Is the Internet a Reassertion of the Right Brain? (Part I)
I have an idea that says the events which play out on the world stage are zoomed-out, fractal versions of events which can take place within an individual.
An easy example through which to understand this idea is conflict. An individual can have conflicting thoughts, drives or emotions within himself. Zooming out a step, an individual can have conflict with another individual over some difference in perspective. Zoomed out, a group of individuals united under a single perspective can have conflict with another group who holds an opposing perspective. Zoomed out again, a city versus a city. A country versus a country. A race versus a race, a religion versus a religion: whatever the vehicle of commonality, humans will find a way to make conflict against that which is perceived as an opposing vehicle. And just as an individual’s thoughts and emotions can be united under a personal sense of purpose, a community or country can be united under a common goal or ideology. The group is a zoomed-out, fractal version of the individual.
We can apply this idea to the left and right brain hemispheres, to see how their very different world views play out on a global scale. Viewed through this lens, the emergence of the internet can be seen as the right brain reasserting itself after millennia of oppression by the dominant left brain, represented in this article by national governments, but also including any other proponents of central control and fixed dogmatic ideologies, e.g. the Church. Hopefully this will also make it more clear why a free internet is so important, and why national governments are trying their hardest to stamp it out.
This article is mainly based on my interpretations of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, with a few of my own new ideas thrown in and marked accordingly.
National Governments and the Left Brain
Let’s take a look at the similarities in the way national governments and the left brain see the world and operate towards it.
- Central control. The left brain is extremely interconnected within itself, but poorly connected to the rest of the body. This is represented in national governments by capital cities and the bureaucracy. It is also represented in how governments are so frequently “out of touch” with the people they are supposed to be governing. Politicians know how governments work, the same way the left brain knows its own processes. But venturing beyond that small horizon, both are often quickly out of their depth.
- Ambitious. The left brain’s central remit is the acquisition and retention of power, and “power” is equated directly with “control over the environment” in the left brain’s world view. The left brain, left to its own devices, will attempt to serve itself by doing actions designed to increase its own power. Governments do the same. They expand the public sector to make themselves bigger, they pass new laws to give themselves more power, they invent new taxes to get more money, and they use war and threats to accumulate more resources.
- Manipulative. The left brain controls fine motor actions to directly control the environment via the right hand. “Manipulation” comes from the Latin manus meaning “hand”. Similarly, the government regards itself as the country’s “executive arm”. As an extension of the hand, tool use is a left-brain facet. Governments will use any tool at their disposal to exercise control over people and resources, their favourite being the threat of force. As an extension of direct physical manipulation with the hand, verbal language is another left-brain adaptation which allows it to influence others at a distance. Governments are also fond of using verbal language in this way by controlling the narrative and disseminating propaganda to have people behave in line with their objectives.
- Propagandist. Iain McGilchrist calls the left hemisphere “the Berlusconi of the brain, because it’s a kind of political heavyweight that controls the media. It’s the one that does the talking. It’s the one that constructs the argument”. The left hemisphere is dead set on the advancement of its own objectives, and if it doesn’t have a good reason for doing something, it just makes one up. Many of the explanations you as an individual come up with for your own behaviour — both backwards-rationalizations for the past, and justifications for carrying out future behaviours — are left-brain narrative scriptwriting in action. The parallel with national governments here should be obvious.
- Infallible. Here’s the real problem with the left brain’s rationalization machine: it believes itself. Completely. Not only that, it also has no concept of itself being wrong — ever. In fact, it requires the right brain for an individual to admit a mistake and adjust their reality model to account for the new information, hence why some hemisphere experts refer to the left brain as the “apologist” and the right brain as the “revolutionary”. The left brain is primarily concerned with explaining why any experience is exactly what its own theory would have predicted. The parallel in national government is clear: politicians rarely, if ever, admit making a mistake. Like the left brain, they will spin a confabulated yarn explaining away their actions as being all part of the plan, or simply deny a problem even exists. The government of the Catholic Church even go so far as to openly declare their leader as possessing “Papal Infallibility”: the ultimate manifestation of the left brain’s self-regard.
Fond of rules and symbols. As the seat of logic, the left brain codifies reality into a collection of symbols which it then manipulates using its own internal rules. Nothing wrong here so far: in this way, the left brain is responsible for verbal language and the construction of all technology we see around us in the world to date. The parallels in government are laws (rules) and money (a symbol). The problem however is that the left brain comes to believe that its symbols are the things they represent. In government, we see this as money now representing money, rather than money representing labour, value etc. Running out of money? Don’t worry, we’ll just print or borrow some more! The symbol has become the “thing”. It no longer points to something “out there” in the real world.
Regarding laws, those also come to be regarded by the governments who create them as having inherent power, rather than referencing an agreement between people “out there”. I’ll use my home country, the UK, to provide examples of this symbological confusion. Firstly, the UK government loves signs. I have seen more signs in the UK than in any other country I’ve visited. Returning home to the UK from France one year, at Gatwick Airport I was greeted by a sign written in huge letters: “VIOLENCE… Against our staff will not be tolerated.” I remember suddenly feeling very wary and on-edge — exactly the kind of atmosphere which actually leads to violence. The government’s total misunderstanding of neuro-linguistic programming aside (the concept “violence” has to be invoked and processed emotionally before it can be negated in consciousness), their other major error was equating a sign telling people not to be violent, with the thing (people not being violent). This is clearly moronic, yet it is the way the left brain comes to see the world if not regularly exposed to right-brain “actual reality”, as it is this exposure which keeps the left brain’s symbols pointing towards things “out there” instead of beginning to reference themselves, which does inevitably happen without that exposure.
A second example is laws introduced to somehow reinforce existing laws (symbols referencing themselves again). For example, anti-social behaviour is already illegal. Yet so many
cuntspeople in the UK do it regularly that the government introduced the “ASBO” (Anti-Social Behaviour Order), a law banning crime! Of course this is not an effective measure (the perpetrators have instead come to view the ASBO as a badge of honour, thus inverting its intended symbology as a punitive measure) but the alternative would be for the government to admit the original laws aren’t working, and that they don’t know why, and to re-evaluate their strategy based on what’s actually happening “out there” in the real world. In the brain, this is represented by the left brain doing more of the same due to its own assumed infallibility, only changing strategy when the revolutionary right brain steps in and says, “This isn’t working; it’s time to try something else”. Of course, it is generally the case that the government cannot actually “solve” social problems such as anti-social behaviour on its own, as these problems come from somewhere deeper and broader — within people themselves; their environment, culture and perhaps even their genes — and lie beyond the government’s remit and capabilities. If people aren’t abiding by existing laws, more laws are not likely to help. But, like the left brain, the government will claim to have the answers anyway in order to justify its own necessity and continued operation. This brings me to my next point.
Compulsive “doing”. The left brain is a hammer, and consequently sees everything as a nail. But who is holding the hammer? Wielded in a controlled way by a skilful right brain, the left brain is an extremely powerful tool. The computer you are reading this on right now — meticulously assembled by a left brain in accordance with a right brain’s vision — is testament to that. A left brain on its own however is akin to a hammer with wings, under no one’s control, flying around bashing everything in sight because that’s all it knows how to do. The left brain is a “doing” brain. It zooms in on a problem, analyses it, and does actions to try and solve that problem. “Do nothing” or “wait and see” are not on its list of functions. Consequently, without guidance from the right brain, the left brain compulsively finds problems and attempts to solve them using only its own processes. A flying hammer.
Governments are often similar. The EU is currently threatening to ban Danish pastries, as one of the ingredients, cinnamon, contains a toxic chemical — despite any possible risk apparently being restricted to a small number of sensitive people (and this risk is not even yet confirmed). Earlier in the year, the EU also tried to ban refillable olive oil jugs and dipping bowls in restaurants on some vague notion of “ensuring quality”. All a government can really “do” is legislate. That is how it “solves” “problems”. Are the two issues I just mentioned really problems, or are we seeing a flying hammer looking for nails to bash? Perhaps the hammer is worried that if it stops hitting things we might realize we don’t actually need it all that much.
Another example where a government will compulsively “do” something is following some incident where the public demands they “do” something so they must be “seen to be doing something”. In this case, they are playing the part of the larger fractal version of the individual’s left brain — the “people’s left brain”. [Note: The following idea about emotional processing is my own.] Loss and fear (fear being just “potential loss”) are registered in the right brain and passed over to the left brain to see if some recovery of existing loss or prevention of future loss is possible. The left brain’s analysis and subsequent actions are experienced as anger (anger is simply a “loss recovery program”). Notice how verbal anger is: lots of shouting at people, both in real life and in your own mind. Also notice how “doing”-based it is — it’s all action and compulsion. Very left brain. Since most people’s left brains are flying hammers in such situations, they compulsively need something to be “done”. Since most people are also dependent on the government for the “doing” of the what they have conceptualized as the “big things” in life (in turn largely due to the government’s own shameless self-promotion and -propagation over the years), the government must be “seen to be doing something”. Since all the government can “do” is legislate, that’s what it does. It makes up more laws to provide the illusion that everything is under control. This is similar to left-brain confabulation — the stories it makes up to mask its own ultimate impotence and fallibility. At best, these laws do nothing — they are safety theatre. But often they actually inhibit other parts of the system from working properly (the left brain by its nature has a very narrow focus, and cannot see how its actions in a specific area affect the whole picture). Even worse than that, the legislation a government makes in response to events often serves to grant itself more powers — the right to invade someone else’s country, or take more of someone’s stuff, or make itself bigger and more powerful — mirroring the left brain’s remit of acquisition and control.
Continuation and promotion of failing strategies. Left to its own devices, the left brain will blindly repeat the same actions over and over, even if they’re not working on a macro level, because a) it’s infallible, and b) it can’t see the macro level, as the “bigger picture” belongs to the domain of the right brain. For a strategy change to occur, the right brain must intervene and check whether the left brain’s actions are consistent with the larger context — the right brain’s bigger picture. If it finds they are not, it will have the left brain change strategy to act more in alignment towards that bigger picture. Yet, for an individual, this requires some serious self-reflection, “soul-searching”, and acceptance that one’s actions have not been quite right up until now (which is generally felt as a “loss”). This is made more difficult by the fact that, the whole time, the left brain will have constantly been writing a convincing verbal narrative in support of its own actions! Additionally, compared to the left brain’s dopaminergic “Go, go, go!” signalling, the right brain’s norepinephrinergic “Stop and re-evaluate” signalling subjectively feels melancholic. Consequently, individuals typically delay these re-evaluations of life strategy for as long as possible, preferring instead to continue what they are doing despite mounting evidence of its inefficacy. This usually continues until a result of the strategy occurs which is so profoundly cataclysmic that it cannot fail to get one’s attention and force the re-evaluation — and even then it’s a push.
A popular revolution is the zoomed-out, fractal version of this process. Unfortunately, like its “right-brain revolution” counterpart within the individual, sufficiently cataclysmic and undeniable government wrongdoing is usually required to pique enough popular attention for a re-evaluation (revolution) to occur — and even then it’s a push. Do not forget that, like the left brain, the government will also have been writing a narrative supporting its own actions via its verbal faculty: the media.
Endless self-promotion and -propagation. Just as the left brain’s answer to everything is “more left brain”, the government’s solution to every problem is “more government”. The left brain believes its way of thinking — its own processes — are the only valid way of thinking about things and getting things done. [Note: The following is my own idea.] As an individual, you will have experienced this phenomenon as verbal “thought chains”: thoughts invoke other thoughts which invoke more thoughts which would run on endlessly were it not for a point of physical exhaustion eventually being reached. Then you rest, then you do it all again. This is the left brain attempting to encode the whole of reality into a single, linear, sequential, thought stream, able to be actioned via its own processes (“do this”). Evolutionarily however, the left brain was only ever meant to be applied to small, simple tasks it is capable of actioning, in response to needs passed over to it from the right brain — e.g. “Hungry (right brain) –> Plan and actions to get food (left brain)”. A left-brain thought stream only ends when a point of simple action is reached and carried out to an acceptable result (satisfying the need). Modern life is not simple, however. “Bigger picture” problems often cannot be resolved linearly to a single point of action (and if they can, it is unlikely the left brain could reach that answer on its own). The left brain is out of its depth. The left brain however, in its infallibility and total confidence in its own abilities, sees a non-terminated thought stream as a cue to bring more of its own processes to the task. In this way, it is self-propagating.
Like the left brain, governments attempt to encode every aspect of reality into problems able to be solved only via their own processes. But the only action a government can “do” is legislate — so that’s what it does. Every aspect of reality is turned into something it can legislate about. It does not matter if this action is not suited to the nature of the problem — government is a hammer, so everything is reduced to a nail. If the action doesn’t solve the problem, their answer is “more government”: the same self-propagation we see with the left brain’s verbal thought chains. Another way left-brain and government processes self-propagate is that their actions often create new problems. The left brain cannot see the bigger picture. The actions it does to solve something “here” might mess something up “over there”. These new problems just become more things for it to try and solve. Both left brains and governments will never admit that they often caused the very problems they are now attempting to correct.
By now I may have done a good job of convincing you that the left brain is the devil incarnate. That is only one side of the story — the one demanded by the context of this article — and in the future I might have to write an article redressing the balance entitled “The Wonderful Left Brain”. 🙂 Extolling the virtues of national governments might be more tricky, especially given the current trends. But I am sure history can furnish me with at least a few examples of when they have worked well and behaved themselves by staying within their remit.
Continuing our theme however, Part II will take a look at some of the similarities between the internet and the right brain, and hopefully shed some light on why the left brain–government fractal axis considers the internet such an inconvenience and threat to its ambitions.