In the last few weeks, we have followed Jonathan Sacks’ insights on the emergence of Greek thinking from Mid-East thinking via an evolution in the way written ideas were expressed, particularly in the evolution of the alphabet. The alphabet, in its evolution from a right-to-left orientation to one oriented in left-to-right form opened a new mode of human thinking. Further, the Greek introduction of verbs into their language rendered the text less ambiguous and more suited for expressing empirical thought.
Last week we followed Sacks into his insight of how these two changes influenced Greek thinking in ways that resulted in their radically new ideas of philosophy and science.
Today we will take a brief look at the way the human brain is understood to function to expand Sacks’ insights of the two distinct cognitive styles which emerged in the period in which the near- East language evolved from the Sinaitic to that of the Greek.
The Two Brain Hemispheres
Over the past hundred and fifty years, since Pierre Paul Broca discovered that the language-processing skills were located in the left hemisphere of the brain, neuroscientists have explored the marked difference between the way information is processed in the two hemispheres. Sacks lists a few of these:
Left Brained Functions
- Thinking linearly, analytically, atomistically and mechanically
- Breaking things into component parts, and treating them sequentially
- Focusing on details
- Emphasizing objective observation
- Dealing with information empirically and objectively
Right Brain Functions
- Thinking integratively and holistically
- Considering things in a context of the higher organization in which the thing is a part
- Focusing on the ‘big picture’
- Emphasizing empathy, meaning and emotion
- Treating information intuitively, instinctively, with ambiguity and metaphor
Sacks relates the two modes of human understanding, typified by the actions of the two hemispheres of the brain, to the manipulation of the alphabet:
“A language with vowels, where the words can be understood (unambiguously) one by one, can be processed by the linear, sequential left brain. We read these languages from left to right, moving our head to the right, thus engaging the left brain.”
Languages without vowels (where words are more ambiguous) make demands on the context-understanding, integrative functions of the right brain, so we read them from right to left, moving our head leftwards and engaging the right brain”
So, the two hemispheres are thought to function in different ways.
- One is the ability to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact.
- The other is the ability to join things together so that they make sense as a whole. Sacks sees this ability as the one necessary to join people together so that they form relationships.
Sacks warns of over-emphasizing the distinctions. He suggests ‘right’ and ‘left’ not be thought of as ‘precise neuroscientific descriptions’ of brain activity, but rather as ‘metaphors for different modes of the brain’s engagement with the world.’ He also sees a balance between the two types of activity as necessary for us tto be able to ‘think with our whole brain’.
From ‘Right’ to ‘Left’ Brained Thinking
The ideas of most of the thinkers of the Axial Age (September 17 – The Evolution of Religion, Part 2- The ‘Axial Age’), in general, represented ‘right brain’ thinking. They took a less empirical approach to thinking about the universe and the place of the human person in it, and more about an intuition of how these relationships must take place for “enhancement of their humanity”. The great body of thinking which began to lean in the direction of the ‘left brain’ was, as Sacks sees, that which emerged in Greece in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries, BCE.
Therefore, Third century Greek and Hebrew were not just different languages with different alphabets. At the thinking level, they represented orthogonal civilizations, unlike in their most basic understanding of reality. Greek philosophy and science- the Greece of Tales and Democritus, Plato and Aristotle- was a predominantly left-brain culture; the Israel of the prophets a right-brain one. At precisely the time Greek came to be written left-to-right and Athens evolved to a literate from an oral culture, it became the birthplace of science and philosophy, the two supremely left-brain, conceptual and analytical ways of thinking.
Greece, at the time the alphabet was changing from right-left to left-right, was becoming the world’s first, and to Sacks, its greatest, left-brain civilization. It was not only left-brained. As Sacks sees it, “There was greatness, too, in the more right-brain fields of art, architecture and drama”. But, as we shall see in the next post, the later attempt to reconnect this great mode of thinking with its right-handed predecessor was to have significant impact on the evolution of Western thought.
The Next Post
Having seen the evolution of language which led to the two great cognitive processes found in Greece and Jerusalem, as a rise in the skill of applying left-brained thinking to the seeking of answers to the mystery of life, we can now take a look at their confluence in a third great expression of belief, that of Christianity.