By now, everyone knows there are two hemispheres in the brain, and it's a cliché to say that left-brained people are logical, analytical and organized, and that right-brained people are creative, imaginative and unorthodox. (The key discovery in this diagnosis is that people who have a stroke in the left brain can still live and feel "normally"; people whose right brain is damaged can function all right, but have difficulty understanding jokes, music, art, metaphor, anything "new" or "foreign" — there's no empathy with others.) Like most clichés, there's truth in this — but it's getting more complicated.
A new development in brain science is that the human brain is still evolving — see The Master and his Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist — and it's possible, because of the structure of our educational, political and technological systems, it's evolving in the wrong direction. The left brain's getting stronger, and we may be losing our ability to use our imagination, to understand others, to feel life in depth — in other words, the very thing that makes us most human.
The striking art found on the walls of caves in Lascaux, France — dating from 17000 BC — marked a turning point in evolution, where Neanderthal "man" was becoming "Homo Sapiens," i.e. human, creating beauty out of the dark world he lived in. Once the basic needs of food, warmth and relative safety get fulfilled, humans begin searching for meaning. As soon as we got out of caves and huddled in huts and small villages around the earth, troubadours and wandering minstrels appeared, rambling over dangerous roads to sing for their supper, bringing music to our lives. We need music and art to be fully human.
The arts let us escape the caves of our own little — and selfish — selves. The musical Billy Elliot, recently at the Straz Center in Tampa, shows how a young boy's interest in ballet humanizes a depressed English town. Even more to the point was freeFall Theatre's opening production of The Frogs. In this musical adaptation of Aristophanes' play, updated to modern times (there was even a joke about BayWalk), Dionysos is trying to prevent the world from falling apart, mainly due to senseless military disasters. To stop the Greeks from turning into yea-saying thoughtless pre-human creatures (i.e., frogs), Dionysos travels down to Hades to bring back a writer who will spark their sympathetic imagination once again. At first he's intent on acquiring George Bernard Shaw, the satirical, rational English playwright, but in the final debate, with the writers quoting their own famous words at each other, Dionysos chooses the poet Shakespeare as the people's best hope. For true inspiration, he decides, they need the music of poetry more than witty satire.
Our left-brained right-winged politicians claim that cutting our fat-filled budgets is necessary and logical, but they're making a big mistake when they cut back on the arts, instead of the military, the rich, and corrupt or ineffective practices in general: it's the wrong direction, beginning with a cynical disregard for the needy, whose numbers, already over 40 million, are rising like a threatening wave. The loony hippies, chanting "Make Love, Not War," were essentially right.
To be specific between the peony and the rose
plant squash and spinach turnips and tomatoes
Beauty is nectar
and nectar in a desert saves—
but the stomach craves stronger sustenance
than the honied vine
Therefore marry a pretty girl
after meeting her mother
Speak truth to one man
work with another
and always serve bread with your wine
But son always serve wine
—from "Advice to Our Son," by Peter Meinke (Liquid Paper, U. of Pittsburgh Press 1991)
Peter Meinke points out that "wine" in this poem is a symbol for beauty and the good life, and that he wrote it before we knew that wine was also a health food.