Could politician’s ‘divided brains’ be behind their failure to tackle long term challenges?

12 January 2013

Given that the world faces so many major and intractable problems, why do politicians insist on trying to address them in a piecemeal fashion, rather than addressing underlying root causes?

One such root cause, and perhaps the most important, may be the little-known but profoundly important relationship between the hemispheres of our brains, according to a report published by the RSA.

The Divided Brain, Divided World report explores the practical significance of the scientific fact that the two hemispheres of each of our brains have radically different ‘world views’.

The report argues that our failure to learn the correct lessons from the financial crash, our continuing neglect of climate change, and the increase in various mental health conditions stem from a literal loss of perspective that we urgently need to regain.

This issue has deep significance for anybody working to affect social change. The evidence-based case is that the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured world view of the left hemisphere is gradually usurping the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic but relatively tentative and inarticulate world view of the right hemisphere. This cultural trend can be illustrated in a range of current policy issues, for instance:

  • An obsession with exam results in school education; and the creation of absurd forms of bibliometry and citation counting in higher education research assessment exercises.
  • Funding cuts for arts and humanities courses that struggle to justify themselves in instrumental terms.
  • Pervasive ignoring or denial of the scale of our climate change problem.
  • Political failure to think through the implications of the fact that beyond a minimal threshold higher income does not equate with higher wellbeing.
  • Political failure to question the imperative for economic growth.

The report examines how related issues are illuminated by the ideas developed in Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed work: The Master and his Emissary. This grand theory for our times, underpinned by rigorous neuroscientific research, has potential relevance to how we approach a range of major policy issues and deserves to become a reference point for anybody interested in addressing social and political challenges in a deeper more systemic way.

Commenting on the report, author Dr Jonathan Rowson said:

“If you have ever had the feeling that the world is gradually getting more unbalanced, askew or out of kilter in a way that you can’t quite articulate, this report will help make sense of that feeling. And if you suspect that the growing neglect of arts and humanities is even more tragic than many already fear, or are hoping for some insight into why we might be blinkered enough to destroy our own planet, this report will offer some perspective on what we might do to redress these problems.”

Divided Brain, Divided World features a dialogue between author and Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist and Director of RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Dr Jonathan Rowson. This discussion informed a workshop with policymakers, journalists and academics and led to a range of written reflections on the strength and significance of the ideas, including critique, clarification and illustrations of relevance in particular domains, including economics, behavioural economics, climate change, NGO campaigning, patent law, ethics, and art.

Read the Divided Brain, Divided World report.

Notes to editors

  1. For more information contact RSA Head of Media Luke Robinson on 020 7451 6893 or 07799 737 970 or luke.robinson@rsa.org.uk
  2. This Report marks the Launch of the RSA Social Brain Centre.  Since its inception in early 2009, RSA’s Social Brain project has sought to make theories of human nature more accurate through research, more explicit through public dissemination, and more empowering through practical engagement. The notion of a rational individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what many of us intuitively sense – humans are a fundamentally social species. Science cannot, however, tell us what to do with this knowledge, and it is up to us to shape our lives and our societies accordingly.