The Divided Brain and Freedom of Thought

I’ve been reading and listening to lectures about the divided brain recently. The “hard” problem how consciousness arises from the brain is endlessly fascinating to me.

In the book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and The Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist, the author begins by explaining how perception of how the two hemispheres work has changed over time. The brain has two hemispheres – the left and the right. In the last century, scientists believed that the left brain was in charge of some things like language and mapping, while the right was in charge of music, art, and abstract thinking. Then it was discovered that both hemispheres were at work on all tasks and scientists believed that it was hopeless to assign certain tasks to one hemisphere or the other and that they were essentially the same.

Mr. McGilchrist, has studied the relationship between the two hemispheres for decades. He tells us that there is a complicated relationship between the left and right hemispheres. It turns out that the physical connection between the hemispheres plays a larger role than once thought about how the two sides communicate. While it’s true that each side of the brain can sustain consciousness on its own, each side attends to the world in its own way. When you are working on certain tasks both hemispheres do work together, but that there are inhibitors from one hemisphere to the other so that the one side is “in charge” or governs certain tasks while the other serves as a facilitator to the other hemisphere. These two modes of thinking can switch quickly as your environment changes around you.

In the animal kingdom we see the same brain division into two hemispheres. It is believed that this helps to protect an animal while its foraging for food. Mr. McGilchrist explains that when a bird is pecking around for a seed on the ground one hemisphere is focused on that task, while the other hemisphere is tasked with keeping a watch out for predators.

Another interesting discovery of how the processing is divided is that new experiences are processed first by the right hemisphere and then mapped out in the left for routine work. For example, the first time you drive to a new job or school, your right hemisphere is busy processing the new experience. You are very aware of the trip to the new location, alert to the new experience. But, after repeated trips to the same location, the left hemisphere maps out the route and after a time you hardly recall the drive at all. Routine tasks are shoved into the background of our conscious thought.

We will probably never understand how the mind works from the simple fact that there’s no way for us to study the brain objectively. In order to observe a any system, we need to be able to separate ourselves from it and observe it working independently of our control. Because each individual is the only one to truly “know” in any way what he/she is thinking it is impossible to say for sure what is going on in any individual brain. One person can observe another from the outside, but the one thinking the thoughts to be observed cannot. There’s no way to be an independent observer of your own thoughts.

Science Fiction sometimes depicts the ability to read minds as a wonderful super power or as a depressing reality of human nature. The stories generally show the mind readers as trying to control the gift so as to preserve the privacy of others. However, it seems to me that if it was discovered that some people could read minds the temptation to control large populations of people would be difficult for those in power to resist abusing that power.

Some might say that we see mind control happening today in the news media massaging the facts to fit a biased narrative or how advertisers persuade us to buy their products. It is true that a great deal of information is known about how to manipulate people, but I believe the brain is highly adaptive to these abuses. Once it becomes aware it is being manipulated, the mind can develop ways to thwart the control of an outsider. The fact that individual “thoughts” are hidden inside each person means that bullies and oppressive governments will never be able to completely control individuals.

And that’s why I’m thankful no one can read minds.

Until next time. 😊