Politics with Half a Brain

How we can fix the partisan warfare that's tearing us apart

It’s an election year, and America is once again awash in polarized and confrontational politics. Almost everywhere we look, some form of partisan warfare is making it impossible to solve some social or economic problem.

The ultimate cause of our harmful divisions may seem baffling. But according to my research, there is a hidden and unacknowledged biological reason for America’s polarization. It’s the lateral split of our whole brain into two

31366761 - left and right brain hemisphereshemispheres, each with its own viewpoint, each side giving us two divergent ways of seeing our world. The truth is that most of us are dominated by one hemisphere or the other—and unfortunately, too many of us are unable to adopt the perspective of our non-dominant hemisphere. This unbalance plays itself out in our relationships, families, workplaces, and these days, especially in our politics. Hemispheric dominance is also a major factor in the differences between the genders, and even sexual orientation.

If you were around in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you may remember how popular it once was to refer to ourselves as either left-brain dominant or right-brain dominant. This idea was based on the revolutionary discovery by scientist Roger Sperry that won him a Nobel prize in 1981. But a clear picture of the hemispheres failed to develop due to the brain’s complexity, and the idea of two separate systems of consciousness eventually fell out of favor. As a result, for the most part, science dropped its quest to understand the “forest,” and started focusing on its “trees,” the brain’s various parts, or “modules.” Brain science now lacks a broad consensus about how to explain the differences between the hemispheres.       

My own work and that of many others around the world aims to revive the quest to understand the hemispheres and their impact on our behavior. I focus especially on the implications of brain lateralization on our spiritual, social, and political lives. For example, when those of us on the spiritual path refer to holistic consciousness or unitive awareness, what we are in effect referring to is the consciousness we encounter when the right hemisphere is dominant—the experience common to most women. I use the term dualistic thinking or dualistic consciousness to refer to the left-brain’s way of describing the world to us, and this mode of awareness typically dominates the consciousness of males.

Numerous studies show that the left-brain’s dualistic consciousness is conservative. The left brain takes care of personal security for us and is thus focused on being cautious, on getting the details right, so that crucial aspects of reality can be carefully monitored for threats. Having done its job, holistic consciousness is then free to be liberal and take risks. Holistic consciousness, being concerned with the whole of things, has access to the dualistic viewpoint of the left brain. But because it is focused on the big picture, it can easily overlook important details that may eventually produce problems.

Because the conservative side of the brain is tasked with protecting us, people who rely on it for guidance tend to support a strong military and robust law enforcement, and will also favor laws protecting property rights, gun ownership, and the like. At least theoretically, this orientation secures us from hostile influences and ideologies. In essence, the left-brain’s attention to individual values and needs—at the expense of collective values and needs—forms the core of the agenda of political conservatives.

In contrast to the tightly focused conservative political agenda, liberals have a softer focus and embrace greater diversity. This reflects the difference between the limited but intense focus of the brain’s dualistic operating system and the broad, unlimited holistic focus of its holistic operating system. Being broad in scope, the holistic consciousness of political liberals is inclusive and tends to possess and project a relatively unstructured, “free-for-all” nature such as we find in many fledgling popular or democratic movements.

In keeping with the great diversity of creation that we seek to understand, holistic consciousness gives us a wide range of interests. But beyond the diversity of individual interests, holistic consciousness conveys a set of deep underlying values. These include concern for elements like guaranteed education, universal health care, and the minimization of poverty that make for a healthy culture; concern for the environment as a way of supporting health, well-being, and collective survival; and strong stances on civil rights. Note that the emphasis on rights among liberals tends toward civil rights—the rights of everyone to full participation in the benefits of society—whereas conservatives focus on individual liberties, that is, the right to be left alone and pursue happiness without interference. Obviously, both sides of the equation are necessary.

We will generalize and refer to conservatives and liberals as if they were operating from a perspective of complete dominance and able to see clearly only one perspective. My respect goes out to the many conservatives and liberals who have transcended the limitation of a single perspective and therefore make use of both perspectives and respond accordingly, but as a whole, political behavior tends to bear these generalizations out.

Conservatives know that it costs money to fight their almost endless wars and that this is accomplished only through more taxation, which they vigorously oppose. Liberals know that their generosity has a cost, and that it is often unreasonably high when filtered through the inefficiencies of government.

Research also shows that the dualistic operating system of left-brain individuals is focused on nonliving things such as corporations, whereas holistic systems are focused on living things. Perhaps this explains why conservatives can sometimes be talked into taking untenable positions such as those favoring the rights of giant corporations (which are fictitious entities) over the real needs of individuals.

Holistic ideas are sometimes viewed as inherently threatening if viewed from the polarity-based, individual-oriented perspective of our conservative hemisphere. Conservatives tend to view the collective as aligned with big government against the individual. Lowering (or not raising) taxes is often viewed as sacrosanct, even when the collective need for tax dollars is dire, and even when the very survival and well-being of single mothers and their children depends on the sufficient collection of taxes to fund social programs. Conservatives will even oppose the funding of programs to minimize fraud (an expenditure that actually saves them money). Liberals, on the other hand, because they perceive reality from a largely holistic, collective perspective, see everyone as part of the whole that such government programs address—and so they do not easily recognize a conflict between their own interest and that of the larger good.

Because cultural influences often alter our natural impulses, and can alter our perspective and our political response as well, exceptions to these broad classifications are common. Conservatives are not always conserving in their beliefs and actions, just as liberals are not always progressive. Whatever our political orientation may be, propaganda, education, and other pressures are likely to draw us away from our natural path. And we sometimes change as a result of our experiences. It is common to start out as a liberal and become more conservative as we age. We eventually recognize that our idealistic cultural energies are not sufficiently supported: we share, for example, but people do not share with us, and so we watch our resources deplete. Eventually, we conclude that our idealistic behaviors are not going to be accepted by society, and fear starts to work its way in. We start thinking that we will be out on the streets unless we shift to a more conserving mode. We start paying more attention to the alternative voice in our head. This process doesn’t change our overall dominance, but as we shift our attention, we shift certain aspects of our perspective, and, consequently, we experience shifts in our perception and behavior.

Since the conservative side of the brain takes the aggressive, “bodyguard” side of things, conservatives inherit a crucial and sensitive job in society. Because the selective focus and methodology of the conservative agenda can be destructive, it is especially important that conservatives be true to their highest values when choosing whether to resort to force. Yet, with so much of the world at war, it is fair to say that conservatives as a whole have not responded conservatively in recent times, in terms of either money or lives. Instead, they have responded fearfully. Liberals have reacted similarly. War is a total violation of liberal values, yet until recently, a majority of liberal voters, for example, have tacitly supported a war on cannabis users. Just as conservatives so often do, liberals have responded to misinformation with fear. Holistic values cause us to be fundamentally opposed to war—they seek harmonious and constructive solutions rather than divisive and destructive ones—but the powerful influences of politics and culture often override our natural response.

Remember that our holistic hemisphere, having its attention on the big picture, the context, includes the individual-based stance of our dualistic hemisphere. Collective-oriented and inclusive, the progressive side of our brain does not view individual freedom as being at odds with collective interests. Consumer-protection laws, which are usually championed by liberals and often opposed by conservatives, are an example of a case where the holistic stance of liberals is friendlier to the rights and freedoms of individuals than is the mainstream conservative’s dualistic stance. The freedoms gained by consumer protections—which involve protecting real people against corporate abuse—clearly outweigh the freedoms lost through some degree of government regulation over corporate life (in which the beneficiaries of such freedoms lost through regulation are largely limited to stockholders and CEOs).

Since conservatives are natural defenders of the individual’s right to be left alone by government and to be responsible for his or her own path, gay rights and drug freedoms should be natural conservative causes. However, conflicting religious beliefs, fear of the unknown, and the self-protective tendencies of conservatives (and other left-brain-dominants) can lead to such powerful identification with their own life that a kind of fortress mentality takes over. As a result, any outside forces that propose to initiate changes—from government to alternative lifestyles—appear threatening. Thus, for much of the conservative rank and file, their primal respect for freedom is overridden by a primal fear of the unknown. Many conservative politicians may not personally share these fears, but political considerations make them reluctant to act in a way that is contrary to their most vocal constituencies.

Conservatives and liberals need not see one another as the enemy. Those who do so, fail to correctly understand that the visions and values that we obtain from the two sides of our brain—at least when correctly understood—are complementary and designed to support one another. The two perspectives show us different sides of truth, and only when they are combined do we get the whole picture. Once that is understood, we can then begin to approach the peace of unity without the baggage of anger and blame weighing us down. Peace is personal. Peace is not arrived at by changing the world Whole Brain-coverOlson headshotaround us. Peace is found by changing ourselves.

—Adapted with permission from How Whole Brain Thinking Can Save the Future: Why Left Hemisphere Dominance Has Brought Humanity to the Brink of Disaster and How We Can Think Our Way to Peace and Healing by James Olson (Available January 2017 from Origin Press).


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