Puppy Love

Michael Metzger

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.
2 http://blog.linkedin.com/2011/09/01/entrepreneur-data/#_ftn1
3 http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20427391.600-alices-adventures-in-algebra-wonderland-solved.html?full=true/


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  1. Surely McGilchrist’s book, “The Master and his Emissary,” is an important book for all in this discussion of cultural renewal to wrestle with. I am currently working my way through it. One might also want to add to one’s reading list Karl Stern’s “The Flight from Woman,” and Anthony Esolen’s “Ten Ways to Destroy the Imangination of Your Child.” Stern writes, “[T]he scientist knows more about the rabbit than the painter but the painter knows better about the rabbit than the scientist. One form of knowledge cannot do without the other” (Stern, 292).

  2. Mike, Great stuff! Personally I wonder if “breaking from a norm” – like simply having a vacation or even just having a coffee break – anything that gets us out of a routine – helps us shift from left to right, so that we can “get back to work” on the left with fresh perspective. What does your research suggest about our “regular work”? Do we regularly work from the left side? Even if we’re a portrait painter or an inventor of sorts – does that kind of creative work “end up” on the left if it’s done regularly? And what about us left-handed people? Are our brains switched, but then the same rule applies – that we do our left-brain stuff with our right brain? I don’t want to let your forum collapse into a creation-evolution battlefield, but I can easily see how “slippery slope” easy it is to be on one side of the debate or the other if you never step back and try to get the big pictures of the two sides. Your average theistic evolutionist is no great improvement, just a lazy compromise. Anybody who can answer questions because they’ve studied both sides is to be commended for the right-brain work it takes to put on another set of glasses and see things differently.

  3. Dave:

    Do you always ask so many questions?

    Just kidding. As to your first question, yes – breaking the routine breaks the “lock-down” tendency of the left hemisphere. Your second question: McGilchrist says no society before the Western Enlightenment began the thinking process in the left hemisphere. None. Societies did not “regularly work from the left side” as you ask – they worked from the right to the left. The starting place is the key – whether we start in the right or left. The Western world starts in the left – unprecedented. In this world, McGilchrist says the two biggest losers are the arts and religion – two enterprises that require starting in the right hemisphere. But I’m sure he’d say every enterprise becomes fragmented and particularized in a lead-with-the-left society.

  4. Mike
    rabbit hole to say the least, but thanks i appreciate it. i didnt imagine either the labcoat version or the puppy version. i often think of that passage and the most common image i see is one where there is a lot of giggling and cajoling between God and Adam over the ridiculous proposition that Adam is doing the naming. So can you help me see which side of my brain i am leading with or is my head stuck somewhere… I am right handed but left eyed if that makes a difference.

  5. Hate to be a comment hog but I thought of one more thing: to have perspective, like the right brain gives, is, I suppose, to see all of heaven and all of hell, if you give yourself enough room. Might lead a person to Christ, and it might lead a person to suicide: honest perspective sees both sides. That’s why I suppose the left side is a grace if it’s anything. Work is a useful fulfilling embodiment of creative force which we’re given, not just a toil to distract us that we’re burdened with. Or we are merely burdened, if we have no perspective. Seems like both sides are needed – but that is what you’re saying anyway.

  6. Mike, is it too far a reach to put today’s form of knowledge (informational only) as the left-brain and wisdom as the right-brain?

    To quote Winston Churchill: Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.

    The right-brain would taste the tomato before determining the recipe. The left-brain would categorically include it?

  7. Gerard – I can live with that distinction.

    Perry – you’re a mess. Just kidding (can’t seem to help myself today). Giggling and cajoling are imaginative – the right hemisphere. I would add however that – in one sense – Adam naming the animals might not be as ridiculous as you imagine. God “named” things, bringing reality (light and darkness, for example) into existence. We are made in God’s image. We also create – partly by naming things (which Einstein said is the most important thing anyone can do).

  8. I always thought of Adam naming them based on observation, but that probably has to do with the fact that I’m allergic to pet dander.

  9. Mike,

    Perhaps I misunderstand you, but in this article you seem to disdain the “observation-interpretation-application” model for gaining knowledge, calling it an Enlightenment idea that leads to detachment from the world. However, even McGilchrist, the author who wrote the book mentioned in the article, used this model to come to his conclusions. McGilchrist made extensive observations about the brain, then he interpreted those findings, and then he writes about them hoping that others will apply what he’s learned. (I guess you’ve operated with the same process while reading McGilchrist’s book: observing, interpreting, and applying).

    I agree that our faith should be embodied. There’s no question that we learn a lot through physical experiences. Jesus came in the flesh. 1 John 1 says about Jesus: “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched–this we proclaim.”

    However, the early disciples had physical contact with Jesus; we don’t. We as believers today must rely on the written testimony of those early believers to know God. We must observe what the Word says, interpret it, and then apply it. Interestingly, Jesus told doubting Thomas that those who believed in Him without touching or seeing Him would be blessed! Given that we can’t handle Jesus like Heidegger’s hammer, does this mean that we are doomed to have a “detached” faith?

    Embodiment of our faith, it seems, is the act of living in accordance with God’s revealed truth. We are called to be the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Christ in this world. We and others can experience in tangible ways the truth that was presented to us by God through his Word. Jesus said that others would know Him by our love for one another (tangible service). Embodiment is the Spirit-filled extension and outworking of the revealed truth we observe and interpret. Our embodiment of Christ should extend to our work and every area of life.

    I know that you are advocating the involvement of both left and right brain faith. And I agree. But, in my view, it’s important to not undervalue the observation-interpretation-application model. Even Adam, when he knew Eve, was making observations, interpretations, and, for better or worse, some applications.

  10. Glenn M:

    I would suggest you are reading McGilchrist through an Enlightenment lens. Yes, McGilchrist is making observations, but they are based on neuroimaging that reveals what happens in the brain when we do – and do not – come in bodily contact with things. His observations come from people embodied in reality. Second, scripture does not speak of “application” in the sense you use it. We do not observe things, draw out meaning and principles, and then “apply” them to our lives. That’s very Western, detached, and Enlightenment. Scripture does however speak of applying our selves, including our bodies, to solving problems. Big difference.

    Your take on Adam and Eve leaves me with the impression that you imagine Adam sort of cooly “observing” Eve in some sort of detached, scientific way, drawing out some sort of principles and interpretations of what her nudity means, and then coming up with an array of “applications.” With all due respect, this simply is not how an embodied understanding of the faith understands what happened. There wasn’t any “for better of worse,” as sin had not yet entered the equation. It was all for the good – and all discovered by touching, feeling, exploring, etc. Of course, Adam used his eyeballs. But “knowledge” is defined in this passage not as observing but as orgasm, i.e., sexual consummation. There is why sex outside of marriage is called “carnal knowledge.” It’s not carnal knowledge to observe a naked woman, Glenn, or we’d have to destroy a great deal of what is considered by the church to be good and true art. I simply caution you that your seemingly disembodied take on knowing God and scripture leads to some rather distressing conclusions.

    Finally, your comments regarding Christ’s presence tip your hand. Sacramentalists believe in the mystical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, for example. We can literally “taste and see” that the Lord os good. It’s a both/and – taste and see – involving all of our senses. You say there is not physical presence of Christ today and seem to strip out all the senses; or at least make them subservient to sight. That’s left brain, very Western, and leaves me with a sense of a rather dry, denuded, and disembodied faith.

  11. Not to pile on, Glenn, but we’re talking about an older sense of “observe,” as when Jesus told his disciples to teach others to “observe what I have taught you” (Mt. 28). This kind of observing involves doing something, as when we observe a moment of silence. Doing something involves all the senses, and in so doing, we learn in a way that Christ desires. As Lesslie Newbigin put it, this “doing” throws out the Western (Enlightenment) paradigm that we can simply observe something (even a biblical text), then know what it means (interpretation), and then try to “apply” what we have supposedly “learned” to our lives.

  12. Thanks for the good responses, Mike. I appreciate the time you take to enter into this dialogue with us.

    Just to clarify my thinking for you, I fully agree that the Christian life can and should be fully embodied. I agree with your overall point. My only minor quibble was with what seemed like your view that we should jettison the observation-interpretation-application process. I think we should value that process, not diminish it.

    Our Christian life should be rich and sensual, not dry and academic. I did not have in mind that Adam approached Eve as a scientist would approach a test tube. There’s no question that he “knew her” passionately. This was no doubt a physical form of learning, but it occurred in the context of God’s revealed non-physical truth to them about marriage. Whether dealing with God’s words or the physical contact they had with each other, they both were observing, interpreting, and applying.

    The same, I think, is true in our relationships with God. I strongly believe that we are able to have a dynamic relationship with God that is not dry and academic. His written Word is alive, penetrating, compelling. If that is not the case, then I would say something is awry in our hearts. But, in that context, we all still observe, interpret, and apply. We read the Word, find ourselves convicted by what it says, and (hopefully) change course.

    The observation-interpretation-application approach to life is not necessarily bad or merely an Enlightenment idea. Rodney Stark, for example, in his writings about the history of science would say that Christians in the 6th Century who developed the scientific method formalized and improved the observation-interpretation-application process as a biblical way to gain a better (but not complete) understanding of the material world and God, and as a way of serving others in love (bringing shalom to a community).

    Most of the early scientists were Christians, as you know, and were very passionate and worshipful about their scientific work. As they observed, interpreted, and applied, most did so with devout hearts and a great passion that was in no way detached.

    My impression is that the Enlightenment project did not originate the observation-interpretation-application approach; it was in fact formalized and even institutionalized by Christians. What the Enlightenment thinkers did was to suck out the soul and meaning of everything. By removing God from the picture, all that was left was a dry and empty and directionless scientific method. If that’s correct, the problem is not the method per se; it is the lack of God’s life and meaning in our lives.

    Jesus said that he is the vine (source of life) and we are the branches (dependent on him for life). The parable goes on to say that without Jesus, we all become “detached” and wither. That’s what the Enlightenment has done.

  13. Much appreciate the continued conversation.

    In reading, it appears to me that Glenn M. demonstrates Mike M’s main point: if the left gets in first, it excludes the right. If the right gets in first, it includes the left.

    Glenn, is it a fair summary of your comment to say that before that Enlightenment the right brain was in first and allowed left brain in as well, therefore observation-interpretation-application was not disembodied because it was in the context of right-brain rule?

    However, during the Enlightenment, the left started getting in first, and since God cannot be observed both God and the right brain were excluded?

  14. In response to Gerard, I think you make an interesting and plausible point. Obviously, I can’t give you a definitive answer to that question. Perhaps Mike could do that given that he has a better understanding of history than I do. But I think it is fair to say that the formal scientific method came about as an extension of the Christian perspective on life long before the Enlightenment.

    As I said earlier, I am not opposed to Mike’s main point. My only concern was that Mike seemed to diminish the value of observation-interpretation-application. To me, it seems that both the right and left brain do this all the time, automatically. Whether right or left brained, we are always observing, interpreting and applying–even if we aren’t doing it consciously or formally (as a scientist would). This sometimes happens academically and it sometimes happens artistically, passionately, emotionally, etc. Even babies are constantly observing and interpreting all the time.

    It seems that this is part of what makes us human. God reveals himself (in multiple right and left-brain ways), we observe (listen or not), we interpret (with good hearts or not), and we apply (accept, submit, rebel, repent, etc.) Observing, interpreting, and applying is central to what makes us morally responsible beings.

    Mike’s discussion about the relationship between the right brain and the left is helpful and good. I hope that my minor concern has not detracted from the important points he is trying to make.

  15. Humm, Interesting question. I think this is an innate capacity. I see something new and I know in my being what that is. A name for a dog or a beautiful sunset or an unusually attractive woman.
    I am a Southern rednecj by birth and choice, and I have my own names for reality.

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