The Dark Side of Left-Brain Operations

Schizophrenia, Modern Art and Western History Part II


Power struggles between the two sides of the brain

In Part I of this article, I compared the left to the right side of the brain across many categories. One of the most interesting prospects in Iain McGilchrist’s great book The Master and His Emissary, is that the two sides of the brain functions do not work in a harmonious manner all the time. There is a power struggle between them. Just as we have accepted Freud’s depiction of the psyche as composed of a struggle between the id and the superego and just as many of us have accepted that working class people are conflicted between a class-in-itself and a class-for-itself identity, so might the two sides of the brain be involved in working at cross-purposes. John Milton’s Paradise Lost seems to be a precisely profound exploration of the divided human brain.

Rise of the left side of brain in Western history

Over the course of Western history, the left side of the brain has gotten more powerful. But at least initially, as Karl Jaspers demonstrated in his book The Axial Age, the shift to the left-side of the brain has happened not just in the West, in Palestine and Greece, but also in the East in China and India. As we shall see, this power struggle is further externalized in the material world in Western history when we examine the differences between the Renaissance and the Reformation, between the Enlightenment and Romanticism and between capitalism and socialism. They will also show themselves in the commonalities between the Reformation, the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

The Ancient Worlds of the Greeks Lack of faces in Egypt and Mesopotamia

The right hemisphere is crucial in interpreting faces and evaluating facial reactions. The right hemisphere was also important for aesthetic judgments in art. In his book Faces: the Changing Look of Mankind, Milton Brener points out that there are no individual facial portraits in prehistoric art. The earliest drawings, especially in the Neolithic Age, lack of spatial orientation or a clear relationship between the parts and the whole. The faces in Bronze Age Egypt and Mesopotamia are inexpressive gazes. Artistic  subjects are mainly animals. If humans appear at all, it is only the parts of the body, the pelvis or buttocks, that are shown most frequently. Human figures are headless. When faces do appear as with aristocrats or kings, they are expressionless, and non-individualized. Lack of faces shows the lack of right brain involvement. 

Right brain presence in ancient Greece

In Archaic Greece at the time of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the right brain was clearly operating in the sustained, unified theme that  produced a single coherent narrative over a long stretch of time. The degree of empathy and insight into characters show the mark of the right hemisphere. A change to portraits came about in the 6th century BCE. Brener says the Greek subjects in this period are more individualized, varied, emotionally expressive and empathic. Emotions include pride, hate, bodily gesture, envy, anger, pity and love.  There is yet to be a separation between the body and the mind, matter and the soul. He posits it is the right hemisphere that creates and understands expressive poetry and uses metaphors in oral discourse and in writing.

Left brain in Greece and the commercial spirit (600-400 BCE)

Prometheus is the god of technical skill where the left side shows prominence over the right. The god Prometheus is said to bring numeracy and literacy to the Greeks while inventing weights and measures.

The invention of money is an indicator of the same neuropsychological development. As Marx pointed out, historically the use of money went from a means for exchanging commodities to developing an independent existence.

In his book Money and the Early Greek Mind, Richard Seaford points out that monetary currency is the prime mover of a new, more abstract kind of philosophy. Before the development of currency (whether barter or gift) there is an emphasis on reciprocity in exchange.  With currency, reciprocals relationships become static, based on equivalence with and the emphasis placed on utility and profit sustaining the community. Money is homogenous. It flattens its objects, eroding their uniqueness. Money is impersonal and weakens the need for bonds. Just as money freezes reciprocity between humans and objects, so too the mind becomes abstracted from its relationship with the body. The disembodied mind – noos – emerges, a mind separate from the body in about the 4th century. Bruno Snell discusses a fascinating history of this in his book Discovery of the Mind.

Legal constitutions, bodies of laws, formalized geography and study of maps

By the time of Socrates, the respect for the testimony of the senses had been slipping and the importance of metaphor was forgotten. For Plato, poets are to be banished from The Republic. In art again we return to the depiction of parts of the body: heads sprung without necks; arms wandered without their shoulders. The left hemisphere seems to be in control again, but then this changed back. The 4th to the 2nd century was a high point of expressiveness of portraits in painting and sculpture with the most extraordinary attention given to individual expression. The left and right together produced the development of a legal constitution and a body of laws, studies  of history, formalization of geography and the study of maps.

The Romans

As for the Roman world, McGilchrist tells us most of the great legacy of Rome’s literature belongs to the first century BCE with Virgil, Horace and Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  All three suggest an alliance between the right and left hemisphere. Until the end of the 3rd century, portraiture had sought to convey a lifelike individuality.

However, a fundamental change took place after the third century in the depiction of the face. Portraits of stone began to show a particularly abstract, distant gaze no longer concerned  with the real world. McGilchrist points out that the features suddenly stiffen in an expressive Medusa-like mask. There is a movement away from life-like nature to an abstract type; from plastic articulation to conceptual generalization; from the corporeal to the symbolic. Natural objects lose their liveliness and idiosyncrasy. In art an abrupt marionette-like movement predominates. A mechanical order is imposed on the objects from above and pressed into horizontal lines that are symmetrical, just like soldier to his rank-and file. With Roman military and administrative success, a bureaucracy grows and the left hemisphere begins to duplicate itself without regulation in the material world. In drama McGilchrist says there also is a possible parallel to the left hemisphere being out of control with the influence of Theophrastus character types.

Middle Ages

From this point through the Middle Ages the face and body are symbolic only. Individualized portraits of the emperor disappear and they become alike in the same way as the saints are depicted. Myth and metaphor are no longer semi-transparent but opaque. At best myth and metaphor or superficial ornaments – at worst lies and superstitions.

The Renaissance

Intensity in the rise of self-consciousness and individualism

The Renaissance was the next great flowering of the right-left hemispheres at their best. In this period, human dignity lay in our unique capacity to choose our own destiny, not simply be the plaything of fate as it was with the Greeks. This resulted in the importance attributed to the recording of individual lives in the rise of biography and autobiography. There seems to be this standing back, an even more self-conscious reflection than the Greeks in the 6th century. There is also a demand for abstraction and generalization, favoring the left hemisphere in the same time period.

The plays of Shakespeare

McGilchrist says drama has come to the fore at those points in history when we have achieved necessary distance but not yet so detached that we are inappropriately objective or alienated from one another. The plays of Shakespeare constitute one of the most striking testimonies to the rise of the right hemisphere during this period. There is a complete disregard for theory and categorization which might come about with the predominance of the left hemisphere. Everywhere, Shakespeare reveled in opposites, seeing life as a mix of good and bad. He did this instead of standing outside or above his creation and telling us how to judge his character. In music, there was the amazing efflorescence of polyphony and complex harmony throughout the Renaissance.

The Reformation

Attacks on image and metaphor

The Reformation is a great example of a religious movement driven by the left side of the brain gone haywire. The Reformation is the first great expression of the search for certainty in modern times. It attacks the visual image, the vehicle par excellence of the right hemisphere. McGilchrist points out that the decapitation of statues by the Reformers took place because both lay and clergy could not handle the confrontation between the animate form with an inanimate image. They could make sense of them together if the image could be understood as a metaphor for the real object. For the Protestants, either the statue is a god or an idolatrous thing, with nothing in between. During the Reformation there was a decline in metaphoric understanding of ceremony and ritual. Instead, they understood the repetition of empty procedures. In Protestant circles, words acquired the status of things. The word freezes into a kind of idol itself. The Reformation replaces the immediate presentation of an unmediated mystical experience in the Renaissance with a representation through the Bible. The way to get the meaning across for the Protestants was to repeat words endlessly, drumming and drilling it into the mind. This is something the left hemisphere would attempt. In the Reformation the sacred space centerpiece is no longer on the image on the altar, but on the pulpit.

Mechanization of sacred space

McGilchrist points out that the Catholic Church encouraged and incorporated movement, walking and processions into its ceremonies.  Not the Protestants. Koerner, in his book The Reformation of the Image draws attention to the bureaucratic categorization that springs up from the Lutheran church. People are neatly placed in symmetrical ranks on the floor of the Church which are laid out like graph paper in a typical left hemisphere materialization. The congregation is seated neatly in rows of obedient, mechanical subjects.

The Seventeenth Century

Philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin says 17th century science was a secular version of what the Protestants had done religiously. It was the reversal in Renaissance values. This can be seen in literature to philosophy in the movement:

  • From Pantagruel to that of Pilgrim’s Progress
  • From Shakespeare to Racine
  • From Montaigne to Descartes
  • From the reciprocal oral mode to fixed and unidirectional written mode
  • From Eliot’s unified sensibility to dissociation

 Descartes and Madness

Descartes is one of the first and greatest exemplars of the left hemisphere philosophy in the 17th century. He has problems with the very idea of temporal continuity. Descartes thought that reliance on the body, the senses and the imagination would lead not only to error, but to madness. Yet as we have seen in Part I of this article, it is an excess of rationality that can lead to schizophrenia. In fact, Descartes had many of the same characteristics as schizophrenics: excessively detached, hyper-rational, an intense self-awareness, a disembodied and alienated condition. McGilchrist tells us Descartes describes looking out of his window seeing what he knows to be people passing by as seeming to him like machines. Descartes was not even sure he had a body at all. This is the rationality to which he was committed. This devitalization results in a need for certainty. The analytical geometry which he founded is a disciplined application of left-brain thinking.

The Enlightenment

Symmetry and balance

McGilchrist says the true relationship between the left and right side of the brain is that reason is the constitutive foundation of functioning and rationality plays a regulatory role. The relationship between reason and rationality is developed in some detail in Part I of my article. However, Kant reversed the relationship between reason and rationality. He imprisoned reason within the closed system of rationality, including his space, time and causality categories. Reason in the Enlightenment was static, not dynamic. Reason means holding tensions that are incompatible in a balanced symmetry meaning equal measure. Beauty in the Enlightenment is holding tensions symmetrically. Symmetry was also the ultimate guiding aesthetic principle of the Enlightenment typified in music by Hayden.

In any scientific procedure on a natural object, if the scientist leaves it unchanged s/he is admired. The butterfly is skewered and unmoving, a specimen in the collector’s cabinet. This is what McGilchrist says captures the Enlightenment’s sense of nature.  The changing, evolving nature of individual things or beings had to wait until the 18th century revolution in biology. Unlike the Reformation, the Enlightenment did not attack metaphor and imagination frontally. However, they trivialized it as nothing more than a playful ornament, an extra, not something that helps us to understand reality.

The all-seeing eye

There were serious political consequences to the discovery of optics. As Foucault has pointed out, the all-powerful, all-surveying and all-capturing eye achieved its ultimate form in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison in which the authorities can see every prisoner while the authorities are invisible to the prisoners and the prisoners cannot see each other. This monstrous imaginary prison could only be hatched by the left brain. McGilchrist argues that Bentham has many of the features that would suggest a mild degree of autism and defects in right hemisphere functioning. Bentham was socially awkward, and probably never talked to a woman at all except to his cook and housemaid. He had a contempt for the British common law tradition which was much more right-brain law tradition.

The problem with sight, as Herder points out, is its tendency to meet the depth, breadth and volume of the world with the cool rebuff of a planar surface, a representation. In the romantic period, Herder and Winckelmann both praised sculpture for its depth, volume, fullness and complex curvature, transcending the rectilinear flatness of a single plane of vision which would be consistent with the left side of the brain. Wordsworth spoke of what he called the tyranny of the eye.

The uncanny

The uncanny is a psychological state which results from a loss of the distinction between the living and the purely mechanical. Koerner makes the point that iconoclasm of the Reformation granted so much uncanny powers to images that it came close to idolatry. McGilchrist criticizes the violence of the French Revolution by pointing out it was not saints made of wood images that were attacked by the revolutionaries but kings and dukes themselves that were decapitated. In the book The Female Thermometer: 18th Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny Terry Castle explores the elements of phantasmagoria, the grotesque, carnivalesque travesty, hallucination reveries, paranoia and nightmarish fantasy doubles, dancing dolls automata, waxwork figures, mirror selves and spectral emanations.

These are all related to schizophrenia as we saw in Part I. Living things are experienced as mechanisms. The living body becomes an assemblage of independently moving fragments. Interest in the uncanny resulted in the book Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Here in the person of the mad Dr. Frankenstein, the left hemisphere of Dr. Frankenstein assembles the dead body parts and breathes life into it through lightning. However, the result is not a human whole which is more than its parts, but a monster that is no more than the sum of the enlivened body parts, a monster. Remember, for the Enlightenment after all, nature is a whole equal to the sum of the parts. Later on, the Romantic William Blake contrasted the single-minded, limiting, measuring mechanical, the god of Newton, to the many-minded liberating power of the creative imagination the God of Milton.

Romanticism and the Right Side of the Brain

Depth and mystery

In the first wave of Romanticism in the early 19th century, we find a return to cultural expressions of the right brain. McGilchrist points to the work of Claude Lorain. He has been said to be the greatest landscape painter ever. His paintings have depth, both spatial and temporal, and a deep perspective with steeply angled buildings. Light and color suggest not just distance as such, but a succession, a progression of distances.

For the Romantics, half-light and transitional states have a multitude of affinities with complexity. The romantics are attracted to fog, haze, moonlights and mist. They love unfinished sketches, the half-light of dawn, music heard far off, and mountains where the top is obscured by mist. The right hemisphere is at home with blurry, fleeting, half-lite form. The romantics were convinced that one might learn more from half-light than full light. As many of you know, Hegel imaginatively said that the owl of Minerva, goddess of wisdom, only flew at dusk. For the Romantics there was a longing for the innocent unselfconscious both in a historical and personal past. It is with the right hemisphere that we recall our childhood memories. Distance in time and place expands the soul. Fusion with nature included fusion with the body. The fusion of body, soul and spirit were never more keenly aspired to than with romantic pantheism.

The Industrial Revolution: Making the World in the Likeness of the Left Brain

Who but a political economist and a class of people with the left side of the brain in overdrive could imagine that through the selfishness of individuals a harmonious social whole could result? Without care or compassion a whole is supposed to spontaneously emerge. “Liberty” for the left side of the brain is the laisse faire of Adam Smith’s version of capitalism.

The mechanization of work spaces, commodities, and workers under capitalism

In the next century, McGilchrist says the most daring assault of the left hemisphere on the world was the industrial revolution. It was creating a world in the left hemisphere’s own likeness. Whether it is the mechanics of the production of the factory, production of commodities or the production and reproduction of workers, they are broadly similar.

In the early days of the factory, skilled workers still controlled the pace of production and took breaks as they needed them. In the second half of the 19th century family capitalists joined in larger corporate entities and the organization of the factory changed. Now rectilinear grids of machines make identical surfaces and shapes. In the machine of factories, capitalists want to know three things;

  • how much it could do?;
  • how quickly can it do it?; and,
  • with what degree of precision?

In the case of commodities, they were mass produced cheaply for a national market. Quantity replaces quality. Gone are the handicrafts, each of which is different and bears the creativity of the artisan who made them. Workers are the makers of commodities but due to alienation from their work they no longer understand that  commodities are a means to an end. Rather commodities become ends in themselves. As Marx says, things are in the saddle. People become enslaved to the things that they make.

Whether it is on the assembly line itself, the production of commodities or the life of the worker in the factory, the parts of the machine were just, equally interchangeable units of their categories. It is here that the inner structure of the human organism, the left side of the brain, externalizes and multiplies in ever increasing measure into the material world, transforming it along the way. The innate structure of the left hemisphere through capitalist technology is being incarnated in the world it has now come to dominate.

Socialism as a return of the right brain to the industrialization process

One the other hand it was through Marx and the socialist movement that the attempt was made to change these conditions. Socialists want to redesign factories so that artificial intelligence serves to relieve workers of rote movement and allow them to work less. Socialists want to produce commodities for use-value, not exchange value and restore the production of pre-capitalist production modes. They want to appreciate commodities as a means to an end, not an end in itself. But socialists seek to achieve this on a higher level. Lastly, socialists strive to overcome alienation of workers on the job and the specialization of labor where a worker does one activity over and over again. Instead, as Marx wrote, in a communist society people will fish in the morning, raise cattle in the afternoon and criticize society in the evening. The entire socialist program can be understood as a collective movement to reinstate the projects that are expressions of the right side of the brain.

 Modernity From 1880 to Mid 20th Century

Time and space contraction

In Anthony Giddens’ book, Modernity and Self-Identity he described the characteristic disruption of space and time that is required by globalization as a necessary context of industrial capitalism. This means the intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness.

The features of modernity include:

  • mobility which insures a permanent population with no attachment to place;
  • a high pace of change in the physical environment; and,
  • the need for convenience in physical transport.

These disruptions in time undermine traditions which are either discarded, marginalized or reinvented (Eric Hobsbawm’s Invention of Tradition). Attachments to others are weakened radically.

In the 20th century the Vienna Circle of logical empiricism involved another philosophical-scientific attempt by the left brain movement in its grasping for certainty, which was even more formal, and exact than the one of Descartes. But this had psychological implications. Louis Sass calls the result hyper-consciousness where everything gets dragged into the full glare of consciousness. This is typified in Robert Musil’s novel Man Without Qualities.

On the other hand, in the United States the pragmatic movement of William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Pierce were right-brain attempts to make philosophy practical and down to earth. Also, the emergence of Process philosophy in the work  of Whitehead and Samuel Alexander is an attempt to link a dynamic science of complexity to a dynamic philosophy.

Conclusion: What the Left Hemisphere Becoming Dominant Would Look Like:

  • increased specialization;
  • it would substitute information for knowledge;
  • keep refining experiments in detail;
  • increase in both abstraction and reification;
  • expansion of bureaucracy;
  • morality based on utility, calculation and enlightened self-interest;
  • paranoia;
  • panoptical control;
  • individuals as interchangeable parts of mechanical system;
  • altruism is seen as suspicious;
  • lack of common sense;
  • anger and aggression would be more common;
  • loss of insight;
  • pathos becomes shameful;
  • boredom drives towards sensationalism and novelty;
  • conceptual art lacks depth and distorted and bizarre perspectives;
  • dance is solipsistic rather than communal; and,
  • despoilation of the natural world.

 Psychological surveys show increased unhappiness in the Anglo-American Empire. Iain McGilchrist fears we are at risk of being trapped by the I-it world. On the other hand, the factor that explains the most in happiness in humanity is the breadth and depth of our social connections. McGilchrist writes that the fallout into this left brain world is the story of Adam and Eve being turned out of Paradise. McGilchrist tells us that the quest for certainty is the greatest of all illusions. It is what the ancients meant by hubris and this is what the Western world is currently trapped in.

Left Brain-Right Brain in Human History

Left HemisphereHemisphere of the BrainRight Hemisphere
No portraits in prehistoric art including Egypt, MesopotamiaEgypt, Mesopotamia, GreecePortraiture in 6th

century Greece

  • Prometheus—technical skills
  • Numeracy, literacy, weights and measures
  • Money/Plato’s theory of forms
  • Legal constitutions, bodies of laws; formalization of geography; study of maps
4th century Greece
With Roman military and administrative success, bureaucracy in the left hemisphere begins to freewheelEarly Roman Empire


  • Rome—first century BCE
  • with Virgil, Horace and Ovid
  • Portraiture until end of the 3rd century
  • Portraits of stone began to show a particularly abstract form
  • Distant gaze of disengagement with the real world
  • The features of the face suddenly in a Medusa-like mask
Late Roman Empire
Body and face as symbolsMiddle Ages
Reformation–Quest for certainty

  • Literal vs metaphor and ritual
  • Destruction of images
  • Representation
  • Words are the new idols
  • Pulpit replaces altar
  • Mechanization of sacred space
  • (rows in church)
Renaissance vs ReformationRenaissance

  • Perspective unites the world and the individual
  • Love of imagery
  • Presentation—magical and
  • Mystical experience
  • Efflorescence of polyphony and complex harmony
  • Rise of biography and autobiography
  • Shakespeare – Individuality, not types
Mechanical nature

  • Quest for certainty
  • Hydraulic force, mechanical pressure
17th centuryOrganic Nature

  • The body, the senses and the imagination lead not only to error, but to madness
  • Analytical geometry


Racine’s plays

End of sensibility (Eliot)

  • Ideal is rational
  • Symmetrical balance
  • Claude Lorain
  • Paintings with spatial and temporal depth
  • Deep perspective
  • All seeing eye
  • Panopticon
  • Jeremy Bentham
  • The Uncanny: confusing inanimate with animate
  • Mist, foggy, mystery
  • Artisan handicrafts
Timeless, permanent

Laissez faire

Adam Smith capitalism

 Time dependent
  • Mechanization of the factory
  • Mass production of commodities
  • Turning workers into interchangeable parts
Industrial RevolutionSocialism

  • Artificial Intelligence makes work less rote, relieves workers of long hours
  • Making commodities for use-value
  • Overcoming the specialization of labor with well-rounded work day
Pointillism, CubismLate 19th Early 20th century Paintings
  • The movement towards aestheticism has been seen as the last flowering of Romanticism
  • William Morris
  • Disharmony in music
  • Schoenberg
MusicHarmony in music causes changes in the automatic nervous system with a slowing of the heart
  • Logical Positivists
  • Vienna Circle
20th century Philosophy
  • Pragmatism
  • Process philosophy
Robert Musil’s the Man without qualities Literature

• First published in Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

•• Read Part 1 here

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.