagine Adam naming the animals indicates which side of your brain leads the way. How do you imagine he did it? To date, every one of my evangelical friends has said they imagine Adam standing there, observing the animals at a distance as they parade by. Like a scientist in white lab coat, he scribbled notes on a clipboard and named them. That’s indicative of individuals who lead-with-the-left hemisphere.
Somehow, in some way, this doesn’t make intuitive sense to those who lead-with-the-right. In creation, the animals are playful – like cute puppies. If a playful puppy bounds into a room, what do people instinctively feel? Puppy love. They play with the puppy. So… did you imagine Adam playing with the animals? According to physiological and behavioral evidence, the left pars opercularis, the area of the frontal lobe critical for speech production, is most closely linked to nerves located in the stretch of skin between your thumb and forefinger. Language is most naturally formed by touching – especially with your fingers. Adam probably named the animals by playing with them.
For “left-brain only” folks, this seems like a distinction without a difference – so what? McGilchrist counters that these differences are not a matter of quaint literary theory. The right hemisphere enables us to make sense of the world. The left enables us “to make things.” Humans flourish when both work together, but this requires leading-with-the-right, especially in a fallen world. Neuroimaging indicates the left hemisphere – when acting alone – may unreasonably, even stubbornly, be convinced it is right. When a problem arises, rather than admit it, the left “makes up something plausible” but remains “unrealistic about its shortcomings.” Only the right hemisphere looks for discrepancies in assumptions, acts as a devil’s advocate, and enables people to proceed with any necessary paradigm shifts. In a fallen world, that’s critical.
This is why the left hemisphere’s “victory” is not welcome news. Since ancient times, it was understood that embodiment yields knowledge – “Adam knew Eve” (Gen. 4:1). Adam’s hands touched Eve. He felt his way along and subsequently gained knowledge, similar to what the ancient philosopher Anaxagoras said. “It is by having hands that man is the most intelligent of animals.” Matthew Crawford echoes this in his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. “Heidegger famously noted that the way we come to know a hammer is not by staring at it, but by grabbing hold of it and using it.”1 Knowledge “is not mere perceptual cognition, but, rather, a handling of things.”
This however is not how the West, including European and American cultures, understands knowledge. For instance, one of the most popular methods of learning scripture is laid out this way: observation-interpretation-application. That’s a lead-with-the-left approach consistent with Adam studying the animals at a distance. This detached view becomes a problem as the “process eventually becomes so automatic that we do not so much experience the world as experience our representation of the world.”
For the Western church, this detached representation is proving ruinous. In 2011, LinkedIn surveyed over 13,000 professionals who are entrepreneurs. They profiled the most successful ones, including their courses of study in college. It turns out theology is one of the “least entrepreneurial majors.”2 That’s tragic, as the church used to be recognized as a resource for innovation. Neuroimaging however reveals that innovation – Latin for the biblical word renewal – is a lead-with-the-right enterprise. When the Western church became a lead-with-the-left endeavor, it lost its innovative edge.
If this exercise in imagination makes you feel a little like Alice going down the rabbit hole, consider it good news. Lewis Carroll was a mathematician at Christ Church, Oxford, who – some say – wrote “Alice in Wonderland” as a scathing satire on new forms of education emerging in the mid-19th century.3 Satire is a great gift of the English. It’s a lead-with-the-right way of upsetting non-cognitive assumptions. Like Alice, lead-with-the-right people treat disorientation as necessary for reorienting to reality. The same cannot be said for those who lead-with-the-left. Neuroimaging reveals they don’t “get” the humorous aspects of a story, so satire is not a gift. They tend to dismiss the power of imagination, preferring principles and abstractions. But this yields an impoverished world, writes McGlichrist. We’ll see why next week.
1 Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), p. 164.