The myth of a ‘normal’ brain: evolution favours diversity

By Ben Miller
The pandemic is changing how we think and make choices. We’re routinely facing competing priorities; do we choose our health or our job? to socialise or isolate?
Published in Norfolk and Suffolk Director Magazines Autumn/Winter 2020
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It’s fair to say we’re all struggling to make sense of what to do, but what if we were to explore our inner world?

In our minds we would discover this perpetual tension between preferences. That’s because our brain has two hemispheres; each with a different, incompatible, yet necessary view of the world, but which we must wrestle with to try and keep in balance. The left side of the brain is responsible for controlling the right side of the body. It values utility, self-interest, and control and has specialised, mechanistic and precise capabilities which enable us to use, divide, and analyse the world. On the other hand, the right hemisphere is more subtle and allows us to understand and experience life in its full context, prioritising meaning, relationships, integration, and the big picture.

However, this constant tussle rarely remains inside. Our ideas and thoughts manifest into behaviours and actions, which in turn radically influence how we perceive, think, and act. Over time our actions and innovations become exponentially impactful. And in the interconnected and interdependent world we now live in, our inventions can impact billions of lives.

Since the dawn of civilisation, estimates suggest that humans have accounted for just 0.01% of all living things. Yet we’ve managed to kill 83% of all wildlife and 50% of all plants. Is the blind accumulation of power careless, without simultaneously upgrading our ethics, compassion, and wisdom? Is this a sign that the objectives of one of our brain’s hemispheres has overreached?

My struggle with mental balance

Trauma and adversity can often be catalysts for growth and development. The decline of my mental health created the space to ask questions and challenge assumptions about how best to live. As a kid I was aware of how people experienced the same event in subtly different ways, and I recognised these were all important layers which, when brought together, created a whole perspective of life.

I consider diversity, balance, stimulation, and exploration as important values. A few years ago, I changed career, culture, and environment. It ended up being a double-edged sword. I didn’t play to my strengths, and my vulnerabilities were amplified. I quickly became ill and got diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

I used this experience to learn about the nature of attention. Why do deficits occur, do these mean a surplus elsewhere? I quickly understood that attention is our primary resource for experiencing and interacting with the world, but each hemisphere of our brain has a different take. We humans evolved in the Savannah where we had to balance two competing and necessary demands; to quickly identify and kill prey whilst also scanning the horizon for predators. When related to the brain, this translates to the right hemisphere being our primary mode of attention – open, global, and exploratory, whereas the left hemisphere is narrow, local, and fixed.

Yet, spending all of our time in ‘seeking prey’ mode we quickly lose sight of everything else. A balance is optimal, but how each of us goes about it varies. My brain is fine, but it operates outside of the normal corridor our classrooms and workplaces condition us for. I’m comfortable with wide open attention and imagination, but I can also hyper focus on projects of interest.

Step forward digital technology – it’s distracting, tiring, and hijacks our attention, forcing us to continuously switch between states. With a wider operational envelope, this is more problematic for me. I cope well in high intensity situations which serves to slow my mind, but the flip side of this is that boring and meaningless tasks don’t activate my brain’s reward network.

The divided brain

But what if our thinking preferences are misguided? An enduring curiosity about cognition led me to Iain Mcgilchrist, a scientist and philosopher who wrote The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. His work and ideas had more of a positive influence on my wellbeing than any treatment or intervention.

He talks about how our brain’s purpose is to both connect, and divide. As well as managing different functions, the hemispheres are structurally different, in size, weight, composition, density of connections, and neurochemicals.

Shifting to how our brain functions, Mcgilchrist makes an argument that we all live in two worlds and one of our worlds is increasingly under threat. He points out that the right and left hemispheres have competing forms of perception and cognition, and this makes the challenge of realising balance and perspective in life more difficult.

He surmises that we need to look past simplified myths of the past, such as the left hemisphere is masculine and rational, and the right hemisphere is feminine and emotional. He argues that each hemisphere has a quite consistent, but radically different, ‘take’ on the world. This means that “at the core of our thinking about ourselves, the world and our relationship with it, there are two incompatible but necessary views that we need to try to combine.”

Reality Check

So, the question is, can you recognise we might be prioritising one view of the world over the other? The left hemisphere is more optimistic and its values alluring, but when we bring it to bear on the natural world, we face existential problems. What about the damage to people? It’s not hard to recognise the significant impact to our wellbeing from endless categorising, sorting, measuring, and discarding through life. And it makes sense that Mcgilchrist thinks that western culture is showing signs of right hemisphere brain damage. This problem is further compounded by his work in recognising that it’s actually the right hemisphere, which is deeper, realistic, insightful, and more reliable.

In a recent study, just 6% of the workforce wanted to see a return to the pre pandemic economy. Yet, this economy is what shapes not just our work, but our entire societal agenda – our education system, politics, media, culture, and inventions. We’ve sold off public assets, taken on a huge debt burden, plundered cheap resources, and commoditised everything from our health, minds, lived experience and social care. Our limiting scope for growth comes at the same time as a growth in bureaucracy which means our time is increasingly spent administering, instead of innovating. This isn’t sustainable.

Aligning the future

Mcgilchrist likens our reliance on left hemisphere thinking as being stuck in a hall of mirrors – ignoring new information and over optimistically reaching for the familiar, easy to explain, solutions which created the problems in the first place. Too much of one approach crowds out the other.

An openness to change, different perspectives, and new ideas call for our right hemisphere to step up. Yet, it works differently, it can’t be forced, measured, or planned for, and an indoors, sedentary, isolated, and busy lifestyle also restricts much of it’s potential.

Innovation comes from unexpected places, intersection of disciplines, combinations, and interactions between people. Disruption in business is all about managing these tensions between old and new. The stark challenge facing all of us is that we need to try and solve all of our problems at once, both top down and ground up, together.

For this to work, there can be no single strategy or plan. No organisation can do this alone, and a resilient region calls for a lot more cooperation alongside competition. Together we need to balance planning and expertise with experimentation and innovation. The time has come for work to be about solving our existing problems, not creating new ones.

This is about balancing profit and goals with purpose and the journey. We’ve got to be ambitious and automate everything a machine can do better than us, whilst investing in people and the capabilities we’ve neglected. We need to simplify complicated systems and procedures and create the conditions for complex people with diverse capabilities to thrive. We also need to balance the benefits of productivity, science and technology with the creativity, art and humanities.

Progress depends on diverse people and ideas, and we can’t afford to leave any behind.

The myth of a ‘normal’ brain: evolution favours diversity 1

Ben Miller is the Co-Founder of Latitude Project which experiments with ways to bring ideas, people and communities together to solve social challenges. He is passionate about the transformational role cognitive diversity will play in the future and works with leaders to unlock the power of originality. Ben worked in financial services, advertising, digital media and tech industries and currently holds advisory, board, and chairing roles with the New Anglia LEP, Healthwatch Suffolk, Careers & Enterprise Company.
Read his blogs at alifeofwhy.co.

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