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Sep 12
Opinion Pieces
A Tendency to Tamper

Reflections on our left-brain approach to everyday life and the nature of reality

by Larry Barnett

My seven-year-old granddaughter and I were watching an animated movie about a curious fairy who is told by her Fairy Master not to tamper with Pixie Dust. She does, of course, and an accident caused by one of her experiments wreaks havoc with the Fairy Village.

As we usually do, we talked about the movie. After I picked her up at school the other day, she asked me exactly what “tamper” means. “Well,” I said, “tampering is experimenting with combining or changing things without being sure what will happen. Like when that fairy fooled around with Pixie Dust not knowing what the new Pixie Dust would do.” “You mean like discovering she could make pink Pixie Dust?” she asked. “Yes, exactly” I replied. “Remember when we talked about how a chemist mixes different things to make new combinations? It’s just like that. People tamper with stuff all the time, and sometimes what they discover is good and sometimes bad. They have to know what they are doing. And,” I added sagely, “some things are dangerous and should not be tampered with at all. Understand?” “Papa” she said, and then paused. “You tamper with words.”

She was, of course, correct. Words and language are one of our first forms of “media,” and as such people tamper with them endlessly. Language skill is concentrated in the brain’s left hemisphere. Our brain hemispheres, while innately cooperative, also compete for attention, and in our word-oriented society it’s no surprise that the left hemisphere has become dominant. With a penchant for dividing and fragmenting the experience of the world into bits and pieces, naming each of them, and then using those names to explore and tamper, our left hemisphere successfully convinces us that objective reality exists, even though we must use our subjective experience of self to confirm it. This paradox has produced bushels of philosophers.

The tendency to tamper is not limited to people. Playfulness in young animals can be seen as tampering or experimenting with the nature of experience. Thus both play and tampering are connected with curiosity, and with the quest for forms of understanding that support survival. Eventually, the outcome of these activities becomes “what is known,” and habits and behaviors reflect subsequent certainty of action. The world becomes more predictable, and cause and effect become reliable instruments of satisfying desire.

Through language–and particularly through the use of written language, which allows for the widest possible distribution of knowledge–human culture relies on making things as predictable as possible, even though the complexity of existence renders our efforts only partially successful. Though at the sub-atomic level only probabilities pertain, the scale of daily life appears almost mechanical in the reliability of its operation. Convinced we can accurately predict the future, we tamper –sometimes through computer modeling, and sometimes fairy-like, through uncertain experiments. Our vision, unfortunately, is too often short-sighted, and negative long-term effects of our tampering arise; convinced it is the source of all wisdom, our left hemisphere then continues to tamper even more.

Our right brain hemisphere does not tamper, and it knows differently; it does not divide and conquer, but seeks unity and connection. Its language is that of intuition, resonance, and relationship. Feelings are its guide to survival. We can sense its longing and its powerful message; accordingly, our survival depends not just upon tampering, but attention to the wordless wisdom of the heart.

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7 responses to “ A Tendency to Tamper ”
  1. Larry Barnett
    Sep 19, 2017

    I read the Abram’s book a number of years ago, Christine, and found it quite illuminating. Marshall McLuhan believed that it was the phonetic alphabet, as opposed to Chinese Pictograms for example, which instilled the bias towards linear thinking. I think he was correct, and he builds that case splendidly in The Gutenberg Galaxy. Without question, our left-hemisphere-dominated western culture needs a good dose of retraining to balance itself better between left-brain “mind of separation” (distinctions and indications) and right-brain “mind of unity” (relationships and connectedness); Shambhala teachings (among others) seem to be oriented precisely on this issue. I also think the left/right bias can also be seen in the subordination of “the feminine” and its aspects which are seen as “weak” and “unreliable”. The right hemisphere is the seat of intuition, sense of connection to living things and language “without words.” Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. Larry Barnett
    Sep 18, 2017

    An exceptional book well worth reading!

  3. marguerite
    Sep 16, 2017

    (oops, I just noticed you’d mentioned that work in the comment above! The link may nonetheless be useful to someone)

  4. marguerite
    Sep 16, 2017

    Greetings, are you familiar with the work of Iain McGilchrist? His fine book “The Master and His Emissary” requires dedication to read,; this 32-minute video introduces his work very well:
    Dr Iain McGilchrist speaking on The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbUHxC4wiWk.

  5. Christine Heming
    Sep 15, 2017

    Hello Larry. These right-brain/left-brain issues have been around for a long time. We are a society that has clearly valued left-brain analytic processes over the intuitive processes of the right-brain. But I would like to share something more about language. It comes from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram. While “words” seem to be processed by the left, both hemispheres have language. We have just become less and less able to “read” the language of a place, of song birds, of the air itself. I think our notion of drala has a lot to do with learning to “read” this other language and then communicate with it. Indigenous cultures could do this. But with the alphabet came linear time and objectified space. With written language, events are given permanence, fixity and a repeatable quality; they are no longer part of a sensory reciprocity between perceiver and perceived. That said – spoken and written words can be more than fixed concepts. The Sakyong, like his father, has been very particular about how to use words, and he has said that words have a transmission quality, a magic. Perhaps that magic occurs when through reflection the words take us to that place beyond words, to a deeper intuitive meaning. Is this the left and right sides in harmony?

    Thanks for stimulating some thought here. Am I tampering?

  6. Larry Barnett
    Sep 15, 2017

    Hello Ellen: No good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy intended, simply the recounting of work done by brain researchers like Iain McGilchrist in his thorough study “The Master and his Emissary” which explores the ways in which the functioning of the hemispheres differ, the ways they compete and the ways they collaborate, as well as inhibit each other. Tampering and playfulness both can be seen as forms of learning, of course; they are not mutually exclusive. Thanks for caring enough to comment.

  7. Ellen Berger
    Sep 13, 2017

    I just cannot agree with this view of one-half of the brain being a good guy vs. one-half being a bad guy. Also,
    playfulness is not tampering with experience, it’s learning.

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