Skip to content


December 17, 2013

One of the foundation teachings of the world’s great wisdom traditions is that harmony arises with balance. Recent research in many different fields of art and science is allowing us to revisit this principle of balance from new perspectives.

Ian McGilchrist is a psychiatrist who studied English at Oxford prior to his career in medicine. In his book ‘The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ {McGilchrist, Yale University Press, Reprint 2012 }, he notes that the left and right brain hemispheres seem to “coexist together on a daily basis, but have fundamentally different sets of values, and therefore priorities, which means that over the long term they are likely to come into conflict. Although each is crucially important, and delivers valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each needs the other for different purposes, they seem destined to pull apart.”

He goes on to say, “I believe that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different `versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another – hence the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain…

The problem of hemisphere conflict is not primarily about the individual’s day to day experience, but about the way individuals conceive – and in the end a culture comes to conceive – the nature of the world in which we live. It is about two ‘takes’ on the world, one of which, to put it simply and briefly, is concerned with closing down to a certainty and the other concerned with opening up to a possibility. One, therefore (the left), aims to reach one correct answer (‘either/or’): the other (the right) is more able to live with ambivalence and the possibility of two apparently incompatible possibilities being true (‘both/and’). In an era which prizes consistency within a system of thinking above fidelity to the sometimes irresoluble complexities of the real world, one of these ‘takes’ can become comparatively neglected. ”

In writing at length about the unfolding of human history McGilchrist contends that the holistic, widely connected perspective of the right brain (“the master”) is gradually being usurped by the analytical, detail oriented perspective of the left brain ( the “emissary”), with problematic consequences for society and our communal wellbeing.

Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard, recently wrote an essay calling for greater understanding between science and the humanities. Professor Pinker claims that science has been unfairly criticised as being simplistic or naive. He retorts that the humanities can often be guilty of thinking that is mere superstition. In a reply regarding the relationship between science and the humanities published in the LA Review of Books on 25 September 2013, McGilchrist replies:

” (there is) a naïve belief, that is unfortunately not at all uncommon, that science can offer a full account of the world, and grounds our knowledge of all that exists…..

None of us should ever forget that, having destroyed the churches as monuments to superstition, an atheist regime based on a philosophy of scientific materialism such as Stalin’s was not impeded in carrying out atrocities on a scale that beggars the imagination; or that the aggressively anti-religious regime of Pol Pot had its own inquisitions, which were amongst the most brutal and appalling that the world has seen – neither of these in the Middle Ages, but in our own era of apparent enlightenment. It would be as absurd to blame these things on science, or atheism, as it is to blame them on belief in the divine. They can happen anywhere, anytime, not because religion or science is bad, but because some people are bad. And they happen more readily wherever blinkered people have grandiose ideas about how to improve humanity, something which ought to give us all cause for reflection, whatever our beliefs……

Perhaps, it is worth mentioning, while we are about it, that much of the scientific research of the 18th and 19th centuries was not only not decried, as seems to be widely believed, by clergy, but actually carried out by them. And perhaps Professor Pinker might acknowledge that science has repeatedly shown that religious people tend to be happier and healthier than those who are not, and that, unwelcome as the conclusion may be, atheism is positively correlated with being on the autistic spectrum. These things do not, of course, render atheism untrue; but to an open mind they should suggest that there might be more than one truthful way of looking at the cosmos….

Just as he dislikes being lumped with those who believe that ‘scientists should be entrusted to solve all problems’, I expect religious people are rather tired of being lumped with fundamentalists, and find religious fundamentalists every bit as distasteful as scientific ones. And, as he would not expect to be called superstitious because scientists used to believe that there was something called phlogiston, and thought the pineal was the seat of the soul, I would think religious people might not accept being called superstitious because some of them used to believe that the earth was literally created in seven days. ”

Susan Cain studied law at Princeton and then worked in corporate law before becoming a writer. In her recent book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking ” { Cain S., pub. Penguin, 2013 } she notes the significant differences between primarily extroverted or introverted individuals.

Cain views the introvert/extrovert divide as a fundamental distinction of personality type and apparently at least a third of us are on the introverted side. She argues that the extrovert ideal has taken over so that shyness, sensitivity and seriousness are often seen as being negative and introverts consequently feel reproached for how they are. She notes the pervasive notion that the ideal self is extroverted and therefore gregarious, assertive, skilled in group dynamics and comfortable in the spotlight. She proposes that the introverted individual has the vastly undervalued qualities of empathy, sustained observation and reflection, intuition and a preference for deeper social contacts.

Cain argues that without introverts we wouldn’t have the Apple computer, the theory of relativity or Van Gogh’s sunflowers. She shows how the brain chemistry of introverts and extroverts differs, and how society misunderstands and fundamentally undervalues the role of introverts.

Dr. Dan Siegel is clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. In his work at the Mindsight Institute he refers to the natural tendency of mind to polarize around either rigidity or chaos. He remarks on his patients:

” They were stuck in repeating unhelpful patterns of thinking or behaving, or flooded by intrusive and unpredictable feelings and thoughts. ”

As I reflect on these modern perspectives regarding balance I note that over thousands of years traditional Eastern wisdom has warned against two competing tendencies. The narrow mindedness that tends towards clinging and attachment, and the excessive pride that tends towards aversion or avoidance. Obsession and Suppression. Holding thoughts and emotions either too tightly or pushing them too far away.

As we come to the end of 2013 the issues of health, wellbeing, ecology, environment, education and social justice are as present as always. Yet, as always, it is balance that creates the ground for harmony.

I wish you all a peaceful and balanced New Year,
Very Best Wishes,

Spencer Joseph

  1. Awesome post. Very well written.Thank you very much for the heads up on this one. It helped to flesh out my understanding of Mc Gilchrists’ work. Feel free to drop me a link anytime.

  2. You’re welcome – pleased it was interesting

  3. Reblogged this on Shamagaia and commented:
    A fitting follow up to my recent post of the short documentary the Divided Brain by Ian McGilchrist,

    reblogged with many thanks to spencerjjoseph at intergrative life (East west Integrative Health Integrative Health)who was fortunate enough to have the chance to interview Ian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: