‘Divided brain, divided world?’: International development and Ian McGilchrist’s right-hemisphere deficit thesis

By James Copestake

Ian McGilchrist’s heavyweight work, The Master and his Emissary, is primarily a contribution to neuroscience and psychology but claims also to be saying something more general about “the making of the Western World”. This wider ambition is explored in Divided Brain, Divided World, a text featuring a dialogue between McGilchrist and Jonathan Rowson, which informed a workshop with policy makers and academics, organised by the RSA Social Brain Centre in November 2012. Philosopher Ray Tallis led those who doubted that better understanding of cranial circuitry can help much to explain history. But others, including economist John Wakefield cautiously endorsed the suggestion that McGilchrist’s exploration of left-brain domination can cast new light on wider social issues – from education and mental health, to climate change and the rise of neoliberalism. My purpose in this blog is primarily to draw attention to this debate among those working in the field of international development studies, but also to add an ID perspective to the RSA workshop discussion of McGilchrist’s work.

Drawing global to local connections is the stuff of international development studies, which combines its political economy core with a more post-modern emphasis on subjectivity and perception, both in conceptualising poverty and wellbeing, and analysing discursive disconnects within resource struggles. But, any suggestion that global suffering can best be understood through neuroscience is likely to be resisted for fear that it will divert too much attention away from the political and structural drivers of poverty, inequality and injustice.

To explore whether linking McGilchrist’s ideas to global issues is open to this charge, I need to indulge in the difficult exercise of trying to paraphrase them in a few sentences. The argument starts with the division of the brain into two hemispheres connected by the relatively small corpus callosum. Much of his book is taken up with reviewing the evidence on how this physiology relates to functional specialisation of the brain, leading to the conclusion that it enables us to think about the world in two quite distinct but complementary ways. The left hemisphere is associated with a way of thinking that decontextualizes and simplifies, producing narrower but more precise and certain views of the world. The right hemisphere is associated with broader, contextualizing and more realistic but tentative views. Most of the time we bring both ways of thinking together, to the extent indeed that the distinction is rendered invisible; and this is an ability with immense potential evolutionary advantages: to be able to think narrowly (e.g. as focused hunter) and broadly (as agile evader of the hunter) at the same time, for example. But the intimate bundling of the two ways of thinking does not stop individuals, and perhaps groups from having a stronger predisposition towards or the other.

While this is a very cursory summary of McGilchrist’s argument, as elaborated in the RSA report, it is I hope sufficient as a premise from which to consider the sociological possibility that particular societies within a “divided world” might be associated with stronger right or left brain ways of thinking. As a modest first step, it does seem possible that smaller social groups might reliably be ranked on a scale from right-to-left-brain dominance according to differences in their shared institutions (norms and rules), language and habits of thinking. Consequently, just as it may be useful to reflect on how the culture of an organisation can be more or less institutionally racist, so it may be useful to reflect on whether certain groups (mathematical economists, for example) are institutionally more left-brain dominated than others (party political activists, perhaps). This opens up the possibility of powerful positive feedback loops whereby individual predispositions to think in a certain way influences group culture, which in turn reinforces certain ways of thinking, both directly and through group (self-)selection processes. Such specialisation could have its evolutionary advantages both to group members and to the wider society to which groups belongs. But it could also become catastrophic – by promoting self-destructive herd effects among financial traders, for example. It is also possible to envisage strong negative feedback loops in the form of counter-revolts to cumulative left or right brain dominance in the culture of a group. This suggests that the divided brain model might indeed provide an interesting additional analytical lens (along with gender, age, class, race, ethnicity and so on) through which to view social group dynamics. For example, within academia it might cast some additional light into socio-psychological influences on the endless struggles over discourse, disciplines, paradigms and ideologies.

How then does this relate to international development studies – a field that has certainly enjoyed its share of such struggles, despite its relatively tender age? Let me pick out three examples: from the sub-fields of development management, political economy and subaltern studies. Within the first, debate rages over the politics of evidence, or how precisely development interventions can be scripted in advance and evaluated afterwards. Fieldworkers complain that demands from pubic funders to budget and to account for every action has become self-defeating, and appeal for greater freedom to adapt to complex, diverse, dynamic and risky contexts. It is easy to link left brain dominance to the pathological hyper-rationality of aid bureaucrats, but also dangerously simplistic. For fieldworkers may also be susceptible to left-brain obsessions – e.g. with niche technical fixes – and it is often the ‘aid bureaucrats’ who adapt first to changing political realities. In short, these struggles are more fine-grained. Nevertheless, left-brain bias (along with more familiar political self-interest) is a plausible a contributor to the cumulative logic of universal codes and blueprints of best practice enshrined in aid handbooks and policy edicts, as critically examined by advocates of the ‘Big Push Forward’, for example. There are also echoes of the split-brain thesis in William Easterly’s championing of ‘seekers’ over ‘planners’ and so on.

Second, several participants at the RSA workshop suggested that the split-brain hypothesis might help to explain the 2008 financial crisis. A preliminary step in this argument attributes the influence of neoclassical thinking in economics to left brain dominance: a case of spuriously precise modelling and measurement crowding out broader ways of thinking, including that of economic historians. Neoclassical thinking (or ‘autistic economics’) is then blamed for the free market ideology that led to the neglect of bank regulation. Given the power of neoclassical economics also to expose the pervasiveness of market failures, there is a danger that this argument overplays the importance of theory relative to the role of powerful actors who select and flex it to serve their interests. Within development studies, this whole debate also remains narrowly within the orbit of what Brett has called “normal social science” in its quest for some optimum combination of state, market and civil society change. This may at least have ‘progressed’ beyond espousing one universal pathway to modernity. But a fixation with particular ideals (of planning, economic liberalisation, good governance, human rights, communitarianism etc) can to some degree perhaps be linked to left-brainism, and is certainly unhelpful to those more grounded in the struggle to find room for manoeuvre within and through resource starved, ethnically fractured, clientelist and patriarchal institutions, polities and societies.[1]

Third, the split-brain thesis can be linked to the post-development thinking of historians such as Walter Mignolo. This entails attempting to disentangle the hybrid influence of colonial and modern ways of development thinking as part of a “geopolitics of knowledge” that systematically subordinates indigenous ideas and interests to “global designs” bound up with ever changing mechanisms for material domination. Post-occidental discourse – referred to by Mignolo as “border thinking” – goes beyond both a creole adaptation of such global designs to local context and a reflex opposition to them. It is trans-disciplinary and replaces Western separation of fact (episteme) from opinion (doxa) with contextually embedded knowledge (“gnosis”). And it takes place through an encounter between globalised knowledge (associated with modernity, progress, technology, reason) and local knowledge and culture (associated with tradition, folklore and passion). There does seem to be some scope for linking this line of thinking to the critique of a left brain rich project to privilege and legitimate globally codified knowledge, without thought to how it influences millions of local-global political struggles of ideas and resources.

Let me finish by shifting from the potential relevance of McGilchrist’s thesis to development studies to the potential flow of influence in the reverse direction. While grounded in neuroscience, attempts to generalise from his ideas are themselves open to attack for being a left-brain biased. But they may nevertheless challenge other global designs in ways that are politically helpful to more local and contextually embedded sources of knowledge. More specifically the proliferation of local forms of collective action needed to address global problems (like climate change and rising income inequality) need discursive and political space to grow. The empirical study of how ideas originate, proliferate, are legitimated and mainstreamed in text, and are appropriated to serve established centres of power, lies at the core of development studies. These processes do have a psychological dimension that can be neglected, though it should not be overplayed relative to their cultural, economic, sociological and above all political dimensions. It isn’t necessary to read McGilchrist’s weighty book to favour more grounded, holistic and realistic discussion of global development issues; but it might help a bit.


[1] In trying to think this through with development consultants engaged in political economy analysis, Daniel Kahnemann’s psychological distinction between fast and slow thinking may be more useful. See James Copestake and Richard Williams (2013) Improving the value of development consultants as policy advisors. Development Futures Paper. Oxford: Oxford Policy Management Ltd.

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