Nov 4, 2011

Left Brain, Right Brain

At a wonderful summer night I was lying in the grass, my little son beside me. We were staring into the dark sky, debating infinity, other planets, the origin of everything, observing falling stars that were whizzing through the atmosphere at a delightfully high rate. Why did we see so many of them that night? What are falling stars? What are comets. Why do comets return and when?
The air was clear and warm. No artificial lights anywhere. The moon was lingering lazy in the trees across the river. Some fireflies were having a good time, switching their glow on and off rather randomly - in one group they seemed to synchronize but then it was random again. It reappeared: a few bugs were flashing simultaneously at first ... it started to expand, it was getting more. A whole cloud of insects was flashing in tune. Are they doing this on purpose? Do they have a will to turn the light on and off? How do those fireflies communicate? And why? Do they communicate at all? My son pointed at a field of clouds that were passing the huge silhouette of the moon. Why was the moon sooooo big? Weren't there ripples in the cloud-structure? A very regular hatching. How do the clouds 'know' how to organize? Do the droplets communicate? We both were excited by the regularities. He said he will figure all that out when he grows up. I knew he felt the urge, the drive that I experience so often as a scientist: the delight of looking at the world in utter amazement and the heartbeat when something appears not completely random. The moments when there appears to be a big hidden meaning of it all.
Another evening I was at an opening of a wild underground art show in Berlin. Electro-Music pressed into the sparsely lit room of the hopelessly overcrowded gallery, too many people were pushing, dancing. The humidity was high, the sound physically hurting - we immersed in the crowd. The backdrop of the DJ was a fast, intense, complex video - the central piece of the exhibition. It hammered a coded message. The code was to be unlocked in each and every one of us.
What a contrast to the morning when I was reading 'The conductor' by Sarah Quigley while listening to Shostakovich's seventh symphony! My heart beating rapidly, my mind wandering; carried away by the images and emotions of the story and the emotions of the music.
What do these scences have in common? In all of them the interaction between the individual and the world is sensual at first. Some sight, some sound, the smell, the heat ... they trigger strong emotional reactions that clearly lie in the deep archaic parts of our brain. But then curiosity sets in: what is the meaning of all this? Is there pure randomness? Is there a structure? This accounts for the richness of those experiences: they span from the almost vegetative reaction of the body and mind to the sensory experience all the way to the curiosity-driven structure-seeking questioning and delight of the almost inquisitory analytic brain. No doubt does the symphony or the piece of art trigger emotional reactions (of most diverse kind, depending on circumstances, experiences, mood...) - but the access can be much more: a musician can understand the harmonic intricacies of the work, can smile about some tricks of the master. A historian will point at the political influence on the composer that can even be seen and felt in the score of his masterpieces. The VJ implanted some messages of recent sociological debate into her visual stream.
The gratification of approaching the world on both levels - the immediate, vegetative and the inquisitory, analytical - is much higher than it would be if one of the sides was excluded.
It would do the piece of art no justice if it was only to be perceived 'vegetatively', as a simple 'wow' - neither would nature be fully enjoyed this way. And of course it would be a pale, wrong caricature of science if only the analytic part would be emphasized.
But seeking the sensory, vegetative approach to science too often results in crippled, touchy-feely science-babble instead of emphasizing the deep emotional impact of the omnipresent human curiosity, the desire to find structures in the chaos and the sometimes fiery emotions related to that.
Reducing art, nature, even emotion to a purely vegetative phenomenon is as wrong as reducing science to cold (de-)constructivism. The origin is a clear misunderstanding: the immediate, sensory reaction, the vegetative interaction alone is too often perceived to be equivalent to emotion. But those deep, original, archaic and fundamental reactions of the human species are enriched by the ability to derive additional emotional pleasure (and distress) from the curiosity and analytic desire of the active, conscious brain.
(see also "Wissenschaft ist keine Kunst" (in german) by Daniel Rapoport and me in Gegenworte - and look at the longer post on "the divergence of thought" by Chris Jones)


SourcePOV said...

Beautiful post, Carsten. Your personal vignettes are highly accessible, with strong visuals and deep insights, prompting some immediate emotional connections.

And you've laid out ample evidence of the importance of interdependent LB/RB thought processes.

I think most everyone experiences the primal wonder (aka "wow") of the world at times, but my fear is that we do it less and less. Demands for our time and attention never subside, which means we have to work harder to make time to stop, go outside, and look for stars and fireflies. Music, the arts, nature, all afford us a life-line back to our primal selves.

The analytic side of science is perhaps the archetypical (and now, perhaps, stereotypical?) view that our culture assigns to science, perhaps amplified by Hollywood movies, academia and/or our education systems. I see from your other posts you appreciate the powerful influence culture can have on us, good and bad.

Though my own pedigree is Computer Science, I too have strong artistic/musical energies, and like you, could not be happy forced to live in a world constrained to purely LB or RB pursuits. My personal journey into the epistemology thread started earlier this year with an inquiry on "critical thinking". That took me quickly to philosophy, then, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and complexity. And now, here we are, oceans away, brainstorming what it all means.

I value your thinking, Carsten. I wish there were more who advocated the strong interdependence of LB and RB thought processes. So you know, the intent of my recent post was not to create division, but rather, in the sometimes harsh spotlight of critical thinking, to understand similarities and differences of thought across the ages, so that we might learn and advance our understanding.

It seems great thinkers like Darwin, Mill and Hegel created epicenters of debate in the 19th century that haven't fully healed, 150 years later.

Even now, we're learning more about how people (and yes, even scientists and philosophers) think.

Do you see the same gap? What might be done to close it?

Carsten Hucho said...

Thanks for your wonderful post, Chris.
You certainly get me thinking - while you see a gap between science and philosophy and maybe even between science and culture, I have the feeling that it is a matter of language, understanding and perception how wide this gap really is.
This was a central point of my post: science does not have that easy-access that art *seems* to have. And art is not limited to the 'vegetative' approach.
And I stubbornly insist on a few statements:
First of all: science is part of our culture - it is not separate and no antagonism.
Secondly, I like to see the tools of science as an extension of our language - similarly as art, music, play... are extensions of language to give us means to communicate more (and deeper than just: 'I am hungry'). The grammar of science is rather strict, compared to that of art - but this enables a different type of expression. Science allows for statements the content of which is understood equally well by all those sharing the knowledge of the grammar - in contrast to the spectrum of reception of a piece of art. Two different qualities, complementary. I wouldn't want to miss either, just as I would not want to chose between music and prose or lyrics and painting.
Together the multitude of 'languages' allow for an even deeper conversation.
Therefore I am hesitant to accept the separation into 'good-guys' and 'bad-guys' (which are the scientists or the artists, depending on who you ask :) ).
As a side note it might be interesting that in German there is not that separation of 'science' versus 'soft sciences'. Math, physics, computer-science, sociology, medicine, history.... are all called science - if the agree to follow a scientific approach.
I believe, it is not necessary to close a gap. We should enjoy the diversity.

M & G's pererginations said...

Like your post - getting back in touch with the awe of the universe is wonderful and important. Iain McGilchrist's "The Master and his Emmisary" is well worth the read on the subject of how the left and right hemispheres of our brains are involved in our various and varying perceptions of the world. There is clever animated summary viewable here: hope you like it :)

Anonymous said...

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift. The rational mind, a faithful servant. We have created a society that celebrates the servant and neglected the gift. - Albert Einstein

Carsten Hucho said...

Thanks for this important and famous quote by Albert Einstein!
I agree completely.
Our post - and the discussion, I believe, is pointing in a slightly different direction.
First of all, we might agree that the one capacity without the other is incomplete, maybe even useless. And then there are different things meant by intuition, depending on who uses that phrase.
While 50 years ago it became fashionable to *locate* intuition and abstraction in the two hemispheres of our brain - and it was also en vogue to describe people by having their strengths on either of those sides, it also became a fight about 'what is better'.
If you read Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking - fast and slow", you get a different view. Intuition there is the fast approach of the brain, the fast and cheeky part that tells you if your environment is safe, if the person you see is an enemy or ok, etc. The analytical side is lazy, slow and power-consuming. It gets to crosscheck the suggestions of the fast system 1, analyzes data etc.
In his picture these capacities of the brain are not really located at well-defined areas in the brain. They are approaches of the brain to the world.
(Interestingly, the psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobelprice for Economics - and his book is a very entertaining eye-opener for our very own interaction with the world)