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March 18th, 2021
What impact does meditation have on the way the two halves of the brain function relative to one another?
Iain McGilchrist’s book “The Master and his Emissary” explores the radical differences between the brain’s two hemispheres. To paraphrase in a way that disservices a book with 600 pages, the left hemisphere is detail and desire oriented, while the right hemisphere is focused on the big picture. In order to have an idea of what’s going on in any dynamic situation, we need the right hemisphere to make sense of all that’s happening, but often we are focused in a cramped way, obsessing about details that don’t necessarily have a lasting impact - this is the left hemisphere having a bit more of an influence than we are best off with.
Much of the long term benefit of meditation has to do with a conscious abandonment of overly focused thought in favor of a more expansive acceptance of the contents of consciousness. One modern characteristic of thought is obsessiveness and repetitiveness, and for many this is a tragic instance of self-torture. While it has yet to be studied clinically, it’s easily imaginable that a mindfulness practice strengthens the right hemisphere’s ability to impact our experience of the moment. Mindfulness practice trains a mind in the ability to release focus on any single thought. The release of such a thought opens up the field of awareness, and naturally this ushers in a larger perspective. We don’t just simply switch out one thought for another when engaged in a mindfulness practice, we switch out one perspective for another, and this is exactly how the two hemispheres can be best characterized.
“The Master and his Emissary” goes on to form a thesis which holds that the left hemisphere regularly becomes universally dominates; as a civilization we become too focused without seeing the larger picture and this is why civilizations in the past have undergone a tragic cycle of boom and bust.
It may turn out that the proselytizing proponents of meditation who claim that it will solve all the world’s ills might actually be on to something. If Hemisphere dominance turns out to be a legitimate piece of our collapsing puzzle, and if meditation does in fact have lateral effects that combat asymmetrical dominance, than is possible that mental training similar to mindfulness may in fact be an option for raising the probability of long term civilizational stability.
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