The Wrong Winner

Michael Metzger

The wrong winner has won. Iain McGilchrist says the human brain’s two hemispheres are waging a winner-take-all contest. But only one hemisphere – if it wins – includes the other in the triumph. The other hemisphere doesn’t. Unfortunately, over the last 500 years, the wrong hemisphere has won the contest.

Winners and losers is a tale told by Iain McGilchrist, a researcher in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Hospital and author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The title is taken from a story told by Nietzsche of a wise master who ruled over a flourishing kingdom. He was selflessly devoted to his people. As his kingdom grew, the master sent out trusted emissaries. But, as fate would have it, the most ambitious emissary began to see himself as ruler. He usurped the master, duped the people, and toppled the kingdom. It collapsed in ruins. McGilchrist says this story helps us “understand something taking place inside ourselves, inside our brains.” It explains a “power struggle being played out in the cultural history of the West over the past 500 years or so.”

The Master is the human brain’s right hemisphere. It thinks in metaphor. The emissary is the left hemisphere. It thinks in words. The right imagines frames; the left works with facts. The right sees images – the left uses reason. This distinction is not “a small matter of a quaint literary function,” McGilchrist writes. It has profound implications.

Master and emissary are designed to complement each other. No one is “left-brain only” or “right-brain only” (unless they’ve undergone a hemispherectomy – removal of a cerebral hemisphere). We’re both/and – but the right hemisphere “understands metaphor while the left does not.” The right sees things whole and in their context. “It is deeply connected to the self as embodied. It is only the right parietal lobe that has a whole body image.” The left hemisphere observes things from a distance, broken into parts. “The body is something from which we are relatively detached.” We need both views, McGilchrist writes, but the right hemisphere historically got in first.

Neuroimaging indicates the two hemispheres compete with each another in a winner-take-all contest, trying to “get in first” and control how we think. If the right hemisphere gets in first, it includes the left in the triumph. The left hemisphere does not. If it gets in first, it excludes the right. At the “meta” level, McGilchrist writes, “the right can use the left hemisphere’s preferred style, whereas the left hemisphere cannot use the right hemisphere’s. If the ‘wrong’ hemisphere does get in first, and starts to take control, it will probably continue to trump the other hemisphere.” He warns that, over hundreds of years, this could “lead ultimately to a large bias overall” for words over images, disembodied over embodied learning. This is exactly what has happened in the West.

Two examples will suffice. Most business professionals in the West are trained to spend an inordinate amount of time hammering out mission statements. But neuroimaging indicates we are governed more by our image of work – not a mission statement. Similarly, clergy are trained to spend an inordinate amount of time wordsmithing sermons, seasoning them with a dab of illustration here and there. But neuroimaging indicates metaphor is the meat and potatoes of effective communication. As McGilchrist notes, “Metaphor underlies all forms of understanding whatsoever.”

This is a Western problem because the Western Enlightenment is the left hemisphere’s main emissary. Much of modern evangelicalism is the product of the Enlightenment. Just as the emissary in Nietzsche’s story duped the people, the left’s “win” has duped Western believers. Neuroimaging indicates the left hemisphere – when acting alone – may unreasonably, even stubbornly, be convinced of its own reason. “Without batting an eye,” McGilchrist observes, “the left hemisphere draws mistaken conclusions from the information available to it and lays down the law.” If a problem arises, rather than admit to a gap in its understanding, the left “makes up something plausible, that appears consistent, to fill it.” This is why the left is “ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its short-comings.” Only the right hemisphere looks for discrepancies in assumptions and acts as a devil’s advocate. Only the right moves people to a paradigm shift. Only the right hemisphere can be the right winner.

Because the Western church is largely a lead-with-the-left faith, we see two ways it is being toppled. When the Center for the Study of Social and Political Change surveyed leading segments of American society, researchers found only three groups – military, athletes, and old-school, top-down, directive business professionals – regularly attend church anymore. This is significant as the group represents engineering-types who lead with the left-hemisphere. The same survey shows dramatically different numbers for those who lead with the right – media moguls, innovative business leaders, social scientists, and artists. Few of these types attend church anymore. Second, lead-with-the-left explains why the faith community often fails to recognize reality. Many cultural analysts say the Western faith is in exile because it idolizes the Enlightenment. Those who lead with the left-hemisphere often fail to see this since they lack a devil’s advocate.

Our left hemisphere world “has blocked off the available exits,” McGilchrist writes, “the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand.” If the faith community is caught in a hall of mirrors, neuroscience might lead us out. In Coming Apart, Charles Murray writes, “The more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated.”1 In right hemisphere faiths – those predating the Enlightenment – image and reason complement each other. But image gets in first. These faith traditions will be vindicated, as science is simply catching up to scripture. If however you suspect you might be in a left hemisphere church, I’ll pose a simple question in next Monday’s column. Your answer will indicate which hemisphere is currently winning the winner-take-all contest in your brain.

1 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 300.


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  1. Mike, I am currently working on an international project with a collection of combined left / right knowledge processors. Having extensive experience teaching analytical comprehension of how people speak and listen, this article reminded me how many people are trained and solidified in justification beliefs without perspective or understanding based on western educational values rather than free processing of information… looking forward to next week’s writings.

  2. The subject has many practical implications, some of which I will incorporate in my day today.

    Look forward to next week’s article.

  3. Mike-

    As beautiful (and intuitively true) as I find this, I’m having trouble reconciling “images first” with two other principles:

    1) The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, and
    2) That God *spoke* the world into existence, and that Jesus is the Word.

    Can you clear me up as where these principles don’t conflict, and may enrich each other?

  4. Since we only live in a time/space universe, we’re sort of ‘trapped’ in describing God ‘s work in sequential terms. But given that limitation, God imagined you before he spoke, creating you.

    Can you help me with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Call me stupid, maybe.

  5. I hear you on the time/sequence front. Nonetheless, we do see *words* being the means of creation. Additionally, our man Roy Williams would say that it is words that open the mind to new images.

    Maybe my hang up is that you correlated the left brain with Words and the right with Images. If, instead, you said the left was Logic and the right was Art, I wouldn’t be so angsty right now.

    Which brings us to Sapir-Whorf. … “language influences certain kinds of cognitive processes” and “linguistic differences to have consequences in human cognition and behavior.” (wikipedia)

    One one hand I see this compelling power of words and verbal language – even as it relates to perception of reality itself. On the other hand I see how right you are about logic hijacking our theology and culture in the Enlightenment.

    So, yes, we need images. We need frames and context. We need meaning > facts. But aren’t words how we get there?

  6. Next week I’ll sight research from neuroimaging indicating that words originate in the left hemisphere and images from the right. Iain McGilchrist’s entire point is that it is only in modern Western cultures that it became a given that words precede images, or open the mind to new images.

  7. I am reminded of a Youtube video of a fundamentalist preacher who waxes eloquent on 1 Samuel 25:22 “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall (KJV)” The sermon is on the one hand hilarious, on the other hand it is sad. It is on the one hand hilarious that anyone could really get that wrapped up in a phrase that is meant to illicit an emotion or image rather than give instructions on relieving oneself as the determination of true masculinity. On the other hand it is sad to think (whether or not the youtube is a spoof) that there really are people who reason that way. Perhaps we all fall into that trap at times without realizing what we have done. Maybe we do need to rethink the left and right brain issues.
    Certainly that points a little to the differences between the Hebrew and Greek mindsets. Had a Greek originally penned 1 Samuel 25:22, I don’t think we would have had the material to get such an entertaining video.

  8. This is very interesting, especially for one like myself with a son with Asperger’s and a husband who may have it too. But you could rewrite this whole article substituting ‘male’ for ‘left brain’ and ‘female’ for right brain, and it would still ring true. Is the problem as much a domination by one gender, as a domination by one hemisphere?

    This does not of course explain why churches are full of women, unless it is that men are less amenable to being dictated to by a male leader up the front. Also, my church is packed full of creative types and I know many other churches who are similar. So your hypothesis needs a little subtle tweaking…

  9. Veronica:

    I’m not familiar with any researching indicating a correlation between males and left brain preference – and right for females. The problem is, as you accurately state, domination by one hemisphere – the left. This domination is largely the result of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment has affected male and female equally.

    I am glad to hear that you church is creative, and of course what I write might need a little tweaking. However, the surveys seem to indicate that much of modern evangelicalism is lead-with-the-left. Your church is likely the exception to the rule – and that, of course, proves the rule.

  10. Brody:

    In “The Master and His Emissary,” McGilchrist writes this: “It has been suggested that our concepts are determined by the language that we speak (the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). However, this is no more than a half or quarter truth. Children certainly often get a concept first and then quickly learn the word to describe it, which is the wrong way round from the Sapir-Whorf point of view.” He later adds that the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has partial truth – if you don’t have the word, you are likely to lose the concept; but this research demonstrates that the concept can arise without the word, and is therefore not dependent on it. So thinking is prior to language.”

    Just thought you might appreciate this!

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