Division of mental labour

At roughly the same time as environmental soul-searching emerged, there began an era of intense clinical studies of the brain, especially the role of the left and right cortical hemispheres. One book that popularized this research was art teacher Betty Edwards' Drawing on the right side of the Brain. Edwards' view was that one could improve one's drawing skill by stimulating the right side. Medical research held that rational function, language, calculation, logic and sequence were based in the left side of the brain while feelings, intuition and spatial processing took place on the right. In addition, receiving and analyzing information from the outside world is the job of the right hemisphere. The experiments included work by Nobel laureate Sperry, LeDoux, Gazzaniga, and many more.

At the time, nobody pointed to a link between environmental warnings and this left-right brain debate. But it seemed possible to me that this division of mental labor might explain how technical advancement can coexist with diminished environmental problem-solving. Especially considering how the right side of the brain is often under-stimulated. There has been much research into rational specializations such as speech, located mostly in the left cortical hemisphere, and little research into the non-rational mind, probably because its workings cannot be quantified. Thus it seemed probable that the root cause of indifference to environmental issues could lie with the side of the brain that development and science have undervalued: the right cortical hemisphere.

Continuing neurological research confirms that certain behaviors are concentrated in particular areas of the brain. Brain scanners have become steadily more sophisticated. However they are still a long way from explaining complex mental interactions. There is no point in waiting until they show how we should behave in compromised environmental situations. Until they do, we can best produce a model of important mental interactions by using history as a laboratory for observing how people, individually and collectively, have used their minds in the past. Emerging neuroanatomy research does in fact support and complement what we find under the historical microscope. As we will discover, the resulting models will be useful in studying how humans steer themselves blindly into awkward situations, with the best of intentions.

A critical look at the rational brain and its accomplishments leads one to doubt that it deserves unquestioning faith. This may be unsettling to those of us who accept the fact that reason is our best defense against extremes. There is no escaping the fact though, that some of our most pressing concerns like nuclear armaments, genetic engineering, and ozone loss are rooted in pure science, and that science alone is unable to alleviate those concerns. The list of unhappy situations that originated in reason or logic, or were applied by these means, is long. Deforestation and the clearing of common lands throughout Europe, for livestock, resulted in profound human displacement; Britain's nineteenth century corn-laws and the resulting Irish famine would not have been as harsh had it not been for the popularity of Malthusian logic; in the name of rationalized business, global trade by powerful nations overrides the ability of smaller or less developed nations to function as if they were part of the same globe. And so on.

The modular view

That said, is it reasonable to place one's faith in the right brain, the creative, intuitive side, as experts like Roger Sperry have recommended? Our age-old distrust of emotion and irrationality contends that it is not. So it is with great caution that we must distinguish between rationality, irrationality, emotion, passion, calculation, intuition and instinct. Additional, recent studies support a modular view of the brain, while demonstrating interdependencies that are highly complex and difficult to measure. Civilized people believe that rational behavior is a bulwark against emotion, but when rationality is insufficient, what prevents stronger passion from taking over? Can intuition, or emotional wellness moderate between these two modes, preventing the decline and fall of overdeveloped systems? Or are left and right sides of the brain hopelessly opposed? Sperry and other researchers argue convincingly that the right side does have a vital role to play. An overview of their work shows that it is counterproductive to downgrade emotion, intuition and creativity in favor of `pure' intellect. Human mental performance suffers without the right hemisphere's talents, but because these are un-quantifiable, efforts to convince scientists of their existence seem futile. Instead, we must demonstrate that overall brain performance is incomparably better when the `quiet brain' plays its part.

The information and research assembled for this study will help to explain why overspecialization in technical matters prevents humans from confronting environmental threats. With it we will find out why societies often go irreversibly from a natural state to brilliance and then to decay. It is encouraging to note that the material shows how the cycle of overdevelopment and collapse can be broken.

To sum up, we have an eco-behavioral problem. We also have copious records of human behavior through the ages, which we can review in order to understand where we are going wrong. In addition, new research helps explain why societies fall into the progress trap, and how they can rescue themselves from it.


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"The Progress Trap - and how to avoid it" Copyright Daniel O'Leary, registered at
the Copyright Office, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Canada on April 5, 1991 (ref 405917)