Saturday, November 29, 2014

We're at a turning point in history

[I wrote this about twelve years ago, when I was still thinking like a graduate student. If you don't mind hearing a non-expert spout off on a somewhat academic subject, this is one of my more thoughtful essays ...]

I posit that the Western World has evolved from a right-brained, holistic/directly-connected worldview to a left-brained, linear/abstract worldview over the last few millennia, and now we're spiraling back again.

I'm sure most of you here have heard about the research done on the two separate hemispheres of the human brain, and what make them different. In most people, when you anesthetize the left hemisphere only, they develop aphasia - the inability to talk. If you anesthetize the right hemisphere only, they will be able to speak just fine (though half their brain is asleep). However, they will have great difficulty solving spatial problems such as putting together a puzzle. In a tiny minority, the functions of these hemispheres are reversed. However, it is clear that we humans have a sort of "split brain," each half of which has become highly specialized at a certain type of thinking.

We know from split-brain studies and from studies on people with damage to one side of the brain that the left brain houses most of our linguistic, logical, and analytic ability, while the right brain specializes in artistic, spatial, and pattern-matching ability. I personally look upon the left brain as the "rational mind" and the right brain as the "creative mind."

Below is a list I've compiled on what I would categorize as being the respective realms of the left and right brain:

Left : Right
Linear : Holistic
Separation : Unity
Deduction : Induction
Domino effect : Crystallization effect
Incremental change : Sudden systemic change
Predictable : Unpredictable
Compartmentalization : Imagination
Particle : Wave
Individualism : Collectivism
Isolated connections : Universal connections
Categorizing : Pattern-matching
Structures in a vacuum : Structures integrally connected
One possibility : Infinite possibilities
Language : Music

I know from my studies in Artificial Intelligence that it is far easier for a computer to replicate the workings of the left brain because it works much like a computer does - it follows a linear, causal train of thought and comes up with a single solution - the correct solution. It views the world in terms of goals to be reached and problems to be solved. It then isolates each problem into a specified framework, breaks it down into its logical elements and follows a well-ordered path through each of these elements to determine a solution. What's more, a computer can do this several orders of magnitude faster than a human being can - which is why we're now seeing a computer world chess champion. But try asking that same computer to interpret your tone of voice or recognize your mother when she walks into the room! Progress is being made in these kinds of areas, but not using the left-brained approach of following a causal chain of logical rules.

Stephen Covey, author of the best-selling book the "7 Habits of Highly Effective People", has a great way of describing the difference between leadership and management. Management is the quality that will find the best, most efficient way to cut a path through the forest. Leadership is the quality that climbs the highest tree, surveys the terrain, and says, "wrong forest!" Of course our Western, rational, left-brained thinking is tops in management. But do you ever get the feeling we spend all our energy developing the fastest, most efficient path to nowhere?

Despite the immense importance of the creative aspects of the right brain, they are desperately undervalued in Western culture, and have been for centuries. If we look at the historical trend all our systems of representation (including our own language!) we find an ever-increasing shift towards abstraction, increased importance of order, and increased isolation of each individual bit of information. For example, our "writing" system used to be pretty much just to draw what we wanted to communicate, e.g.: cave paintings. We advanced to ideograms: shorthand, stylized icons representing particular words or concepts. Obviously, some of the meaning was lost ... you could write the symbols for "big ugly bearded warrior" but you couldn't convey exactly what he looked like the way you could with a drawing. On the other hand, you could be precise about what you wanted to convey, there was a common understanding of what each symbol meant, you could communicate a lot more quickly and you didn't have to be the world's best artist to get the point across ... just specially educated (need I mention that increased specialization is also a characteristic of left-brained thinking?).

Eventually we progressed to hieroglyphs: pictures that represented syllables in a word rather than the word itself. While this made symbols even further removed from the concept they represented, it made writing much easier and more efficient. Finally we arrived at the alphabet. Now we have a system wherein only 26 symbols can communicate whatever it is we can say with words (though we lose the right-brained trait of tonal inflection).

Of course, all of this is a very good thing. It'd be pretty tough for me to write this essay by drawing a picture, and I'd hate to try to type it on a keyboard designed for hieroglyphs. The point I want to make, though, is this type of process has been going on in nearly every avenue of Western thought for millennia, even in our language. Languages of the Western world - Indo-European languages - have always held a strong left-brained bias anyway. They force the speaker to view time linearly and to think in terms of cause and effect. For example, we express thoughts by using a subject acting out a predicate, e.g.: "The light flashed." But the light and the flash are the same thing. A Hopi would simply say, "Flash!" (read "the Aquarian Conspiracy" by Marilyn Ferguson)

Yet even among Indo-European languages, and most notably English itself, there has been a trend towards more abstraction, isolation of the effects of each word on one another, and an increasing importance on word order. Old English, like Latin and ancient Greek, was a highly inflected language. In inflected languages, each word, in and of itself, said a lot more about its role in the sentence than an isolated word in English does today. Just by looking at a word, you could see if it was the subject or the object, or if it described a bunch of masculine objects that belong to somebody. Remember taking French lessons where the word for "the" had to agree with whatever it was referring to? That's nothing compared to some of the most ancient inflected languages, where in each word you had to be mindful of whether you were describing the concept of "to" or "with", what specific number of objects you were describing, whether or not negation was involved ... and on and on ad infinitum. In these types of languages you often can plop the words down in any old way and still get the same meaning, because each word reflects its place in the sentence regardless of order. Also, each word had more influence on the structure of every other word in the sentence. They were integrally connected. On the other hand, most modern Indo-European languages (particularly English) are highly dependent on word order, and individual words can often be considered in isolation.

As a final example, consider our numerical notation. We used to draw pictures of cows to keep inventory of them. Then we progressed to tally marks, Roman numerals, and then Arabic numerals. We are now in which we've realized the ultimate in abstract notation - binary notation, 1's and 0's -- where order is supreme and each individual sign means almost nothing in and of itself. Gee, that sounds a lot like the dehumanization of the species, doesn't it? People are becoming more and more isolated, and less and less connected with their neighbors, feeling more and more like placeholders in a hierarchy.

While the left-brained thinking has freed the West from superstition and a great deal of ignorance and brought us the gifts of individualism and scientific method, its limitations are becoming all too clear. Science has finally conceded that we live in an uncertain world. Chaos theory shows that we cannot possibly determine the answer to everything. Perhaps we can perceive (right brain) the All, but we cannot know it in the left-brained way that we know 2+2=4. As science develops the new territories of quantum theory, systems theory, chaos theory and holographic supertheory, our society and scientific institutions are hopelessly backward and breaking down fast. In "Science, Order and Creativity" David Bohm laments the over-specialization of the sciences. "While most sciences are not as dominated by mathematics [as physics], the essential point is the spirit with which mathematics is done. Its general aim is to try to analyze everything into independent elements that can be dealt with separately. This encourages the hope that any problem can be split off into a separate fragment. [...] By concentrating on this sort of analysis and constantly splitting off problems into specialized areas, we increasingly ignore the wider context that gives things their unity. In fact, this spirit is now spreading beyond science, not only into technology, but into our general approach to life as a whole. Understanding is now valued as the means to predict, control, and manipulate things."

This is the limitation of management without leadership, of linear goal-seeking without reflection. It's becoming plain that logic and analysis are useful only to a certain point, and we've past it. The age of certainty has given way to the age of uncertainty. What do we do? The only thing there is to do. We must change. I believe web communities like Indymedia are harbingers of that change, and the current global crisis merely a symptom of its necessity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here's what they don't tell you:

What does it mean? I don't know but one had better understand itif one cares to talk about left-brain, right-brain.

Just saying.