The Divided Brain And Religion: Left Brain Angels And Right Brain Gods

Rod Tweedy

William Blake, Iain McGilchrist & the War in Heaven

This article was written by Rod Tweedy.

The Power Struggle within the Brain

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).

Bolte Taylor’s observation is unusual not only for its insight into the two mutually distinct modes the brain has for experiencing and understanding the world, but also because most neuroscientists tend to view the brain as a machine, rather than as a personality – a tendency which, as McGilchrist has suggested, is related to the fact that the left hemisphere generally sees everything as a machine (2009, pp. 55-56). Michael Trimble, for example, is typical amongst modern neurologists in referring to the biochemical “machinery”  of the brain, and to the brain’s “machinery of ions, enzymes, and neurotransmitters”. This mechanical metaphor of the brain is so deeply embedded in neuroscientific thinking that many neuroscientists don’t even realise that it is a metaphor (Tweedy, 2012, p. 70; McGilchrist, 2009, p. 29).

Why do we think of our own brains, our own beings, as machines? As McGilchrist compellingly suggests in his groundbreaking work on the hemispheres, “the whole problem is that we are obsessed, because of what I argue is our affiliation to left-hemisphere modes of thought, with ‘what’ the brain does rather than the ‘how’ – ‘the manner in which’, something no one ever asked a machine.” (McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary)

What’s so refreshing about Bolte Taylor’s analysis is that she recognises that the two hemispheres aren’t simply bundles of functions and equipment, but contain (and embody) “values” – and indeed “personalities”. Brains (and bodies) are not what we ‘have’; they are who we are. And as recent research into lateralisation shows, these complimentary but incompatible “personalities”, embedded and embodied within our two hemispheres, lie at the very root of our response to the world, and are encoded within each hemisphere of the brain. Indeed, their distinct values and ways of operating are evident in every product of human thought, as McGilchrist’s work has magisterially shown, including our philosophical and religious systems.

Two Brains, 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 a psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist, whose study of the hemispheres and bihemispheric 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. (2009).

The history of this “power struggle” (and he notes that it is only a power struggle from the left hemisphere’s point of view; McGilchrist, 2018, p. 15) 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. 

This sense of a power struggle or “battle” within different aspects of consciousness, located within the structures and process of the human brain itself, is also, remarkably, found in the work of the writer and artist William Blake, and indeed forms a key part of his understanding of  the both the human body and the development and nature of religion. 

The Fall into Division

One of Blake’s central subjects is the nature of 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 main affective and embodied systems, from which it became increasingly disconnected. These are the emotional, bodily, and imaginative structures which he terms Luvah, Tharmas, and Urthona, and who together with Urizen form what he called the “Four Zoas”, a term he took from Biblical and Kabbalistic sources.

Blake specifically describes Urizen’s world as being within “the Brain of Man”:

I see the swords & spears of futurity

Tho in the Brain of Man we live, & in his circling Nerves.

Tho’ this bright world of all our joy is in the Human Brain.

Where Urizen & all his Hosts hang their immortal lamps

  (The Four Zoas 11:14–17)

The various dynamics and conflicts between these powerful agencies and structures lie behind both human history and wider biological and spiritual evolution, he believed. 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 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, he noted, 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 usually 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 altered 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.

“The history of this is written in Paradise Lost & the Governor or Reason is call’d Messiah”, he observed:

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. In Blake’s reading, the usurping Urizenic ‘God’ dissociated itself from eternity and set itself up as ‘Governor’ of its new domain. The former Giants and Titans are ‘demonised’ and become repressed as the “subconscious”.

Gods as Brain Functions

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 and the 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,” he notes, “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”, its absence of empathy or relational understanding—that strikingly prefigures modern diagnostic characterisations for such left-hemispheric disorders as schizophrenia, OCD, 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.

The God of the Left Brain

All human thought systems, Blake believed, participate in this “fall into Division”, in this casting out of “Desire” by “Reason”. Religions inevitably and necessarily draw upon the values and personalities of the two hemispheres of the human brain, which believes in them, and are in that sense reflections of their processes 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”. McGilchrist 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 aim of 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.

For Blake, orthodox 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 – as Urizen triumphantly declares in Blake’s book Jerusalem, “I am God O Sons of Men! I am your Rational Power!” This nicely encapsulates not only the identification and obsession with “power” but also its “rationalising” programme. Moreover, the Urizenic brain is an instantiation of what Blake terms the “Holy Reasoning Power” – often also called “Logos” in many religious systems of thought – an incarnation of its basic operating system, including its concern for “power” and dominance.

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. 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 new 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. “Till a System was formed,” as Blake notes, “which some took advantage of, and enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realise or abstract the Mental Deities from their objects—thus began Priesthood” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

In the Image of God 

Blake repeatedly connects the emergence of this new “Priesthood” or “Holy Reasoning Power” (the first line of Blake’s Book of Urizen directly links Urizen with the priesthood: “Of the primeval Priest’s assum’d power/When Eternals spurn’d back his Religion”) with a number of distinct ideas or attributes, chief amongst which are light, purity, and the idea of ‘holiness’. He sees all of these as primary “rationalising” features and functions, the very basis and hallmark of Urizen’s operating system and authority. We are perhaps used to thinking of them as being ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘rational’ – the hymns we sing in church are often hymns to light, and purity, and holiness. But that is entirely Blake’s point: for him, we are merely worshipping Reason, “the Governor”, in its glorious, self-deifying, post-Fall attitude. 

Reason, Blake suggests, would like our idea of ‘God’ to be in its own image – Pure (as ‘Pure’ Reason, its cognitive source, is – but which, Blake counters, no living being could ever be); Perfect (as a mathematical calculation or precision instrument is Perfect, but which no living being could ever be); and Light (the ultimate symbol of rational, egoic consciousness – as Jungian analyst Edward Edinger has remarked, “the light of consciousness” symbolises rational, egoic thought – which is why the “Age of Reason” was also called “the Enlightenment”). Indeed, ’Light’ is the dominant left hemisphere’s most cherished metaphor, its most repeated self-identifier. As McGilchrist observes, “the attentional ‘spotlight’ is a function of the left hemisphere”, noting that “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”. A “detached, observing eye” is the characteristic mark of left hemispheric predominance, and a symbol of its presence.

Pure, perfect, holy, light: these are the secret cognitive trails of the Urizenic brain, for Blake, the immensely powerful rationalising agency that gained control of the human body, and all its systems of thought and ways of seeing. The words reveal what sort of ‘God’ or program actually lies behind them. Historically, this “enlightening” power or personality has had many names – Mithras, Horus, Logos, 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 (God, as Blake repeatedly insists, is not interested in questions of purity) – and therefore challenged God’s right to rule:

… thou wast so pure & bright

That heaven was Impure in thy sight

(Blake, The Everlasting Gospel)

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” (2009, p. 281).

Blake’s analysis of this ‘psychological’ aspect to religion is, I think, immensely useful and thought-provoking.  His penetrating critique of the orthodox systems of thought of his day – orthodox science as much as orthodox Christianity – for their shared Urizenic basis, allows us to recognise in them the presence of the dominating left brain – the Emissary who thinks he’s God. The more intriguing question, of course, is whether these powers and principalities are actually causes, rather than effects, of the hemispheric processes and personalities.