The Divided Brain and the Divided Culture

Everything has a backstory. When I was gearing up to write this essay, the spat between the comedian and podcast interviewer Joe Rogan and the septuagenarian rock star Neil Young broke out. Young demanded that Spotify de-platform the immensely popular Rogan for having the gall to interview a couple of critics of Covid vaccinations. If Spotify did not comply then in protest “he”—meaning his record company—would withdraw his work from the streaming platform.

This essay appears in May’s Quadrant.
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Rogan is an affable, untutored seeker after knowledge; a rough diamond who is occasionally tasteless and profane and has a very large audience—all things that contemporary elites despise. I watch the occasional Rogan clip on YouTube. I’m not a Spotify subscriber. While I am a big consumer of classic rock music including Mr Young’s music, I still buy CDs. As for controversies, I spend the absolute minimum time on them—enough time to work out what the kerfuffle is about so I can hopefully then ignore it. I had watched the YouTube clips of Rogan’s December interviews with mRNA technology pioneer Robert Malone and research cardiologist Peter McCullough.1 I didn’t spend much time on them. I was familiar with their arguments from various forums.

My response to Malone and McCullough has always been the same. Credentialled elite culture has become hysterical. The hysteria is not always uniform. On occasions, official bureaucratic hysterias are challenged by dissenting insider hysterias. Each view their opponents in conspiratorial terms. Both are at odds, yet each is a pea in the same pod. Their shared language is alarmism and one-dimensional safetyism. They assume the sky is falling and catastrophe is just around the corner. They name-drop repeatedly, implying that science is a function of authority. Their preferred strategy (whether it be early therapeutic treatment or vaccination) is presented in spuriously air-brushed terms. The proportionate weighing of costs and benefits is absent. Balanced assessments of risks, downsides, the efficacy of treatments, and interim versus long-term costs are given short shrift. The dystopia of a no-risk society permeates the mindset of these foes.

Armageddon-style advocacy, so common today, crushes the kind of sober, generous and vigorous debate needed for the normal functioning of a free society. Under these conditions, regular debate is over-ridden by obsessive and compulsive behaviours. The obsessions are a form of irrationality. They are the expression of a goal rationality (the seeking of an end) that has gone into overdrive. This happens when reason’s normal internal limiting mechanism has been damaged or lost. Obsessional policy-makers, managers and professionals cannot bear being challenged. They try and shut down anything that might be an impediment to their particular goal fetish.

That’s where I would have happily left matters—with the simple observation that this kind of zealotry suggests something has gone badly wrong with the general culture. But, no, along comes Neil Young and his grandstanding. That meant I had to refresh my memory of Rogan’s December 2021 YouTube clips. I was trying to recollect what all the fuss was about. I looked but I couldn’t find the videos. I later discovered that the terms-of-service censor had disappeared the clips. I didn’t spend much time trying to unearth them though. I am not monomaniacal. Instead, and rather serendipitously as it turned out, my attention wandered. I started to look at YouTube recommendations of other videos that I might like.

For no particular reason, I clicked on a clip of a Rogan interview with Billy Corgan, the driving force behind the American band the Smashing Pumpkins.2 I only possess one of the band’s albums, 1995’s Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, so they haven’t figured much in my mental universe. But I was immediately impressed by Corgan’s intelligence. He made for a fascinating interview subject. He told Rogan a series of metaphysical stories about his life, beginning with his musically-gifted but delinquent father, his chaotic family, the violence, drug-driven, Mafia-organised criminality of his blue-collar suburban Chicago neighbourhood, his escape from this chaotic world into the transcendent order of music, the conflict of that order with the strictly short-term goal rationality of the music business and its preference for treating art as if it was selling today’s brand of toilet paper, the madness of success that tore his band apart and the nearly twenty years that it took to heal the resulting fractured personal relationships.

Corgan is a forceful discussant. He doesn’t allow interviewers to put words in his mouth. Rogan’s style is a perfect foil for this kind of personality. He allows interviewees to talk. He doesn’t hector them into parroting some kind of obligatory vogue narrative. He doesn’t cut them short when they’re explaining something or talk over them. Rogan’s departure from what has become the now standard bullying media style of interview explains in part his extraordinary popularity. As does his wide-ranging, curiosity-driven selection of guests and his consequent departure from the knee-jerk politically-driven preoccupations of most traditional media.

The Rogans of the world with their ingenious DIY remediation of the old radio format are providing a long overdue release from the cretinism of legacy media in all its forms. Newspapers and television could take a hint from this. Every third day, we have the same boring columnist churn out the same boring newspaper column on the same mindlessly repetitive 24/7-style pseudo-sensation of the day. This morality play is reaching its use-by date. It is a hothouse of tedious obsession with the transparent machinations of universally third-rate political personalities who crank out clichés fronting for mindless bureaucracies and hysterical elites.

This debased culture afflicts the stereotypical Left, Right and Centre equally. In spite of having 330 million people, the best America could do in recent times was to elect an internet troll for President and then follow that with a President who is practically comatose. Australia has done little better. It has segued from the vain mediocrity of Rudd and Gillard to the vain mediocrity of Turnbull and Morrison. Can we not do better than this? Not, it seems, if the culture has been inflamed by an ever-morphing series of confected hysterias, anxieties and alarms egged on by activist and advocacy classes and behind them the influential professional and managerial classes. No wonder the Rogans of the world are attracting large audiences simply by avoiding what has become the now near-universal tabloid finger-pointing stylisation of the entire media, bureaucratic and political elites.

By comparison with Rogan, it is notable how small-minded conventional media has become. Rogan’s shows range impressively across interviews with astronauts, athletes, car enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, military veterans, musicians, psychologists, scientists and many other interesting categories of interviewee. Mercifully, he interviews very few politicians. He displays a Renaissance breadth of interests. He has a capacious mind and the gifted comedian’s admirable ability to straddle contradictions. In contrast, the general culture is suffering from highly-focused, over-specialised idiocy—and along with this a cringe-worthy loss of its sense of humour, in particular its sense of the ridiculous. Its luminaries regularly retail the most ludicrous propositions with a straight admonishing face.

Across the professional-managerial elite, an infantilising cry-baby culture has steamrolled satire, wit and irony into submission. A good comic draws from diverse sources and makes unusual comparisons in order to coin insights about the human condition. No wonder comedians like Rogan or the UK-based Triggernometry’s Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster have attracted large podcast audiences who are seeking serious, relaxed, wide-ranging, long-format non-censorial discussions. Compare that with the typical ingratiating, hectoring and lecturing “media bite”.

Chronically departmentalised mentalities are common among contemporary elites. The nineteenth century wondered about the effects of a division of labour in which a person cut the head of a pin all day. Those jobs have been replaced by machines. But elite occupations have increasingly assumed the same high degree of specialisation. Of course, they are more interesting. Yet in their own way they are curiously myopic and dull. Elite culture is important because most of the rest of the world, either out of a sense of agreeableness or conscientiousness, goes along with it. And disagreeable personalities flourish when they are given permission by elites to be obnoxious.

There is the kind of gilded person who spends half a lifetime analysing parliament and yet knows nothing about the crucially important context of economics or health science for government—and is unable or unmotivated to find out anything about them. This person regularly cites election polls and voter intentions yet knows nothing about the broader psychology or epistemology of voting behaviour. We call such persons “experts” or “informed”. They know a great deal about a very tiny slice of the world. Context for them does not exist. In contrast to these narrow-focus types, Rogan has a habit of interviewing highly intelligent generalists. Among them, to cite just a few, the mathematician Roger Penrose, the theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, the commentator Ben Shapiro, the entrepreneur Elon Musk, the film-maker Oliver Stone, the psychologist Steven Pinker, and the general H.R. McMaster. These are people who in very different ways are good at contextualising knowledge, drawing interesting connections and placing events in perspective.


The pattern of things

Billy Corgan is the musical equivalent of these people. In his conversation with Rogan, he observes that he has always been interested in and ready to talk about the interaction of artistic personality, process, work, career arcs, the music business and audience psychology. He was an honours student in high school. As a ten-year-old he was assessed in an Illinois-wide test as the most musically gifted student the state had ever recorded. His father opposed Corgan’s interest in music and refused to allow his son to touch the father’s guitars and piano. Yet Corgan rejected university scholarship offers and ignored his father, opting instead for an uncertain, hard-scrabble life in 1990s alternative-rock music—all while remaining sceptical of the anti-success ethos of his chosen subculture. In 2018, in the New York Times, Corgan described himself as a “free market libertarian capitalist”.3 Maybe he was just winding up New York Times readers. In any event, he and his band went on to sell untold millions of records. But, as Corgan reflects, what followed was fame, band madness, obsessive work, broken relationships, career peaks, career lows, audience lack of interest and audience interest rekindled—in short, as he puts it, the cyclical nature of creation.

It is evident that Corgan is very attentive to the pattern of things—that is, the meaning of things. In the same way that Roger Penrose is interested in the pattern of the cosmos, Corgan approaches his life in music and its various ecologies (bands, industry and audiences) in the same way. Yet strikingly, when we look at their broader historical period, Corgan, Penrose and their kind are the exceptions, not the rule. Corgan works in the media of tones, harmonies and rhythms; Penrose with visual geometries. Yet both are unusually articulate. They interview very well. This combination of linguistic fluency and pattern sensitivity is exceptionally stimulating. However, in the past seventy years, during the postmodern era, this has become an increasingly rare combination.

What this points to is that, under the surface of the general culture, we have experienced a splitting apart of two key mental tectonic plates: one, the plate of language; the other, the plate of meaning. The result is an incipient, nagging deficit of meaning. The language plate, unmoored from the meaning plate, has generated an ugly, hysterical verbal culture that describes itself as rooted in reason, expertise and information but in practice is often unhinged and delirious. The ability to bridge between the tectonic plates of language and meaning has become rare. The more our culture talks, the more meaningless it sounds.

Talking with Rogan, the psychologist Jordan Peterson has noted the deep affinity between music and meaning.4 When young people seek to make sense of the world, music is often the way they do it, especially so in a mostly secular world. For the musically-gifted Corgan, music was a natural sense-making route out of the chaotic “wacky world” of his dysfunctional and abusive upbringing. But so it is for millions who are less gifted but nevertheless musically attuned. This attunement is to patterns. Interviewed on Rogan’s show, Peterson explained that a credible case for nihilism, the idea that life is meaningless, can be made. Life is mortal. It contains suffering and it ends in death. Persons are nihilistic in response to that. Once nihilism is accepted, the result is anxiety and aimlessness. Nihilistic people, who live in a meaning-disrupting chaos not unlike Corgan’s family upbringing, make the inherent suffering of the world worse—both for themselves and for others.

Are there any antidotes to meaninglessness? Rational antidotes, Peterson observes, are hard to come by because we can say: who cares, in the long run we are all going to be dead, the universe will expire in a heat death, so why get out of bed in the morning? Music, on the other hand, Peterson suggests, is a non-rational antidote. Music has had a revitalising effect on our culture. This has been true since the beginning of the 1960s. We may have become more nihilistic and less religious, more rational and more secular, but at the same time, the cultural power of music has grown and grown. Music directly conveys an intimation of meaning.

Peterson remembers decades ago being at a Ramones concert in Montreal, in a tiny venue with the band playing through ear-shattering stadium-sized sound equipment. The result was a paradox: the band’s mostly aggressive, nihilistic punk audience was completely absorbed in the music. Over-determining their teen nihilism was a sense of meaning. How does music do that? Music, Peterson argues, is a pattern. In fact, it is multiple patterns layered on top of one another in a harmonious manner. These layers have to communicate with one another because they have to go together. So in the light of that, what is the world? The rational-language part of the mind suggests that the world is made of objects. No, says Peterson, it is made of patterns—just as music is made of patterns. Music calls on you to move your body in sync with the patterned layers of the world. That is meaning.

Music is an analogue of the structure of existence. It calls you to take part in that structure. Two people dancing together to music bring their bodies in a spontaneous way into a patterned relationship with this multi-layered harmony. This creates trust between them. In Corgan’s interview with Rogan, he observes how one of the common criticisms of his own music has been that it is often too densely layered. Its pattern-order is too demanding for some listeners. Conversely, one might point out that much of the most enduring musical creations of the past sixty years, such as the work of Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, have been deeply layered studio artefacts. Likewise Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins records.

Music, Peterson concludes, places you on the border between chaos and order. A boring song does exactly what you expect it to do, and it gets dull very quickly. An unlistenable song is so random that you can’t follow it. What you want is predictability with a leaven of unpredictability. Great art dances on the edge between order and chaos in a virtuosic manner that lifts audiences out of the normality of their existence with a joy that transfuses them because they get an intimation of genuine meaning. This experience is not amenable to rational criticism, and this is what is miraculous about music. It puts you directly in touch with the meaning that sustains life.

Contemporary culture is a demented war zone in which a furious battle is being conducted between hyper-rational criticism and virtuosic meaning. Neil Young is a good example of this. He has been a top-flight music creator for sixty years. He has had the career arc of artistic peaks and lows that Corgan talks about. Nevertheless he has generated a compelling body of work. Less happily, he often indulges in the kind of pseudo-rational criticism that flirts with the irrational. He upbraids the two Rogan interviewees for Covid “misinformation” yet he campaigns along with the pseudo-science fringe against genetically-modified (GMO) foods. 

Young periodically produces agitprop albums like the anti-Bush Living with War (2006), the electric car paean Fork in the Road (2009) and the anti-GMO The Monsanto Years (2015). These are musically mediocre. They don’t bear repeated listening. Music that is devised as a backdrop for political words is usually unmemorable and characterless. It is not the vocation of music to make “statements”. Music that tries to lecture us or that points the finger comes from a part of the brain that is notably uncreative. There are very good structural cognitive reasons why this is the case. The work of the psychiatrist and cognitive scientist Iain McGilchrist sets out very clearly the structure of the brain that underpins this.


The divided mind

McGilchrist’s most recent work, The Matter with Things (2021), is a massive two-volume meditation on the asymmetrical cleavage of the human brain into a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere, whose behaviours and functions are strikingly different.5 The left hemisphere is the locus of language and reason and also, paradoxically, fantasy and unreason. The right hemisphere is the site of pattern cognition and the apprehension of meaning.

McGilchrist’s cognitive science suggests that collectively the era of postmodern culture has seen a dramatic lean away from right-hemisphere cognition toward left-hemisphere thinking. In McGilchrist’s terms, the “master” of pattern thinking has been unceremoniously shoved aside by the “emissary” of goal-rational thinking with its strange fantasising underbelly. The result of this is a type of reason that increasingly presents as fevered, fantastical and absurd. This has affected the whole culture—left, right and centre. Some of its worst manifestations appear among the increasingly monomaniacal media and bureaucratic elites and the unhinged social media mobs that rally to their causes. This is a sign of a serious degeneration of contemporary elite culture, in which the preference for linguistic reason now periodically morphs into deranged episodes of mental hyperventilation.

As McGilchrist describes it, early in human evolution, the left hemisphere developed to enhance the human capacity for hunting and survival. It did this by extending our brain’s capacity to focus on goals and work out plans and strategies to achieve those goals. Much of our contemporary functional world depends on effective goal-rational thinking. To achieve ends, we need to be able to think analytically, break things down into their component parts, organise the parts into steps and work out a method or plan for moving from one step to another along a projected path until we reach our desired and narrowly-defined goal.

The right hemisphere does something different but complementary. It is the part of the brain where we think in wholes rather than in parts. It is the meaning-generating and pattern-perceiving hemisphere. McGilchrist argues that, in cognitive and evolutionary terms, the right hemisphere is the more important hemisphere. Survival and success are significant but pattern and meaning are more important. Apart from anything else, the latter contextualise the former. It is no use achieving an outcome that is some good or useful purpose, if the cost of doing so is to destroy or cripple other goods. We have to weigh the relative costs and benefits of goods, try and make them cohere, and contextualise each of them. Even more directly than this, human beings need meaning. That is, they need to be able to locate themselves in a pattern order or structure of existence, more or less as Peterson describes it. Human beings have purposes and they have patterns. The tragedy of contemporary culture is its readiness to sacrifice long-term patterns for short-term and often delusional purposes. 

Our species began as predators. We proved to be very successful at hunting because we developed brains that were highly adaptable to this activity and much else as well, as it turned out. In short, we developed an analytic left hemisphere. This part of the brain is very good at manipulating the world. Its attention is narrow and highly focused. It is very good at planning step-by-step actions, among the earliest of which were hunting and gathering. The left hemisphere does this by several means. It simplifies the world and schematically re-presents it. It treats it as a series of discrete manipulable objects. It focuses on the details of the world and concentrates on what can be achieved in the short run rather than the long term.

The hunter’s cognitive abilities over millennia were gradually transformed into the sophisticated goal-rational activities that we are familiar with like manufacturing, organisations, firms and politics. Successful societies exhibit high levels of these kinds of activities. The left hemisphere provided the cognitive counterpart of the human hand’s grasping and manipulating abilities. Language, located principally in the left hemisphere, was one of the keys to the development of a mind that was accomplished at representing spatial objects and temporal objectives and ways of obtaining these by breaking them down into parts and organising those parts into sequences of steps. Plans, procedures, strategies, rules and methods all emerged from this kind of thinking, as eventually did analytical science.

Our daily life and our organisational life are permeated by this kind of cognition. But for all its benefits, it has some deep flaws that go back to our hunter-gatherer prehistory. Prehistoric life was dangerous. Survival depended on making fast decisions. Millennia later, every day we still make fast decisions. But these are not always good decisions. They are often marked by unreasonable optimism, the underestimation of errors, and the overestimation of our abilities. Like the hunter, we make premature inferences and then lock these in. That is helpful for surviving in the moment but bad for long-term flourishing. The schematic models that the left hemisphere likes reinforce faulty inferences.

Fast decision-making elicits a particular cognitive feeling: that of certainty. The hunter couldn’t afford to take time to weigh things up. So certainty was of survival value. Believing that one is right hastens taking a course of action. Yet most beliefs, as it turns out, are wrong. Very little that people feel “sure” about is actually right. There are no sillier beliefs than what you hear over coffee in a faculty lounge. Beliefs, because they are accompanied by feelings of certainty, are self-validating. But, beyond cases where we need to take immediate action, often that is not helpful and sometimes it is harmful.

Big trouble begins when we start making exaggerated inferences. What the left hemisphere does is to fill in gaps that it has no idea about. It does this partly out of the archaic survival impulsion to “do something now”. It tells itself that it knows more than it actually does in order to satisfy its need for certainty. False knowledge developed in step as the left hemisphere’s capacity for reasoning developed. The hunter began to predict the movement of animals and make strategies to kill them. Over time such prediction was supplemented by explanation. Reasoning developed. Coining reasons that explained the motive of actions or the cause of events was valuable. Yet this value is often exaggerated. As G.K. Chesterton observed, a madman is someone who has lost everything but their reason. This is so because the left hemisphere’s reason often passes into fantasy.

Reason works when it is targeted. It requires intense focus on specific objects and objectives that are close at hand. Accordingly, reason tends to be literal-minded. What is valid for it is what is correct. The left hemisphere, though, has a paradoxical tendency to segue from the limited purview of reason into the unlimited mind-set of fantasy. Observation readily turns into illusion and pretence.  Consequently rationalism (reason that is not precisely targeted) lends itself to crazy beliefs, utopias and dystopias. This happens because the left hemisphere likes to cover over gaps in its knowledge. Chief among the ways it does this is by confabulating.

Look at a company that is in trouble or a political leader who is losing an election. Fantastic reasons are minted to explain this away. The left hemisphere rationalises behaviour. It offers implausible explanations with total conviction. It believes its thinking is logical even if it is magical. Magical thinking occurs when real causes are replaced by fantasy triggers. Language, which is principally anchored in the left hemisphere, is conducive to such fantasising. Under its auspices, names are liable to replace things. The utopian delusion is that if I name something, I can bring it into existence or I can change the world by changing how the world is labelled. The left hemisphere has a habit of misusing reason in order to make things up in order to pretend to itself that it has knowledge that in fact it doesn’t have.

Language is not the only weakness of the left hemisphere. Its characteristic focus on detail also can be a problem. The mind can concentrate too much on detail and can become obsessed with it. This happens when the same thought repeatedly occupies a person’s mind—like Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the whale in Moby-Dick. The problem with the obsessive focus on detail is that perspective is lost. We cease asking: How does the detail fit into the larger picture?

Obsessive over-focusing occurs when the left hemisphere not only concentrates laser-like on specific matters close at hand in time and space but also begins to fantasise about them. Fantasy thinking takes a perceived danger or obstacle—typical left hemisphere concerns—and inflates them. Such distorted perceptions trigger hysterical flight-and-fight responses. Everything that puts the possible danger into perspective is over-ridden by fantasy’s power of exaggeration. Language begins to acquire the manic form of logorrhoea. Reason becomes hysterical. McGilchrist observes that anxiety, the exaggerated fear of what might be, is the typical mood disorder of the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is also susceptible to exaggerated bipolar and cyclothymic up-and-down mood swings.

McGilchrist’s central argument is that the left hemisphere only works well if it is restrained by the right hemisphere. Right-hemisphere cognition is sharply different from that of left. It pays attention to the big picture in time and space. It thinks in terms of patterns rather than words or reasons. Patterns can be visual, aural, kinetic, musical and mathematical. They also involve the prosodic dimension of language, its rhymes and rhythms, and the aspects of language used to convey irony, sarcasm, humour, metaphor and contrast. That is, everything in language that replaces feelings of certainty with ambidextrous feelings. The latter are interwoven with thinking that is probabilistic in nature. 

The right hemisphere assumes that the world is complex. It is driven by multiple overlapping factors. Prediction and explanation struggle to take account of these multiple factors acting in combination. In contrast patterns are a svelte, economical way of putting together multiple countervailing factors. Pattern thinking creates simplicity out of complexity by taking contrasting elements (loud and soft, up and down) and binding them together. The right hemisphere has numerous subtle devices for doing this—metaphor, humour, music and probabilistic thinking among them. Pattern mathematics including cycles, ratios and proportions also figure prominently in right-hemisphere thinking. 

Unlike the left hemisphere’s preoccupation with certainty, the right hemisphere is comfortable with alternative hypotheses, other viewpoints, conflicting evidence, and the balancing of risks and benefits. It happily embraces incompleteness, antinomies and paradoxes. In place of the left hemisphere’s conception of the world as a series of discrete objects, the right hemisphere thinks in terms of continuous topologies. Once we understand the difference between the left and right hemispheres, we can better understand the current decline in general culture. The culture has become increasingly dominated by left-hemisphere thinking.


The decadent general culture

The Covid years are a dramatic example of this phenomenon. During the Covid years, governments, societies and professions became morbidly obsessed with a virus to the point where numerous important social and medical considerations were dismissed as irrelevant amid a fog of alarmism. Some of the alarmism was due to a widespread panic on reason’s part. Reason’s strength lies in its left-hemisphere ability to focus on narrowly-defined problems and find effective solutions. Reason, however, cannot operate effectively at the level of population-scale events. If it tries to do this, it rolls over into fantasising.

During the Covid episode reason confabulated a series of futile solutions to the viral pandemic. These included lockdowns, mask wearing, cleaning surfaces and disinfecting hands. These fantasy-control scenarios promised to achieve what was in effect an absurd goal, that of zero viral transmission. A widespread case was even made that vaccinations could stop the spread of the coronavirus. This meant that public science was obliged to irrationally propagandise for the vaccination of low-risk groups, dismiss medical consent, disparage the workings of the remarkable natural human immune response mechanism, and distort the normal understanding of what vaccines do, which is to bolster the human immune response where it is inadequate or weak. Reason’s control fantasies obscured the natural harm-reducing patterns of viral evolution and human-virus symbiosis.

All of this happened because, on a population scale, reason was out of its depth. In 2020, public reason became unhinged. The professional-managerial classes led the way, embracing numerous scientific superstitions. Dramatic as this was, it was not new. Modern life appears to switch back and forward between periods of relaxation and anxiety. History eventually shrugs off its cyclothymic moods. The Menzies and Eisenhower 1950s followed the socialist and totalitarian 1940s. Out of the stresses of the Napoleonic era emerged the surprising civilisation high-point of Australia’s Macquarie era of the 1810s. Calm patience eventually obviates political frenzy.

A mass cyclothymic sulk was triggered by the global financial crisis of 2008. That event had cascading effects. Every year or two since then, a new obsession or hysteria has raged. Since 2013 we have seen a series of hyper-sensitive, hyperbolic “cause no offence” censorship, de-platforming, sponsor bullying and de-banking movements. The left hemisphere’s preference for certainty often expresses itself as a desire to eliminate all sources of doubt. That includes competing views. As a consequence, online mobs are licensed to demonise doubters and sceptics. In rapid succession since 2017, we have had the MeToo movement, mass authoritarian lockdowns, BLM protests and an Ahab-like vaccination fixation along with the ubiquitous emergency-peddling global warming cult. All of these share a mix of psychological alarmism, ideological safetyism and a propensity to turn targeted reason into unlimited fantasies of control.

The striking thing is how often these movements repeat the past. Underlying the fantasies of control is the primeval human quest for certainty. We see this same vain psychological desire repeatedly transform itself into all manner of social arrangements promising a mix of safety and indemnity. In pre-modern times, tribalism, patrimonialism and feudalism offered certainty in exchange for submission. In modern times, ideologies did the same. Socialism, communism, syndicalism, corporatism, progressivism, protectionism, populism, hyperbolic nationalism, totalitarianism, militarism and fascism all offered variations on the redemptive promise of certitude. In postmodern times, literalist identitarianism, socially siloed neo-tribalism, phobic environmentalism, fiscally incontinent neo-progressivism, romantic archaism, isolationist neo-populism and emergency-law authoritarianism play analogous roles.

Modern ideologies and their postmodern cousins share a propensity for logorrhoea. Targeted reason regularly turns into a vomit of words. Elites create mazes of linguistic signs detached from reality. The left hemisphere’s reason seems unable to resist the enchantments of hyperventilating, almost hallucinating, symbolic bubbles. In order to be reasonable, reason must be targeted. Word tsunamis override this—and they do this in order to mollify anxieties regularly associated with the left hemisphere.

The quest for certainty culminates in awful dead-ends. The human condition is double in nature. We attribute meaning to ourselves via metaphors and felicitous combinations of opposites. If this was not so, then Shakespeare would not be humankind’s greatest writer. Human beings often think of themselves affably as a bunch of conflicting yet coherent characters. Similarly, we all juggle the givens of our psychology and biology. That means, among us, there are men whose psychology leans feminine and women whose psychology leans masculine. The right hemisphere works hard to create coherent patterns out of these facts. Occasionally it struggles to do so. In a culture dominated by the left hemisphere, though, that coherence is put under sustained pressure.

A culture dominated by left-hemisphere thinking tends to fragment everything. Details triumph while a sense of the whole is lost. In the mind, bodies are reduced to their parts (penises, vaginas) and identities are pulled apart. Rather than a coherent “I”, persons begin to think of themselves as a chaos of fragmentary selves. This ends with the feeling that “I” am several detached persons (“they”, “them”) or else a “he” that is a “she”. Under the auspices of the left hemisphere, pattern metaphors are turned into literal terms. The “I” no longer is the metaphorical “they” but rather a literal “they”. The “he” insists on being an actual “she”. The double nature of the human condition is erased, as precise highly focused bio-medical procedures replace mythological thoughts or play-acting. Medically exacting yet biologically fantastical surgeries perform a sleight of hand that rests on the illusion that immutable cellular biology can be altered by surgical interventions. 

The cognitive virtues of the surgeon (correctness, accuracy, exactness, precision) represent certainties that don’t and can’t apply to the big picture of life. It is no use asking a medical doctor to explain population-scale events like the transmission of viruses. Such events, which are multi-factorial, cannot be explained with scientific certainty, any more than we can explain the origin of the First World War with pinpoint accuracy.

To understand population, social and historical-scale events, we need to deploy right-hemisphere probabilistic thinking. That assumes that everything has an opposite. For every benefit, there is a cost; for every good, some bad; for every up, a down. Life in its largest sense is multi-factorial and therefore ambiguous, and we make sense of that not by reason but by pattern. Population-scale phenomena like markets or viruses follow patterns: waves, clusters, bands, symbiotic evolutionary paths. We usefully adapt to patterns that we recognise. On the other hand, we fantasise when think that a “scientific politics” can control such phenomena, hunting these down like a predator. Science repeatedly confronts the limits of the hunter’s left-hemispheric cognition.

For patterns, we have to go beyond words, something that reason is reluctant to do and ideologists doubly so. Nevertheless we do it—and we do it when we are relaxed. The feeling of being comfortable and relaxed and allowing the mind to wander over numerous seemingly unrelated ideas is crucial to the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere makes meaning out of opposites (deep, shallow) and metaphors (deep, wise). Its average personality is a Joe Rogan type—an amusing relaxed soul who feels no need to badger people he might disagree with.

The right hemisphere integrates hitherto unrelated concepts and combines disparate elements—as did Neil Young’s own high-point musical era, the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. That period saw a remarkable integration of previously unrelated genres (including folk, blues, country, pop, rock-and-roll, funk, soul, music hall, brass band). Late-period Young can still create some outstanding tracks. Yet these diamonds have become increasingly rare among his own rust. He can’t produce classic albums reminiscent of his heyday. This is emblematic of the culture as a whole. A left-hemisphere decadence has set in. Activist logorrhoea is busy oxidising and corroding the culture on a mass scale. As Young himself proclaimed in 1979, rust never sleeps. Some vigorous sanding and grinding to remove its current creeping effects would not go astray.

Peter Murphy, a frequent contributor, is the author of a series of books on the social mind including The Collective Imagination and Universities and Innovation Economies.


  1. Rogan episodes #1757 (Malone) and #1747 (McCullough). The full transcript of the Malone interview is available at:; the transcript of the McCullough episode is at:
  2. Rogan episode #1038.
  3. Adding, “I’m not a virtue-signaller. I have no agenda. I’m not a politician.” Joe Coscarelli, “Keeping It Together, ’90s Upheaval Aside”, New York Times, March 25, 2018.
  4. Rogan episode #1769.
  5. Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, Perspectiva Press, 2021.

8 thoughts on “The Divided Brain and the Divided Culture

  • 27hugo27 says:

    Good thing you bashed Trump early – saved me from ploughing through the rest of your pretentious screed .

  • gareththomassport says:

    Apart from the (relatively low key) Trump bashing, I found the article a revelation.
    I am now sourcing Iain McGilchrist’s tome. As a medical practitioner, I see the left brain/ right brain dichotomy as a prism through which to understand the deplorable role of the medical profession in upholding the autocratic diktats of the ruling classes, as well as the meek surrender of the masses to authoritarianism.

  • pgang says:

    The Wright brothers looked at a bicycle and thought to themselves, ‘I bet we can make this thing fly’. Today we look at a bicycle and reach for the safety gear.

  • ianl says:

    >: … the meek surrender of the masses to authoritarianism.” [gareththomassport, above]

    Much too generalised.

    A lot of the panic was (still is) from the very deep fear of the female towards perceived health threats to themselves and family.

    Those who did not share this to any real degree and said so out loud were publicly thugged, either various media outlets or more directly by police violence (which was done with obvious glee, by the way). Some in the medical profession were threatened with loss of livelihood – hardly meek surrender.

    The combination of widespread panicky fear and real violence done to those who resisted produced the illusion of widespread meekness. What is very unsettling for the longer term is that those with powerlust have noted its’ effectiveness.

    I’m not looking forward to Bowen (now Minister for Climate Change) showing how well he’s noted it.

  • RB says:

    I still hold some hope that it was forbearance shown by the Australian public rather than meekness.
    Australia on balance has a public service and government that operates broadly centrally without high levels of corruption, and these instances are extraordinarily rare in our history.
    As and if they become more common I expect we will see considerably more pushback.

  • gareththomassport says:

    ianl, my experience has been that most of my medical colleagues have minimal comprehension of the scientific facts regarding Covid, vaccines, treatment, etc, and that the push to follow public health guidelines has therefore been “meek acceptance”. Every Australian medical practitioner has been under threat of deregistration. That does not mean unquestioning acceptance. “I was just following orders” should not be a defence in the medical profession. Suppression of the right brain is a good prism for understanding this behaviour.

  • Geoff Sherrington says:

    Peter Murphy,
    Yours is a hard essay to digest when the reader is like I am, dismissive of essentially all music after 1940 or so. One rapidly tires of words that cannot be understood, of pseudo American negro accents (love becomes lurv, I becomes Ah and so on), the commonality of instruments in the bands, very often featuring the guitar and drums, the abundance of a few rhythms as if drummers were wind-up toys, the dumb simplicity of the music when beat repetition drowns out melody (if there is any melody).
    Give me any day a full symphony orchestra (yes, that is band repetition, but with enough instruments to choose variations) and masterpieces crafted by composers who hands down excel any competition in the last 100 years. For me, Benny Goodman was the last of the composers/players worth a listen and gene Krupa knew drumming.
    I doubt if many modern composers have the technical and creative ability to even write some music in a form like a symphony for an orchestra, let alone weave in a few dozen vocalists as in Beethoven’s 9th symphony.
    But, that is my taste. Geoff S

  • andrew2 says:

    Thank you for this essay. It is not an overstatement to say that this kind of discussion is critical right now.

    You highlight the real risk with Big Picture, societal solutions to problems. For example, if the consensus is that “climate change will kill us” and the only solution being entertained is societal wide structural changes including transitioning energy generation to renewables, then any resistance from individuals activates the Amygdala of true believers – fear/risk/fight or flight. The temptation is clearly to fight.

    The other huge social issue is complaining, which social media has facilitated on an epic scale. Complaining creates a negative processing bias which stokes fear and creates left brain hyperfocus on these issues resulting in isolation, criticizing others, procrastination, bingeing etc.

    Individually, the solution is to let the Right brain lead through ideals. Ideals such as the desire to be loving, generous, peaceful, hardworking, patient etc. are truly ideals because the more we live them, we find the path inexhaustible. If our left brain task orientated activity is entered into with right brain goals, we might actually get somewhere.

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