Is our political system a model of the human brain? (Part 1)
College professors are increasingly crossing disciplines in their exams. For example, what if one of them combined the fields of psychology, neurology and political science to create this final exam question: Compare and contrast the two-hemisphere human brain with the American two-party political system.
At first one might scoff at such a fiendishly obtuse question. But the more I thought about it, the more intriguing it became. Does the dual modality of our brain and the way we think have anything in common with the way our political system is constructed — with its two main political parties, Republican and Democrat — each with distinctive ideologies and philosophies? Even more intriguing, is our brain’s structure responsible for the evolution of our two-party system? Could there be a bi-polar unified field theory of politics?
First, a layman’s description of how the brain is configured and how it operates:
The brain is divided into two hemispheres that, while linked, process different types of information. In a right-handed person the left hemisphere processes analytical thought and deals with hard facts: abtstractions, structure, discipline and rules, time sequences, mathematics, categorizing, logic and rationality and deductive reasoning. The left hemisphere also handles knowledge, details, definitions, planning and goals, words (written, spoken and heard) productivity and efficiency, science and technology, stability, extraversion, physical activity — and the right side of the body.
The right hemisphere — again, if you’re a right-handed person — specializes in the softer aspects of life. This includes intuition, feelings and sensitivity, emotions, daydreaming and visualizing, creativity, including art of music, color, spatial awareness, first impressions, rhythm, spontaneity and impulsiveness, the physical senses, risk-taking, flexibility and variety. The right hemisphere also specializes in learning by experience, relationships, mysticism, play and sports, introversion, humor, motor skills, the left side of the body and a holistic way of perception that recognizes patterns and similarities and then synthesizes those elements into new forms.
The reverse is the case in a left-handed person — in this situation the right hemisphere would serve as the analytical data processor and the left the processor of emotions and creativity.
Fortunate for us, each of the hemispheres draws heavily upon the other for assistance in handling this prodigious amount of work — and there is overlap in many of the processing functions. The electro-chemical communication within and between hemispheres occurs at light speed — so fast, we’re not often conscious when one side of our brain is dominating our action.
Most people tend to use one hemisphere more than the other — thus the terms left-brained and right-brained. Brain dominance — the inclination to act and think in the mode of either the right or left hemisphere — is affected by our genetics, childhood experiences and family environment. But the dominance is not total. We permit the other hemisphere to lead occasionally.
The mechanical, methodical tasks required for repairing an engine are clearly left-brain functions, yet the right brain can often bring creative approaches to completing the tasks. Conversely, while composing or playing music is usually performed by the right brain, music is highly mathematical, and the organizational and time sequence specialties of the left brain can contribute significantly to the outcome.
Conflicts can arise among people with different brain dominances. For example, if we favor the right hemisphere but our co-workers are oriented toward their left hemisphere, we are likely to judge them as boring and rigid. If we favor the left hemisphere, we probably view our right-hemisphere co-workers as unreliable and disorganized. But both types of people can be effective if permitted to work in their own way, as employers have discovered.
Conflicts can also occur within the two hemispheres themselves, called dissonance in the vernacular of neurologists. This is the brain at odds with itself — vying for which side will take dominance as it processes thousands of signals and commands. We tend to distrust or even dislike the non-dominant half of our brain. If we generally use the left hemisphere, we might be annoyed by our right hemisphere as though it were an undisciplined child. Contrarily, a right-hemisphere person might consider his or her left hemisphere to be a spoil sport.
As I mentioned earlier, connectivity and communication between the hemispheres is critical to a healthy, normal functioning brain. Research on split-brain patients, for example, suggests that when the left hemisphere must interpret messages without right hemispheric input due to an injury, that message is interpreted literally. Subtleties in the tone of the message — sarcasm, emotion, and humor are lost.
Other research has demonstrated that hemispheric cooperation is necessary for tasks requiring creativity or dialectic types of thinking. It’s been found that split-brain patients showed a lack of creativity, that is, they failed to verbally express fantasies, symbols, insights, or feelings.
Obviously, the processing of both hemispheres is superior to that of one. In a sense, each one of us is two beings made whole by the rapid-fire communication of one side of our brain with the other.
Next week I’ll explain my theory on how our two-party political system evolved in part from our two-hemisphere brain.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.