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The whole of the moon

Tony Telford writes on brain structures and western thinking

All is one

All is one

Back in July, Le Monde Diplomatique carried a fascinating article by Guillaume Pitron. It was, of all things, about gum arabic, the resin of the acacia tree. Gum arabic is mentioned in the Qu’ran and the Bible. These days, labelled as E414, it’s an essential additive in many sweets, medicines, cosmetics, textiles, foods and drinks. It’s an especially important ingredient in Coca-Cola. Without this resin, the black colouring in Coke would rise to the surface. So every can and bottle of Coke contains tiny quantities of a substance which was used in the mummification of the pharaohs.

Gum arabic comes from the “gum belt”, a swathe of acacia trees running across Africa from Senegal to Somalia. The best resin, and half of the world’s supply, comes from one country alone: Sudan. In fact, Sudan’s acacia resin is so important to the West that trade in it was quietly allowed to continue despite the trade embargo imposed on the country in 1997. Nothing, it seems, can be allowed to interrupt the vital supplies of E414 – not even human rights abuses in Darfur.

Or terrorism. In 1996, a memo from the US State Department “confirmed” that Osama bin Laden had “a quasi-monopoly in Sudanese gum exports”. In September 2000, Senator Frank Wolf told Congress: “It is still possible that every time someone buys an American soft drink they are helping to fill Osama bin Laden’s coffers.”

These details, all taken from Pitron’s article, are thought-provoking in themselves, but what I really like about the article is the way it brings together seemingly disparate things: resin from acacia trees, US foreign policy, Darfur, Al Qaida, a bottle of coke. There’s something strangely satisfying—I would say thrilling—about making such connections. Maybe it’s because they remind us that All Is One. Wise guys—I mean really wise guys—are always trying to tell us that, aren’t they? Think of Siddhartha Gautama. I suspect he would have been delighted to hear that we are stardust. All the more reason, he might have said, to stop building walls between ourselves and the rest of existence. Buddha taught that such separation is a principal cause of our suffering.

You can hear something similar in the words of many political activists and peace campaigners. Indeed, reading Kathy Kelly, listening to Tariq Ali, or talking with the late Brian Haw, I’ve often stumbled on that thought: All Is One. It seems I have to keep being reminded of it, while they never forget it. It’s just the way they see things. For people like Kathy Kelly, nothing is remote or alien. Everything is personal, related, living.

I thought of such people while reading Iain McGilchrist’s remarkable book The Master and His Emissary, a study of the divided human brain and its influence on the Western world. McGilchrist argues that, while particular mental functions may be shared by different areas across the brain, there are nevertheless important distinctions between the neural hemispheres. Each hemisphere of the brain “attends to” the world in a profoundly different way. Indeed, says McGilchrist, each hemisphere facilitates different ways of being in the world, different ways of relating to it. In a sense, they bring into being different worlds, different values.

According to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere grasps and controls the world. It’s good at close analysis: “This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power.” The left hemisphere “re-presents” our experience. Through it, our experience is rendered into “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based”.

The world of the left hemisphere is a world of “I-it”. Anything which it doesn’t understand or can’t use—and that includes art and spirituality—it mocks, discounts or tries to dismantle. The left hemisphere has “issues” with the body, too. It “prefers what it has itself made, and the ultimate rebuff to that is the body”.

Meanwhile love, “the attractive power of the Other”, is seen by the left hemisphere as “an impediment to its authority”.
In contrast, direct experience—“the live, complex, embodied world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world in which we are deeply connected”—is the domain of the right hemisphere.

This hemisphere sees things holistically, and relates them to their context. It sees patterns. It “underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention”. And it has a strong suit in empathy. It pays special heed to the human face and, unlike the left hemisphere, “seems to be capable of understanding the more subtle information that comes from the eyes”. The right hemisphere “takes things personally, draws near to them”. It prioritizes “whatever it is that has meaning and value for us as human beings”. It’s deeply connected with embodied existence, with emotions (but not, apparently, anger). It experiences love.

Its world is a world of “I-thou”, rather than “I-it”. The right hemisphere also apprehends and responds to newness, aliveness. It apprehends that there is such a thing as changeful permanence.

McGilchrist presents his thesis about the divided brain with far greater expertise and sophistication than is suggested by the above thumbnail sketch. And like any good scholar, he is perfectly prepared to believe that he is wrong. If he is right, though, his book is surely very important indeed.

The Conclusion, in particular, will be of interest to anyone who cares about what is going on in our society today. Here, McGilchrist imagines a world in which the left hemisphere became largely dominant. It would be a world, he says, in which we lose sight of the broader picture. The whole “would come to be seen as no more than the sum of the parts”.

Information gathering would replace knowledge gleaned from experience. Skill, judgement and insight would all be suspect. The world, the human body and we ourselves would be seen more conceptually, and as mere things: “The world as a whole would become more virtualised, and our experience of it would be increasingly through meta-representations of one kind or another; fewer people would find themselves doing work involving contact with anything in the real, “lived” world, rather than with plans, strategies, paperwork, management and bureaucratic procedures.’

A left-hemisphere society would be governed by the myth of the machine. It would be a realm of technology, organisation and rote procedure. Its hallmarks would be impersonality, conformity, passivity, social fragmentation, paranoia, lack of trust, and alienation from the environment. Quantity would be valued over quality. Exploitation would replace co-operation.

There would be a preoccupation with control, surveillance, security. Morality would become a matter of utility or enlightened self-interest. Altruism would itself be misconstrued as just another kind of self-interest. Awareness of personal responsibility would shrink. “There would be a lack of will-power in the sense of self-control and self-motivation, but not of will in the sense of acquisitive greed and desire to manipulate”.

Human beings, like virtually everything else, would be dealt with as if they were machines: how much can they do, how fast can they go, how precisely can they function? For many, life would lack meaning. The organic structure of existence would be dispersed. The natural flow of time would be broken into a succession of frames. “Repeatability would lead to an over-familiarity through endless reproduction.” There would be a constant, widespread craving for novelty and stimulation. The mystery of being and the uniqueness of the individual would tend to be forgotten. “Pathos, the characteristic mode of the right hemisphere, would become impossible, perhaps shameful.”

McGilchrist fears that such a world is already within sight. But he still has hope that the forms of awareness and ways of being which he links so persuasively with the right hemisphere will not be eclipsed. It is still possible, he says, that we can break free of the myth of the machine; that we will continue to think of ourselves as part of embodied nature rather than as manipulators of a fenced-off “environment”; that the meanings conveyed by religion and spirituality will not be lost; that art will not be commodified and neutralised, and that we will open our eyes to all that is “just as it is”.

News of peace will be pretty scarce if we don’t.

Tony Telford contributes drawings to Peace News

Topics: Culture