Recently there was a state-level debate about funding for the arts. I think most of the arguments in favor of funding were valid. But there’s an even deeper argument for the arts from science itself that has never surfaced. That the legislature has overturned Haley’s veto does not reduce its importance.
The availability of the arts may be the only thing standing between us and a cultural epidemic of narcissism.
In the west, especially America, we’ve given our allegiance to the functions of the brain’s left hemisphere, and dismissed the right’s. But a mind-blowing book by Jill Taylor called “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” points to a dangerous problem with this choice. Dr. Taylor, a Harvard-educated, world-renowned expert on the human brain, woke up one morning having a stroke. By the end of the morning the left hemisphere of her brain was totally “offline,” as she puts it. She had no sense of personal identity; she couldn’t recognize her own mother, speak or understand speech, remember the most recent moment of her life, make and carry out a three-step plan, walk, or feed herself, among many other things we take for granted. We know that she eventually recovered those left-brain functions because she wrote the book.
We’ve known what the brain’s left hemisphere is like for some time. It’s logical, rational, linear, rule-oriented; it’s the problem-solver, enabling us to build buildings, fix the plumbing, pay the bills, stay on schedule, negotiate our social encounters, and speak and understand others’ speech. We also know that the right side of the brain is metaphorical, creative, intuitive, nonverbal, and emotional – all things that are unclear, hard to define and measure, hard to see as important. The left brain looks stereotypically masculine, and the right feminine. The left brain looks at the right and finds it wanting because of its imprecision and unmeasurability.
But it’s Dr. Taylor’s description of being forced to live entirely from the right hemisphere that is so startling. First, unrestricted and unbounded empathy let her experience others’ emotions directly, unmediated by rational or “egomental” thought. She felt, wordlessly, whether the person with her liked her or didn’t; cared about her or didn’t; was angry or happy or sad; was at peace or in pain. She was, in effect, involuntarily connected without boundaries to all other people, and to Mother Nature herself. She felt “at one with the source and flow of the universe.”
Second, when not being assaulted without defense by the pain or anger or sadness of others, she was totally at peace . Without the baggage of memory, Ego, or worry about the future, she was free to experience the inherent peace of the moment.
The left side of the brain is considered the seat of the Ego, which uses those left-brain functions to help us know ourselves and function in the literal world. Thanks to Dr. Taylor, the function of the right side of the brain is now also clear: to keep us empathically and compassionately connected to one another, to all of humanity, to Mother Nature, to the universe itself. Paradoxically, as personal memory helps us be separate and individual, empathy reminds us that we are, as the Native Americans say, “all related to one another,” aspects of the same creative force of nature – of God, if you prefer. We are anatomically equipped to be both, implying that we’re actually meant to be both.
Without input from its sister on the right, the left brain’s emphasis on individual identity can take us on an ego-trip into narcissism, the desperate (and ultimately unsuccessful) effort to become the center of the universe. Our cultural allegiance to left-brain functions and dismissal of right-brain functions pushes us in exactly that direction. This outcome is not trivial. Narcissistic rage, smug certainty, and intolerance of opposing views now characterize both major political parties in America, for example. When negotiation and compromise are conducted with narcissistic process, they don’t work. (This truth is perfectly illustrated in the T-shirt message I saw the other day: “Compromise is for losers.”) Tension and anger only rise. When total defeat is the only acceptable outcome of this narcissistic battle, both sides must eventually crumble. If governance is the battleground, it’s government that will collapse. (Yes, I’m serious about that.)
What’s this got to do with the arts? By their very nature, visual art, poetry, dance, literature, music, and such tend to tap the functions of both hemispheres when performed or experienced. So they activate the anatomical bridge between the two paradoxical sets of functions, enabling better balance between them. They can’t defeat the unintended cultural pressure to go on that narcissistic ego-trip, but they can soften it considerably.
So thanks to the legislature for preserving the potential for better-balanced brains.