The Dark Side of Left-Brain Operations

Schizophrenia, Modern Art and Western History Part I


Left and right brain divisions and dependencies

Why is the brain so clearly and deeply divided? Why are the two cerebral hemispheres asymmetrical? Is the division of labor in the brain complete or do the sides overlap in functions? A lot of what we once thought went on in one hemisphere alone is now known to go on in both. For instance, both sides of the brain can handle words and images, both are involved in thinking and both can process language. Further, there is duplication across both spheres. While the hemispheres need to cooperate, believe it or not, Iain McGilchrist claims there is a power struggle between them, analogous to differences between Freud’s id and superego or Marx’s divided worker possessing both  class-in-itself and class-for-itself identities. It is only at the level of the interpretation of specific events that competition between hemispheres occurs. The left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. As we will find in Part II, the brain does not merely mediate our experience of the world but shapes it as well.

Where we are going?

This article is divided into two parts. In Part I, we will contrast the differences between the left and the right side of the brain. Secondly, we will discuss how the left brain at its worst leads to schizoid or schizophrenic behavior. Lastly, in Part I we will explore the commonalities between schizophrenia and modern art, including painting, music and writing literature. Without arguing that modern art causes schizophrenia there is no question that cases of schizophrenia have multiplied during the industrialization process of the 19th and the first third of thc 20th century.

In Part II of this article, the author of the book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist ambitiously claims that the difference between the hemispheres is not just inside the brains of individuals. They are expressed in the history of the West of the brain’s response to changes in the movements of thinking from ancient Greeks through the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the scientific revolution, capitalism, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Differences Between Hemispheres

Faust is seen by many as the best representative of modern self-consciousness who declared there were two souls in his breast. The right side of the brain deals with the big picture and emerges first in human development. Its attention is diffused and it searches for unique patterns in the real world. Whatever information it finds, it places it in a context. For the brain’s right side, wholes are more than the sum of their parts. Once the new information is in, its function is to stabilize the system (negative feedback). The right hemisphere watches out not only for itself but for the left side as well. It multitasks. In the brain, the right-side does parallel processing of systems at the same time. It generates alternatives to problems.

The left hemisphere is its junior partner and is more unpredictable. The left hemisphere is more specialized, focused and sees the parts very well in isolation. The left hemisphere does not seek out new information but focuses on bringing order and logic within the system. It does not seek out the new but organizes information within into types and classifies it. If the right hemisphere, processing wholistically, misses the trees for the forest, the left hemisphere is preoccupied with the trees, missing the forest. At its worst, the right side of the brain has attention deficient disorder. A corresponding downside of the left side of the brain would be obsessive compulsive disorder.

While the focus of the right hemisphere is to bring information from the real world into the system, the left hemisphere abstracts from what the right hemisphere brings in and then generalizes from it. The left hemisphere prefers to do one thing at a time, serially. It prefers linear processes with a beginning, middle and end. The right side of the brain understands that processes recur, they are cyclic, reciprocal and sometimes turn into spirals. The left side likes to break things into parts, analyzing them while the right side likes to pull processes together synthetizing them. The left side takes what the right brain pulls together and gives fixity to what was once an ambiguous process. It seizes one alternative and turns it every which way. Believe it or not, a great deal of psychological research shows that most of the normal psychological processes go on in our unconscious; namely, the automatic systems and sympathetic parts of our systems such as heart rate and blood pressure in reaction to emotions. This is part of the right side of the brain. The conscious part of our system. Where we solve problems is the domain of the left side of the brain.

The left side breaks processes into bits. The right side of the brain does not see bits, but rather networks. In the evolution of the triune brain stem, the right side of the brain is more directly connected to the limbic and mammalian system. The left side of the brain is connected to the late developing neocortex. The right brain is most interested in the dynamics of the world, where things are leading. The left side hungers to turn these events into a history, what has become of events. It follows the left brain and tries to capture the events of the world and freeze them into a static system. The right side is more at home with how things change over time. To use a metaphor the left side is like the noun side of language; the right side in interested in motion. Lastly the right side imagines that all of nature is alive and all relationships are “I-thou” to use Buber’s terminology. The left side prefers to make things out of nature, acting as in “I-it” relationships.

The left side of the brain is most at home with either/or answers, while the right side can tolerate ambiguity. The left side likes single meaning while the right side can handle meanings which only partly overlap. The left side of the brain is more likely to be dogmatic and the right side more open-minded. The left side prefers the denotation of language with precision of reference and meaning. The right side is more sensitive to the connotation, emotional side of language.

Rationality vs reason

A number of years ago two rhetoricians, Stephen Toulmin and Chaim Perelman made a very important distinction between two words we tend to use interchangeably: reason and rationality. These distinctions arose in order to address the question of the difference between formal logic and informal logic. We use our reason when we try to make probabilistic guesses about what is likely to be true when no one knows for sure (informal logic). Formal logic, what they call rationality, occurs in situations which are closed systems where one sure answer is possible. An example of a closed system problem is a word puzzle. You don’t search for information outside the problem to solve it. All the information you need is within the problem. The left side of the brain follows rules and manipulates symbols. The right side of the brain is more creative and finds new rules and new symbol systems. The right side of the brain is reasonable, the left side is rational. Rationality is about the relation of means to ends. The right side sees further into the distance by looking at ends in themselves. In terms of processing events, the right side is at its best starting things up and closing things out. The left side at its best is processing things in the middle, once they are under control. This has many other ramifications.

Reason understands the world more broadly. It appreciates poetry and metaphor. Rationality takes things literally and prosaically. Reason also has a sense of humor, including irony and sarcasm. The rationality side is dead serious, it doesn’t get jokes and as you might imagine, is socially awkward. A rational person acts something like a nerd. It focuses focus on digital communication while reason is sensitive to body language, vocal tone, gestures and postures (analogical messages). The rational brain likes the virtual world; the right side prefers the real world.

What Can Go Wrong With the Left Side of the Brain?

McGilchrist does not have much to say about what can go wrong with the right side of the brain, but he has plenty to say about what can go wrong with the left side. Remember that we said the one psychological fruit of the left-side of the brain that can be out of control is in obsessive-compulsive behavior. While repetition brings comfort, past a certain point it can result in mindless pounding or the mechanical and repetitive assembling and disassembling of machines. The left side prefers the codes for non-living things like tools or machines. On one hand it can lead to the perfecting of inventions. Yet this can lead to unrealistic perfectionism. Without the right side of the brain’s input, the left side of the brain can create non-realistic, distorted fantastic images which can result in the world being seen as uncanny as we shall see.

The left sphere has a precarious relationship with emotional life. It is capable of superficial social emotions but not good at imaging in depth the emotions of others.

The left side is good at making judgments when all the information is in but not when judgment is required in situations that are ill-defined. Because it prefers the world of the inanimate things, it often, as in the case of Descartes, treats its body as a thing among other objects. At worst it might not recognize its own body parts as in asomatognosia – a feeling that parts of a person’s body is “missing” or have disappeared from corporeal awareness.

In any dynamic system, there is positive feedback which amplifies the system to help it deal with environmental stress. On the other hand, negative feedback cools the system out to regulate the system over time. When the left side of the brain goes haywire the amplification process takes on a life of its own and shows itself in doing and undoing rituals or in pathological gambling.

The left side of the brain is individualistic and has to be coaxed into understanding other people. It takes a gods-eye-view of things, a view from nowhere so that it barely takes into account people other than its own self-interest, let alone anyone else’s. Table A at the end of Part I is a summary of the differences between the hemispheres.

Weaknesses in Left Hemisphere

To recap, in cases where the right hemisphere is damaged, we will find similar problems that we might identify in schizophrenia. These include:

  • Subjects don’t understand context;
  • Subjects don’t understand elements of discourse like subjects, predicates and objects;
  • Subjects have difficulty interpreting emotions;
  • Subjects have difficulty separating wholes (Gestalt perceptions) from parts;
  • There is a decrease in the functioning of the limbic systems;
  • There is difficulty interpreting tone;
  • There is difficulty with interpreting facial expressions;
  • There is trouble understanding underlying points of view; and,
  • A lack of common sense.

 The Left Hemisphere Schizoid and Schizophrenia States and Behavior

The old ideas of schizophrenia include:

  • They are a regression from a more mature state;
  • The relationships between thoughts and reality or between thoughts and thoughts is irrational;
  • In schizophrenia there is less sense of self-awareness than there is in non-schizophrenic people; and,
  • That schizophrenia is a retreat to primitive emotions and infantile body states.

John Cutting in his book The Right Cerebral Hemisphere and Psychiatric Disorders has found that schizophrenia is a state in which the sufferer relies excessively on the left hemisphere. This explains the divorce from the body; detachment from human feeling; the separation of thought from action; excessive concern with clarity and fixity; and the triumph of representation over what is present. This is also the conclusion that Louis A. Sass comes to in his mammoth book Madness and Modernism.

Rather than a regression to an earlier developmental state, schizophrenia can happen to a mature adult. Secondly, schizophrenia is far from being irrational. In fact, it is hyper-rational. It is a product of the left side of the brain gone haywire! Instead of lacking in self-awareness the schizophrenic is hyper-reflective and cannot get out of their head back into the world. Rather than being lost in their emotional life, the schizophrenic is disengaged from their emotions and the emotions of others. This results in depersonalization, in which the person loses a sense of their identity in the world. They see themselves as an automaton. Schizophrenics routinely see themselves as machines, robots, computers or cameras. At the other end, they see the world in a derealized way which is when the real world loses its aliveness and becomes a thing, an object unconnected to the rest of the world.

Modernism and schizophrenia: the core phenomenology

In Paradoxes of Delusion: Wittgenstein, Schreber and the Schizophrenic Mind Louis Sass explores the idea that madness is the end point of a trajectory that consciousness follows when it separates from the body and the passions from the social and practical world and turns upon itself. Chris Frith’s identification of the core abnormality of schizophrenia is an awareness of automatic processes. There is a veering between two apparently opposite positions that are really aspects of the same positions. They are omnipotence and impotence. Either there is no self or an all-observing eye that swallows the whole world into the self.

Schizophrenia and Schizoid  Disorders are Connected to Industrialization

Anthropological psychiatrists claim that schizophrenia goes all the way back to hunting and gathering societies. Yet McGilchrist points out that schizophrenia has grown with industrialization. He claims that in England it was rare if it existed at all before the 18th century. The same was true in Ireland, Yankeedom or Italy. Schizophrenia steeply increased in the first half of the 20th century. Mental health is generally better in rural populations. The risk of developing schizophrenia is doubled in urban environments. Multiple personality disorders are also modern. On the positive side people with schizoid or schizotypal traits will be attracted to and deemed suitable for employment in science, technology and administration, all of which have been influential in shaping our world during the last 100 years.

Dissociation is Connected to Both the Left Hemisphere and Schizophrenia

This includes:

  • Inability to tell what another is thinking;
  • Lack of judgment of non-verbal cues in communication;
  • Lack of judgement of tone, humor, irony;
  • Inability to detect deceit;
  • Attraction to the mechanical;
  • Treatment of other people and body parts as inanimate objects;
  • Obsession with detail;
  • Amnesia about autobiographical information;
  • Identity disturbances such as depersonalization;
  • Derealization – a lack of a sense of reality of the phenomenal world; and,
  • Loss of feeling of belonging to the world (feeling we are spectators rather than participants).

The Relationship Between Schizophrenia and Modern Art

Self-referentiality, depersonalization and realization and representation

McGilchrist says in both schizophrenia and in the modern artist the interpreter begins to interpret himself. Each’s focus on paranoia do not allow for accidents or unintended actions. Depersonalization and derealization in each leads to devitalization. Devitalization leads to boredom, and boredom to sensationalism. Emptiness and restlessness lead to gross stimulation. Speech becomes either gross or hyperbolic.  Music appears loud and nervous .The left hemisphere with its orientation towards what is lifeless and mechanical appears desperate to shock us back to life. There is concern with materiality and simultaneous impulse in both modern art and schizophrenia. Representation is when real objects are replaced by concepts and concepts turn into things. Objects become more abstract and more thing-like. There is also a preference for inanimate things. In his book The Philosopher’s Gaze: Modernity in the Shadows of the Enlightenment, DM Levin writes that representation, rather than the presence of the real world, the left hemisphere’s role is the characteristic state of modernity.

The heart of the modern art is a dogmatic trampling of all taboos. The artist makes a fetish, a fascination with the amoral restlessness of modern urban life. Shock and novelty become defenses against the boredom and seeming inauthenticity of modern life. There is a fear that without novelty there is only banality. Objects are juxtaposed without being brought into relation. Increasingly, perspective is deliberately disrupted as with the Cubists. Modernism does not build on the past while taking it in a new direction, but it wants to sweep away the past altogether and start from scratch.

The left hemisphere prefers cylinders, cubes or spheres. McGilchrist points out that Modernist art appears to mimic the world as it would appear to someone whose right brain was inactivated. He writes:

The demonization of the body reaches its most disturbing apotheosis in the bizarrely distorted and dismembered marionettes of Hans Bellmer. Pointillism reduces Gestalt figures to a mass of discrete points. Collage represents the concept of a whole as composed of independent pieces. Futurism declares the left hemisphere’s preference for the future over the past. What the artist has written about his work is as important as the thing itself as if the artwork could not stand for itself. Similarly, some painters have made the eye more intellectual and have gone far beyond what was previously called a joy in form or color. More and more the symbolic replaces that which exists in reality. (415-416)

 Modern artists

In fact, a remarkable number of the leading figures of modernism displayed schizoid or schizotypal features: These included Nietzsche, Jarry, Strindberg, Dali, Wittgenstein, Kafka, and Stravinsky. Antonin Artaud had schizophrenia. He told Anais Nin that he wanted a theatre that would be like a shock treatment to galvanize people into feeling. In modern art attention is focused on the medium, not on the world beyond that medium. The content is denied. The self-reflective statements of modern literature and criticism concentrate attention on language and either deny or minimize the world beyond language. Tristen Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, summed up modernism early when he proclaimed that art is a private affair. The artist produces it for himself and any judgment about it had become completely subjective on the part of the critic. No critic has any objective powers.

 Modern music

Since the 20th century, music has aspired to and attained a high level of abstraction. As Schoenberg put it, how the music sounds is not the point. Gilchrist claims the melodic line has been largely abandoned and its harmonic structures are hard to appreciate intuitively even if they might be appreciated conceptually. Nietzsche writes that our ears have become more intellectual. The meaning in music is confusing because of the way it sounds. McGilchrist writes that the idea is to disturb the listener’s feeling of gravitational attraction by combining so many different forms of attraction that this sense of location cannot adjust fast enough. The lack of tonal centers destroys the listeners anchor point. He says we do not have sufficient short-term memory to cope with the degrees of apparent formlessness. On the other hand, harmony in music is an analogues to perspective in painting. Both harmony and perspective is right hemisphere dependent.

Coming Attractions

The differences between the left and the right side of the brain are not simply bio- psychological phenomenon taking place inside the bodies and minds of individuals, schizophrenics, or modern artists.  They are also manifested physically, materially in the world through the social institutions and movements in the West from the ancient world of the Greeks and the Romans through the Middle Ages and on to Modern life, beginning in the 14th century. The Renaissance is often contrasted to the Reformation, the Enlightenment to Romantism and Capitalism to Socialism. Can the differences in these European movements be expressions of the left and right brains? Can the common social problems which arose  between the Reformation, the Enlightenment and capitalism be attributed to the left brain which has gotten out of control? Through McGilchrist, I will examine this in Part II. 

Table A Contrasting the Left to the Right Side of the Brain

Left Brain Category of ComparisonRight Brain
NeocortexPart of the brainMore connected to limbic and mammalian systems
DigitalType of messagesAnalogical
Can tell about facial expressions, vocal intonations, gestures, body language
Whole is sum of the parts
Whole can be controlled by the parts
Parts and wholesWhole is more than the sum of the parts
Positive – amplify conditions to overcome stress
Can become stuck in amplification
Pathological gamblers
Type of feedbackNegative feedback – stabilize conditions
AtomisticHow are relationships perceived?Organic
Linear – beginning, middle endDirection in timeCyclic, spirals
Surface spaceSpatial orientationDepth and distance in space


DeclarativeType of memoryAutobiographical, Episodic


Body as a thing like other things
Drives are no longer integrated to the personality
Perception of bodyEmbodied self
Rationality – thinking within closed systems where one answer is possible
Follows rules and manipulates symbols
Type of thinking Reason—judgments of probability under conditions of uncertainty
Makes new rules and invents new symbols


Categorizes information once inside the system by order,  formal logic and typeCategorization and contextSearches for pattern in the real world
Does things serially
One thing at a time
Processing informationParallel processes in the brain Does many things at once
Selects among alternativesGenerating solutionsGenerates alternatives


Obsessive, compulsive At worstAttention deficient


Abstraction and generalizationContest, abstraction and generalizationContextualizes
Analysis, breaking things down into bitsAnalysis – SynthesisSynthesizes – puts things together into networks
Only conscious problem-solvingConscious/UnconsciousProcesses much information through unconscious, automatic processes
Past—what has happenedTime-orientationPresent, future – what things become
Static – turning processes into things (danger of reification)Static/DynamicFluid, dynamics – tracks things in motion
I – it relationsIndividual relation to the world (Buber)I -thou relations
Either/or binariesClarity vs FuzzinessTolerates ambiguity
Both and more
Single meaningHow many meanings?Many meanings


DogmaticStyle of thinking Open-Minded


DenotativeLanguageConnotative – emotional


Literal, symbolic, conceptualInterpretations of situationsMetaphorical – mythical


ProsaicProsaic vs PoeticPoetic – rhetorical


Middle of processPoints of processingBeginning and ending


No humor, dead seriousHumorAppreciates humor, irony, sarcasm
Virtual worldVirtual world vs real worldReal world


Unwarranted optimistic view
Unrealistic about its shortcomings
Saussure, Chomsky, universal grammar, brain a cognitive machine, computer responding to rules- based programsTheories of origin of languageLakoff, Johnson
Coherence theoryEpistemological truthCorrespondence theory with something other than itself
Cruelty does not exist in nature, only humans with their left prefrontal cortex have the capacity for deliberate maliceCruelty and compassion


Only humans with their right prefrontal cortex are capable of compassion
Left Brain Category of comparisonRight Brain

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. He is a co-founder, organizer and writer for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.