The Divided Brain and Religion
Harvard neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, commenting on the subtle but significant differences between how each hemisphere of our brain understands and engages with the world, observed that “the two halves of my brain don’t just perceive and think in different ways at a neurological level, but they demonstrate very different values based upon the types of information they perceive, and thus exhibit very different personalities” (My Stroke of Insight).
What’s so unusual about Bolte Taylor’s analysis is that she recognises that the two hemispheres aren’t simply bundles of functions, but contain (and embody) “values”, and indeed “personalities”. Most neuroscientists prefer to talk about the brain as if it was simply a mechanism, or mass of neurons, myelin, and tissue, rather than as having a personality – which is perhaps odd given that most neuroscientists presumably have one themselves.
But as recent research into lateralisation shows, these complimentary but incompatible “personalities” lie at the very root of who we are, and are embodied within each hemisphere of the brain. Indeed, their distinct values and ways of operating are evident in every product of human thought, including our philosophical and religious systems.
Two Modes of Attention
In particular, modern neuroscience suggests that our brains manifest two distinct modes of attention, or ways of being, and that each mode delivers a distinct and different reality. One of the most influential and pioneering researchers in this field is Iain McGilchrist, whose study of the hemispheres and bihemipsheric lateralisation is profoundly transforming our understanding – not only of our brains, but also of how we generate our realities:
My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture. (The Master and His Emissary)
The history of this “power struggle” is key to unlocking the particular nature of each hemisphere, and also—as his remarkable study of the influence of the “divided brain” on western culture shows—some of the central features of our civilisation.
As he notes, “I believe there has been a succession of shifts of balance between the hemispheres over the last 2,000 years”, and these shifts and the “power struggle” underlying them, have been recorded in some of the major literary and mythological works of this period. His book is an extraordinary analysis and revelation of this process – and I recommend it to anyone interested in exploring further the interface of neurology and culture – but what is so striking in the present context is how this new understanding of the “power struggle’ between the hemispheres reflects and indeed corroborates Blake’s own take on this same history.
The Fall into Division
For one of Blake’s central subjects is the human psyche, and what he calls its “fall into Division” – a word of particular significance in this discussion of bifurcation. Blake believed that at some point in history the human brain lost its underlying integration, and he traces this event to the emergence and dominance of what he calls ‘Urizen’ – a hyper-rational, self-enclosed form of intelligence or program within the human brain, which set itself up in isolation from the other central operating systems of man: the emotional, bodily, and imaginative structures (which he terms Luvah, Tharmas, and Urthona).
The history of all hitherto existing society, for Blake, is therefore the history of hemispheric struggle – the various traumatic dissociations and splits that occurred within the psyche, and which were both caused by, and causes of, the wider social and economic upheavals.
He also believed that the story of this “power struggle” was contained and encoded within the key religious and sacred texts of our culture, such as the ancient myths concerning the battle between intelligent “Sky Gods” on the one hand (such as Zeus, Jupiter, Jehovah, and Odin), and the Titans or Giants on the other.
All of these sky gods, for example, share predominantly left-brain characteristics: they are powerful and intelligent, rational law-makers, upholders of moral codes, who fiercely impose order and functional discipline on the world. And they are all presented as being in conflict with very different sorts of beings: gigantic forms of energy, ones always associated with the body and with bodily desires. Blake provides an important clue to their real significance:
The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains; are in truth. the causes of its life & the sources of all activity. (The Marriage of Heaven & Hell)
According to Blake, man was originally an integrated, imaginative being, in touch with the divine and the eternal, able to perceive the infinite in everything – able to see “a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower” (Auguries of Innocence). The apprehension of these intuitions still reverberates within us – though precisely because of the enormous dominance of the Urizenic, literalising, functionalist mode of thinking, we often doubt the reality of these insights and diminish them.
Blake’s works therefore suggest that at some point in history a dramatic shift occurred within the psyche – the equilibrium within the human brain shifted as the more rationalising and manipulative side of the brain started to dominate, and eventually took control of the whole psyche. Blake believed that the story of this fall into division and dissociation is recorded in a number of key texts, including Milton’s Paradise Lost.
It indeed appear’d to Reason as if Desire was cast out. but the Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss. [MHH]
In the contested interpretations of this event, the orthodox interpretation—that is, the version of events presented by the rational voice or ‘God’ of the left brain—is that the “Devil” challenged Reason’s right to rule, and after a struggle, the former was cast out into the flames of Hell. One doesn’t need to be Freud to see with Blake that “hell” here clearly denotes the body, and bodily desires, and that heaven therefore signifies the perfect, law-obeying rational angels, the computer programmers. “The history of this is written in Paradise Lost,” observed Blake, “& the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah” (MHH).
Blake radically reinterprets Milton’s epic poem as a psychodrama – a dramatisation of the fundamental struggle within the human brain between two distinct modes of being, which he termed “Reason” or Urizen, and “Energy” or Imagination.
The various localised forms of this struggle, he believed, became encoded in the major myths of our cultures – the various gods and goddesses of ancient Greece, or Norse Mythology, for example, who are often quite explicitly named after brain processes.
Indeed, the ancient Greeks explicitly referred to their gods as brain functions – such as the Greek goddess Mnemosyne, which means ‘Memory’, or similarly the Norse figures of Huginn (“Thought”) and Muninn (“Memory”). All such stories of usurping sky gods defeating more ancient, more embodied titans and giants, are profound and esoteric illustrations and personifications of the ongoing struggle between the rationalistic, emotional, bodily and imaginative systems of man, for control of the human body.
Blake’s work, as McGilchrist himself acutely observes, “dramatises in various forms a battle between two powerful forces that adopt different guises: the single-minded, limiting, measuring, mechanical power of what Blake called Ratio, the God of Newton, and the myriad-minded, liberating power of creative imagination, the God of Milton.” In this, he adds, Blake voices “the brain’s struggle to ward off domination by the left hemisphere” (The Master and His Emissary).
The Emissary Who Would Be Master
Interestingly, for both McGilchrist and Blake, left-hemispheric rationality (‘Urizen’) is in itself a brilliant and necessary aspect of our being in the world – but only so long as it remains a useful instrument of human consciousness, an “Emissary” in McGilchrist’s metaphor, rather than its “Master”. Indeed, McGilchrist persuasively shows that the more the ‘left hemisphere’ dominates and dissociates itself from the grounded, contextualised, and imaginative world of the right hemisphere, the more toxic and destructive it becomes – turning from the luminous Emissary (Blake tellingly refers to the unfallen Urizen as once having been the “Prince of Light”) to the terrifying, free-wheeling schizophrenic form of hyper-rationality that McGilchrist sees as the defining quality of modernity.
Both schizophrenia and the modern condition, I suggest, deal with the same problem: a free-wheeling left hemisphere.
This aspect of modern ‘rationality’ – forever running out of control – is the reason why Blake presents its final form not as a glorious Angel but as a terrifying, consuming, psychopathic Dragon or “Spectre”, which the left brain increasingly becomes:
Thou knowest that the Spectre is in Every Man insane brutish
Deformd that I [the Spectre] am thus a ravening devouring lust continually
Craving & devouring. (The Four Zoas)
It is precisely this “insane” and brutish, or subhuman aspect to divided rationality—its dreadful inner hollowness and devitalisation, its increasingly compulsive ordering and calculating processes and “devouring lusts”—that strikingly prefigures modern diagnostic characterisations for such left-hemispheric disorders as schizophrenia, OCD, certain forms of autism, and, at the end of the scale, psychopathy.
The more purely rational Reason becomes, if you like, the more monstrous its manipulative and calculating nature emerges and is manifest. Until, Blake observes, it becomes finally its contemporary form, “the Dragon Urizen”: “a Human Dragon terrible … His Head dark, deadly, in its Brain incloses a reflexion/Of Eden all perverted” (Jerusalem).
Blake’s understanding of this peculiarly cold, detached, compulsive, and ruthless aspect to reason—again, it must be emphasised, to reason in its divided (that is, contemporary and isolated, or “dominant”) form—allows him to see the true pathological nature of this Power. The modern nomenclature of psychiatry was obviously not available to him, but in Blake’s many depictions of this aspect of Reason, we glimpse what today would be termed a sociopathic entity at the core of the left hemisphere brain functions. Fallen Urizen resembles not so much a glorious and illuminating Sun God after all, as he sees himself, but a compulsive and murderous psychopath.
As Eckhart Tolle has also noted, in his penetrating analysis of the pathological nature of the dissociated “rational ego”:
The mind is a superb instrument if used rightly. Used wrongly, however, it becomes very destructive. To put it more accurately, it is not so much that you use your mind wrongly—you usually don’t use it at all. It uses you. This is the disease. You believe that you are the mind. This is the delusion. The instrument has taken you over. (Tolle, The Power of Now).
This form of ‘disease’, ‘delusion’, or left-brain possession can also be seen in many products of the hyper-rational mind, including religious systems of thought. For religions also inevitably draw upon the values and personalities of the two hemispheres of the human brain, and are in that sense reflections of them and their imbalances – incarnations of their distinctive processes and personalities.
Indeed, one of the most startling and impressive things about Blake’s analysis of the evolution of human consciousness in terms of a “power struggle” is the light this shines on our various ideas about “God”. McGiclhrist notes that “the left hemisphere is competitive, and its concern, its prime motivation, is power“, and observes that the struggle between the two hemispheres is largely due to the left brain’s inherent drive, resulting in its grab for dominion over the whole brain (inhibiting and mocking the insights and mode of being of the right hemisphere) – to create a world made solely in its image: pure, mechanical, quantitative, literal, linear, functionalist, abstract.
Religious systems of thought have historically reflected this dynamic: they are not only largely products of the dominating left brain, but also embody its values – including its concern for “power” and dominance (‘For Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory’). Moreover, the left brain is an instantiation of what Blake terms the “Holy Reasoning Power” – often also called “Logos” by the religious – an incarnation of its basic operating system.
“I am God O Sons of Men! I am your Rational Power!” (Jerusalem)
So it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the religions generated under the hegemonic sway of the left brain reflect the winner’s take on things – the point of view of the dominant hemisphere in recent human culture. Ideas about God, belief, reality, become assimilated into the values and functions of the side of the brain doing the interpreting.
Religion as the HTML of the left brain
Blake locates the historical origins of this emergence or “fall into Division” and dissociation in the hierarchical, socially stratified, and hyper-rational Urizenic cultures of Sumer and Babylon, about six thousand years ago. As recent anthropological research suggests, a significant and dramatic shift did occur in human cultures around this time, resulting in remarkable, and remarkably sudden, advances in technological and linguistic innovations in ancient Mesopotamia.
Writer and researcher Steve Taylor, for example, has observed that “after 4000 BCE the Middle East saw a sudden surge of technological development which quickly outstripped anything which had come before.” These innovations included the wheel, the plough, “complex new writing and number systems, and the calendar” (Taylor, The Fall) – all, it has to be said, notably left brain skills and interests. As Baring and Cashford also remark, “a tremendous explosion of knowledge took place as writing, mathematics and astronomy were discovered. It was as if the human mind had suddenly revealed a new dimension of itself” (Baring & Cashford).
It was also at about this time that we find the first recorded references to “temple towns” and “temples” – the emergence of a left brain priestly caste, who were usually skilled in astronomy, mathematics, and other left-hemisphere practices, and who also seem to have been the first people to have abstracted divinity away from living beings and to relocate it up into the skies – it was the early Mesopotamian civilisations who first originated the pentagram or five-pointed star ideogram, a striking and enduring sign of its own pathological self-abstraction.
This is the brilliant manoeuvre of Urizenic consciousness, magnificently correlating and aligning its own ascendancy within the psyche with the radically new forms of authority and therefore of worship that characterised its emergence. This remote, abstracted, idea of ‘God’ was perfectly reflected in the new temples built to separate divinity from the rest of the population: the very word ‘temple’ – from the Latin “templum” and Greek “temnein” – means to cut or cut off, which is exactly what the left brain wanted to do.
The temples themselves were often built on the tops of mountains or hills – accessible only to a few, a priestly and political “elite”, who now had control of religion – and a perfect illustration and embodiment of the new hierarchal, high-rise cultures that these elites now dominated. Significantly, as Bernard Campbell notes, “it was not until the development of the temple towns (around 5000 BC) that we find evidence of inflicted death and warfare.”
Urizen’s footprints – the cognitive traces of the new left-brain value system – can still be seen and felt within the dominant systems of thought from Sumer and Babylon to the present day. Imprinted on all of the myriad elite belief systems, each one reflecting different aspects of its indwelling “God”, are its core values and personality: abstract, remote, hierarchical, disembodied, moralising, law-making, and ultimately dehumanising.
How to Spot a Left Brain Religion
For Blake’s “Holy Reasoning Power” would like our idea of ‘God’ to be in its own image – Pure (just as Pure Reason, its source, is – but which, Blake counters, no living being could ever be); Perfect (in the way that a mathematical calculation machine is Perfect); Light (the central symbol of rational, egoic consciousness – as Jungian analyst Edward Edinger notes, light is the archetypal symbol for egoic rational thought; it is no coincidence that the Age of Reason was also called “the Enlightenment”).
Such myths refer to the creation of the ego which is the light of consciousness born out of the darkness of the unconscious.
‘Light’ is the dominant left hemisphere’s most cherished metaphor: you only need to walk into a Midnight Mass, or indeed any Christian, Hindu, or Muslim service, to see how resolutely and repetitively it is worshipped.
And not only in ‘religious’ systems of thought: as Blake shows, Urizen, the “Prince of Light“, is also the dominant mode of consciousness and metaphor in most secular post-Newtonian systems. The left brain’s pathological but largely unconscious reverence and obsession with Light as a metaphor for its way of seeing – the relentless, blinding spotlight of rational, explicit consciousness – is one of the most telling and reliable indicators of fallen Urizen’s presence in any system of thought. As McGilchrist notes, “the attentional ‘spotlight’ is a function of the left hemisphere … And schizophrenic subjects, whose psychopathology depends on a reflexive hyperconsciousness, and who often depict a detached observing eye in their paintings, show a relative hypofunction of the right hemisphere in relation to the left”.
Even many Blakeans I know find it hard to give up or even challenge this cherished metaphor, despite Blake’s own ‘enlightened’ analysis of its source in Urizenic pathologies:
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in Night
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.
—William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
A God of “Light” is one that humans who “dwell in Night” are drawn to – that is, who are still asleep and unconscious. To “awakened” humans – whose who have reintegrated their hemispheres and therefore their metaphors, God appears not as an abstract oscillating frequency or electromagnetic wave, but as a Human Form.
All these left-hemispheric adjectives and attributes were summed up in one Urizenic word, a word that for Blake signified both the complete removal of divinity from anything embodied and real, and also its opposition to everything human: “Holy”. As Damon comments, “Holiness is a word which Blake often used in a pejorative sense, as the virtue of the Pharisees, the state of the ‘Fiends of Righteousness’ who enact and execute cruel laws”:
The Fool shall not enter into Heaven let him be ever so holy. Holiness is not The Price of Entrance into Heaven. (Blake, Vision of the Last Judgement).
It’s no surprise to learn that the origin of the word “holy” actually means “separate”, “apart” – as physically and psychologically apart as were the new temples which these new left-brain Sumerian priests also now presided over.
Pure, perfect, holy, light: these are the secret cognitive trails of the Usurping left-brain, the immensely powerful rationalising agency that gained control of the human body. The words reveal what sort of ‘God’ or program actually lies behind them. Historically, this power or personality has had many names – Mithras, Horus, Logos, the Enlightenment, Christos – but perhaps its most durable and suitable name is “god of Light”, or “Lucifer”.
This was the originally beautiful and irradiating “angel of the Divine Presence”, as Blake calls him, who however came to believe that he was actually “purer” than God – which of course from a rational point of view he is – and therefore challenged God’s right to rule. Interestingly, McGilchrist also makes a connection between Lucifer – the formerly glorious Emissary who through ‘pride’ aspired to become the Master – and the Left Hemisphere of the human brain, referring to “the most positive aspects of the left hemisphere, in its guise as Lucifer, the bringer of light”.
Blake’s analysis of this ‘psychological’ aspect to religion is, I think, immensely useful. For his penetrating critique of the orthodox systems of thought of his day – orthodox science as well as orthodox Christianity – for their shared Urizenic basis, allows us to see and immediately spot in them the presence of the dominating left brain – the Emissary who thinks he’s God.
In the litanies of church services, prayers, manifestos, textbooks, rituals, and sermons the secret names and codes of the unconscious agency behind them shines fourth: in their references to God as Light, Order, Law, Purity, and Perfection. The more intriguing question, of course, is whether these powers and principalities are actually causes, rather than effects, of the hemispheric processes and personalities.
Rod Tweedy is the author of The God of the Left Hemisphere: Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation, a study of Blake’s work in the light of modern neuroscience, and has also written a number of articles and reviews on Romanticism and popular culture, including Iain McGilchrist, Ang Lee and the Revolution of Perception, Frozen Children: The pathology of contemporary Disney, How We See War, and David Bowie: Alienation and Stardom. He is a former Secretary of the William Blake Society and an enthusiastic supporter of Veterans for Peace UK and the user-led mental health organization, Mental Fight Club.