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#533#534#535#536 Episode #537 - From Divided Brains to Divided Societies
(The Neurological and Cultural Roots of Separation)

#538#539#540#541

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Sun 6 February 2011  Iain McGilchrist, Marvin Bram
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Download Hour1 Download Hour2 This week we hear two scholars on the profound roots of separation, firstly within the structure of the brain itself, secondly between individuals in modern society. Iain McGilchrist sets the scene in our first hour with The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In our second hour we replay one of the deepest talks from earlier Unwelcome Guests episodes - The Roots and Ramifications of our Culture of Hierarchy and Control by Marvin Bram.
Our first hour is a dense but engaging talk by Iain McGilchrist followed by some Q & A. He starts by noting his dissatisfaction with either of the diametrically opposed pair of worldviews, the reductionist scientific materialist one, and the post-modern subjective view that 'all reality is just in our heads'. He relates them to the division of human (and animal) brains, reflecting a deep commonality in the cognitive functions of living creatures - they all need not only to focus on particular tasks but also to understand broader issues such as context and relationships. Careful not to oversimplify the functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, as was done in the 1960's and 70's when it was a subject of popular science, he clarifies that proper reasoning requires both hemispheres working in concert.

Nevertheless, evidence especially from those with partially impaired brain function reveals that the brain's different halves have essentially contrasting functions. The left brain has an ability to focus on specific things, and carry out mechanical reasoning and processing of clearly defined rules with known concepts. The right brain has a predilection for the living over the dead, and allows us to see the bigger picture, understand wholes and perceive relationships.

Healthy cultures, he suggests, balance both hemispheres, but in ancient Greece and Rome, left hemisphere logic took more and more control until the cultures' eventual collapse. He sees in post-enlightenment culture the same phenomenon, noting a preoccupation with mechanism over the living and "a paranoia in society" that seeks to control tiny details. He traces this back to the compelling nature of the left brain's inner dialogue, its requiring of things to be explicit, its ability to mechanically rearrange existing facts but not to perceive new patterns or construct entirely new meanings.

Our second hour builds on the first, though it is a 2003 talk from episode 175. Marvin Bram speaks on The Roots and Ramifications of our Culture of Hierarchy and Control. Echoing the distinction of the brain's hemispheres, he draws a differentiates an abstracted, logical style of thought (univocity) and the polysomous one which perceives wholes, understands relationships and tolerates ambiguity.

General categories and abstract reasoning such as the syllogism, he argues, are an essential feature of unifocal cultures and give rise to abstract rules, hierarchy and control. He argues that since children have a natural tendency to seek to be whole people, they naturally seek to reject domination by unifocal thought. He highlights school as the main cultural device of modern times used to train children in unifocal thought and to get them to arrange themselves hierarchically.

Noting a connection between unifocal thought and violence, he laments the rise in recent years of 'hyper-univocity' (an extreme form of focus on rules, abstraction and mechanism) and 'phony polysomy' (a superficial ambiguity which is nevertheless rule-based and under control). Can our culture recover? What if what we are told is 'a person' is in fact only part of a whole? Such a thought is disturbing to the unifocal mind, but is in harmony with many polysomous worldviews, which emphasise relationships and do not try to cut the world by making abstract distinctions.
Both of today's talks, especially the second one are complex and deep - so re-listening is advised :-)
This episode rebroadcasts content from episode 175.
Some of this episode's content is repeated in episode episode 652.
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