4.2 Two brain hemispheres

This section is based on section 3.2 of “Learning Autonomy in Two or Three Steps: Linking Motivation, Authority, and Agency, with Open-ended Development”

The existence and detailed properties of these two forms of cognition have recently been described in the seminal work on the divided brain by Iain McGilchrist [2010] (see Rowson 2013 for a highly accessible introduction). McGilchrist argues that the two cortical hemispheres understand the world in quite different ways.

[McGilchrist 2010 p 175 - 176]

If one had to encapsulate the principal difference in the experience mediated by the two hemispheres, their two modes of being, on could put it like this. The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated decontextualized, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless.

The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, incarnate living beings within the context to the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world exists in a relationship of care.

The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a close system, It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really ‘break out’ to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own representations only. [Emphasis added]

Where the thing itself is ‘present’ to the right hemisphere, it is only represented by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere is conscious only of itself.

This suggests that the left hemisphere specializes in the detached closed world nature of ‘cognition for order’, ‘cognition for certainty’, or ‘control cognition’, while the right hemisphere specializes in the essentially participatory ‘cognition for disorder’, ‘cognition for possibilities’, or ‘explorative cognition’. Table Left versus right hemispheric strengths provides a representative fraction of the wealth of reported differences in how the individual hemispheres approach and understand the world. The description in the header stems from the requirements of cognition for order and disorder. The header of the table summarizes cognition for order and cognition for disorder. The body of the table contains near literal formulations from McGilchrist [2010 chapter 1] .

Left versus right hemispheric strengths
Topic Left hemisphere
Cognition for: Control, order, certainty
Right hemisphere
Cognition for: Exploration, disorder, possibility
Main concern Principal concern is utility: the world as a resource Prioritizes what actually is and what concerns us.
Scope Local short term view. Deal with what it knows. Bigger picture (broader, long-term view). Draws attention from the edges of awareness.
Attitude towards world Representing the world: the world as a copy that exists in conceptual form, suitable for manipulation. Experiencing the world: the world as it is, open for novelty and whatever exists apart from ourselves, without preconceptions and not focusing on what it already knows.
Interests Interested in the familiar and the known, difficulty with disengaging from the familiar. Concerned with what it knows. Concerned with man- made objects. Non-living objects specialist. Living entities as tools or instruments. Body-parts. Tools and machines. Interested in the novel. Concerned with what it experiences. New information, new skills, emotional engagement. More concerned with living individuals. Living individuals as other individuals. Food + musical instruments. Body as a whole.
Strengths Thoroughly known and familiar. Efficient in routine situations and familiar skills. Prioritizes the expected and generates expectations. Things made fixed and equivalent: types. All that is re-presented as over-familiar, inauthentic, lifeless [because not individuated] categories. Gathering new information. Good when prediction is difficult. Anomaly (individuality) detector: individuals. More efficiently when initial assumptions need to be revised or when old information needs to be distinguished from new information. All that is “present” as new, authentic, and individuated
Preferences Preferences for things that are represented as relatively invariant across specific instances, allowing for abstracted types or classes of things. Preference for things that exist in the world. Sensitive to what distinguishes different instances of similar type from each other.
Attention type Local narrowly selective (highly) focused attention Broad, global and flexible attention.
Construction of world Start with pieces and put these together. Bottom-up. Start from the whole and go, if required, into detail. Top-down.
Associations Single strong association more important that multiple weaker associations Widespread activation of relations. Single strong or multiple weaker relations equally important.
Reasoning Linear sequential arguments. More explicit reasoning. Concentrating helps to focus on explicit structure of the problem. Deductions and some kinds of mathematical reasoning. Pleasurable “Aha!” phenomenon mediates between emotions and higher frontal cognitive functions. Insights when NOT concentrating on a problem. Link with anomaly (inconsistency detection in own assumptions). Concentrating on problem impairs finding a solution.
Representation of objects Preference to re-present categories of things, and generic, non-specific objects. Individual unique instances of things and individual generic objects: individuals are Gestalt wholes. Concerned with the uniqueness and individuality of each existing thing or being.
Solution limitations Problem solving: single solution and latch on to that. Deny inconsistencies. Suppressing not currently relevant relations. Array of possible solutions, which remain life when alternatives are explored. Actively watching for discrepancies.
Preferred knowledge type Affinity with public knowledge. Personal knowledge.
Identification Identification by parts. Gradual (knowledge-based) construction. Identification from/by whole. “Aha!” phenomena through seeking and finding patterns in things.
Language use Language as symbol manipulation, More extensive vocabulary, subtle and complex syntax. Parsing of utterance, but meaning less deep. Explicit meaning. Interpretation as a whole and in context, attribution of full meaning. Use of intonation and pragmatics. Non-literal and implicit meaning. Sensitive to subtle unconscious perception. Better at detection deceit.
View on world More optimistic view of the self and the world. Also unwarranted optimism. More anger. More associated with sadness than with angers. Sadness associated to low activation of frontal lobe.
Main emotions Emotions associated with competition, rivalry, individual-self- believe (positive and negative) All emotions. Emotions related to bonding and empathy.
Empathy Unconcerned with others and their feelings. Empathic identification. Self-awareness, empathy, identification with others. But only with what is known [considered] to be another living being – not a mechanism. Theory of mind.
Link with older parts of the brain and body More connected to the limbic system and the ancient subcortical systems. Hypothalamic-pituitary axis, which is where the endocrine interfaces with body and emotion. Essential to the subjective appreciation of the body’s physiological condition.

This table is encapsulates many (but not all or even a majority) of the differences between individuals in a authoritarian mode (in which behavior is dominated by the left hemisphere and the libertarian mode in which behavior is dominated by the right hemisphere. The switch occurs as function of perceived world complexity. Fear is part of this because we become apprehensive in situations we think are beyond our control. Without self-confidence or with low self-esteem it is easier to slip in a left hemispheric/authoritarian mode. Conversely self-confidence and self-esteem stimulate right hemispheric/libertarian thought patterns.

This table, in particular the ‘mean emotions’ and ‘empathy’ description, also shows another reason why authoritarians have no real conscience: requirements for activating a brake on behavior that might harm others is simply not part of left hemispheric approaches.

Western or left-hemispheric societies?

McGilchrist argues that in the last two or three millennia, our Western societies have become characterized by an ever growing dominance of the left-hemispheric world view that favors a narrow focus over the broader picture, specialists over generalists, fragmentation over unification, knowledge and intelligence over experience and wisdom, technical objects over living entities, control over growth and flourishing, and dependence over autonomy. In his book, called The Master and His Emissary McGilchrist argues that the right hemisphere, with its holistic perspective and more intimate relation with the body is the master that tasks its emissary, the left-hemisphere, with focused assignments.

However, in our increasingly culturally defined (i.e., more technically structured and less naturally organized) world, where linguistically transmitted shared knowledge has become more important than individually acquired tacit knowledge, left hemispheric strengths seem to have become more beneficial for most of us than right hemispheric strengths.

McGilchrist makes very strong case for this interpretation. This site tries to do so as well by coupling especially the left hemispheric modes of thought to many of the characteristics of Western power-play.


  • McGilchrist, Iain. 2010. The Master and His Emissary : the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. http://www.iainmcgilchrist.com/TMAHE/biblio/Bibliography_The_Master_and_his_Emissary.pdf.