Shifting Hemispheres

I remember seeing a cartoon some years ago—probably in the New Yorker—in which a worried geezer points to his head and laments to his spouse, "Helen—just as I've always feared—my hemispheres are drifting apart."

Daniel Pink's new book, A Whole New Mind, posits that we're experiencing a kind of collective cerebral hemispheric shift in which the Information Age is morphing into the Conceptual Age, an era in which ideas, rather than products and services become the mainstay of the economy. This, says Pink, represents a shift from a primarily left brain based culture to one animated with more right brain input—in his words: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. He terms these the "six senses" of the Conceptual Age.

Interestingly, polio vaccine discoverer Jonas Salk anticipated such a cognitive change in the foundations of cultures, saying the future well-being of humankind depended on it. In an essay written shortly before his death, Salk said much of where we are in civilization we owe to "ego values"—essentially, left brain values. But, he said, our future well-being now depends on shifting toward "being values"—essentially, right brain values. Salk's "ego values" vs. "being values" construct includes intellect vs. intuition, reason vs. feeling, objective vs. subjective, competition vs. collaboration and win-lose vs. win-win.

Parenthetically, given women's steadily rising prominence in government, business, and other typically male-dominated professions, it's worth reflecting on ego values, which emanate from masculine worldviews steeped in an ethos of conquest and control, and on being values, which emanate from feminine worldviews that project an ethos of seduction and cooperation.

Pink believes companies in the U.S. must adapt to the more feminine right brain values to optimize their future prospects. He bases his argument on what he terms the "three As": Automation, Asia and Affluence." Automation has turned many left brain tasks into processes that can be managed more economically in Asia. An over-abundance of consumer goods has depreciated the excitement factor of acquisitiveness, which according to Pink turns people toward experiential sources of excitement.

A Whole New Mind is a worthwhile read because it captures on a surface level the essence of what is arguably the biggest cultural shift in modern times. However, my rationale for why this is happening differs from Pink's take as well as that of most writers who try to explain what's behind the cultural changes we're seeing on a scale that arguably has never been seen in the past.

Hardly anyone, including Pink, seems aware that when the majority of adults became middle aged and older, the foundations of culture dramatically change. With people 40 and older numbering over 130 million, and 18-39-year-olds numbering only about 86 million, our society (and all societies in the developed world) is dominated by people well past the years of starting careers, families, and their ascents up the social ladder. Inevitably this means big changes in how society works—socially, culturally, and economically.

Had the median age not risen to levels that placed most adults in midlife or later age brackets, Dan Pink's book would lack relevance, regardless of his three As. The cognitive shifts in culture that he speaks accurately and eloquently to would not be happening.

I went out on a limb over 15 years ago in proposing in my book Serving the Ageless Market that beginning in midlife certain cognitive functions tend to reflect increasing influence by the brain's right hemisphere. Recent brain research supports this hypothesis. Given the progressive drift toward the right hemisphere in later life, the majority status of people in the second half of life makes it inevitable that society would now be projecting stronger right brain bias in culture than existed when youth ruled markets.

Pink also fails to draw the dots between the world he sees emerging and the Internet. In a later post I will offer a view that not only addresses that deficit, but that connects the dots between the Internet's role in accelerating the influence of the aging of society in driving cognitive shifts in the foundations of culture.

Note from See David's thread on the Age of Transcendence where he discusses the new era he says we're entering.