This is an interesting video about how our largely inaccurate beliefs about brain structure have profoundly shaped our culture and society. The video is from RSAnimate, which is sort of like a British TED talk, but with less insufferable tech boosterism and more whiteboards.
The video debunks the popular misconception of the division of labor between the two hemispheres of the brain–emotion, creativity, and whimsy on one side and logic and reason on the other, replacing instead with a loose model where the two hemispheres are dedicated to broad, expansive, and perhaps lateral thinking on one side and narrow, focused, detail-oriented thinking on the other. The video is worth watching jsut for the implications of this.
But what fascinates me more is how much we have come to depend on the wrong model to establish identities for ourselves, by way of excusing shortcomings. Can’t pass algebra? “I’m more of a right-brained person.” Ans so forth.
The reality is that there is no truly creative endeavor that is not also a feat of technical mastery, and no scientific or mathematical accomplishment that was not the result of an an impassioned, emotional pursuit.
When we compartmentalize ourselves, our children, and others in this fashion, we ultimately limit societies potential. We come to expect certain things to only come from certain kinds people, which largely excuses us from having to push ourselves to confront our deficiencies and overcome them.
In truth, there is no such thing as drawing on the right side of the brain so much as there is a conscious decision to alter our ways of seeing.
And that’s really at the heart of both this RSA lecture and the popular misconception. Science still wants to think of the brain as largely divided into two functional units because it physically looks like it’s divided that way based on the simplest, crudest observation.
But looks can be misleading. We have two eyes not so we can see a left filed of view and a right filed of view, but so that we can see one view of the world in three dimensions. The two eyes working together allow us to perceive depth, which neither can perceive on its own.
According to the latest neuroscience, the brain has two hemispheres, but it also has four lobes, and at least two areas (Broca’s and Wernicke’s). Those all provide for a multitude of sums that are more than their parts. And even this is misleading. Everyone on earth and everyone who has ever lived have had the same brain structures. And yet certain people used their brains to produce new and unusual thoughts, and certain cultures have used their collectively brains in radically different ways to perceive the same universe is different ways.
Perhaps the hardware–the brain–is never as important as the software–education and culture. Perhaps neuroscience divorced from psychology is just as imprecise as psychology without neuroscience. But the software evolves much faster than the hardware, can be rewritten in real-time, and is path dependent. And for that reason, it is harder to track, and more difficult to see.
Eventually, we will have MRI machines capable of resolving detail down to the individual neuron, and then we will not only be able to see the propagation of thoughts around the brain, but also the alteration of the pathways along which they propagate as the brain learns and perceives new things. At that point, when we can see behavior unfold in real-time in the brain neuroscience and psychology will meet. But until then, neuroscience and psychology are still gross anatomies–observations of blobs of matter and how they twitch when poked.