The opening lecture by the renowned psychiatrist and writer Dr Iain McGilchrist formed the backbone of the conference “The Stifling Hand of Control: How Can We Enable Organisations to Flourish?”. This talk transcended various disciplinary boundaries, offering insights into a range of scientific, philosophical, historical and cultural issues. Using his expertise in natural science and humanities, his lecture looked at the relation between our two brain hemispheres, not just as an interesting neurological problem but also as a crucial factor shaping our culture.
Dr McGilchrist presented the argument that the division of the brain into hemispheres has a profound effect on human behavior, impacting on culture and society. Apart from controlling every type of function in the body from reason to emotions, the two hemispheres produce two different worlds with two different realities. While the left hemisphere understands explicit, abstract meaning, the right hemisphere understands contextual, implicit meaning. Therefore, the right hemisphere perceives the world more holistically, more directly and in context, while the left hemisphere lacks in depth and attention.
Despite all differences it seems that the two hemispheres do not fail to co-operate but rather that there is a power struggle between them, in particular with the left hemisphere dominating over the right. The left thinks it knows it all, and as a result is extremely optimistic. However, this unwarranted optimism means the left may overvalue its own ability and even be unable to discern and admit the existence of any concerns outside its own enclave. On the other hand, the right usually knows what left is doing, but suffers from being under its stifling control. How did the left manage this power? It is possibly though its ability to use language. Since the right hemisphere lacks language, it doesn’t have a voice to respond and cannot construct the same arguments.
So what is the effect of this imbalance on society? Dr McGilchrist argues that it is the left hemisphere’s obsession with reducing everything to mechanistic details that is robbing modern society of the ability to understand and appreciate deeper human values. This explains many aspects of the contemporary Western culture, which has become more mechanistic, fragmented, generalized and decontextualized. In this paradoxical world, we are exposed to more information but we have less ability to use it and to understand it. We battle constantly between adversity and fulfillment, restraint and freedom, between the knowledge of the parts and wisdom about the whole.
Ultimately, the stifling control of the left hemisphere over the right affects our behavior, our society, our legal systems and bureaucracies. Quoting Kant he concludes that “concepts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”, which is why in life we need the contributions of both hemispheres, although for different purposes.