The tyranny of the “left brain” – RSA Animate

Here is an RSA Animate of a talk by Iain McGilchrist on “the divided brain” – highly recommended.

While the division into left and right brain is a myth, he says, there are indeed two modes of thinking: one open, alive, messy, intuitive; and the other our ordered and rational working of a closed system. We do best when we harness both types of thought. But in the West at least, says McGilchrist, we have fallen into privileging our ability to be “rational” over our wrestlings with uncertainty and living, changing things. Technicians sound more convincing in our culture than ideas people. Which is probably a bit of an issue.

He’s not wrong. Qual researchers may not be brain scientists, but what McGilchrist argues for is very much our schtick. It’s great to see a bit of “scientific” validation for it.

Someone asked in the research media last year why you don’t get many qual researchers on the boards of big research companies. True, we tend to care about work-life balance(though often working like maniacs), which doesn’t help you climb the corporate ladder; and we like our businesses to be on a human scale too, which makes us a tricky cultural fit within big organisations. But what we do must be a big factor too: that we sail the open seas of the messy, alive and intuitive parts of thinking rather than navigating the canal system of measurement and numbers.

The Life Aquatic: Sailing The High Seas of Truth, Examining Every Porthole

This is not undervalue the role of the latter: qual would be nowhere without them. To pitch one’s tent in the “right brain” in the business world, though, as qual researchers do, is to sail against prevailing winds and offer a different way of thinking about the issues. And it is to be all too easily sidelined, when the big decisions are made. Yet this is a big part of qual research’s real value to large organisations, whose collective brains can get dangerously lop-sided without voices like ours. As David Hume put it and McGilchrist confirms, reason is better thought of as “the slave of the passions” than the other way around.

It will take a few years for the generation of business people being raised now on these ideas – seen in the behavioural economics of Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment and Ariely‘s Predictably Irrational – to take over. When they do, they will be fundamentally changing how their organisations go about their research. The “econ” is, I fear still alive and well in more than a few closed systems out there. This generation will be throwing them in the bin.

Will they come knocking on qual researchers’ doors to carry out the research projects they realise they need? And will we be ready? If AQR events I have attended this year in the UK are anything to judge by, there is an impressive body of qual talent out there gearing up their businesses to meet this future demand. All power to the elbows of people like Wendy Gordon and Sarah Davies for blazing the trail.

Of course, qual researchers also need to get better at the more mechanical stuff too. How are those 2010-11 accounts coming on?

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

5 thoughts on “The tyranny of the “left brain” – RSA Animate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: