By A.J. Drenth
Human beings are meaning-seekers. On the one hand, we seek meaning in the form of ideas and concepts. We craft stories, theories, and formulae to make sense of our lives and the world around us. On the other hand, we procure meaning by way of new experiences and sensations, which help us feel refreshed, invigorated, and liberated from the mundanity of daily life. The distinct character of these two approaches is by no means arbitrary, but can be traced back to differences in the operations and orientations of the two cerebral hemispheres.1
Left Brain: Meaning through Words & Constructs
The left hemisphere, or what is colloquially known as the “left brain,” finds meaning by way of symbols, most notably, through language. The development and advancement of language has overseen the flowering of human thought and culture, as well as the enhancement of human communication. No longer must we depend on body language or physical gestures to communicate with one another, but can do so abstractly through words, formulae, and other symbols supplied by the left hemisphere.
Often characterized as the “scientific” side of the brain, the left hemisphere strives to answer how and why questions. It discerns causal relationships and proffers rational explanations for our observations and experiences. It formulates and works to answer abstract questions such as “Where did we come from?” and “Why do we exist?” On an individual level, it urges us to self-define, clarifying who we are and our role in the world.
The left brain mediates meaning primarily through the development of explanatory constructs, definitions, and categories. By rendering the world more orderly and predictable, it helps us feel safe, reassured, and in control. Its symbols and definitions furnish an explicit framework of meaning, one that can be readily explicated to others.
From a religious angle, the left hemisphere is the driving force behind our creeds, doctrines, and theologies. Its chief concern is the Word, the logos, of God. Notions such as “the power of the Word,” “the holy scriptures,” or “speaking things into existence” illustrate the significance we attribute to left hemispheric meaning. Images of God as divine rule-maker or of “having a plan for our lives,” also hail from the left hemisphere. The belief that God had a specific and detailed plan for his creation from the outset (e.g., “intelligent design”) is another left hemisphere construct. Ironically, those who interpret evolution in terms of pure mechanism and determinism operate in an equally left-brained fashion. Both camps emphasize order and predictability, but simply ascribe causality to different sources.
Philosophically, the left hemisphere can be associated with determinism, absolutism, and positivism. From its vantage point, it is only a matter of time before our knowledge and understanding of the universe is complete.
From a type perspective, we can associate the left hemisphere with judging (J) and thinking (T), particularly Extraverted Thinking (Te). We thus expect TJs to be the most left-brained of the types. We might also view conditions such as autism as examples of extreme left-brainedness, as theorists like Simon Baron Cohen have suggested.
Right Brain: Meaning through Experiences & Emotions
In contrast to its left-sided partner, the right hemisphere does not deal in symbols and abstractions. Instead of abstractly carving the world into parts, categories, and mechanisms, it allows it remain as it is—an undivided whole. It perceives the world holistically and concretely, in a raw and unmediated way. Rather than perceiving through a lens of constructs, it treats each moment as an opportunity for novelty and meaning. Each new moment brings its own unique experience—its own admixture of thoughts, feelings, and sensations—that can be valued and appreciated. From the aesthetic standpoint of the right brain, meaning doesn’t come from the imposition of definitions and classifications, but is part and parcel of life itself.
While the left hemisphere labors to categorize and narrativize life, the right brain experiences it as fluid and ever-changing, grounding us in the present moment. Instead of interpreting life through preconceptions, it attunes to what is happening right now, as well as the feelings it engenders. This is why the right brain is often associated art, which might be viewed as an expression of a “lived moment.”
The right hemisphere can also lust for greater intensity of feeling and sensation. It may turn to any number of activities—art, love, sex, drugs, sports, gambling, religion, etc.—in hopes of feeling “more alive,” impassioned, or inspired. Unlike practices such as mindfulness, which promote a subtle appreciation for what is, passion seekers are always looking for something more intense—a bigger and better high. Despite this distinction, both can serve as sources of right-brained pleasure.
Religiously, the right hemisphere prompts us to envision God as spirit or force, one which cannot be adequately described with words. Taoism and mysticism are perhaps the clearest examples of right-brained religious traditions. Mysticism, in particular, is oriented toward experiencing God apart from concepts. With that said, Western religions such as Christianity also have something to offer the right brain. In addition to the Trinitarian concept of the Holy Spirit, notions such as “God as love” and “having a personal relationship with God” speak to the right hemisphere’s desire for affiliation and emotional connection. The “charismatic” wing of Christianity places particular emphasis on experiencing the love, power, and “gifts of the Spirit.”
Philosophically, the right hemisphere is a backer of free will, relativism, and skepticism. Because of its “live in the moment” attitude, it emphasizes freedom over law and order. It is therefore reluctant to adopt the left hemisphere’s rules or constructs, let alone consider them absolute. Libertarianism and anarchism are great examples of right-brained political philosophies, although as philosophies, they still involve a left-brained element.
With respect to personality type, the right hemisphere can be associated with the perceiving (P) preference. P-types are notoriously keen on “keeping their options open.” They prefer to forgo extensive planning which allows them to respond more authentically to how they feel in the moment.
Although the left hemisphere is well-represented by a single function, Te, we need at least two functions—Introverted Feeling (Fi) and Extraverted Sensation (Se)—to do justice to the right hemisphere. Fi speaks to the right brain’s fluidity of feeling and Extraverted Sensing (Se) to its fluid and immediate sensory perceptivity.
More on the Brain & Personality Type
Introverted Thinking (Ti) is equally left-brained and right-brained. Especially in tandem with Ne, Ti can operate as a conceptual and categorizing function, as commonly seen in INTP philosophers. However, Ti also plays an important role in on-the-fly logical and kinesthetic processing, as evidenced in ISTP athletes or mechanics. Extraverted Feeling (Fe) also straddles the two hemispheres. On the one hand, it brokers objective and explicit feeling judgments, as seen for instance, in its championing of collective values and social norms. But like its introverted counterpart, Fe also deals heavily in emotional currency, which falls under right hemispheric domain.
What about intuition? Insofar as intuition is viewed as an instinctual or implicit way of knowing, we might view it as right-brained, as many theorists have seen fit to do. However, Jungian intuition (N) is typically associated with ideas and abstractions, which could lead one to associate it with the left hemisphere. If pushed to assign intuition to a brain hemisphere, we might be wise to follow Lenore Thomson’s lead and associate Introverted Intuition (Ni) with the left hemisphere and Extraverted Intuition (Ne) with the right. There is a sense in which the Ni worldview is more stable and fixed, which is consistent with the left brain’s predilection for order and predictability. Although Ne also deals in abstractions, it is ideationally more promiscuous, relativistic, and non-committal.
It is also worth remembering that the non-dominant functions, especially the inferior function, may cause us to deviate from the prototypical behaviors of our type. I know several ISFPs, for instance, who are extremely orderly and organized, which I attribute to the disproportionate influence of their inferior Te function.
Human life is a never-ending drama between the two hemispheres, which as we’ve seen, are diametrically different in their approach. Rarely does a day pass in which we fail to see this drama enacted either within or outside ourselves. One might even argue that ideational differences are, more often than not, merely projections of psychological differences. As William James keenly observed over a century ago:
The history of philosophy is, to a great extent, that of a certain clash of human temperaments…Of whatever temperament a philosopher is, he tries, when philosophizing, to sink the fact of his temperament…Yet his temperament really gives him a stronger bias than any of his more strictly objective premises. It loads the evidence for him one way or the other…
Even as individuals, we are not exempt from hemispheric conflict and division. On the one hand, we find it important to reflect on our lives and the world (L), while on the other, we want to experience life in a raw and unmediated way (R). We also work to set goals and transcend ourselves (L), while at the same time trying to accept who we are (R).
Clearly, both hemispheres are indispensable to the meaningful life. And in all likelihood their contrast makes life more meaningful, especially when properly balanced and integrated.
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1. Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World comprehensively details and skillfully negotiates decades of neuroscientific research on this topic. It has played an important role in shaping my understanding of the human mind and individual differences.