How human history is shaped by neural anatomy

“Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast,
each seeks to rule without the other.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust

At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, a movement erupted in Europe that Isaiah Berlin (in his fantastic lectures on Romanticism, on which some of this article is based) would later call “the most dramatic shift in the history of European consciousness”. From the order of the century of Enlightenment, of “le siècle des lumières”, broke forth with violence a new mode of thinking about the world and of being in the world.

Romanticism would shape the European cultural and political landscape for centuries to come, from the French revolution and the rise of nationalism all the way to the fascist dictatorships 150 years later. It had lasting effects on philosophical movements such as French existentialism and postmodernism, and has redefined the place of the artist and the meaning of art within our societies. It transformed how the Western world thinks about morality, freedom, beauty, and belonging.

As with all tectonic shifts in human history, a lot of different factors can end up contributing, and it can be tricky to parse out the main causes of Romanticism suddenly erupting out of the structure and order of the Enlightenment. Did it arise from the ideas of influential thinkers like Kant or Rousseau who (perhaps unwittingly) inspired an ideal of human freedom that was to take hold over the minds of millions? Did it naturally follow from the protestant provincialism of 18th century Germany asserting itself in a countermovement to the perceived superficiality of the French court? Is it to be explained by the change of lifestyle brought forth by the early advances of industrialization? Or are the French revolution, with all its disappointed ideals of liberty and fraternity and the national feelings of pride, hurt by the conquests of Napoleon all over Europe, to blame?

Napoleon, by Jacques-Louis David / Public domain

Probably, all of the above is true. But when we write history as a history of cultures, of great persons, of large social and political shifts, something right in front of us is missing: our brains.

Because we seldom think of history as being shaped by the ways our brains functions. And we seldomly attribute some of the largest ideological struggles in history to the struggles of the two divided hemispheres within our brain.

But as Ian McGilchrist’s fantastic book The Master and his Emissary shows, this is a perspective very much worth considering. In a way, it is actually quite obvious, but can be so hard to wrap one’s head around: our way of thinking about the world is closely interrelated with the way our brains operate. And it is becoming ever more clear that the brain is not one homogeneous organ, as the anatomically surprising (and, as apparent in the advances of neuroscience, quite illusory) homogeneity of its ego representation makes us believe.

This neuroscientific perspective on history and philosophy has really changed how I view history, art, and life on a daily basis, so I want to use the rest of this article to provide a glimpse into it. And I believe the transition between Enlightenment and Romanticism is a great place to start thinking about history in this new way.

The human brain is lateralized into a left and right hemisphere. The common conceptions about lateralization can be summed up in something like this:

This graph caricatures the usual classification scheme of lateralization in pop psychology. Chickensaresocute / CC BY-SA

Some of these associations have found their way into pop culture because they allow a seemingly simple categorization of people into appealing dualisms like “rational/emotional”, “scientific/artistic” etc.
Neuroscientists tend to dislike oversimplified representations because nothing in science is ever as simple as that. But as with many oversimplifications, they can point towards some (usually more complicated and nuanced) truths, with the advances of modern neuroscience starting to paint a clearer picture of the role lateralization plays in human cognition.

Gazzaniga’s famous split-brain experiments taught us that there are really two distinct hemispheres that can coexist quite independently, making decisions without knowledge of each other and, in turn, rationalizing each other’s behavior (as when the left hemisphere confabulates reasons for the right hemisphere acting in a certain way). The two hemispheres are almost like two different people living in the same head, trying to take control over the actions of the respective individual (well, in that sense very much a dividual):

Two brains, alas, dwell in our heads, each seeking to rule without the other.

Gilchrist’s main conclusion in The Master and his Emissary, drawn from extensively reviewing the current literature on lateralization is that it approximately relates to two distinct modes of being and thinking in the world.

Now there is still some controversy on how generalizable these claims are, and to what degree they really hold across most individuals of our species.

But at the same time I believe that knowing whether these two modes of being really map anatomically perfectly onto the hemispheres is in a way also besides the point. The crucial lesson to draw is that the brain operates on several distinct modes that have very different and unique perspectives on reality, that constitute several subpersonalities present to a differing degree in all of us, and which have their own kind of knowledge of the world and autonomy to operate in the world.

In Gilchrist’s picture:

the left hemisphere controls the right hand and right part of the body and is roughly responsible for creating a mental representation of the world, a map of the known. It is relatively self-contained, future-oriented, and paints a optimistic and self-confident picture of the world. Progress is there to be achieved. It puts things into categories. It classifies. It is concerned with the unchanging, the eternally true, which can in principle be obtained. It explains and uses language to manipulate and grasp the world.

the right hemisphere, on the other hand, controls the other hand (awkward setup for an awkward joke). It is exploratory, holistic, responsible for updating the inherent world-view of the left hemisphere. It perceives things as unique and individual, as dynamical and flowing. It puts things into context and therefore helps understand humor and metaphors in a language where the left hemisphere takes them too literally (saying “I’m literally dying laughing” can cause much confusion in patients with a right hemisphere lesion). It has a tendency to melancholy, to look at the past, is more involved in experiences of spiritual and sublime content.

In my article on Transcendent Experience and the Bayesian Brain and in The Bayesian Brain Hypothesis, I expounded how our brains can be viewed as inference machines that always surf on the edge of the known and the unknown, minimizing surprise by confirming their world view and choosing actions that make their vision of the world come true. The left and right brain mode can in this picture be interpreted as representing this trade-off between living in the known (left) versus getting in touch with the unique and unknown (right).

Keeping this dichotomy in the back of our heads, we can now trace back through the history of (Western) philosophy and art, starting from the opposing world views of Parmenides (“truth is in the fixed, eternally true”) and Heraklit (“everything flows, and the truth is in the friction and movement between opposites”), and be again and again confronted with a history defined by a clash of opposing world views: the opposing world views of the divided hemispheres.

As I already mentioned, I believe this clash to be especially poignant at the end of the eighteenth century. The 18th century as we remember it had been defined by the early successes of science, the Newtonian revolution in physics, and the Enlightenment ideals of the powerful French court and the Prussian court under Friedrich: the powers of the abstract rational mind were impressively revealed, the yoke of the Catholic churches dogmatic intellectual dominance slowly cast off, and many Enlightenment thinkers taught that by applying our rational powers to morality and politics, a good, ordered, compatible life could be achieved for everyone by means of following the powers of reason to their natural conclusion.

Minerva, goddess of wisdom, spreading the light of wisdom that would unite all world religions. Daniel Niklaus Chodowiecki / Public domain

The world was a place to be understood, a place to be known, to be mapped out. Mankind was heroically marching up the stairs of progress.

But the Romantics did not agree.

It has been famously difficult to define what the Romantics did agree on, but united they were in not agreeing to the Enlightenment. Romanticism was in many ways a counter-movement to the ideals of the Enlightenment, is even most easily defined this way: it did not teach doctrine or a unified, rational view of the world, but rather something more uncoherent, more focused on what is unique, vivid and living.

Romanticism is about dissimilarities rather than similarities.
Isaiah Berlin

The Romantics thought that you could not grasp life by cutting it into general properties. That would take away from it everything that made it alive at its core.

To dissect is to murder.
William Wordsworth

The divine was not captured by understanding the formal structures that made up reality. God was not a mathematician, God was a poet. The language that captured reality was, accordingly, not scientific. The only way to convey the immaterial stream of reality was via symbols and allegories, and so poetry and stories about the fantastic were paramount in representing reality.

Music became the favorite art of the romantics: it conveyed life’s stream and movement symbolically without trying to grasp it or cut it apart.

William Blake’s Jesus Christ. Public Domain.

Jesus was an artist.

– William Blake

The artist was to delve into himself and violently uncover the unconscious forces that gave rise to every great work of art. Beethoven (whom I wrote about in more depth in A Deaf Guy Gone Mad), whose Third Symphony ushered in the era of the romantic symphony, was a prime example of this new archetypal artist.

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks and invents.”
Ludwig van Beethoven

These unconscious forces were deep, inexhaustible, could never be translated fully into a coherent picture. All the artists could offer were glimpses into this transcendent reality.

According to the German idealists around Fichte, the fundamental datum of being was a clash between self and not-self. Fichte was by reports depressed by the mere thought of order and necessity. Life was there to be experienced in all its chaotic glory, and men were not there to dominate the world but to be caught up in its force and mystery.

“True members of the primal people await the moment when they are caught up in the magnificent torrent of flowing and original life.”

– Wilhelm Fichte

The romantic worldview was in a way also much more pessimistic than the optimism of the Enlightenment: the world was an irrational place in which a solution was in principle impossible. There was no perfect state to be reached, there was no place for our longing to ever find rest. Goethe’s Werther could not be saved, and tragedy was inherent in reality. This romantic Sehnsucht (the literal translation from German could be “an addiction to longing”) was symbolized in the search for the blue flower present in many romantic works, representing the eternal striving for the infinite and unreachable. Reality was half delightful, half terrifying: as in the Waldeinsamkeit (loneliness of the forest), the experience of the sublime, half delightful, half terrifying, became the central aesthetic moment of the romantic.

God is closer to the abnormal than the normal.
– Johann Georg Harmann

The early Romantics, just as the later poètes maudites of Paris (that I wrote about in my piece on how Charles Baudelaire modernized beauty), found themselves more aligned with the thieves and prostitutes, with the abnormal of society, with Schiller’s Räuber (The Robbers) foreshadowing the anti-heroes of Dostojewski’s novels. The Romanticists were striving away from the rigid boundaries of society, especially in Germany, where the reactionary forces of the Vienna congress instigated the bourgeois rigidity of the Biedermeier. The Romantic was outside of society, above it, as the era’s most famous painting displays:

Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer. Caspar David Friedrich. Public Domain.

There is of course much more to be said about a movement that spanned countries and decades. But what should have become apparent by now that Romanticism, this most dramatic shift in the history of European consciousness, represents a clash between perspectives on the world that modern neuroscience can connect to a clash of the two dominant worldviews of our two hemispheres.

The central moments of Romanticism align nicely with the worldview of the right hemisphere: the emphasis on the unique, the flowing, is in stark opposition with the left hemisphere’s ambition to bring reality to its rational conclusion.

This is of course ot a causal explanation for why Romanticism had to happen. But it can us help interpret these shifts in consciousness as arising from imbalances in the way our collective ideas about the world remphasize certain perspectives on reality that ignore what perspectives the other halves of our brains might be having. I still find this quite mind-boggling. It’s, of course, a conceptual abstraction of something infinitely more complex, something my right hemisphere would never dream of doing. But the central structures are there.

Evolution has equipped us with a brain to navigate a complex world, balancing between being open to novelty and the unknown and creating a coherent worldview in which we can comfortably survive.

And different personalities put different degrees emphasis on different aspects of these modes of being and thinking. Our societies both profit from the artists and explorers traveling to the fringe of the known, but are also in dire need of more stable and unchanging characters.

As I further discuss in my article on the Epidemiology of Ideas, our brains and our characters shape the ideas we have: with those ideas that most powerfully represent something true about the way we see the world being those that most powerfully grasp our imagination.

The hemispheric view of history provides us with a new way of thinking about history and the intellectual and ideological conflicts the shape the evolution of our cultures (for a much more detailed account, I again recommend going through the The Master and his Emmisary).

We think with our brain, and the structure of the brain influences our relationship, our experience of and our thinking about the world. This can help us think about each other with a bit more compassion: to remember that the way our brains construct the world defines the ideas we have about what kind of world it is we live in. And because all of us contain within ourselves the potential to experience glimpses into world radically different from our everyday reality.

Another important lesson to draw for me was to see how necessary interdisciplinary dialogue between neuroscience and other disciplines is and will become. As one example among many, in Genetic Epistemology, Piaget talks about how a collaboration between him and a mathematician came about when they realized that the three irreducible structures according to Bourbakian mathematics could be related to similar structures observed in the development of thought in children. it was the first time, the mathematician said, that he took a psychologist seriously.

Thinking beyond the rigid boundaries of disciplines can be extremely fruitful. Philosophy, psychology, the natural sciences, and the arts should take note, and have the courage to accommodate shared insights into a renewed, broader perspective on ourselves and our history.