HomeA.I.Rebalancing Our Brain: The Crisis of Meaning in the Age of AI

Rebalancing Our Brain: The Crisis of Meaning in the Age of AI

The brain is divided down the middle, with the two hemispheres of the cerebral cortex attending to the world differently. The right hemisphere vigilantly and empathetically attends to the whole, while the left hemisphere reduces that whole into parts in order to take action in pursuit of goals.

Does the deepening crisis of meaning and the rise of nihilism, despair and hedonism in modern society stem from an imbalance between our brain’s hemispheres? In his seminal work, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Dr. Iain McGilchrist delves into how the left and right brain hemispheres have shaped the trajectory of Western Civilization. He argues that our cultural constructs have bolstered the left hemisphere’s dominance, creating a feedback loop that inhibits the right hemisphere, leading to profound consequences for humanity.

In a recent conversation with McGilchrist, Michael D. Robinson, Professor of Psychology at NDSU, and I discussed how the advent of artificial intelligence’s (AI) large language models might dramatically increase this imbalance, potentially exacerbating many contemporary problems. Reflecting on our discussion, it seems we are at a foggy crossroads especially in the West, with AI emerging at a time of cultural tumult and the fraying of our binding social narratives.

To determine how to use AI to make life better, not worse, we must first understand how we got here.

We are at a foggy crossroads … with AI emerging at a time of cultural tumult and the fraying of our binding narratives.

Brain Hemispheres & Language

According to Dr. McGilchrist, a mechanistic worldview resulted from several centuries of a feedback loop in which the world we constructed cohered with the reduced, mechanistic perspective of the left hemisphere, neglecting the implicit, relational perspective of the right hemisphere. Midjourney 6.0 Bot Prompt: Rebalancing our Brains: The Crisis of Meaning in the Age of AI.

Late 20th-century pop psychology oversimplified the “left brain” and “right brain” into dichotomies such as creative/emotional versus logical. McGilchrist debunks these tropes, offering a more nuanced and interconnected understanding. The left and right hemispheres of the brain, each with overlapping and distinct functions, evolved for coordinated action. The left hemisphere simplifies the complex world into actionable elements, including tools, obstacles and goals, while the right hemisphere processes the broader context, alert for opportunities and threats.

This division of cognitive labor is not unique to humans; many animals, including birds, exhibit similar hemispheric functions. Some describe the evolved hemisphere’s roles as enabling animals to simultaneously be a predator while avoiding becoming prey. The left hemisphere takes action in the world, confident and narrowly focused like a predator, while the right hemisphere attends to wider world, vigilant for the unexpected.

The dynamic narrative of language can be viewed as a form of abstracted action, primarily (but not exclusively) processed in the left hemisphere. Language reduces complex thoughts into a series of spoken words or written symbols, compressing experiences and their abstracted concepts into communicable packets. However, this compression often leads to diminution of depth and nuance, necessitating the use of tone, body language and metaphor for richer communication. Understanding language as a form of compression reveals its limitations in conveying full meaning.

In language processing, the left hemisphere predominantly manages the compression, or dimensional reduction, of thoughts into words (and vice versa). However, the right hemisphere plays an indispensable role in fully extracting meaning from language. It is often the implicit processing of tone, body language and metaphor by the right hemisphere, experienced in conjunction with the explicit words processed by the left hemisphere that allow us to derive the richest meaning from our communications. The development and evolution of language enabled humans to store and share experiences, which enabled us to construct ever more sophisticated cultural elements. We live in an increasingly constructed world, both literally (concrete, straight lines, roads) and conceptually (rules, norms, philosophies). A storm sometimes reminds us that there still is an unconstructed natural world. But most of us only experience “nature” when it’s domesticated via pest and predator removal, and full of affordances such as walk paths and rest areas.

In an online discussion including Iain McGilchrist, John Vervaeke, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, described the pervasiveness of zombies in contemporary popular culture as an expression of the growing crisis of meaninglessness in the West. “They’ve lost intelligibility, they can’t speak, they move in collectivities but form no communities,” said Vervaeke. “They drift aimlessly [but] unlike other monsters they don’t have any supernatural connection, they’re just us … perpetually decayed.” He cited obvious symptoms, such as the growing mental health crisis, and cited an Irish poll in which 83 percent of all respondents and 87 percent of young people (16-29 years old) reported their lives as meaningless. Image from “The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon” (2023), a post-apocalyptic horror TV series, which is the first season of a spinoff of the original “The Walking Dead” franchise.

Historic Shifts Towards the Mechanistic

McGilchrist views Western Civilization’s advancement as a journey towards a more controlled, artificial and predictable world as language developed progressively more intricately explicit concepts. Our left hemisphere sees the world as mechanistic parts for action, and our technological advancements are power projections and reinforcement of the left hemisphere’s mechanistic view. McGilchrist argues that the historic shifts of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific, Industrial and Information Revolutions mark increasing entrenchments of left-hemisphere dominance. The loss of the sacred, the ascension of rationality and the prevailing modern notion that existence is limited to what can be explained are seen as manifestations of a worldview sculpted by the left hemisphere.

The hyper-rational, mechanistic modern perspective has brought us unprecedented advancements in productivity, as we have harnessed the powers of physics and chemistry to engineer and construct our artificial world, moving beyond mere interaction with the natural world. The last half-millennia can be viewed as an accelerating feedback loop of technological progress and accompanying linguistic constructions to explain ourselves and our world. We invented the compass, the cotton gin, computers and interchangeable parts for assembly lines partly because we also invented explicit organizational rules, logic, reason, math and complicated philosophical constructions. These were all articulated through explicit words, concepts and taxonomies, defining who we are and how we understand the world.

The modern Western world, in this sense, is a manifestation of the reductive and mechanistic perspective of the left hemisphere.

In today’s left-hemisphere dominant Western society, and increasingly across the developed world, the belief in phenomena that cannot be mechanistically explained is often dismissed as irrational, superstitious or unscientific. The logical, rational, scientific and mechanistic explanations are generally accepted as the only defensible positions for almost everything, with notable exceptions for personal preferences such as food, mates or music.

Loss of Meaning & Common Sense

McGilchrist posits that this left-hemisphere dominance is a primary driver behind the current meta-crisis of meaning plaguing the modern world. The focus on the explicit, driven by the left hemisphere’s need for explication, has led to a deconstruction of everything into mechanistic parts. Phenomena that once inspired wonder and awe are carved at the joints, critiqued and explained away.

Ideologies with simple structures and dichotomies, rational and explicit, infect our minds. We tore down our religious narratives because they lacked the explicit coherence the left hemisphere craves. We lost respect for complex implicit systems and arrogantly and ignorantly construed “scientific” explanations (e.g., genetic determinism) and metanarratives (e.g., Freudianism) to explain human behavior, to sometimes terrible unintended consequences.

Human economic systems are extraordinarily complex, second-order systems consisting of countless entangled factors. Second-order properties emerge from humans, the agents within the system, who act based on their predictions about the system. Simplifying, as Marx did, this intricate system into the binary construct of capital and labor, framed as a power struggle, is a gross caricature.

This strawman argument is used to promote communist ideology as an equally oversimplified solution to the “problem” of capitalism. Marxism was presented as an inevitable logical and scientific progression that sold millions on a utopian dream—a left-hemispheric fantasy in which everything has a neat explanation, and everyone has a defined role.

Similar left hemispheric fever dreams of a totalizing explanatory (explicit) framework compete for minds on social media today. Into the void, where our religious frameworks once nested, we fall prey to ideological capture and concomitant loss of common sense.

Risking oversimplifying McGilchrist’s thesis, the right hemisphere’s implicit wisdom can be seen as our source of common sense. Our pet dogs often know when we are going to leave or take them for a walk, even before we’ve done anything obvious to alert them, because their right hemispheres are cueing into subtle patterns in our behaviors. Dogs have an implicit sense for things that they use to determine explicit action.

In a sense, dogs can “know” things in a way that we can commonly “know” things. Dogs have a kind of canine common sense. When the implicit and the explicit have coherence (when they agree, so to speak), we experience predictability and cognitive ease, and we feel we “know” something. One of the biggest dangers of a left-hemispheric dominant perspective, reducing the implicit perspective of the right hemisphere, is a loss of common sense.

In a culture that achieves hemispheric balance, such as during the Renaissance period, the left hemisphere’s need for explicit coherence is counterbalanced by the right hemisphere’s gestalt, an implicit understanding of the complex nature of things. Prior to our scientific understanding of phenomena, such as weather and disease, ancient frameworks for interpreting and predicting outcomes in agriculture and health were grounded in alchemical and spiritual beliefs. One had to accept that even meticulously following sacrificial rituals might not always appease the gods. Life was somewhat predictable, but many of nature’s subtleties were beyond our explicit comprehension. The left hemisphere’s simplistic model of the world was often insufficient, thereby preventing it from arrogantly claiming complete understanding. Conversely, the right hemisphere’s intuitive perspective was often adequate and, at times, uncannily accurate, as in “knowing” that it is going to rain or making an intuitive discovery.

Over many millennia, a distillation of the collective intelligence of billions of humans produced complex narratives and rituals that blended the explicit and the implicit. These lasting cultural constructs were built upon what proved to be useful and predictable.

As humans gradually discovered new technologies and methods, and as we amassed enough written records to begin discerning explicit patterns, we developed competing frameworks to explain phenomena such as crop yields and health outcomes. Centuries of astronomical observations, revealing heliocentric and elliptical orbits, famously challenged existing paradigms. The invention of the printing press and the schismogenesis of the Reformation propelled us into an accelerating feedback loop.

In this loop, frameworks rooted in the explicit and left-hemispheric view appeared increasingly predictable, generative and useful compared to alchemical and spiritual interpretations. Viewed through the lens of the modern left hemisphere, human religious traditions appear as jumbled collections of arbitrary rituals and incoherent mandates. To the left hemisphere, only the explicit holds validity.

Gutenberg Galaxy

As we approach the six-century mark since the Gutenberg press revolutionized the diffusion of ideas,i Western Civilization has transformed into a secular, materialistic, reductive, mechanistic and hyper- rational culture. Perhaps more than any other single factor, the widespread dissemination of the written word, facilitated by increasingly affordable paper and printing technology, has been a major driver of left-hemisphere dominance. The commodification of written communication enabled us to tap into the collective intelligence of millions within a much shorter timeframe than what was previously required to distill the existing religious and philosophical frameworks. The written word gradually supplanted oral traditions, leading to a growing imbalance in favor of the explicit left hemisphere. As the burgeoning corpus of written human knowledge expanded, we developed ever more detailed concepts and taxonomies to explain various aspects of the world.

Within the span of a human lifetime, we witnessed the advent of the Gutenberg press (circa 1440 AD) and the subsequent Protestant Reformation (1517 AD). The rapid spread of written knowledge ushered in the Scientific Revolution (1543-1687 AD), which fundamentally altered the course of history. The Age of Enlightenment (1685-1815 AD) and the following Industrial Revolution (1760-1840 AD) redefined the world in increasingly mechanistic terms, leading to new technologies and understandings. The spirit of redefining everything in explicit terms can perhaps even be seen as an additional driving force behind the American and French Revolutions (late 1700s), with the stability of the former partly due to the preservation of many English traditions and the bloody instability of the latter resulting from the French abandoning all traditions and cutting off nearly everything—literally and figuratively—at the head.

This left-hemisphere dominance is a primary driver behind the current meta crisis of meaning plaguing the modern world.

Perhaps this narrative is an oversimplification, but the new historical perspective McGilchrist provides sees this progression as a feedback loop driving left hemispheric dominance, as we literally created an artificial world that was so controlled and predictable that our culture shifted to a hyperrational perspective, dramatically stifling the wholistic, implicit gestalt perspective of the right hemisphere. We have come to a point of such self-domestication in our constructed world, and our explications fit our experienced reality so well, that we no longer trust the implicit. In many ways, we no longer experience the world that the right hemisphere evolved to access.

An astute reader might note that using the hemispheric dichotomy and positing a mechanistic perspective is a very left-hemisphere perspective. We are trying to use words to bring forth a new explicit perspective that evokes the implicit, while acknowledging the constraints that reality is far more complex than mere words can convey. The genius of McGilchrist’s thesis is that it uses mechanistic reasoning to delineate the limits and pitfalls of relying solely on mechanistic reasoning. McGilchrist isn’t calling for the jettisoning of rationality from our discourse, nor is he calling for a Luddite revolution to turn back the technological clock. McGilchrist contends that despite our material prosperity and advancements in health and lifestyle, we may have lost something essential in the process.

Loss of the Sacred

“[W]e have to be constantly vigilant to undermine language’s attempt to
undermine our understanding.” Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary, p.150. Midjourney 6.0 Bot Prompt: The good, the true and the beautiful, and loss of the sacred.

As we increasingly rely on the analytical left hemisphere, neglecting the holistic perspective of the right, we risk losing the sense of the sacred in our cultural constructs. This shift erodes the foundational values that underpin our morality, reducing them to arbitrary, changeable concepts, devoid of deeper meaning. In this hyperrational landscape, personal ‘truths’ proliferate, leading to a fragmentation of identity and a weakening of collective bonds. We keep pulling out the strings of the tapestry that once held us together. Some have even deconstructed science, itself a reduction, to be a product of colonial oppression in a recursive race to the bottom for the simplest, most grievance laden cartoon of a worldview that allows its adherents to shed responsibility, while still being the heroes in their own story.

We are Western Civilization’s trust-fund children, often ignorant of and ungrateful for the implicit frameworks that our prosperity is built upon. Too many of us believe in nothing, while chasing anything, in order to feel something. The right hemisphere knows what is good, true and beautiful. It is the cognitive processor of the awe, wonder, respect and deep sense of meaning found in the sacred. Our modern epidemics of suicide, addiction, despair, nihilism, hedonism, narcissism and psychopathy can be traced to this loss of meaning. Moreover, the dark yoke of existential pointlessness, in which our dopamine prisons of social media confine us daily, can been seen as the unintended weeds we have sown with our harvest of material and technological abundance. The modern substitute for the ancient “logos” is the growing digital corpus of humanity, now mostly explicit hyperrational musings of talking apes. It is this corpus upon which we are training our generative-AI large language models (LLMs).

AI & the Hemispheres

Generative AI represents a fundamentally new interface between humans and computers. These revolutionary LLMs, trained on humanity’s written corpus, allow the models to understand our prompts and give us nearly frictionless access to curated, bespoken syntheses from that corpus. Everything we want explained will now be available to us, simply by asking. These models, in app form, will inevitably learn algorithmically to get better at giving us what we want. And while we like novelty, we don’t like uncertainty regarding how the world “works.” We can expect an exponential explosion of seemingly novel content for our amusement, appetites and need for expression. We can also expect highly sophisticated construals on demand, explaining everything away into materialistic, reductionist frames, because that is what most of our training data consists of, and that is the perspective our left hemisphere seeks.

There’s much discussion about the apocalyptic risks of AI, ranging from human enslavement to extinction. Yet, a less frequently mentioned, but equally daunting, concern is AI’s role in potentially accelerating the ongoing erosion of meaning in our lives. We can anticipate efforts to develop ‘spiritual’ AIs, tailored to process humanity’s more implicit works such as poetry, influential fiction, religious texts and sacred writings. These AIs might offer ‘ancient wisdom on demand,’ some of which could be beneficial. However, the critical question remains: What will we seek from these digital oracles? Will the access to and synthesis of the vast and varied wisdom in humanity’s textual heritage through these AIs lead to new sources of meaning for us? Or will it further dilute the quest for profound understanding in a sea of readily available mechanistic answers?

We experience language processing in an embodied manner, unfolding words to extract their meaning. However, the inner workings of the hidden layers in these advanced AI ‘brains’ remain a mystery. What exists within the weight parameters of the hidden layers of these huge neural nets? Is there an implicit, digital representation of the world—a digital gestalt— that enables these models to perform so effectively? An intriguing question arises: Will the new human generations, ‘AI natives,’ use these intelligences to reinforce our tendency towards a reductive, left- hemisphere-dominated perspective? Or, alternatively, will these AIs be able to capture and convey the implicit meanings hidden within our vast textual corpus, possibly becoming a conduit for humanity’s re-engagement with the sacred?               

In the dualistic framework, which Descartes famously developed, the explicit, predictive aspects of the body ‘exist’ within the physical, spatial realm, while the more implicit aspects of the mind or soul—difficult to deconstruct and explain—reside in a non-spatial realm. Setting aside the debates over this dualism, this concept helps us gain insight into AI and our brain hemispheres.

The concept of a brain can be seen as a detailed abstraction: a materialistic, reductive cultural construct. In contrast, the mind encompasses not only this abstraction but also integrates subjective experiences, emotions, sensory perceptions and consciousness. The AI models we are developing may not be akin to ‘minds’ in this sense. Instead, AI models represent an externalized augmentation of our brains, perhaps more likely to function as an extension and computational accelerator of our left hemisphere, rather than our right hemisphere. Or as McGilchrist warned in our interview: AI is the left hemisphere on steroids.

The Good, True & Beautiful

The value of the implicit is in the whole experience, and to break that experience into parts, to reduce it to the explicit, is often useful for acting in the world, but much is lost in that reduction. Powerful AI is upon us, and this advancement is going to accelerate our technological and material abundance, for which we should be grateful and rightly express pride in our creation.

If an AI writes a poem that moves you because it speaks an implicit truth, metaphorically, about the human condition, the proper response is also gratitude. However, think twice before you ask the AI to critique and deconstruct poetry. Deconstruction of the implicit comes with a heavy price, and we lost a lot on our road to material abundance.

Too many of us believe in nothing, while chasing anything, in order to feel something.

We have lost much of our common sense, as well as our respect for the sacred. In our left-hemisphere pursuit of what is useful, factual and rational, we no longer pursue what is good, true and beautiful. These transcendental ideals were recognized for thousands of years as the meaningful aims of human existence. Until the modern era, the aim of education, culture and the arts in the West was to inculcate, develop and express the highest versions of what we consider good, true and beautiful.

In contrast, think of a modern American high school, and you will know in your bones that we have lost this understanding. Now ask yourself if you feel an implicit sense of recognition of these transcendental principles. Do you see how far we have fallen as a culture and what we have lost?

That implicit sense is your right hemisphere trying to talk to you without words. We need an active and engaged right hemisphere to know, to understand, the transcendent. We need more balance between our hemispheres, between the explicit and implicit, to reconnect with the roots of Western Civilization and revivify the West.

The failure to seek what is good, true and beautiful, and the loss of the sacred, may lie at the heart of our modern maladies. As we integrate powerful AI models into our civilization, we must understand what we have lost and seek to orient these new tools towards the good, towards discovering both implicit and explicit truth, and towards bringing more beauty into the world. ◉

Left, Abe-no-Nakamaro Writing a Nostalgic Poem While Moon-Viewing (1918) by Tomioka Tessai; Tomioka Tessai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
“The sharp dichotomy in our culture between the ways of being of the two hemispheres, which began in Ancient Greece, does not appear to exist, or, at any rate, to exist in the same way, in Oriental culture: their experience of the world is effectively grounded in that of the right hemisphere. … Shizen, the Japanese word for nature, also links it clearly to the right-hemisphere way of being. … While shizen does, of course, refer to the natural world of grass, trees and forest, it also means the land and the landscape, as well as the ‘natural self’ considered as a physical, spiritual and moral being, something perhaps akin to Dasein [the being that is in the world]: thus, though there is a distinction between man, with his will, and nature, the opposition between man and nature implied in the West is absent in Japanese. … Everything surrounding human life, including mountains, hills, rivers, plants, trees, animals, fish and insects, has its own spirit (kami), and these spirits communicate with one another as well as with those who live there.” The Master and His Emissary, p. 452-53.


i McLuhan, Marshall, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of the Typographic Man, University of Toronto Press, 1962.

Todd Pringle, PhD.
Cofounder at Crosswinds Institute

Todd A. Pringle, PhD, is the cofounder of Crosswinds Institute,
a non-profit media organization focusing on civic society,
education and technology. He is also a part-time academic
and PhD student in the Department of Psychology at NDSU.
Prof. Pringle leads electronics hardware teams exploring new
technologies in electrification, human-machine interface and
perception systems for Deere & Co. He is a partner at the 701
Fund, focusing on pre-seed and seed investments. He cofounded
two coatings development companies in outdoor products and
surface disinfection. He has a BS in Electrical Engineering, an
MS in Polymers and Coatings Science, and a PhD in Materials &
Nanotechnology, all from NDSU.

Todd Pringle, PhD.
Todd Pringle, PhD.
Todd A. Pringle, PhD, is the cofounder of Crosswinds Institute, a non-profit media organization focusing on civic society, education and technology. He is also a part-time academic and PhD student in the Department of Psychology at NDSU. Prof. Pringle leads electronics hardware teams exploring new technologies in electrification, human-machine interface and perception systems for Deere & Co. He is a partner at the 701 Fund, focusing on pre-seed and seed investments. He cofounded two coatings development companies in outdoor products and surface disinfection. He has a BS in Electrical Engineering, an MS in Polymers and Coatings Science, and a PhD in Materials & Nanotechnology, all from NDSU.

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