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Understanding Paradoxes Of The Divided Brain

It has been said that people who are analytical and good with numbers are ruled by the left hemisphere of their brain.  Those who are creative and artistic are said to be right brained. This so-called division of the brain became a popular topic in the sixties and seventies after the first split brain operation, but is it true?


RSA ANIMATE: The Divided Brain


In recent years, scientists have stopped trying to understand and explain the differences between the left and right side of the human brain. It is easy to see that there are physical differences, such as its asymmetry.  Not only is there an obvious division between the left and right side, both sides are also asymmetrical.

The brain is broader on the right at the front but on the left side, it is broader at the back. The skull that contains the brain is symmetrical, suggesting that there must be a purpose to the design.

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What we do know is that all functions of the brain including reason, emotion, language and imagery are governed by both hemispheres. It is not true that one part of the left brain is responsible for reasoning and analytics while the right brain controls emotion, vision, language. Both parts of the brain are involved in all actions.

According to renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchris, the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to our existence, making it possible for us to create an understanding of the world where incompatible priorities and values coexist. This division has increased over the course of evolution and can be seen in the reduction of the corpus callosum which is the band of nerves that serves to separate the hemispheres.

McGilchris poses that the differences lie not in which skills each hemisphere possesses but in the way in which each hemisphere uses them.  The left hemisphere is used for narrowly focused attention on something that is likely already known.  

In contrast, the right hemisphere is responsible for vigilance of the unknown and to make connections.  These differences in functionality allow the brain to focus on multiple tasks at the same time.

In humans, the right hemisphere has a sustained alertness and can be thought of as the master, performing the tasks necessary to keep us safe.  The right hemisphere deals with an embodied world. It sees things in context and understands implicit meaning in emotional expression and body language.  It favors the living over the mechanical and understands the true essence of an individual. For a broad understanding of the world, we need to use the knowledge that comes from the right hemisphere.


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The left hemisphere is dependent on the right hemisphere and acts as its emissary.  Its primary focus is on attention to detail.  When we know that something is important and we want to be precise about it, we use our left hemisphere. To do this we need a simplified version of reality.  It’s not good to have too much unnecessary information – simply because knowledge exists, doesn’t mean we need to know everything in order to accomplish something specific.

Both hemispheres come together for imagination and reason. The left hemisphere is focused on generalizations that are fixed, isolated, and lifeless. The right hemisphere yields a world of evolving, interconnected, living beings.


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The frontal lobe of our brain has the purpose of inhibition.   It causes us to stand back in time and space from the immediacy of our experiences. This distance creates empathy and helps us to understand each other’s emotions and intents while affording us the ability to deceive.  With this distance, you can see the other individual for what and who they are and create a bond.  This allows us to manipulate the world around us and use it for our benefit to make tools, grow food, and even have language.  

Today we live in a world of paradoxes where, in the pursuit of happiness many people are left feeling unhappy and resentful. We pursue freedom even though our daily lives are monitored and subjected to rules.  The cause of this paradox, according to Dr. McGilchris, is that as more information becomes available we can understand and use less.

There are three ways the brain contributes to this paradox:

1. The left hemisphere disregards any information that it cannot make sense of.

2. The right hemisphere does not have a voice and cannot construct arguments.

3. The more we get trapped by these limitations of the individual hemispheres, the more we get reflected back into what we know, about what we know, creating an endless loop.

The hemispheres need to be understood both as separate parts as well as a whole.  McGilchrist warns that a left hemisphere dominance is affecting society and can be seen in materialism, capitalism, the degradation of the environment, shocking and abstract art, and the rise of rationality over religion.  There is a need for balance with the right brain contributing its appreciation for nature, beauty, community, and empathy. The first step towards change is understanding these paradoxes of the divided brain.


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