Know your brain: right vs. left in the academic life

 

 

 

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rationale mind is a faithful servant.

 

 

I had a colleague for a while, a neuroscientist, who, while normally very pleasant, would occasionally turn red, her eyes would grow wide, and a frown would race over her face. The cause of this transformation was usually some version of the phrase “the right brain” or the “the left brain”. Indeed a fair bit of pseudoscience rose from early studies of patients who suffered injuries to one hemisphere or the other: conclusions that revolved around the left brain as the seat of logic, and the right brain as the seat of creativity, science vs. art, yada yada yada. Yet differences exist in the morphology and behavior of both hemispheres, differences found among vertebrate brains.

In this wonderfully animated lecture, psychologist Ian McGilchrist, gives an updated overview of what we know about the functions of the hemispheres. In this evolving view, the left brain specializes in giving narrowly focused attention on what is already known to be important; while the right is broadly interested in watching out for the novel and making connections between disparate parts. The left brain abstracts away exceptions and sees the world as simplified verbal models or pictorial maps; the right brain is always looking for the new, and interpreting the new as metaphors of what is already known.  The left is about categories and generalizations; the right is about individuals and exceptions.

As we struggle to be creative, it is worth keeping in mind the wonderful balancing act embodied in our hemispheric brain. Scientific creativity is about collecting data and building simple mind models to explain the data; about using both our intuition and logic to see which of these models works best; in the words of Alfred North Whitehead. seeking simplicity and distrusting it.

While McGilchrist’s short lecture does not provide an easy roadmap for success in academia, it does add interest to the journey.

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