While he is considered one of the world's foremost experts on the brain, psychologist Robert Ornstein has managed to extend that focus well beyond the pale of physiology, dedicating his professional life to increasing our understanding of human nature and the way we think, perceive, know and thrive.
He is best known for his pioneering research on the bilateral specialization of the brain, which has given us the terms "right brain" and "left brain" and firmly established them as important concepts in today's lexicon. But just as significant have been his other contributions, among them:
- The pioneering delineation of the close link between the mind and health;
- The initial integration of key insights about human nature from traditional cultures into the framework of modern psychology;
- The depiction of the mind as composed of multiple processing systems rather than being a unified whole;
- The insight that our brain, evolved to suit the conditions of the Pleistocene era, is obsolete in its "software" to meet the formidable challenges of the 21st century and the call for "conscious evolution" to enable the necessary adaptation.
Underlying each one of these contributions, and his many others, is a decidedly practical bent. No ivory-tower theorist, Dr. Ornstein has carefully chosen his areas of endeavor for their overall usefulness to humanity, from a perspective best described as "big-picture." Coupled with this practicality is a fundamental optimism, a sense that we human beings can, in fact, improve our lot - provided we take a clear-eyed look at our real situation and avoid the pitfalls of complacency, wishful thinking and facile assumptions.
Dr. Ornstein's optimism is rooted in real possibilities rather than pie-in-the-sky idealism and is tempered by a tough-mindedness and scientific rigor that have earned him the respect and admiration of his peers as well as those from many other professions.
His scholarship is as broad as it is thorough, and he has taken a truly interdisciplinary approach to his work, which draws from a score of divergent fields, from biology to ecology to religion. This approach was readily apparent in Human Nature, the award-winning monthly magazine he founded and guided in the mid- and late 1970s. It featured articles and essays by experts from a wide range of disciplines - from anthropology, to sociology, to ecology, to education, to psychology, to medicine, to nutrition, to music, to mysticism. Lewis Thomas, Quentin Bell, Hans Selye, Anne and Paul Ehrlich, Rene Dubos, Margaret Donaldson, Steven Jay Gould, B.F. Skinner, Alexander King and Idries Shah were among the many luminaries who contributed to this seminal publication.
Dr. Ornstein began his study of the bilateral specialization of the brain in the late 1960s, inspired by the work of psychologist Roger Sperry. In a decade of EEG research, carried out from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, Dr. Ornstein and his colleague, David Galin, discovered that, while there is a certain amount of redundancy between the brain's two hemispheres, they each function in fundamentally different ways and are specialized for different types of tasks.
In most people, the left hemisphere is primarily concerned with sequential tasks, such as numerical calculation and spoken language, while the right hemisphere mainly deals with more holistic concerns, such as spatial relationships and aesthetics. Further research has fine-tuned the picture so that it is now understood, as Dr. Ornstein spells out in The Right Mind: Making Sense of the Hemispheres, the left side provides the facts, or "text," and the right the "context" that makes sense of everything - that, rather than being rivals, the two should work together for maximum effectiveness. This right-left brain paradigm has been fundamental to our understanding of the human mind and the way we do virtually everything, from riding a bike to speaking to appreciating a symphony.
Dr. Ornstein, however, has not confined his attention to the intriguing ways in which the brain's hemispheres differ, but chooses, in addition, to extend our self-knowledge in a much broader sense. One way he has done this is by reviewing the vast body of research on how our brains influence our health - much of which lay scattered all over the medical literature - and synthesizing and summarizing it into a form accessible to both the layman and the professional. This was carried out in part through the many activities of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), the educational nonprofit Dr. Ornstein founded in 1969 and still directs. Among these was a series of influential ISHK-sponsored seminars on the mind and health in the 1980s, featuring some of the top names in the field, and the publication of The Mind/Body Health, edited by Dr. Ornstein and colleague David Sobel from 1992 to 2001 under the auspices ISHK. It was also achieved through the books The Healing Brain, Healthy Pleasures and The Healthy Mind, Healthy Body Handbook, all three co-written with Dr. Sobel. The result is that today the mind's profound affect on our physical well-being is much more widely known than it was thirty years ago, by both the medical profession and the general public.
Dr. Ornstein's focus also extends upon the nature of the mind and consciousness, which he has explored in such books as The Roots of the Self, The Psychology of Consciousness, The Evolution of Consciousness, Multimind and Mindreal. In these works, he has shown the human mind to be quite different from the way most of us imagine it. For one thing, far from being a unified whole, it is composed of many disparate "selves" each having their own agenda and are "wheeled in" from the sidelines - some of them quite frequently, others only rarely - to deal with very specific types of situations.
His extensive studies on the nature of the mind led Dr. Ornstein to a revolutionary concept, which he set forth in New World New Mind (written with Paul Ehrlich) and The Axemaker's Gift (written with James Burke). The basic premise is that the human brain evolved to meet the challenges of prehistoric times - forest fires, attacks by wild beasts, the need for food and shelter. All of these are immediate crises signaled by dramatic sensory input, such as the roar of a tiger or the peal of thunder. Yet because of modern advances in culture and technology, such concerns are no longer significant threats to the vast majority of humans on this planet. Today's most serious dangers, from a global perspective, are much more subtle and slow-motion ones, such as overpopulation, pollution and social unrest. But because these threats lack the immediate drama of a fire or a physical attack, they don't register in our still-primitive brains with the same urgency. The result is that we don't give them the attention they deserve, and thus we make little progress toward their solution. Our only recourse, Dr. Ornstein posits, is to undergo what he terms "conscious evolution" - that is, a conscious process of mental adjustment to compensate for the brain's evolutionary shortcomings.
This concept of conscious evolution dovetails with another area of interest to Dr. Ornstein: connecting the findings of contemporary research to the conceptions of mind held by religions and spiritual traditions. While he has little patience with the na´ve "guru-of-the-month" attitude toward spirituality displayed in the West in recent decades, which he criticizes in such books as The Mind Field, neither does he dismiss out-of-hand the idea that we might have something valuable to learn about ourselves from traditional cultures that are very much different from our own. In a number of books, he has drawn on stories and jokes from such traditions, especially that of Sufism, to convey and illustrate concepts that would otherwise be difficult, if not impossible, to put into words. And he has shown how many of the insights from these traditions not only are relevant to our own situation, but correspond strikingly well with the findings of modern psychology. Dr. Ornstein goes so far as to suggest that these traditional ideas and practices can, if properly used, transcend their usual roles as museum pieces or idle amusements to help us achieve the conscious evolution that may once have been a luxury but now, in the face of the unprecedented problems we face in the 21st century, has become a necessity.