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The Metaphysics of Polarity

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The Divided Brain


Iain McGilchrist’s, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (2009) is the only book by a psychiatrist or psychologist I’ve encountered that recognizes the relationship between brain structure and the structure of the cosmos. In the book’s first paragraph, he states:

 “ … ultimately, it ( the book) is an attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created. … So, to ask a very simple question, why is the brain so clearly and profoundly divided?” ( p.1) McGilchrist comments on the redundancy of the two brain hemispheres, i.e., “every identifiable human activity is actually served at some level by both hemispheres,” which has led many neuroscientists to conclude that a search for hemispheric differences in functions is pop psychology, not neuroscience; nevertheless McGilchrist asserts “there is something profound here that deserves explanation. Joseph Hellige … arguably the world’s best informed authority on the subject, writes that while both hemispheres seem to be involved … in almost everything we do, there are some ‘very striking’ differences in the information processing abilities and propensities of the two hemispheres.” ( pp. 1-2)


McGilchrist recognizes the importance of polarity:

“My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience… and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain.” Even though they need to cooperate, he writes, “I believe they are involved

in a sort of power struggle.” (p. 3)   


McGilchrist further maintains:

“The most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world.”  (p. 4) And: “In general terms, the left hemisphere yields narrow focused attention mainly for the purpose of getting and feeding. The right hemisphere yields a broad, vigilant attention, the purpose of which appears to be awareness of signals from the surroundings, especially of other creatures, who are potential predators or potential mates, foes or friends, and it is involved in bonding in social animals. … the division of the human brain is also the result of the need to bring to bear two incompatible types of attention on the world at the same time …” Furthermore, “Each hemisphere attends to the world in a different way, … The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility  of attention, while the left hemisphere brings to bear focused attention.” (p.27)  These modes of attention “stand in opposition to one another, and need to be  kept apart from one another – hence the bihemispheric  structure of the brain.” (p. 5)


McGilchrist insists on the asymmetry of the brain, and is one of the few experts in any scientific discipline to point to the asymmetry in cosmic creation as reflective of a more general pattern. He quotes Louis Pasteur:

“Life as manifested to us is a function of the asymmetry of the universe. … I can even imagine that all living species are primordially, in their structure … functions of cosmic asymmetry.” ( p.13)


He notices that:

“The bigger the brain, the less interconnected it is. Rather than taking the opportunity to increase connectedness, evolution appears to be moving in the opposite direction.” (p. 18) 


McGilchrist identifies structural asymmetries in the two brain hemispheres: “the brain is asymmetrically larger on the left side.” (p. 22) He explains:

“The normal brain appears to have been twisted about its central axis, the fissure between the brain hemispheres. The brain is not only larger on the left toward the back, but also wider on the front toward the right … It is as though someone had got hold of the brain from below and given it a fairly sharp tweak clockwise. … Why is the brain asymmetrical in this way?” ( p. 23)


McGilchrist does not accept the usual explanation,  i.e., the left hemisphere is larger than the right because it controls the capacity for language.  He maintains that the larger left hemisphere was already present in apes and in early humans before language was as important as it eventually became. In McGilchrist’s view, the left hemisphere became larger because  it is responsible for doing, grasping, and handling, including a preference for right handedness.


He writes:

“All this, this grasping, this taking control, the piecemeal apprehension of the world … takes place for most of us with the right hand.  … In all

these respects – not just in the taking control but in the approach to understanding by building it up bit by bit, rather than being able to sense the whole … grasp follows a path congenial to the operation of the left hemisphere.” (p. 112)


McGilchrist is invested in the theory that language developed from the capacity for music, which is controlled by the right hemisphere and was “hijacked” into serving the broader goals of the left hemisphere. He asserts:

“Music is likely to be the ancestor of language, and   it arose largely in the right hemisphere…” (p. 105)


Whatever one thinks of McGilchrist’s ideas regarding the evolutionary relationship between music and language, the main importance of his perspective concerns the alternative modes of awareness developed by the two brain hemispheres: instrumental awareness and appreciative awareness. He refers to “the deep relationship between the left hemisphere and instrumentality, an attitude of grasping and use …”

(p. 113) McGilchrist places the capacity for “imagination, creativity, the capacity for religious awe, music, dance, poetry, art, love of nature, a moral sense, a sense of humor …” in the right hemisphere (“though as always both hemispheres undoubtedly play a part”). (p. 127)

He summarizes:

“Where the left hemisphere’s relationship with the world is one of reaching out to grasp, and therefore, to use, … the right hemisphere’s appears  to be one of reaching out – just that. Without purpose.” (p. 127)


In “Why Is the World Beautiful?” (2021) I discussed the differences between four modes of awareness:

instrumental awareness; appreciative awareness, selfless awareness and dream states. McGilchrist’s  discussion suggests that dividing the brain into hemispheres which enhance diametrically opposed functions allows both instrumental awareness and appreciative awareness to flower without being inhibited by an opposed tendency. However, a divided brain with opposed perspectives, both of which are fully developed, leaves humans to struggle with how to bring them in harmony to serve a unified self. In McGilchrist’s view, left brain focus is useful for planning, for strategy and for problem solving, but is not suited to goal setting or maintaining relationships among humans and with the natural world. This is the province of the right hemisphere, the hemisphere that creates the capacity for love and beauty.   

Human character has bipolar features

When I was much younger, in my late thirties, I began to notice something peculiar regarding my friends and colleagues: they occasionally behaved in ways that were the exact opposite of their dominant traits. Some of the world’s nicest people had an ugly streak usually hidden from others. Self-confident people were sometimes deeply insecure. Caring people could be callous at times. Persons who were admirably calm and self-possessed most of the time struggled mightily to control stormy emotions, which occasionally surfaced much to the dismay of people around them. Initially, I found these contradictory traits odd, and did not know what to make of them. I soon discovered that there was a pop psychology version of this psychology presented in a training program funded by the umbrella human services agency in the state. Clearly, my observation was not an original one. I made little of this idea except occasionally to point out to friends that they sometimes acted in ways unlike their dominant traits as perceived by others; and at other times I accurately guessed the feelings they were hiding much to their surprise.


Any idea that helps to understand others is sure to be applied to oneself. From an early age, I had acquired a well  deserved reputation for being strongly opinionated and intellectually combative regarding any subject in which I was well read, and in some subjects regarding which I had superficial knowledge. Because I was opinionated, I was expected ( and expected myself) to have opinions about just about everything. I began to experience this expectation as a burden, and to feel relief that there were many subjects and issues regarding which I had no interest or opinion. I found it possible to occasionally say nothing, and to care little, in the midst of discussion, which I found that other  people, including friends, appreciated.  I felt lighter, freed up from unreasonable expectations to develop opinions when the truth often was that I had no interest in many controversial subjects.


It took me several years to understand that every extreme character trait exists in tandem with its opposite, but one side of the opposition is generally dominant, the other recessive. As a rule, the socially acceptable side of the duality is dominant while its opposite is recessive. In The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977, 1993) Ken Wilber asserts:

“To speak somewhat figuratively, it may be said that we have split… the psyche into numerous polarities and contraries and opposites, all of which … we have been referring to collectively as the quaternary dualism, that is the split between the persona and the Shadow. In each of these cases, we associate ourselves with only “one- half” of the duality while casting the banished and usually despised opposite to the twilight world of the Shadow. The Shadow, therefore, exists precisely as the opposite of whatever we, as persona, consciously and deliberately believe to be the case.”

And “…if you would like to know just how your Shadow views the world, then – as a type of personal experiment – simply assume exactly the opposite of whatever you consciously desire, like, feel, want, intend, or believe.” (p. 204)


In Wilber’s view, “… to play the opposites, to be aware of and eventually re-own our Shadows is not necessarily to act on them! …nearly every person is most reluctant to confront his opposites for fear they might overpower him. And yet it’s just the other way round: we end up, totally against our will, following the dictates of the Shadow only when it’s unconscious.” (p. 204)


The theory that I am advancing in this article is that it’s not just an extreme character trait or two that exists in duality, rather every strongly developed character trait, good or bad, desirable or loathsome, has a recessive other half, which Wilber calls the Shadow, a counter self that gathers power over the psyche when it ( they) are denied. Human character follows the pattern of creation: everything is created in polarities or in dualities with opposed elements. It is the tension of bringing together opposed tendencies that creates the drama of character formation.


In Plato’s Symposium, the characters speak in praise of Love. One of the speakers tells of a time when humans were unified before the gods split them in two. To make men weaker and control their violence Zeus declares:

“I will tell you what I will do now … I will slice each of them down through the middle. … And if they choose to go on with their wild doings, … I’ll do it again… I’ll slice them through the middle.”  In this story, the two sexes were created from unity. And “So you see how ancient is the mutual love is implanted in mankind, bringing together the parts of the original body, and trying to make one out of two, and to heal the natural structure of man.  Then each of us is the tally of a man; he is sliced like a flatfish, and two made of one.” (Rouse, p.87)


The drama of the sexes is also the drama of the psyche, “sliced like a flatfish” and seeking to be made whole. 

Implications of a bipolar psyche for morality

According to Wilber:

“Projection on the Ego Level is very easily identified: if a person or thing in the environment informs us, we probably aren’t projecting; on the other hand, if it affects us, chances are that we are a victim of our own projections.” If the Shadow side of the self is denied, “these negative tendencies of hatred and aggression assume a really violent and evil nature… When we incorrectly imagine these demonic aspects to actually exist in the environment – instead of realizing that they exist in us  as the necessary counterbalance of our constructive positive tendencies … then we react most violently and viciously to this illusory  threat, then we are driven into frenzies of  frequently brutal crusading, then do we kill “witches” for their own good, start wars to “maintain peace, establish inquisitions to “save souls,”  … an alienated and projected negative tendency … can take on a very demonic nature and result in truly destructive actions…” ( p. 195).


Scapegoats serve to unify  groups otherwise subject to fragmentation, while purging the psyche of irrational fears.


Wilber’s discussion concerns the source of evil in imaginary projections but leaves out the social dimensions in which enemies confirm each other’s worst fears. When enemies engage in violent conflict that includes commission of atrocities on both sides, any and all retaliatory actions may seem justified. If an enemy power bombs my neighborhood, kills family members and neighbors and leaves widespread destruction, I do not need a Shadow side to want to respond in kind. Nevertheless, there is a large difference in war between killing combatants and killing civilians, and between interrogating prisoners and torturing them. Some retaliatory actions are evil regardless of the provocation.  


A polarized psyche has one all-important moral characteristic:  polar extremes cannot be eradicated. Saints retain the potential for evil, no matter how deeply hidden, while persons who commit repeated heinous actions have the potential for common decency. This is a hard idea to accept, but it is part of what it means to have a bipolar psyche. Every extreme character trait, no matter how dominant, feeds its opposite regardless of how recessive.


Concretely, what this means is there is no fixed self with character traits set in concrete. For this reason, humans are capable of conversion, or slower acting changes that result in total transformation. This is one of the themes of Jennifer Egan’s wonderful novel, The Candy House. Whatever the narrative that holds a person’s life together, and however fixed her/his character may appear to others ( including intimate partners and close friends), their story is subject to dramatic changes at the tipping point or when the social   environment is fundamentally altered. The self is in part an imaginative creation that can be reimagined. No one is exactly whom they believe themselves to be, or the person others are sure they are.


Human character is a tangle of contradictions which most biographers come to realize after studying and writing about a notable person for years. Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson presents LBJ as venal and unethical, capable of just about anything, but also deeply committed to improving the lives of poor people. Keith Thomas’ review of The Making of Oliver Cromwell by Ronald Hutton in The New York Review of Books (June 23, 2022) ends as follows:

“Hutton sums up his view of Cromwell: “He was courageous, devout, resolute, principled, intelligent, eloquent, adaptable, and dedicated, but also self- seeking unscrupulous, dishonest, manipulative, vindictive and blood- thirsty. These qualities, he continues, “were all woven together, in a single seamless whole, at the centre of which lay an acquired sense of a special relationship with God, which informed and justified all.” It is hard to improve on this assessment.”


Consciousness, subjectivity, and selfless awareness

In everyday awareness, consciousness appears to be a function of subjectivity, i.e., a feature of a self-aware psyche. This is an illusion which can be shattered in surprising ways, e.g., in psychedelic experience or mysticism, in mental illness or multiple personalities. Neuroscientists who ignore or minimize the significance of experiences that take consciousness beyond subjectivity are at a loss of what to make of awareness that is not organized around a subject and often have recourse to dismissive language. From their perspective, these experiences must be aberrant brain functioning brought on by drugs or mental illness. This perspective is clueless.


My view is that subjectivity is not the foundation of consciousness, it is a tethering device. Affect tethers subjectivity to a body; subjectivity tethers consciousness   sustained by narrative and self-talk. Left to roam as it will, consciousness is not tied to a subject; to keep it in check requires constant effort, even in sleep where dreams organize the motivations of a self through the pruning  of memories. (Riberio, The Oracle of Night)


Paradisal awareness is selfless in a way that is unimaginable to those who have never had this experience and impossible to convey in language. Paradisal experience, like all psychedelic experiences, may or may not include visions, but in its extreme form always breaks the subject/object structure of consciousness and the familiar experience of being located in space and time. The best description of psychedelic experiences, even at low doses of a psychedelic, is “mind enhancing,” which suggests that there is much about  the human mind that is not understood.  Selfless awareness stands in polar opposition to consciousness organized around a self that is grounded in a body with a personal narrative shaped imaginatively from cultural influences and personal history.         



Why is the cosmos about polarity?

What I have written about polarity to this point may seem speculative (at best) to some readers, but I believe it is an accurate description of the world reflected in cosmology, the biological evolution of mind, early human social organization, and human psychology. The cosmos is not hiding its organizing principle, quite the opposite. Polarity seems hidden in plain sight because it is so ubiquitous. However, what follows is a speculative attempt to understand what the cosmos is about with its polarized creations at all scales and in both nature and social life. One of the few ways  to avoid  vacuous abstraction is through myth, and by citing authors who have the deepest understanding of ancient myths, especially Roberto Calasso, the only modern author I’m aware of who has written a scholarly book, Ardor ( 2010 ) that has the depth and wisdom of a sacred text.  


The most important element in the story I favor is that the cosmos was created in the Big Bang from a singularity regarding which we know next to nothing except that it was incredibly dense and tiny. Our universe was created , it is not eternal.


 In Ardor, Calasso tells the Vedic myth of the creator god, Prajapati, who is dismembered in ritual sacrifice again and again. Calasso writes:

“ Prajapati, the creator god, who is not entirely sure he exists  … the god who has no identity . All identities arise from him (p. 68) … Creation, for Prajapati, was not a single act, but a succession of acts … a lonely god , the source of all things, is certainly not an omniscient god … (At the moment of creation) Prajapati then gave out the sound: ‘savitha,’ the quintessential auspicious invocation that has accompanied countless offerings, up to today.” (pp. 73-75)


In Vedic myth, “Death is not an intrinsic part of divinity, but is an intrinsic part of creation … There is no creation without death. (p. 81) In the Big Bang and throughout the cosmos, creation/ destruction occurs at every instant through particle collisions, 600 million events a second in particle accelerators approaching the speed of light. ( Clegg, p. 70) The cosmos is renewed at every instant, a pattern revealed in the Big Bang’s first instant (less than a billionth of a second). Prajapati delights in creative activity, not just in the products of those acts.  


In a more prosaic way of telling the same story, our sentient Cosmos creates through polarities in the same way an artist may favor a range of color and motifs. The Creator or creators can create in any way they please, but express a decided preference for oppositions, broken symmetries, dramatic change at the tipping point, Either/Or dichotomies at all scales and in every dimension. But why?


The discussion of Love in Plato’s Symposium includes speculation regarding restoring a lost unity when the two sexes were one. However, this story does not do the cosmic creators justice. Polarities are not being used to restore an old unity but to create new ones. Opposed forces are being used to create surprising new harmonies, which become more impressive as ways are found to overcome deeper oppositions and  transform more fragmented phenomena into a functioning whole.


It is remarkable that the same polarities that occurred in the first instant of the Big Bang also are found in human artistic creations.  In Genesis: The Story of How Everything Began,” Guido Tonelli comments:

“The appeal of ‘broken symmetry’ can be found in many works of art. The orderly rhythm of perfect symmetry tends to pacify and reassure, but it risks ultimate blandness: it does not elicit emotion, because it fails to surprise. The effect of the break is unsettling, but also intriguing; it pushes us beyond the limit of our certainties.“ (pp. 76-77) In the Big Bang, as in art, perfect symmetry is the enemy of creation.


Dramatic art depends for its narrative power on conflict, both interpersonal and intrapsychic. Tolstoy’s assertion that all

happy families are the same is false, but points to an essential truth: in dramatic art they are all equally boring. It is conflict and its outcome that is of compelling interest.


Humans experience the beauty of the world only because sensory experience is always combined with affect, which has a positive or negative valence. No polarity would mean no beauty, which is a facet of the perceived world created by the human psyche.  Whatever humans view as beautiful is something propitious, either because humans desire or appreciate it. Appreciative awareness stands in stark contrast to instrumental awareness, and both are utterly different than selfless awareness.  


Humans create cultures through imagination

One of the most surprising features of social evolution is that as the technology needed to kill large animals greatly improved 40,000 -50,000 years ago, so did the capacity to use symbols to represent the world, which in turn strengthened tribal cultures. Big brains in humans evolved to enhance survival and were immediately used to create the social world through imaginative processes.  Human cultures are fantastic imaginative constructions created every moment of every day through interpersonal relationships and communications, and then represented in the arts, sports activities, religious rituals, politics, etc. Cultures are a product of collective imagination for which no one feels responsible but in which everyone has a part. 


The deepest myth in Western societies is the Garden of Eden story in which the wily serpent temps Eve to taste of the forbidden fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden:

“For God knows that when you taste of it your eyes will be open, and you be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5) The serpent does not say, “you will have godlike powers” or that “you will be deathless.” Rather, Eve and Adam will “know good and evil,” i.e., be creative agents with moral choice.  They will be “like God” (or the gods) but without their power, and God has warned them that if they eat of the fruit they will  surely die.


Everything that is deep and mysterious about this story is implicit, while Christian theology in its blinkered way has emphasized the superficial explicit theme of disobedience to God’s dictates and the punishment of expulsion from the garden. God discovers their disobedience when Adam expresses shame at his nakedness. He is self-aware for the first time.


The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil stands next to the Tree of Life. The two trees stand in duality. In a cosmos structured through oppositions, dualities suggest polarity. In the Genesis story, self-awareness, creative agency, moral choice and death are associated. Expulsion from paradise is the cost of becoming a creator, “like God” but without His power and subject to death. This is the human world of suffering, bitter enmity between brothers, murderous violence and death. Humans “fall” out of paradise into creation where they will explore the full range of good and evil, love and hate,  the sacred and profane. But the Tree of Life is the opposite of this world, a unity that overcomes death by losing itself in the created world.    ©       



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Dee Wilson,

April 19, 2023

See more articles by Dee Wilson


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