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At the beginning of March we had an amazing fall of snow.

Snow March 1 2015 2

In the space of half an hour we had about four inches. A village friend said to me later that he had never seen snowflakes so big – he described them as being the shape and size of feathers – and this is from someone who has lived in this village for eons. The flakes certainly were bigger than any I have ever seen, and they were the shape of feathers, those downy feathers you get from chickens and ducks, and in no time at all the hill that I can see from my study window was covered with people sledging.

Snow March 1 2015

It was just as well that they took advantage of it, because within a few hours (unlike the incredible pictures that I have seen from the east coast of America and Canada this year), the snow was all gone. But it was quite magical while it lasted and also quite magical because it didn’t last.

Like February, March has been a month of sunshine and shade, both in terms of the weather and in terms of my life, although the month has definitely ended on a high.

The darker side of this month has been around my experience of and thinking about the meaning of ‘open’ in the online environment. I have always had reservations about how ‘open’ to be online, and this month’s happenings confirmed for me that ‘less is more’. I received some very good advice from a friend who said ‘…. everybody gets to have an opinion or ask a question, but they aren’t automatically entitled to a response’. I have remembered that many times this month, but I am also saddened by the increasing number of people who seem to be subject to online abuse. When I first started to work online, more than a decade ago, we always used to say to the students – ‘Remember that there is a human being on the end of your post and always believe, at least initially, in their best intentions’.

But of course every cloud has a silver lining, or some clouds have silver linings, i.e. along with the dark side comes the sunshine and this experience of having difficulties with ‘openness’ online is now feeding into three research papers, all with people I really respect and enjoy working with.

Also this month I have, with my friend and research colleague, Frances Bell, had a presentation proposal  accepted for Liverpool John Moore’s Teaching and Learning Conference in June. I expect we will be blogging about this nearer the time. I am really pleased about this, not least because Ron Barnett, who I have long admired, will be speaking on the second day of the conference.

But the highlight of this month has been the four-day course about the Divided Brain featuring Iain McGilchrist, that I attended this month in the Cotswolds, UK. I have written a series of blog posts about this. This was a wonderful course. I had already read McGilchrist’s book (some parts very slowly word for word, other parts more lightly), but the seminars over four days made it all fall into place. I could see many, many connections between Iain’s work and my own life, work and recent thinking. I am amazed that when I look back through this blog many of the posts relate to some of the ideas discussed in Iain’s seminars. It was really good for me, this month, to hear someone of Iain McGilchrist’s standing reaffirm my understanding that we need both dark and light experiences to have a full, rich and embodied view of the world. As I have written before on this blog, ‘dark’ experience is needed to clearly see the ‘light’. The overall message from the course was one of optimism. Iain McGilchrist was optimistic, feeling that despite our apparent increasing tendency to allow the left hemisphere to dominate our view of the world, (a manipulative, decontextualised, inanimate, abstract and static view), mankind has, in history, overcome this before and will again, allowing a more empathetic, understanding, holistic, open and embodied view of the world to come into being.

I too am feeling more optimistic as we move into April.

Monday 23rd March pm

This is my final post in a series of posts I have written following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 13.36.32Source of image: RSA Animate Video

Final Thoughts

The final session with Iain McGilchrist was an open question and answer session. This last post about this fantastic course, allows me the opportunity to write about three things.

  1. Iain’s writing process. We asked him to share this with us and he kindly did, but in a previous session
  2. The possible implications of his work for education
  3. My own final thoughts

Iain McGilchrist’s writing process.

It took Iain 20 years to research and write his now acclaimed book….

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

… which has been the subject of this four day course. He told us that he finds writing a hugely difficult process. He told us that he is a very slow reader, having to regularly stop and mull over sentences or needing to read aloud. After his research and when he was ready to start writing ‘The Master and His Emissary’, he found he had writer’s block. He just couldn’t seem to get going and couldn’t understand why he was finding it so difficult. He tried various strategies, one being that he wrote all the themes/topics of the book on separate cards, laid them on the floor and tried to work out how to organise and connect them so that the links would be coherent. That approach didn’t work, but it did lead him to write a 1236 page draft outline for the book! Ultimately a good friend read the draft and helped him to shape the book. For an example of the beautiful writing this led to, I can recommend reading two paragraphs from pages 230 and 231 of his book starting at:

The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. …..

and finishing with the sentence…

Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.

 (Iain McGilchrist, 2010, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, p.230-231).

I have selected these two paragraphs to quote, not only for the beauty of the writing, but also because Iain told us that this was the only part of the book that he had no difficulty writing. He got up one morning and it just flowed out of him.

The Divided Brain. Implications for Education

Another question put to Iain was what were his thoughts about the implications of his work for theories of learning and pedagogies in use. He did not want to talk about theory, but instead talked about the need to trust teachers to know. We can’t have a fail/safe system, so we should make it easier to get rid of poor teachers and allow good teachers the freedom to get on with the job.

In terms of the curriculum he thinks that in the past it has been either too broad or too narrow. We should be teaching ways of thinking and being. This is what the curriculum should focus on. Students should experience a demanding curriculum (and students usually do rise to expectations), through which they learn how to think. Subjects which can be experienced and learned outside the education system should be removed from the curriculum. The focus should be on subjects that teach us how to think and ‘be’. Subjects such as philosophy, languages, music and the arts are important.

Having had a long career in teaching, all this makes sense to me.

My final thoughts

I have found the writing up of these notes in a series of blog posts, extremely helpful. The notes are almost exactly as I wrote them during the four day course. Additions have been made where I have had to go and look something up that I have not understood either because my notes were insufficient, or simply because it was new to me. But I have not added much of my own interpretation. I am not ready to do that yet. I am still processing the enormous breadth of information and ideas I was introduced to over the four days. As one of the course participants said, it is rare to have the opportunity to enter into in-depth discussion with such a knowledgeable and wise man as Iain MacGilchrist.

My concern about these notes/blog posts is that they are necessarily my selection. What was it that I did not ‘hear’, how much did I miss, how much was I simply not ready for? I would not like anyone reading these blog posts to think that they are a record of what Iain McGilchrist said. Rather they are what I think he said.

I think it would be fair to say that this is the best course I have been on for many years. For me a measure of a good course is what I come away with. While I was there I enjoyed the beautiful location in the Cotswolds, UK, the excellent accommodation and food, the warm and friendly course participants and the way in which the course leaders were open to allowing us, the participants, to determine what we wanted to discuss and how we wanted to spend our time. But I have come away with so much more, not least a very long reading list!

I have already signed up to go on the course again next year. It will run in the same location between the 19th and 22nd August 2016. See the Field & Field website – and of course it is open to anyone who can get to the UK. We had one participant from Amsterdam and Iain himself had to drive 11 hours from the Isle of Skye to be with us.

Monday 23rd March am

This is the penultimate (or that is the plan!) in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

The Power of No. Iain McGilchrist

Iain will explore creativity and the role that negation inevitably plays in it. (From the course booklet)

In this session Iain discussed the value of saying ‘No’, which I took to mean saying ‘No’ to the dominance of the left hemisphere’s view of the world, and referred us to others who have said this before in a variety of ways. Many ideas were referenced and my notes feel like a list of references that should be followed up, but they all relate to ‘The Power of No’ and the role of negation in creativity. Because what follows feels to me a bit disjointed, I have tried to pull out the key messages (at least the key messages for me) in bold font.

There are two choices – saying ‘no’ and ‘not saying no’, in order to say yes later.

Iain told us that capitalism wants us to be ‘doing’ and saying ‘Yes’. However, there are things being done that should not be done and we should give more thought to not doing things. We need to stop, attend and listen to what emerges. ‘No’ comes prior to ‘Yes’.

(Here, I need to stress again that this course was not about politics or religion, but much of what was discussed could be applied to our understanding of both).

Wisdom from the Greek philosophers onwards is associated with not knowing (e.g. Socrates), which should not be confused with ignorance.

‘Do nothing and there is nothing left undone’ is a pearl of ancient Chinese wisdom inspired by chapter 48 of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) written by Lao Zi (Lao Tsu) (See Shawn Cartwright, Yinong Chong and Ted Nawalinski’s website).

In Lewis Carroll’ s ‘Through the Looking Glass’, we see Alice finding the Red Queen by standing back and walking in the opposite direction:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 16.16.47Source of image

‘I think I’ll go and meet her,’ said Alice, for, though the flowers were interesting enough, she felt that it would be far grander to have a talk with a real Queen.

‘You can’t possibly do that,’ said the Rose: ‘I should advise you to walk the other way.’

This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing, but set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment, and found herself walking in at the front-door again.

A little provoked, she drew back, and after looking everywhere for the queen (whom she spied out at last, a long way off), she thought she would try the plan, this time, of walking in the opposite direction.

It succeeded beautifully. She had not been walking a minute before she found herself face to face with the Red Queen, and full in sight of the hill she had been so long aiming at.

Alice achieved her goal by taking an indirect route. Negation is important in not doing the obvious and not taking the direct route. This has also been written about by John Kay in his book Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. Systems theory thrives on obliqueness and may provide a language with which to explore otherness (See references to Peter Checkland and Donella Meadows). Parsimony and not wanting more and more (which the left hemisphere might drive us to do) may be better than striving to get hold of more things.

The strategy of delaying or taking an indirect approach can be seen throughout history, with the classic example coming from the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus and his avoidance of frontal assaults in favour of a war of attrition. William Ophuls in his books ‘Immoderate Greatness’ and ‘Plato’s Revenge’, also takes up this theme that civilizations thrive better without grandiose schemes. (See also ‘The Blunders of our Governments’ by King & Crewe). There is a strong relationship between quantity and quality; more is not better, as we can see in what tourism is doing to some places on our planet.

We can also see the relationship between negation and creativity in Genesis in the Bible. As mentioned in a previous post, the story tells of a world created by taking things apart.

John Keats was the first person to use the term ‘negative capability’  to describe this capability of tolerating uncertainty, doubt and ambivalence. Familiarity has a deadening effect but negation unleashes things and opens them up. Wordsworth used negatives and comparators in his poetry especially in the poem Tintern Abbey. The principle of ‘negative capability’ – the capacity to be uncertain and think beyond presuppositions – is important for tolerating ambiguity and not closing things down.

According to the Kabbalah the first act of creation is often ‘withdrawal’, followed by ‘shattering’ and then ‘repair’. This website explains this in more detail.

Also as mentioned in previous posts, things become clearer by being cleared away and our brains need to lose neurons to grow, which can be thought of as neuronal pruning. See also the reference to sculpture in my first post in this series. Like sculpture, good literary criticism also reveals, whereas bad literary criticism gets in the way, gets between you and the subject.

The words “Das Nichts nichtet’ have been attributed to Heidegger. Possible meanings are ‘The nothing noths’ or ‘Nothing is something that does nothing’ expressing the need to create space for creativity. See also Brad Warner’s book – ‘There is no God and He is Always With You’. Related to this is Karl Popper’s emphasis on the logic of falsification:

‘The Popperian criteria for truth incorporate the notion that we can never prove something to be true; all we can do is prove that the alternatives are untrue.’ (p.230 The Master and his Emissary).

Sometimes less is more, although they can be very close and every ‘Yes’ brings its ‘No’. Asymmetry stems from symmetry and vice versa.

The session ended with reference to Heraclitus’ belief in the unity of opposites, that everything fits together in a relationship of tension, that oppositional forces enrich… and finally

… a reading from William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey , Iain’s favourite poem by his favourite poet.

 

Authors and Philosophers referred to during this session

Lewis Carroll (1872). Through the Looking Glass

Peter Checkland. Soft Systems Methodology 

Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

John Kay (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. Profile Books

King, A. & Crewe, I. (2013). The Blunders of our Governments. Oneworld Publications

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Donella Meadows (1972). The Limits to Growth. Signet. See also http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/a-synopsis-limits-to-growth-the-30-year-update/

Donella Meadows. Dancing with Systems

William Ophuls (2012). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

William Ophuls (2013). Plato’s Revenge. Politics in the Age of Ecology. MIT Press

Brad Warner (2013). There is no God and he is always with you. New World Library

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) Tintern Abbey

Sunday 22nd March pm

This is the sixth in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Trying to be sane in an insane world

With the course now nearing the end, key messages are repeated and key themes emerge more clearly, principally that the malaise of modern man is a malaise of the spirit.

(I should say, at this point, that it might sound from the progression of these course notes, that this was a depressing, dark course, but not at all. The words I would use to describe the course in general are thought-provoking, stimulating and deeply affective.)

And so we started this session with a quote from Carl Jung.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.00.51Source of Image

The inscription reads Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit, which translates as ‘Invoked or not, God will be present’.

The premise of this session was that our society is sick and going off the rails. The illnesses we see at the level of the individual we also see at the level of society (and we need to remember here that Iain comes from a medical background and practices as a psychiatrist). The microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of society reflect each other. The connection with sanity was illustrated with five principles to follow for good health:

  1. Take self-responsibility and awareness of boundaries seriously so as not to become subsumed amongst a common mass of misunderstanding
  2. Take trust and acceptance seriously
  3. Promote balance and harmony in work and relationships
  4. Try to see the ‘big picture’
  5. Be aware of ‘otherness’ beyond the material world

These five principles reflect Iain’s personal view based on his experience, reading and knowledge of great scholars from the past, such as Erasmus, who developed sophisticated critiques of contemporary life.

In addition an important part of the process of growth and health is to accept the notion of the ‘dark side’ or the ‘shadow side’ and not to deprive it of its power. This is an ancient wisdom which was recognized by Shakespeare in The Tempest. In looking this up, I found this written about and explained by Barry Beck in his writing about a Jungian Interpretation of the Tempest (the underlining is mine).

A very important line which Prospero speaks near the end of the play is, ‘These three have robbed me, and this demi-devil (for he’s a bastard one) had plotted with him to take my life. Two of these fellows you must know and own; this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ Prospero is saying Trinculo and Stephano are the responsibility of Alonzo’s court, but more importantly, Prospero is finally fully owning, acknowledging and taking responsibility for Caliban, his shadow, his unconscious. In his growth and individuation, he has taken a big step toward integrating his shadow within himself.

How sane is our society?

Responsibility and boundaries: From an individual point of view, we can take too much or too little responsibility. We have to accept responsibility for who we are and in this boundaries are important, because they are creative and make us who we are. Boundaries are semi-permeable, but some boundaries are necessary for freedom. An important boundary is that between inner and outer. From a society view, boundaries and responsibility have been eroded by the State. We don’t take responsibility for ourselves. We are ‘nannied’. The State spies on us and we are manipulated by the internet. For example, Google controls our searches, giving us back what it thinks we want, and trapping us in a ‘hall or mirrors’.

Trust and acceptance: From an individual point of view, we are social animals so trust and acceptance are very important. Nothing can happen without trust. We can’t do anything unless we are able to trust. The need for certainty and aversion to risk in our society leads to conditions such as panic and agoraphobia. Without trust we are on a treadmill of trying to achieve more. Trust is also needed for self-acceptance. We need self-acceptance before we can accept others. We need to accept ourselves with our limitations and face the ‘dark side’. Comparing oneself with others is toxic. The question of whether and how trust can be restored in a modern democracy was the subject of Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith lectures.  Reith lectures are available to download from the BBC but I’m not sure how accessible these are to people outside the UK. From a society view, trust is an old fashioned idea. We used to police ourselves, but now we live in a society of surveillance. A lack of trust in society is costly as we see in cases of litigation.

Balance and harmony: From an individual point of view, there is a tendency in today’s society for people to get unbalanced. Instead of allowing things to balance by taking a more circular approach to life, we follow linear targets. From a society view, work-life balance is difficult to manage. At work everyone is asked to do more and there is more to do, because of lack of trust. Think of all that accountability paperwork.

Seeing the big picture: From an individual point of view, there are lots of problems associated with having a narrow view rather than seeing the broader picture. In doing this we tend to personalize and generalize things that have gone wrong, and spend too much time living in an abstract world in our heads. From a society view, it is difficult to see the big picture. We live in a ‘black and white’ world, focusing on the short-term rather than taking a long-term view. We see this in companies and governments and the evidence is that they do not thrive by taking the narrow, short-term view.

Awareness of ‘other’: From an individual point of view we need to be open to the unknown. A failure of gratitude and forgiveness leads to problems. When there is no sense of ‘beyond’ we have no need to attend. Meditation and mindfulness can help us to step aside. From a society view, the official view is one of materialism. Awareness of ‘other’ is played down, but not to know the divine is to be very diminished.

In closing this session Iain referred to some of the philosophical movements that are the subject of the second part of his book The Master and His Emissary. These movements, with evidence from art and literature, show how we have moved away from RH thinking to become dominated by LH thinking.

The session ended with reference again to the work of Carl Jung, who believed that there are things that we are not aware of that are powerful, that are good and bad, that are beyond our consciousness and that have consequences, whether or not we take them into account. We can be drawn towards a virtuous life in which we are disposed to believe (or love) or we can be driven from behind, pushed by a set of propositions.

What does it mean to lead a virtuous life? What does it mean to flourish?

Authors and Philosophers referred to during this session

Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) Panopticon 

Desiderius Erasmus (1466 -1536)

Jonathan Haidt (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Allen Lane.

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Onoro O’Neill (2002). A Question of Trust: The BBC Reith Lectures. Cambridge University Press.

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

Sunday 22nd March am

This is the fifth in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

Iain will reflect on the way our society is drifting towards mechanism and the destroying of the grounds of mental and spiritual health. (From the course booklet)

Participants on the course commented that somehow this session generated a collective energy. I recognized this too, but at the time felt that the content of this session was easier to follow and maybe related more closely to our personal experiences of life and work. Whatever the reason, it was on this third day that I could see a lot of ‘Ah-Ha’ moments in the group.

Iain’s opening question was one to make us all sit up.

‘You will die, but were you ever alive?’

For Iain, life is spontaneous, super-abundant, diverse and full of possibility. Possessions do not provide the means to understand the joy of life. People can have a genuine delight in living with relatively little.

He explained that in this session he would talk about:

  • the business of life – birth, sex and marriage (procreation), death
  • the hemispheres and machines
  • machines and deanimation
  • are we becoming machines?

Birth, sex and marriage, death

Iain made it clear that in talking about this he was talking about the situation in the West, and more than that, within Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democracies, the group that has now come to be known as WEIRD. (See this article on the problems of using this sample for studies of human behaviour). Despite this, and because those of us on the course were almost all WEIRDos :-), he shared with us that research into this sample has shown that

  • the birth rate is declining and mother/infant relationships are under threat with increasing numbers of women working full time;
  • 70% of internet activity is related to porn and 20-40% of 19-25 year olds have no interest in sex. The attraction of sex is declining;
  • porn robs sex of its power through its explicitness.

Iain illustrated this point through the example of hikikomori – young Japanese who withdraw from society and never leave their rooms (see image below), even to the point of having trays of food left outside their doors.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 15.42.23 Source of image

  •  Neither has the relationship between the sexes improved over the years –  what used to be a dance is now a legal code.
  • Touch has become an issue in many spheres of life and professions. Nurses are not permitted to touch patients and teachers are not permitted to touch their pupils. Life is less embodied. There is less activity in the natural world- things are more virtual and disembodied. Risk avoidance has become an obsession, but we will die.

Death confirms life, but the ability of death to tell us about life and the value of life, is on the decline. We attempt to preserve life and defy death by hooking up to machines. This reminded me of a recent radio programme that suggested that many of the elderly would welcome death and that we don’t do them any favours by prohibiting this through interventions such as flu jabs. In the past, flu would have been a cause of death for many of the elderly, at a time when death would have been welcomed. I know that this is a generalization, but I found it interesting.

The hemispheres and machines

The left hemisphere world works the way machines work. It is a world of certainty, fixity, parts, division, abstraction, reification, quantification, inanimation, representation, utility, depersonalisation ……. and more. The question of ‘What would the left hemisphere’s world look like?’ is fully explained in the final chapter of Iain’s book – The Master and his Emissary (see p. 428).

Machines and deanimation

Machines devitalise us. They remodel the boundaries of a person such that we lose sense of proper boundaries. The internet erodes privacy, photos create emotional distance and technology can give inappropriate power.

We have become over-reliant on machines. Here in the UK we are the most observed society on earth and we can’t rely on machines being in the hands of people who are benign. It is now possible to send a drone through the open window of your home to observe you. Are we going to have to live in a world where we can’t open our windows? This reminded me of this video I saw recently – not on Iain’s course – but relevant to the topic and showing a scary level of surveillance.

Machines (Iain was principally talking about the effects of the internet here) affect our emotional movement and attention. We think we can multitask but in fact this is impossible (I agreed with this!). We need to pay attention. Our involvement with machines stops depth of reflection and robs us of the time to live.

Machines also bring unrealistic expectations. We now think we can outsource our memories through machines, through the use of calculators, sat navs etc. Of course these machines are useful, a lot about technology is good, but not if we over rely on it. Why? – because we are the sum of our memories. For example, memorizing a poem becomes part of us, and influences how we feel about things (and Iain was able to quote poetry liberally from memory). If we stop remembering then we are not a full person. For anyone who has a relation with Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia, this resonates.

For a story which explores dependence on machines, read E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops – . Here is an online link to the whole story – http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

Are we becoming machines?

There is some evidence to suggest that we are in danger of losing aspects of our humanity. A Toronto teacher contacted Iain to tell him that after a career in teaching for many years, she now has to teach children how to read the human face. The children are less empathic than they used to be and less able to maintain sustained attention. This is an indication of left hemisphere dominance over the right hemisphere.

People with right hemisphere failure, such as schizophrenics, believe that they and others are machines.

These days we want explicitness, precision and speed, i.e. we want things to be machine-like, but all these replace trust and human things are better if they are not explicit, precise and fast. Most realities of life don’t allow us to be precise. Life is not like Sudoku. There is not one solution. In life there are no clear and constant objectives, no limited possibilities, no precision. Life is always open to interpretation, objectives are conflicting, consistency is a dubious virtue, and certainty is not necessarily a good thing, although this is not to be in praise of vagueness. The complexity of systems we handle means that they are recursive – we change them by intervention.

There is a lot that can’t be measured or can’t be measured in any way that helps us, e.g. love. We can’t make love explicit or change it’s nature. Measurement leaves things out. Theory deals poorly with the unique. Following rules results in a loss of spirituality and flow, leading to premature ossification of working processes. By focusing we lose the whole picture. Uncertainty and impression are necessary for life.

Hegel has written that the more certain our knowledge, the less we know. (As an aside Hegel, Heidegger and Heraclitus are Iain’s favourite philosophers).

Happiness comes from connection and community. Mental well-being depends on social connectedness. Meaning comes from living and connection. It is a matter of belief. We have to trust and start the process. We have to go and meet life. Mindfulness engages the right hemisphere.

All this might sound as though technology and machines were being demonized, but that was not the case. Everyone on the course recognized the advantages of technology and machines, but perhaps we don’t think enough about the disadvantages. We cannot go backwards, but a machine cannot replace life and it is not the ideal model for life. The world of the left hemisphere is a bit bleak, being more disembodied, lacking in empathy, believing more in representations than presence, and being frighteningly confident and optimistic in its certainty.

Should we say no to the machine model?

Authors referred to during this session

John Elster (1985). Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge University Press. http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/gender/Elster.pdf

Forster, E. M. (1909). The Machine Stops. Oxford and Cambridge Review

Jonathan Haidt (2007). The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom to the test of modern science. Arrow

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Robert Putnam (2001). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster Ltd.

Martin Seligman (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Saturday 21st March pm

This is the fourth in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year, can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language  

What does it mean to think? Iain McGilchrist

What does it mean to think? Part 2 Iain McGilchrist

 The nature of the relationship between individual and society, the one and the many. (From the course booklet)

The focus of this second day of the course was on what it means to think, with the morning session focusing on ‘Think’ and this afternoon session focusing on ‘I’.

At the end of this second day of the course, some participants were feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Iain recognized this so deliberately started on a lighter note and spent the first half hour proving to us that we fail to see what’s in front of our eyes. This was part of the recurring theme of how we attend to the world and how we need to recognize that there are two widely differing ways of attending to the world – the way of the left hemisphere and the way of the right hemisphere. However, most of the time we don’t really know what we are looking at and lack of attention and distractions stop us from seeing changes. This was amply illustrated by a number of videos, and reference to Richard Wiseman (who created the video below), and his work on inattentional blindness.

Focusing on the ‘I’ of ‘I Think’, Iain pointed out that people see what they expect to see and there is no objective reality. He asked, ‘What does it mean when we say ‘I’? ‘What does it mean to be an individual?’ and connected these questions with the concept of ‘necessary distance’. Our frontal lobes (of the brain) put distance between us and experience, but there is a paradox between generalized form and uniqueness. Reality is paradoxical.

We need to put a necessary and proper distance between us and the world. Too far away and we can’t see it. Too close and the fusion is not good. We need opposing forces, but balance is also always required. Iain referenced John Muir’s work on the inter-relationship of things – both competing and cooperating to maintain balance.

Standing back can serve two purposes. It enables us to selfishly manipulate the world, but it also enables us to empathise and be generous. So boundary management becomes important – recognising what the boundaries are and where they should be. Boundaries are necessary for freedom and life. They can’t be rigid. They have to be flexible.

Empathy exists because of the necessary distance we put between us and others. There is no conflict between love of self and love of others. In fact we have to love ourselves before we can love others. Divisions are not diminutions. It is not either/or. Consciousness is relational in every sense.

According to Iain the idea that ‘all is one’ is not true. All is many or at least two. He illustrated this by quoting from the King James Bible where it is written that God created the earth through division, dividing land from sea, night from day, heaven from earth.

But despite these divisions ‘there aren’t solid entities with fixed localities in the universe, …. there are only relationships between things’ and relationships are not things. They are in the spaces between things. ‘And this allows the possibility of things that are so contrary to one another, to complement one another, not to cancel one another out.’ (These quotes are taken from the video below).

Iain told us to put our faith in the ‘cantus firmus’ which will hold the core solid while allowing the possibilities of multiplicity. This reminded me of an online discussion that I had more than three years ago with Matthias Melcher who, with his deep appreciation of and for music, immediately saw the relevance of the cantus firmus. Rather than try and explain it any further here, I will do what Matthias did for me and point you to this video of Iain talking about it. The whole video is worth watching but reference to the relevance of the cantus firmus comes up between 24.53 and 28.37 minutes.

Diversity and sameness empower one another. Competition and co-operation are needed for co-evolution. In this context it is not surprising to be told that the right frontal expansion in the brain is the biggest expansion in the brain. This is the area of social behaviour and here Iain pointed us to Heidi Ravven’s book – The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will – in which she discusses how we are not independent of the culture in which we live.

All boundaries are permeable and we are not sharply defined. We are not autonomous. We share everything, but likewise we are subject to influence by authority and example, and we can be influenced to do terrible things. We are like nodes in a network, both separate and connected.

We can be ‘I as opposed to’ or ‘I as belonging and a part of’. The left hemisphere reinforces ‘I’ness dominated by publicly following the crowd, even if individuals think otherwise. This felt like a sobering note on which to end the day.

Authors referred to during this session

John Muir (1838-1914) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press

The King James Bible

Richard Wiseman https://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/

Saturday 21st March am

This is the third in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my first two posts:

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language  

What does it mean to think? Iain McGilchrist

Iain will problematise the phrase I think: in the morning Iain will look at the embodied nature of cognition and belief, and in the afternoon at the nature of the relationship between individual and society, the one and the many. (From the course booklet)

I found this day the hardest of all four days to get a handle on, but hopefully the process of working through my notes by recording them here, and having a long walk on this beautiful Spring day, will help me to make sense of them. The talks were framed around the phrase ‘I think’ with the morning focusing on ‘Think’ and the afternoon on ‘I’.

Iain started by saying that there is no objective reality – but there is an underlying reality that is there for us to respond to. All thinking – imagining, remembering, cogitating, pondering and so on – is about making things up; all thinking is creative. Creativity is about stopping and allowing it to happen – relating to the world. Thinking can be thought of as ‘methinks’ – it seems to me – or more literally ‘it thinks to me’. So thinking is something that comes into mind. Max Scheler believed that thinking is out there, not in the brain.

There are different kinds of ways of knowing the world and thinking about it; the kind of knowledge that comes from experience (phronesis); knowledge that comes from more information (episteme); techne-knowledge that a craftsman has; and theoretical wisdom (sophia). This relates to Dreyfus’ work on adult skill acquisition, which Iain referred to later in this talk and which I mention in more detail below.

Almost all the thinking we do we are not aware of. Even when unconscious we are planning, reasoning, making decisions – hence the expression ‘Sleep on it’.

Thinking and believing: Belief does not mean signing up to reasons. From ‘Lief’ meaning ‘beloved’, belief is about a process, a relationship. Truth is also always about relationship; being faithful or true to one another. Trust has the same root as truth.

All thinking, believing and notions of truth are tentative and need to be tested. It is not about certainty but about bringing into becoming. These processes are always two-way. Meaning, emotion and reason are not distinct. Thinking and feeling can’t be separated.

To think is to thank. Thinking is not made up by reason. It is not certain, unidirectional and detached. Thinking is receptive and grateful. It is relational. Mind relates to ‘to mind’, which relates to ‘to care’ again suggesting a relationship. Thinking is deeply connected with feeling (feeling probably comes first) and is an embodied way of sensing, which the RH tries to appreciate. The brain seems to ‘ready itself’ for thinking before the thinking takes place. Thinking and bodily preparation for action are closely related, but abstract thought closes down action. All thinking is dependent on the body.

Understanding depends on models and metaphors. A metaphor is how we make a connection between a word and an embodied experience. We tend to see ourselves as machines, but machines can be predicted and controlled and we can’t do this with humans. For example, computers and machines will never take over the work of therapists, i.e. a machine could not take the place of the ‘listening therapist’. We are not ‘things’. We are more than the sum of our parts. The RH is the hemisphere that attends to the whole, the LH to the parts. ‘There are, then, two widely different ways of attending to the world.’ (p.43, The Master and his Emissary).

In talking about the issue of reduction versus holism Iain referred us to Addy Pross’s book ‘What is Life? in which Pross writes (p.50) ‘… – the seeking of generalizations, the recognition of patterns – is at the core of all scientific understanding’. Pattern recognition is the work of the right hemisphere.

‘The right hemisphere sees the whole, before whatever it is gets broken up into parts in our attempt to ‘know’ it. Its holistic processing of visual form is not based on summation of parts. On the other hand, the left hemisphere sees part objects.’ (p.47, The Master and his Emissary).

As an example of this we were asked if we could see the pattern in this image. Of course, once you have seen it, you cannot ‘un-see’ it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.00.16

(See Figure 2.4. Emergence of the Gestalt. p.47 The Master and his Emissary)

The RH is also more active when looking at ambiguous figures such as in the figure below. In this image you can see either the duck or the rabbit, but you cannot see both at the same time. The RH is more tolerant of this uncertainty.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.18.36

Iain went through many more examples of right and left hemisphere differences with particular reference to the images in Chapter 2 of The Master and his Emissary.

Iain then went on to refer us to Dreyfus’ work on adult skill acquisition, which is summarized in this Table, taken from their paper, p.181 (see reference list at the end of this post and for a larger view, click on the image).


Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 09.07.22

My understanding is that Iain used this reference as another example of reduction versus holism. As beginners when learning a skill it is helpful to have some rules (see the comments section of my first post in this series, where there is reference to close reading of poetry and the fact that more structure can be helpful for novice poetry readers). But beyond Skill Level 3 (see Table 1) rules hamper the process and at Stage 5 reflection doesn’t help. We don’t want our surgeons to be referring to a rule book when making life and death decisions, choices are not always a good thing and research has shown that when we have time to review a choice, we often end up making a worse choice. Here Iain referred us to Barry Schwartz’s book – The Paradox of Choice. I interpreted this as meaning that the ‘expert’ takes an intuitive holistic view. For the novice, the skill is first seen by the RH as totally embodied. This is then broken down into individual components when thinking moves to the LH. Ultimately when the level of experience means that the skill is intuitive, there is a return to the RH.

Embodied Thinking and Emotion: Our bodies are not assemblages of parts. There is a direct link between the heart and the brain via the vagal nerve. The heart feeds back to the brain, not just pain, as in the case of chest pain associated with heart conditions, but also in relation to other conditions such as epilepsy and depression. We talk about having a ‘heavy heart’. Depression is a condition of the heart and research has shown that after heart surgery there is an increase in the instance of depression.

Thinking is thus embodied and so we should be mindful of our bodies and how we allow our thoughts to come to us. Thinking is distributed through the body, and there was reference here to the limbic system, which is primarily responsible for our emotional life; we know that emotion affects our immune system. This all relates to the embodied nature of thinking and emotion and the role of the right hemisphere, not only in emotion, but also in empathy and theory of mind. In his book The Master and his Emissary (p.57-64), Iain writes (p.59)

‘… there is evidence that in all forms of emotional perception, regardless of the type of emotion, and in most forms of expression, the right hemisphere is dominant’.

We see this in

‘… the strong universal tendency to cradle infants with their faces to the left, so that they fall within the principal domain of attention of the adult’s right hemisphere, and they are exposed to the adult’s own more emotionally expressive left hemiface.’ (p.61).

Reading this makes me stop and think about which side of my face I present when interacting with others. The RH is more willing to accept someone else’s point of view and is more able to feel someone else’s pain.

The value of slowing down, silence and stopping: This was mentioned quite a few times during the course, i.e. that for creativity, stopping doing things is more important than doing things. We started and ended this session by being reminded that we need to create the mental space for quiet receptivity and more careful attention. Creativity is not just letting things all fall out; we also need to bring critical things into play.

There was a lot more from Chapter 2 (What do the Two Hemisphere’s ‘Do’?) of the Master and his Emissary in this session, which I have not mentioned here. The message I took from this session is that we have not given enough attention to the right hemisphere’s role in thinking, it’s role in believing, feeling, emotion, embodied perception, pattern recognition and creativity, and that we should be more aware of the relationship between these and thinking.

Authors referred to during this session

Anthony Damasio (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books.

Hubert Dreyfus (1979). What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. University of Chicago Press

Dreyfus, S. E. (2004). The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society. 24: 117 Retrieved from: http://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2012/03/Dreyfus-skill-level.pdf

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Addy Pross (2014). What is Life? How Chemistry becomes Biology. Oxford University Press.

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

Barry Schwartz (2005). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (P.S.). Harper Perennial

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