Left, Right, Left, Right, Left, Right

Posted by on August 21, 2013

The Wizard’s MMMemo Sequel to “Did Your Valedictorian Become Rich?”

Your brain is divided into two main sections called hemispheres. The left brain is logical, linear, objective, and focuses on details. The right brain is intuitive, random, subjective, and sees “the big picture.” The hemisphere that you prefer to use in responding to sensory input determines much of your personality and behavior. If you react to life using your left hemisphere abilities, (analysis and logic,) you are ‘left-brain dominant’. If you usually prefer to use your right hemisphere abilities, (emotion and intuition,) you are ‘right-brain dominant’. These choices don’t mean that the other half of your brain is impaired in any way – merely that you prefer one hemisphere over the other. An ability to ‘switch’ hemispheres, (to call upon the appropriate hemisphere at the appropriate moment,) is the mark of a balanced and well-adjusted individual.

In our schools, left-brain scholastic subjects focus on logical thinking, analysis, and accuracy. Right-brained subjects, on the other hand, focus on aesthetics, feeling, and creativity. In America, not just our educational system but our very culture favors left-brain styles of thinking and downplays right-brain ones. Where did we get this strong bias toward the logical, left half of the brain? Amazingly, it came to us as standard equipment when we adopted the English language. Read on.

Addressing his Japanese countrymen, the winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize in Medicine, MIT professor Susumu Tonegawa, said, “We should consider changing our thinking process in the field of science by trying to reason in English.” Dr. Tonegawa wasn’t saying that English is better than Japanese, only that English is better than Japanese for the purposes of scientific research, which is a way of saying that English has a particular ideological basis that Japanese does not. We call that ideological basis “the scientific outlook.” (If the scientific outlook seems natural to you, as it does to me, it is because our language makes it appear so.) What we think of as “reasoning” is determined by the character of our language. To reason in Japanese is not the same thing as to reason in English or Italian or German. To put it simply, language has an ideological agenda that is likely to be hidden from view. That agenda is so deeply integrated into our personalities and world-view that a special effort is required to detect its presence. Language appears to us to be only a natural extension of who and what we are. This is the great secret of language: Because it comes from inside us, we incorrectly believe it to be a direct, unedited, unbiased expression of how the world really is. *

As an example of the strong bias of the English language, let’s examine the common use of the directions “up” and “down” as metaphors that imply good and bad.

Conscious is Up; Unconscious is Down
Wake up. I’m up already. I’m an early riser. I dropped off and fell asleep. The patient went under anesthesia, sank into a coma, then dropped dead.

Controlling is Up; Being Controlled is Down
He’s on top of the situation, in high command, and at the height of power in having so many people under him. His influence started to decline, until he fell from power and landed as low man on the totem pole, back at the bottom of the heap.

Good is Up; Bad is Down
High-quality work made this a peak year and put us over the top. Things were looking up when the market bottomed out and hit an all-time low. It’s been downhill ever since.

Rational (left-brain) is Up; Emotional (right brain) is Down
I pulled myself up from this sorry state and had a high-level intellectual discussion with my therapist, a high-minded, lofty individual. My heart sank and I was in the depth of despair, unable to rise above my emotions.**

Yes, as odd as this may sound, America’s strong bias in favor of left-brain logic (and against emotion) was dictated when we adopted English as our native tongue. Is it beginning to make more sense to you why French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Portuguese are called the “Romantic” (right-brain) languages?

Roy H Williams

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* Tonegawa story from Technopoly by Neil Postman

** “Up and Down” examples taken from The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic, M.D.

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