Hegel and the Lateralized Brain

The lateralized brain and Hegel's divided Whole are correlates of each other in that the gap in matter is re-doubled at the level of mind.

Hegel and the Lateralized Brain
"Two Comedians" by Edward Hopper (1965)

This week's piece represents an attempt to write a more succinct and popular version of a longer piece I'm working on for publication in PhilosophyPortal's upcoming anthology on Hegel's Science of Logic.

In this piece, I attempt to connect recent research on human brain lateralization with Hegel's epistemology, all with the hopes of drawing out the implications of how our brain structure might connect to the form and function of thinking.

You can listen to this piece below:

Hegel and the Lateralized Brain

What is brain lateralization?

Human beings, like many other mammals, have what is called a "lateralized" brain. This means that we have two halves to our brain, and that our brain function is unevenly distributed both right to left and forward to back.

The full implications of this simple fact are still unclear, but they seem potentially quite massive.

Iain McGilchrist, a British psychiatrist and expert in brain imaging, has garnered attention lately for synthesizing and popularizing the latest research on brain lateralization, and his book The Master and his Emissary serves as my primary source for what follows in my discussions of brain lateralization.

While pop psychology and popular culture have exaggerated "right-brained" and "left-brained" as ways to categorize whole persons, McGilchrist contends that current research on brain lateralization does indicate a clear difference in tendency between the two halves of the brain. While almost all brain functions (speech being an interesting exception) are shared across both hemispheres, each half of the human brain has operations which it prefers, as well as nuances in the way each goes about similar operations.

Birds also have lateralized brains, and we can observe similar differences in tendency between the two halves in birds as well. For instance, a bird will pay general attention to its environment using its left eye (usually connected to the right brain), but upon noticing an intrusion into its field of attention, the bird will swivel its head to look at the potential threat using its right eye (usually connected to the left brain). In this way, we can see how the right brain excels at holding a broad awareness for the whole, while the left brain exhibits a unique edge in dissecting and delineating parts.

McGilchrist's work on the differences between the hemispheres is extensive, so I can't share even a small fraction of it here, but for the purposes of this paper, I want to particularly focus on how the two hemispheres of the brain are connected – McGilchrist writes that the right and left brain coordinate with one another at their base by way of the corpus callosum. This structure accounts for an estimated 300-800 million neural connections, yet this itself only represents 2% of all the cortical connections in the brain.

More than the paucity of connections between the two though, the type of connections were what particularly intrigued me. McGilchrist points out that many of these connections are inhibitory, which means that they serve to initiate chemical processes which either interfere with the other hemisphere or prevent the hemisphere from being interfered with. This seems to indicate that the totality of the mental experience which our brains deliver to us emerge from this dynamic negotiation between the hemispheres as they interfere with one another.

At the heart of consciousness, we find the dialectical labor of negation.

Hegel, the philosopher of the lateralized brain

What does all this have to do with Hegel? Isn't Hegel the arrogant thinker of Absolute Knowing in which the human mind can come to comprehend reality as a Totality or Whole? This popular conception of Hegel's philosophy seems as far as possible from a theory of the divided mind.

Hegel's predecessor Kant, with his "transcendental unity of apperception" which functions as the dynamic manifold for the mind to apprehend and synthesize sense data, seems much more amenable to being read through emerging research about brain lateralization than Hegel's metaphysics of totality.

Kant's philosophy presents, I think, a right-brained response to what I would call the left-brained theorizing of the British empiricists, especially David Hume. Empiricist approaches to philosophizing, like Hume's, display the typically left-brain propensity for wrenching phenomena out of their context in order to obsessively analyze them in isolation from the frame within which they appear.

Hume famously argues that if knowledge is only made up of inferences from our accumulated set of experiences, then we cannot even say with certainty that the sun will rise tomorrow. At best, we can say that based on prior experience we expect the sun to rise tomorrow. For the empiricist then, knowledge only functions inductively by moving from sets of isolated instances to a probabilistic heuristic, and this can never amount to knowledge in the sense philosophy seeks.

Kant embodies the voice of a right-brained reply to the empiricists' left-brain theorizing which suffers from the various conundrums created by excising particular phenomena from the whole in which they originally appeared. Kant's "transcendental" move which aims to establish the "conditions of the possibility" of knowledge represents an attempt to recover the always-already present structures within which knowledge takes place – like time and space, for example – and which the empiricist loses by trying to move from the parts to the whole instead of from the whole to its parts.

However, the right-brained tendencies within Kant have their own set of downsides, impelling towards an experience of resignation about the nature of things-in-themselves, or the melancholia which accompanies an encounter with the sublime, or even the despair of never fulfilling the infinite demand of the moral law. These depressive tendencies in Kant seem to mirror the right-brain's own tendencies, which play opposite to the left-brain's irrational positivity about its own ability to apprehend the truth and construct an accurate model of the world.

This interaction reveals how both sides of the brain need each other – the left-brain has developed a powerful analytical tool for taking things apart and introducing novel possibilities into the world, so much so that McGilchrist characterizes the left-brain's primary principle as that of division, whereas the right brain seems to maintain this tendency for what McGilchrist calls 'between-ness' which includes the ability to maintain multiple contradictions at once and to not sacrifice the integrated Whole in the process.

McGilchrist himself identifies most of Western philosophy as a left-brained project built on the process of division (a criticism which Francois Laruelle re-states in his own work as "the philosophical decision"), but he notes that there have been philosophers who have begun to question this foundation, most notably "Schopenhauer, Hegel, and Nietzsche." (pg 137). It was Kant, I believe, who opened this door through his attempted recovery of the transcendental dimension of thought.

If Kant is the right-brained response to the left-brain challenges of empirical philosophy in particular, and Western philosophy in general, then Hegel must be for us the philosopher of the lateralized brain. In his metaphysical speculations, Hegel brings together both the transcendental elements in Kant (the necessity of the implicit structure which "frames" thinking), the need for the understanding to become concrete through its immersion in the world, and, most crucially, the necessary role which negation plays in this entire process.

The process which Being undergoes on its dialectical journey into Absolute Knowing charts the path whereby Being moves from the abstraction of pure in-difference (the +0 added to everything without discrimination) to actuality through including its opposite – negation – into itself. This means that the Whole which we arrive at includes its own incompleteness within itself, thereby starting the process all over again – the lateralized brain and the divided whole are thus correlates of each other in that the gap in matter is re-doubled at the level of mind.

The dynamism of thought relies on its own incompleteness. This incompleteness prevents it from fully closing on itself, and thus acts as a catalyst for the dialectical journey from understanding to knowing, and both sides of the brain are required for this passage. However, because the brain is irrevocably divided, the unity of the experience which it produces must always be a unity which is posited retroactively. It's an ideal unity which only appears in retrospect, only ever achieved.

Where to next?

What might be some implications of human brain lateralization for the philosophical quest to understand knowledge and truth? What does the structure of our processing unit say about byproduct of our body's cognitive labor, which is human experience in all its marvelous breadth and depth?

These questions will have to wait to another day, but I do think that it was Freud who raised these questions early on in a very interesting way. In his unpublished A Project of Scientific Psychology, he tried to develop an account of brain function which posits that the mind is made up of multiple interacting systems which transferred energy throughout the brain much like a system of circuits. Freud was massively ahead of his time in theorizing the mind this way, as neuroscience is only now beginning to truly discover.

Freud's work, including the psychoanalytic method he developed, raises the seemingly odd question of whether the human mind is a unified whole or if it's actually a divided assemblage. I think that how one answers this question serves as a sharp dividing line between the paths one must take as a thinker. Is humanity the focal point which unites within itself all the reaches of the cosmos through his transcendental nature, or is the human animal irrevocably divided and a site of conflict which reveals the conflicted nature of reality itself?

A few days ago I released a video for the latest episode of Samsara Audio – Liberating Love Politically with Dimitri Crooijmans. The video includes captions, and has been edited for pacing and clarity. This was a fantastic conversation, so if you haven't listened yet, I highly recommend it.

This recent video was the first one I've made using Descript, and I'm surprisingly happy with how it turned out. I think it's been worth the time and money invested already, and I'm excited to see what I can create next to share with you!

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