Dr. Ian McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary and most recently The Matter with Things says that the world has been becoming more “left hemisphere of the brain” dominated while true intelligence resides largely in the right, which would suggest humanity is becoming dumber, losing intelligence, right? One would think so except for the fact that standardized intelligence test scores have been on the rise for decades, so there’s something that doesn’t square here, what’s going on?
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This intelligence quandary is complicated, and the mystery lies partly in our daily activities and our perception of a world we have helped co-create. The other has to do with a lopsided preoccupation we have in trying to architect a world solely from our own design, our way of processing reality, and the perspective of only one hemisphere of the brain (in this case the left). It turns out Dr. McGilchrist’s assertions are right, humanity is perilously out of balance and off course. Are we short-changing ourselves as a species and becoming dangerously dumber in the process? What do we stand to lose? For one thing the shot at a more comprehensive sentient intelligence, universal wisdom, and an awareness that could save us and our planet. It appears however that we are not able (or arrogantly refuse) to see what’s happening or to be interested. After all, we did (collectively) stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, right? That’s a joke. So what’s the answer for countering hubris, finding balance, and getting on a more sustainable path? It’s complicated, but maybe it’s to first find one.
In the Spring of 2022 my son and I decided to start an annual father/son tradition of hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), the longest continual foot trail in North America spanning some 2200 miles from the states of Georgia to Maine, we’ve completed 250 miles so far. When you’re on the AT hiking you don’t have the luxury of creation regarding things like intelligent design, reality, or truth, nature, and the universe reserve those rights. Don’t get me wrong, you are part of these things and contribute to their creation, but they’re not exclusive to you. You didn’t create them any more than you create a snow shower in March. In this environment, intelligence takes a truer form, more balanced and wholistic, and if you don’t use all of yours to intuit, leverage, and flow with this larger intelligence and the role you play in it, you’re likely to suffer in some significant way. The good news here is that decisions are simple, you adjust, or perish, there are no other choices. The bad news about life off the trail is that we have many more or less natural choices and don’t have checks and balances, cues from a higher intelligence, and other intelligences. These messages become muddled, and we’re sheltered and protected from them, they can be comfortably ignored. The proof is that we continuously (and helplessly) suffer greatly, and needlessly cause unnoticed and indifferent suffering on others while pursuing a utopia of our design.
What follows is an ongoing discussion comparing everyday life as we experience it with a less characteristic, “un-everyday” life on a trail in the woods, in this case, the Appalachian Trail. What would you do if you had to share your “reality” with other intelligences, including your own? This month we look at intelligence and sensemaking. A special note. This article heavily leverages reference to one of my heroes Dr. Iain McGilchrist and his ongoing work in human consciousness and the neuroscience of the brain. Also Karl Weick and his ground-breaking work on sense-making. I encourage you to follow the links and learn more about these researchers and their important work.
I said a curious thing a moment ago, did you catch it? I said, share your reality with other intelligences, “even your own,” what do I mean? In The Matter with Things Dr. McGilchrist mentions two kinds of intelligence, crystalized and fluid, and the hemispheres of the brain (left and right respectively) take on the task of dispensing these types of intelligence and the uniquely different views of the world they offer.
Crystalized intelligence is a type of intelligence acculturated in its surroundings and specific to what its people are doing, think of it like expert knowledge in a specific field, like a surgeon or a computer programmer.
I’ve suggested what our intelligence on the trail is like (more wholistic), and why it’s better than the crystalized intelligence we predominately use in our manmade world.
This intelligence, fluid intelligence, is a unifier of the brain’s hemispheres and a conduit to a truer reality. Specifically, why is fluid intelligence better? For one thing, it’s not culture-bound or anchored to any one subject or memorized data sets. Instead, it’s the ability to pull in and process any data, even that which might be completely new or disparate, that’s a great tool to have in the wild, and arguably anywhere. Here’s a question, are there people who regularly use the utility of crystalized intelligence with the resilience, real-time awareness, and sentience of fluid intelligence in everyday professions? Yes. There are those who quietly reject the divorce of science and philosophy, and technology from art, and elegantly leverage the union of both, they’re called pilots.
While the two hemispheres of the brain are not meant to be mutually exclusive and should complement and support one another in concert this isn’t usually the case, and it’s getting worse. At least one side (the left hemisphere) frequently acts as if it has the whole picture, shutting down and stifling the other, and though the two sides could operate independently the results are anywhere from sub-par to downright disastrous. What’s each hemisphere’s take on the world? Let’s look.
The left hemisphere of the brain, where crystallized intelligence resides, has a disposition for the mechanical and as an example sees the world as an assemblage of parts. It prefers a decontextualized lifeless world, has a narrow, sharply focused attention to detail, and offers clarity and power to manipulate that which is known, fixed, static, and things which are explicit and physical in nature. The left hemisphere is also where tools are coded for use, hear Dr. McGilchrist say it in his own words here. It prefers to rely on preconceived reasoning and closed familiar systems.
Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is the domain of the right hemisphere and maintains a sustained and broad vigilance. It reserves an open alertness for implicit meaning in an embodied living world situated in the context of its natural surroundings. It’s emotional, plays devil’s advocate, understands metaphor, and has a disposition for the living. Although the left hemisphere also understands metaphors it prefers simplified ones in the form of models, and, importantly, for the last two hundred years, it has preferred the model of the “machine” and corresponding metaphors relating to mechanical operation.
By contrast, the right hemisphere prefers models and metaphors relating to the natural world, e.g. rivers, trees, weather, or the behavior of animals, families, or societies, these are much older models. Einstein said the models we use change us, influencing what we see and look for. With this in mind, it’s easy to see how hiking in the wilderness can influence one’s intelligence differently as our models and our metaphors quickly change from those of mechanized and static mechanical pieces to ones of continually flowing and connected complete complex living systems as found in a creek or river. The right hemispheres world is incarnate, evolving, interconnected, and exists in relationships, continually changing and never fully graspable. In such a world, the truest objectivity reveals itself as an inter-subjectivity between many things.