07/05/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Dis-Ease of the Western Mind

When someone asked Gandhi what he thought of Western civilization, he replied that he thought it was a good idea. It is indeed a good idea, because it's not entirely a reality. Western civilization -- more exactly, the Western mind that creates the civilization -- has a serious disease. It's a "dis-ease" that affects all of us in the West. And now we can have a better idea of what's behind it.

Take merely these characteristics of the Western mind:

  • it sees things as separate, each thing on its own, connected merely by mechanistic relations of cause and effect;
  • it's competitive: each individual is on his or her own, making his or her way in an impersonal and indifferent world;
  • it disconnects the mind from the body: the mind only "drives" or "manages" the body as it would a car or an organization;
  • it best understands the things it creates as artificial, synthetic things that can be readily and unambiguously manipulated;
  • it disconnects the human from the natural; nature itself becomes the "environment" that humans can manage and manipulate to serve their interests;
  • it categorizes, schematizes people and things, viewing them as abstract entities rather than as existing, living realities;
  • it deals with the representations of people and things rather than with our living experience of people and things;
  • and it views all things, nature included, as mechanistic kinds of systems, put together from their parts and capable of being manipulated by acting on their parts.

These traits add up to a dis-ease, to the long-discussed malaise of civilization -- Western civilization. Other civilizations have their own problems and failings, but the above traits are typically those of the Western mind: of the civilization created by the Western mind.

Are these traits purely accidental, just the way the typical Western mind happens to work?

A historical analysis can furnish an explanation why this particular mindset came to dominate the West. The main reason appears to be the separation of the world of values, feelings and spirit from the world of fact and reason at the dawn of the modern age. Following the famous trial of Giordano Bruno, the Church claimed for itself authority over the world of value, feeling and spirit, and allowed science and scientists to investigate the world of fact through reasoning based on observation and experiment.

The original covenant between science and church, concluded on the part of science by Galileo, was reinforced and made into an unquestioned precept by the radical separation of the two worlds by René Descartes. According to Cartesian philosophy there is a complete disjunction between the physical world "outside" the mind (the world of "extended substance" res extensa) and the thinking, feeling world "within" (the thinking substance, res cogitans). Science made great progress by dissecting the outside world into parts and manipulating the parts: this became the basis of modern technology. And the West fell in love with technology, more exactly, with the powers over people and nature conferred by technology. It relegated the felt "inside" world of value, feeling, and spirit to religion and spirituality, to be celebrated on Sundays and holidays. It made the manipulation of the "outside" world its true concern: the woof and wharf of modern economics and politics, the way relations between people, and between people and nature, are decided and conducted.

This historical backdrop might explain how it is that the West ended up with an impersonal, mechanical, atomized world as its "real" world. But it doesn't say how the Western mind actually operates, why it sees the world as an impersonal, mechanical aggregate of atomistic parts. But cognitive neuroscience can tell us more.

Roger Sperry, Michael Gazzaniga, and the other pioneers of split-brain research founded the discipline of cognitive neuroscience. They discovered that we have two brains and not just one. We have the right brain and the left brain -- more exactly, the right and the left hemisphere of the neocortex. The two brains are different in their functioning and even in their anatomy. The right hemisphere is wider, longer, larger and heavier than the left. It's also different in its sensitivity to neurotransmitters and neurohormones, and has a different neuronal structure and organization. It's differently "tuned" to our experience.

It's important to realize that the world is not given in experience in its pristine purity, "just the way it is." Input from our senses is organized, interpreted by our brain, with the result that the same sensory stimulus can give rise to very different experiences, very different interpretations. (Think of the famous drawing used by psychologists, where you can see either an elegant young woman, or an old hag.) Our two brains "see" the world each in its own way, and these ways are different. The reason that we have something like a single world-picture is because one of the two brains is dominant. In the West, the left brain is dominant. And here is the clue to the "dis-ease" of the Western mind.

In his seminal book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist asked, what would it look like if our left brain were the sole purveyor of reality? The whole world would be a heap of bits and pieces; its only meaning would come through its capacity to be used. Our attention would be narrowly focused on the individual bits and pieces, with increasing specialization bringing more and more familiarity with less and less. Information and information-gathering would be substituted for knowledge gained by actual experience. And the kind of knowledge we would gain would be rooted in representations of reality, by abstract cognitive schemes that would seem more "real" than the things we actually experience.

Does this world seem familiar? That shouldn't surprise you: the left-hemisphere's view of the world is by and large the Western mind's view of the world. There are people and things in this world, but there is no "betweenness" -- they are connected only by relations of cause and effect, by how one thing affects another, by what one person "does" to another. This world is centered on, and is best when it deals with, the things we ourselves have created. It's a competitive world, where everyone is separate, and everyone is out for him- or herself. And it's an impersonal and uncaring world, where to think that there is meaning, feeling, and purpose is merely to project one's own subjective feelings onto an impersonal "objective" reality.

The world of the right brain would be a very different world. Although having only the right brain available to us we would mean we couldn't analyze things and express them in language, our experience would be filled with many positive things. We would be making connections between things, seeing the world around us as a whole in which people and things are organic parts. We would be attending directly to our experience, seeing people and things in their presented uniqueness. We would be living in our body, feeling ourselves one with it and the world that surrounds and embeds it. The sense of time, the "flow" of things, would be primary, and we would enjoy experiences where this flow is evident, such as narration, theatre, dance, and music. Because of the betweenness connecting us to the world, we would be more empathetic, tuned to compassion and fellow-feeling, and concern with all things in nature. And our empathies would get a powerful boost by our being aware of our intuitions, of our subtle communication with the world beyond the range of our bodily senses. This perception is within the compass of the nonlocal quantum-receptivity of the sub-neuronal networks of our brain, but is repressed by the narrow rationality of our left hemisphere.

This right-brain world would seem more familiar to traditional people than to most of us in Western civilization. But to many of us it might seem more like regress than progress, for it would mean giving up much of our technical prowess and manipulative skills. However, this would not be necessary: we could also combine the world of our right brain with the world of the left. We could hand the things and events presented to our world-tuned right brain to the left for analysis, formulation, and communication, and then allow our right brain to place it in context, so we could reach an integral assessment and a balanced way of responding. We would see the forest, and still find our way among the trees.

The dis-ease of the Western mind is a product of historical circumstance. But it is not fated; we could overcome our one-sided heritage of the past. The key to it is using our brain more fully. This would give us a consciousness where the broad, holistic world of the right brain is linked with the pragmatic, skillful world of the left. This "broadband" consciousness without loss of acuity is the hallmark of what I called Quantum Consciousness. QC could be the next step in the evolution of the human mind, and it could be our salvation. Moving toward it by balancing your own approach to reality would be a good beginning toward curing the dis-ease of the Western mind.