A New Understanding of Human Thinking
Of all the scientific fields that have improved our knowledge of the world, human psychology is perhaps the one that has so far struggled to keep up with the rest. Despite much interesting research, thousands of books and a number of insightful schools of psychological intervention, none have had much, if any, impact on the mental health of people, which continues to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
In launching a £100m project to map the human brain, US president Barak Obama said “as humans we can identify galaxies light-years away, study particles smaller than an atom, but we still haven’t unlocked the mystery of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears.”
It seems then that we still don’t really understand human thinking.
But recent advancements in neuroanatomy and evolutionary psychology offer a tantalising insight into why psychological theory has so far been unable to properly hit the mark. They might also help explain why the world is currently in such a malaise.
Evolutionary psychology is helping us to understand that we are all just instinctive beings, being navigated to simple primitive needs by a unique, complex and increasingly confused driver, our neocortex (new brain), and neuroscientists now tell us that there are actually two drivers; the right and left brains.
As we start to understand how the brain works we can now see how patterns emerge in a person’s thinking, offering hope that we will soon be able to identify and adjust problematic mindsets at an earlier stage, without having to rely on antidepressants, psychoanalysis, counselling and social correction.
This more intelligent approach to how we think is one of the foundations of the Light Centre’s new healthcare service, a service that puts everyday wellness and disease prevention before intervention and medication.
Our Unique Brains
We know from archaeology that the human neocortex was an evolutionary adaptation that dramatically increased in size between one and two million years ago when humans were still hunter-gatherers on the savannahs of Africa. Before this time our brain cavity was no bigger than that of any other ape-like species. It almost certainly grew as an adaptation to the need for increased ingenuity and teamwork in order to survive in the hostile and exposed environment our ancestors found themselves in.
The neocortex stores information about our experiences in the past to help us in the present and also, uniquely to humans, in order to project scenarios into the future. It thus provides choices of action that might lead to better outcomes. This gave humans the ability to ‘predict’ the actions of other animals and natural phenomena and thus the ability to better protect themselves and help them to gather and eventually hunt food.
But survival in a dangerous and competitive world also meant having to ‘predict’ the actions of other humans, humans who also had rational brains that were trying to make counter predictions. This led to an explosion in the size and complexity of our social and cultural brain areas, forming two different strategies, geographically located in the left and right hemispheres. One for when we needed to compete (the left-brain) and the other for when we needed to cooperate (the right-brain) with other humans.
The left-brain takes control whenever we feel uneasy or sense that something is wrong in our environment, from scarcity of food to personal danger. It directs all our physical, biochemical and mental resources towards alertness and action and prepares us to work. The more our left-brain is in control the more single-minded, determined, industrious, and competitive we become.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, neuroscientists have found that left-brain activity is triggered by testosterone, cortisol and adrenaline, and that people with a higher background level of testosterone are more prone to seeing the world from a left-brained perspective.
The right-brain, on the other hand, takes control whenever everything seems to be OK and we think we have what we need, for example when resources are abundant and we feel personally secure. It thus directs our actions towards the equally important human goal of creating deeper communal bonds, regeneration and reproduction. The more our right-brain takes control, the more socially-minded, calm, peaceful, patient, creative, tolerant and loving we become.
Again perhaps unsurprisingly, we find that right-brain activity is triggered by oestrogen and oxytocin, and these people tend to look at the world in a right-brained way.
Left-Right Brain Strategies in Chimpanzees
Lateralisation of higher brain activity is most noticeable in humans, but it also exists in other mammals. For instance, zoologists have classified two distinctly different types of chimpanzee cultures, so different in fact that we’ve given one of them a separate name, i.e. a Bonobo chimp.
Whereas most chimps in Africa live in a testosterone driven, alpha-male dominated environment, rife with competition, the Bonobo chimps have no hierarchy, are peaceful, largely matriarchal and polygamous. Both have almost exactly the same DNA but the Bonobo chimps have lived for hundreds of thousands of years in a lush, stable, forested, remote part of the Congo, whilst their other chimp cousins have had to deal with receding forests, scarcity of food and competition with other groups (and of course, man). These two sets of chimps are not materially different, they just have a different perspective of the world around them and their behaviour is thus being driven by the two different sides of the brain.
Left-Brain Suppression of Regenerative Functions
One of the side effects of being dominated by left-brain thinking and thus consumed with alertness and activity, is the suppression of our normal regenerative activities, i.e. immunity, maintenance, digestion, elimination and reflection. An imbalance of left-brain thinking, whilst being productive, thus increases the possibility of disease, degeneration and mental confusion.
But that’s not all. Entrenched left-brained thinking also leads to a physical state almost unique to humans, tension.
Underneath our large neocortex lies an instinctive brain similar to that of other mammals, one that reacts instantaneously (and predictably) to stimuli from the surrounding environment, (just like other animals do). But rather than rely on this instinctive brain, instead we now mostly refer our non-critical decision making to the neocortex.
As stimuli are perceived by our senses the instinctive brain prepares to act, tightening the appropriate muscles ready for instantaneous reaction. But at the same time, the neocortex can overrule the instinctive brain and take control of the decision-making itself. In this case, it simultaneously contracts the reciprocal muscles, putting the physical body into a state of tension until it has made a rational decision about which choice of action to take.
The problem with this kind of decision-making in humans, especially modern humans, is that deciding what to do about other humans can be very complicated, and sometimes requires more information, help or time than we’ve actually got. Some decisions can thus take hours, weeks, years or perhaps even a lifetime to make, and all the time the physical body is held in tension waiting to act.
But this isn’t the only tension humans hold on to. We also permanently block some instinctive actions through imprinted ‘don’t’ rules that we’ve acquired either from social conditioning (e.g. etiquette) or from bad experiences (either our own or ones passed on to us by our families, community, religions, nation or any other institutional group). These permanent blocks stop us from accepting the present moment for what it is, and creates layers of permanent ‘tension’ inside us, that manifest as idiosyncrasies in a person’s character.
Most people’s bodies now possess countless overlapping layers of mental tension, forming tightness patterns that limit their physical flexibility and pull their frames into asymmetries and postural torsions, compressing their organs and breathing and squeezing out fluid to create stasis and brittleness that becomes the breeding ground for disease and injury.
Everyone’s mental tensions are of course unique, so their physical tensions are unique too, but some common patterns do occur, representing tensions that many people hold onto. Perhaps most noticeable is that people often have more tension in the right side of their body, the side that is controlled by their left-brain!
Experiments with Left-Right Brain Thinking
Neuroscientists have recently started to perform numerous experiments on the neocortex to see what the effects of turning on and off the two hemispheres might be.
Suppressing the right-brain (so the left is dominant) has been shown to create a narrow, analytical and methodical state of mind, with the brain seeing life from a personal ‘me first’ perspective (from the ego or id).
Suppressing the left-brain (so the right becomes dominant) leads to an expansive and holistic state of mind, with the brain approaching everything from a collective ‘we’ perspective. Behaviour becomes empathetic with others (and indeed the whole of nature) and subjects are compelled to share and form bonds.
Left-brain thinking is thought to be enhanced by situations such as competitive working environments, political and social debate, advertising, adversarial sports, video games, gambling and thrill seeking, and is further heightened by chemical stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and nicotine.
Right-brain thinking is thought to be enhanced by situations such as communal eating, walking in nature, art and creativity, calming music and positive bond-forming and is further heightened by relaxants such as marijuana and a whole host of herbal substances used by different communities all over the world.
Chemicals that enhance both of these states are thus all forms of drugs, but designed for opposite effects. In a world where people’s state of mind is becoming increasingly polarised these chemical enhancers are becoming ever more common.
(It is interesting to note that all chemicals that enhance left-brained activity are legal whilst those that enhance right-brained activity are largely illegal! It is also worth mentioning that alcohol, rather than switching between our higher brains, tends to turn them both off, leading to a reduction in social conditioning and therefore more instinctive (or primitive) behaviour).
What the Effect of Left-Right Brain Thinking is on the World
Our discoveries about left vs right (personal vs communal) and higher vs lower (considered vs instinctive) thinking offer us some new insights into the way humans and the human-world work.
Because all humans have a left-brain we are all capable of extremely selfish, cold and even barbaric behaviour, but every human also has a right brain so we are all just as capable of being calm, peaceful and happy. Which state prevails depends on the experience and perception we have of the world around us.
Men are naturally born with a greater background level of testosterone and so are prone to seeing the world from a left-brained perspective and women naturally have more oestrogen and oxytocin and so tend to engage in more right-brained activities such as bonding with friends, family and particularly with children. But either sex is of course capable of reaching one or the other state, depending on the power of their life situation and the view of the world they developed during their upbringing.
Patriarchal societies are naturally more competitive, more aggressive and more selfish, but it could be argued that they are also more innovative and productive. Such societies are generally structured for personal gain, have hierarchies (like alpha-male chimps) and those with the highest levels of testosterone tend to predominate.
In right-brained societies people generally work for the collective good, in a more considerate and resourceful manner. Any ‘individual’ who displays too much ego is normally countered with humour and by withdrawing cooperation so they become socially isolated. (In our modern, protected and impersonal societies extreme left-brain behaviour is now allowed to continue without such consequences).
The Mental Consequences of Impersonal Communities
Humans were hunter-gatherers for ninety-nine percent of our history and in this time our social brain became used to being closely connected to our immediate community and its needs.
In a small group there is nowhere to hide and a person’s actions are always being scrutinised to see if they are selfish or communal. If a person works hard and acquires skills that are useful to the group, then they will gain the respect of their peers and eventually a seat at the group’s decision-making table. In this way a person who worked hard for the collective good could have a say in their own (and their family’s) destiny and feel in control of their life.
In the modern world however, communities are now so big that it’s difficult to identify who is being selfish and who is being socially useful. People’s jobs and actions rarely have a direct effect on anyone they know and quite often have no social purpose at all. All the important decision-making is made without them being involved and so it’s not surprising that people often feel powerless to control their own lives.
Recent studies on the health and wellbeing of modern communities show that the more left-brained and thus impersonal a country gets, the worse its health and happiness levels become. The more consumerist and selfish a society becomes the more broken families, relationship breakdowns, crime, chronic disease and mental illness it encounters.
It seems the more people ‘have’ the less they know how to appreciate it.
In impersonal societies people are prone to seek out left-brain pleasures to replace the right-brained contentment they’re missing. They eat rich foods and use activities such as extreme exercising, thrill-seeking, shopping and partying to get quick hits of endorphins. But these pleasure chemicals are also short lived and if over-stimulated tend to lead to a long-term opposite effect.
What Can we Do with our New Understanding?
It seems paradoxical that in the developed world we have never had as much safety and abundance as we do today, and yet we seem further away from contentment than we’ve ever been.
What we now know is that contentment comes from being in a right-brained state, and that this comes from being happy with what we have and not wanting any more.
It also means being regularly able to switch into the present moment and turn off our left-brain, dispensing with social conditioning and prejudgement and dropping the high expectations we have of ourselves and our never-ending long list of things to do.
And spending more time in a right-brained state is something we can all readily do:
- We can define an identifiable community that we belong to, setting ourselves up to be socially useful to that community and then learning to trust and nurture it.
- We can quell the excesses of our consumerism and be judged for what we are and not what we have.
- We can seek to reject exploitation and be willing to speak up against injustice.
- We can remember that all people are inherently good and try to talk to their right-brained side, even when it doesn’t always seem easy to find.
- We can remember that everyone is just doing the best they can given the life they’ve had and that given the same life we might behave the same way.
- We can choose not to see people as problems, but instead to break down the conventions that keep people trapped in left-brained behaviours.
- We can rethink what we want from life and what it’s really about.
- We can rethink the way we work and what we work for.
- We can identify the fears and prejudices we hold and consider whether the model we’re living by and the goals we have set are really conducive to the happiness we seek.
- We can recognise what parts of our world deal in left-brain thinking and seek to reduce its influence on us, and others, in our community.
All of this is what the healthy thinking part of the Light Programme is about. When you join a 12-week programme you will be able to apply this type of thinking to your own life.
Join a programme at the Light Centre today and redefine who you are……….