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Does Left Brain-Only Thinking Impoverish Our Mental World? How?

A discussion of the left brain vs the right brain that avoids pop science can set us thinking, as psychiatrist McGilchrist and neurologist Dirckx show

Recently, we looked at a discussion between Christian neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx and eclectic psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist on the nature of the mind. The stimulating level of their conversation on Justin Brierley’s show Unbelievable pointed up — by omission — the wasteland that eliminative materialism brings to so much discussion of the mind today.

The middle part of the discussion focused on McGilchrist’s approach to the difference between “right-brain” and “left brain” thinking. Essentially, our brains are lateralized, such that two duplicate halves control opposite sides of our bodies — but they also specialize for some specific functions. So your right brain controls your left hand, and so forth.

This topic often degenerates into debunkable pop science fluff. The fluff loses touch along the way with the fact, for example, that some people walking around today get by with only half of a physical brain (due to the treatable ravages of epilepsy). So we should not be looking for a spot in the brain that explains math or Shakespeare. We are only looking at the difference between modes of thinking that seem more comfortable for most individuals when one part rather than another of the brain is used. But no claim is made that that part of the brain simply causes it all — which makes the discussion far more interesting and useful.

Some brief excerpts from the transcript:

Justin Brierley (25:59 min): … I want to return though to your central thesis, Iain, the way in which the left hemisphere has come to dominate the right hemisphere. In what ways are you seeing that come out in terms of the way people think about big issues around purpose, around the cosmos, around God as well, which we’ll come to.

Has that sort of domination of the left hemisphere, which wants to simply organize, categorize, and provide data become the problem, with people no longer feeling like they can believe in spirituality or ultimate purpose or even that, you know, music has its own intrinsic beauty rather than simply being the thing that hits our ears and stimulates neurons and so on?

Not everything can be expressed as an algorithm

Iain McGilchrist (26:46): Well, there are a number of ways in which I think it renders it very hard to understand what people mean when they talk about spirituality or religion. One is that it’s very hard to make explicit in language. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real as, uh, Niels Bohr said about physics: Modern physics can only be expressed using the language of poetry but it doesn’t mean it’s not real. He made the explicit connection with religion. That’s one thing that happens.

Another is that the left hemisphere, starting with details and building up, sees everything as mechanical — in the way it would make [that thing] by putting this together with that. That’s what the left hemisphere is for. It’s the bit of us that enables us to make things, make tools and manipulate the world around us whereas the right hemisphere is able to see a whole.

And very often — in fact I would say everywhere in the cosmos — you don’t just arrive at something by finding out the parts it’s made of because you can’t know the parts until you know what sort of wholes it can make. The very fact that certain things that look, when taken out of context, very basic and simple can be very highly important parts of a whole of something else shows that this process is creative and needs to be seen in both directions.

Left and Right Human Brain Anatomy Illustration. 3D rendering

Sharon Dirckx: (30:10) I found Iain’s work enormously helpful and extraordinarily comprehensive and will be referring to it for many years to come… Another area caused me to think about AI in the influence of our increasing interaction with algorithms which you could say is a distillation of the proficiencies of the left hemisphere.

So what does that mean for us as human beings, as we continue to interact increasingly with algorithms and our kind of life’s direction where success in interview is not decided on the base of intuition and embodiment but on algorithmic programs and factors? …

And then of course there’s the broader discussion about a change of view and the perspective that is needed to change one’s perspective requires us to be aware that there are factors that we hadn’t considered before. And if we have kind of shut down the part of our brain that is proficient in doing that then the likelihood of us coming to any kind of change of heart or perspective, whether that is religious, political, or relational… Then we are becoming less and less emotionally intelligent.

The rise of artificial stupidity

Iain McGilchrist: (32 min) I think you’re right. We’re actually, interestingly, becoming less cognitively intelligent but that’s by the way. But importantly we’ re also becoming less emotionally intelligent. And these views are not just reductive in the way that they try to account for everything by breaking it down into simple bits but are actively reductive of what a human being is.

So that I believe that in the explosive increase in the amount of time we now have to spend — just within the last five years you can see it accelerating — interacting with machines, algorithms … because people are expensive, algorithms are cheap. But unfortunately they’ re also stupid and I say it’s not artificial intelligence, it’s artificial stupidity. It’s modeling a sort of thing we would never, never do. In the past, something that would take you five minutes on the telephone can now literally take four hours on the net as sometimes these algorithms go into loops that you can’t break out of…

(Note: McGilchrist thinks we are becoming less cognitively intelligent. One data point worth looking at is the Flynn effect, by which average intelligence scores rose gradually over a number of decades of the 20th century. This was generally attributed to improved public health and nutrition, and also to literacy — which systematically rewards intelligence. However, a reversal of the effect has been observed in recent decades. Does increasing dependence on AI have anything to do with it? We’d need more research to know but it’s worth wondering about.)

Overall, the continuing discussion between McGilchrist and Dirckx seemed pitched at a much higher level than is common in “brain talk.” One reason is surely the general absence of eliminative materialism, that is, the popular science dogma that the mind is what the brain does — an illusion supposedly generated by natural selection in the brain because it promotes survival.

Why eliminative materialism impoverishes discussions is easy to explain. It cannot escape Egnor’s dilemma: If your hypothesis is that your mind is an illusion, then you do not have a hypothesis. Unfortunately, however, the only type of materialism that makes any sense is eliminative materialism. That is, if any non-material thing exists, materialism is not true. But, we are told, science depends on it.

And that’s why, if pursued in that environment, the “Hard Problem of Consciousness” should really be called the Impossible Problem, as science writer John Horgan is perhaps beginning to see: “Brain scientists have no idea how our brains make us conscious, and even if they did, that knowledge would apply only to human consciousness. It would not yield a general theory of consciousness, which determines what sort of physical systems generate conscious states. It would not tell us whether it feels like something to be a bat, nematode or smartphone.”

(Note: In the latter half of the program Justin Brierley draws out Iain McGilchrist and Sharon Dirckx on the multilevel subject of God. Stay tuned.)

You may also wish to read: The Mind: A psychiatrist and a neuroscientist walk into a… Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, conversing with Christian neuroscientist Sharon Dirckx about materialism’s deficits, shows considerable sympathy for panpsychism. Dispensing with absurd current materialist views of mind, the discussion takes very interesting turns — grounded firmly in clear thinking and neuroscience.

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Does Left Brain-Only Thinking Impoverish Our Mental World? How?