#79: Your money worldview is (literally) half-brained

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that the single best thing you can do for your financial health is increase your awareness of the two distinct ‘takes’ on the world that exist in your head, and how left unattended, money fires up the self-destructive one, including:

  • The most fundamental root of why humans fail to make more of their money.

  • How the typical way you live with money is like having brain damage.

  • And… ugh… you probably just want to read it: it’s too important for a pithy summary.

Out of the tens of thousands of hours I’ve spent studying such things, Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary is the best book I’ve read for understanding the world and how to operate within it. It also maps spookily well to everything I’ve written about our screwy relationships with money, and how we fail to make more of the money in our lives.

Therefore, to introduce this magnificent book to a wider audience, and to set it in the most practical of worlds (that constructed by your incessant interactions with money), and to hopefully enhance your understanding of both McGilchrist’s work and my own, I’ll be breaking down the book’s arguments and highlighting the implications for helping you live better with money.

(For the 15-20 hours or so it takes to read it, I’d still highly recommend prioritising The Master and his Emissary over 10x that time spent scrolling. And indeed the 100-150 hours or so to read McGilchrist’s latest, The Matter with Things, which I’ll also be borrowing from, though I appreciate this recommendation is unlikely to be universally followed 😊).

The single most helpful thing you can learn to understand why the way you fail to make more of the money in your life is how your brain has two different – and often contradictory – ways of paying attention to the world.


Why do humans fail to make more of their money?

It is the great puzzle at the heart of financial planning.

Extend ‘money’ to ‘time’, ‘energy’, and any other resource you care to think of, and it becomes the great puzzle of life. Why are we not getting any better at turning our resources, whatever they may be, into the Good Life, whatever that is.

Humans fail to make more of their money, because they approach their money in an inhuman way.

They approach it in a mechanical, robotic, way. A soulless, zombie-like way.

This is why it’s possible to talk of ‘having everything’ and yet still feel like something is missing.

It’s the reason that despite no other age being as good at plundering resources, or doing so with anywhere close to our current levels of efficiency, modern life – especially the lives of the highest-profile plunderers – is characterised not by a flowing, flourishing, fulfilment of individual human potential, but of flatness in the face of untold opportunity, loneliness in the face of unprecedented connection, and idiocy in the face of thousands of years of accumulated wisdom.

Indeed, it’s why, despite wanting wisdom, we plump instead for tips, tricks, and tactics, largely because we know where to find them, whereas where does one go for wisdom? Yet the hacks aren’t only insufficient, but believing they’re a remotely worthy substitute for wisdom is precisely most people’s problem.

We keep trying to solve this same puzzle in the same way. Over and over, oblivious to why each novel expression of the same ‘solution’ didn’t work last time, won’t work next time, or even that our latest hot new ideas are, underneath the advertising, the same cold, dead ends we tried before, merely reheated by hope and naivety.

It’s the reason so many sacrifice so much in the way of time, health, and relationships, for so little by way of the chance to buy stuff they don’t really want to own, driven by pointless perceptions of people they don’t really want to know.

One spoonful of ‘sensible’ solutions to isolated puzzles after another equals one pretty picture of Good at the end, yes?

In each individual moment, each weighing up of two sides of an equation (say, the price of a thing and your credit-card limit, or the macro trade-offs in your retirement plan), the ‘numbers’ make sense. That’s why you did what you did. So in sum, they must add up to something Good, right?

Even if something’s lost along the way, it’s not like this mechanistic approach doesn’t work well enough often enough to offer a hint that it’s probably at least not a terrible approach.

That, unfortunately, is precisely the problem.

Let me explain.

Paying attention to money with only half a brain is no way to live a whole life

As I’ve had reason to point out in probably the most repeated phrase within the 78 previous newsletters, it’s all very well breaking something down for analysis, but don’t forget to put it back together in the context of the human life that analysis is ultimately serving.

Because, assuming you’re a human rather than a zombie, you’re never weighing up two sides of an equation; you’re only ever weighing up two ways of living.

Inside your head is a brain that interacts with the world in two very different ways. Each of your brain hemispheres has a unique ‘take’ on the world.

We’ll go into the details of these ‘takes’ one by one in due course. All you need to be aware of now is that these ‘takes’ lead you to live in contrasting ways.

By way of a quick example, consider that you are a bird. You’re hungry. You want to find some seeds amid a mangle of mud and microplastics. You peck around with a narrow, laser-like focus, highly attuned to spotting the difference between a satisfying snack and a choking hazard.

However, much as you want to eat, you also don’t want to be eaten. This requires a completely different kind of attention. You can’t compromise with the same attentional resource, or you won’t find your lunch, and you’ll probably end up as something else’s. The solution: have half your brain attend to seed-spotting, and the other to predator-detection.

You may think you live in one world. But for all practical purposes, you don’t. The world you live in is shaped by how you pay attention. And you pay attention in two distinct ways: one governed by the left hemisphere, the other by the right.

The way you pay attention to the world determines what world you experience as ‘reality’. If you’re not paying attention to something, it may as well not exist, as the wonderful ‘Did You Spot the Gorilla?’ exercise demonstrates so hilariously well).

(There’s also some super-freaky research involving people with a specific type of right-hemisphere damage that show the extreme version of this: people who genuinely believe that things in their left visual field – which is linked to their right hemisphere – literally do not exist, even if that exact same object did exist when they looked at it from another angle moments before.)

When things are working properly, your world is a blend of both types of attention. Though importantly, because it is only the attention of the right hemisphere that sees the whole (the whole is a distraction for the left, which is interested only in finding seeds as efficiently as possible), it is the right that should have the final say.

Your right hemisphere sends stuff to the left for it to break it down for analysis, but it is only the right that is capable of putting that analysis back into the context of your life.

However, for many reasons, and with even more implications (some of them super-serious) we, especially in the West, are living in a world run by a runaway left hemisphere.

This is bad.

To make things worse, the way money typically influences our lives both expresses, and dangerously supercharges, the left-hemisphere’s take.

This is very, very bad.

Understanding the implications of this is therefore so, so important.

Because the better we spot them, and the better we understand why dumb shit is the way it is, the better we can do something about it.

As McGilchrist wrote in The Matter with Things:

Attention changes the world. How you attend to it changes what it is you find there. What you find there governs the kind of attention you think it appropriate to pay in the future.

The choice we make of how we dispose our consciousness is the ultimate creative act: it renders the world what it is. It is, therefore, a moral act: it has consequences.

The brain is not just a tool for grappling with the world. It’s what brings the world about.

Paying attention to the world according to a runaway left-hemisphere creates a certain type of world. And, attending to the world in a left-hemisphere-biased way makes you more and more likely to see this world, rather than one better aligned with reality. So rather than correcting back to something more balanced, this unreal world becomes increasingly entrenched.

This entrenchment is further and faster reinforced by (and reinforces in turn) your screwy relationship with money.

Pretty much every single point – and there are a lot of them – that McGilchrist makes about the way your left-hemisphere deceives you is a point I’ve made about how money is such a powerful self-deceptive force.

Therefore, if you want to live better with money, understanding what this runaway left-hemisphere take looks like, so you are better able to catch it, and mitigate, or hopefully reverse, its pernicious effects, would be, I think, extraordinarily helpful.

As McGilchrist wrote:

Knowing about the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain helps us to know ourselves, to recognise our strengths and limitations […] helps us to become aware of who we are, what it means to be a human being at all.

This, like my claim that The Master and his Emissary is the best non-fiction book I’ve read, is not hyperbole.

Your runaway left-hemisphere is leading you away from wisdom, and money’s accelerating the journey.

But money also has the map of how to get back.

My hope is that taking McGilchrist’s main points one at a time and highlighting the links each has to money will not only provide easy access to a pretty dense but incredibly important work, but will also help you live more wisely with money in the process.

Your money worldview is constructed with half a brain. And it’s not the wiser half. This is the way to a whole lot of trouble, not the way to live a whole life.

Next post in the Whole-Brain Personal Finance series:

page#81: Financial change that doesn’t start from your financial worldview is selling you short

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