I was fortunate to be able to attend this public lecture by Iain McGilchrist at Edinburgh University yesterday evening. The lecture can’t have been easy for McGilchrist, since he had a diverse audience ranging from novice to expert across various disciplines. He couldn’t assume that everyone knew the key ideas presented in his book, ‘The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’, and therefore needed to cover this for novices, whilst at the same time presenting more challenging ideas for those very familiar with his book and work. From my perspective, the lecture was well worth the journey from southern Cumbria.
McGilchrist’s research interest focuses on the relationship and differences between the left and right brain hemispheres. Much past work has focused on the polarisation between the two hemispheres, often resulting in two lists of LH and RH characteristics as seen in the image below:
These types of views which pit left brain against right brain, have now largely been discredited and McGilchrist is at pains to point out that both hemispheres are involved in everything. For example both the right and left hemispheres have a role to play in creativity. Nevertheless, he is also clear that his interest lies in the differences between the two hemispheres. After all, it is a physical fact that the brain as an organ is divided down the middle and is asymmetrical in just about every way you can think of; there definitely are differences. McGilchrist knows from his work in psychiatry that problems of symmetry are central to human dysfunction and there is a tension between the work of the left and right brain.
This tension is one of attention, which is so well depicted in this RSA Animate video.
‘Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis, like M.C. Escher’s hands that draws the hand that draws the hand.” (The Master and His Emissary, p.134)
Attention is a type of awareness and has to be conscious. There are two kinds of attention. We have to be able to focus with a lot of attention, but also be able to maintain wide open uncommitted attention. The former type of attention is the attention of the left hemisphere (LH) which gets things and manipulates them and controls with a grasping hand (‘I’ve grasped it’); the latter is the attention of the right hemisphere (RH) which sees the bigger picture and how complex life is. These differences are consistent across many domains, such as music, morality, language and all the domains of experience, and have been evidenced in scientific research of various types, e.g. work with stroke victims. Details of some of this research can be found in McGilchrist’s book.
McGilchrist acknowledged that it is very difficult to write a book about the work of the RH, because a book is, in most instances, necessarily presented in a linear format. Deleuze and Guattari, in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ tried to overcome this by presenting their ideas as chapters and concepts that could be read independently of each other (independent plateaus) and in any order, but language is dominated by the left hemisphere, even if the RH has a role to play. The LH has the power of speech and manipulation and it is much easier to articulate ideas using the LH. So in the lecture McGilchrist resorted to a list to emphasise the tensions that exist between the right and left hemispheres, which he discussed under the following headings, with the right hemisphere presented on the left of each pair of tensions:
- The new vs. the known
- Possibility vs. certainty
- Flow vs. fixity
- The whole vs. parts
- Integration vs. division
- Implicit vs. explicit
- Context vs. abstraction
- Qualification vs. quantification
- Animate vs. inanimate
- Realistic vs. optimistic
- Presence vs. representation
McGilchrist’s interest is in how the two hemispheres interact, in the nature of interhemispheric relations and the asymmetry of interhemispheric inhibition. Why? Because he believes that in this modern age there are increasing pressures to adopt a LH mode of thinking possibly to the detriment and neglect of the RH and for him this is history repeating itself. He pointed out that the Greek, Roman and Renaissance periods all had the left and right hemispheres working beautifully together at the outset, but over time, as these cultures developed empires and became more bureaucratic, dealing with things remotely and in abstraction, moved towards LH dominance. And what happened to these cultures? They ultimately collapsed.
The thrust of McGilchrist’s lecture was therefore a warning against valuing left hemisphere over right hemisphere thinking, which in his book he illustrates with reference to Einstein:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society which honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein
Allowing the left hemisphere to dominate our ways of thinking, learning and working will result in a world in which
- We lose the broader picture
- Knowledge is replaced by information
- Wisdom is lost
- There is a loss of the concepts of skills and judgment
- There is increased abstraction and reification
- Bureaucracy will flourish
- There is a loss of a sense of uniqueness
- There is a focus on quantity rather than quality
- There is either/or thinking
- Reasonableness is replaced by rationality
- There is a failure of common sense
- Systems are designed to maximize utility
- There is a loss of social cohesion
- The result is depersonalization
- There is a lack of trust
- We become passive victims
- Art becomes conceptual, music is reduced to rhythm, and language becomes diffuse
- There is deliberate undercutting of awe and wonder
- Tacit forms of knowing are discarded
- We become spectators rather than actors
And all this is accompanied by a dangerous optimism that we are doing the right thing. Clearly we are not learning from history.
So McGilchrist’s main message is that we are at risk of allowing the LH to dominate and we neglect the work of the RH at our cost. The Master (the RH) sent his Emissary (the LH) out to do his work, but his Emissary has taken control, believing that he no longer needs his Master and has betrayed him.
McGilchrist is now turning his attention to how this might impact on our education, schools and universities and is in the process of writing a book about how science and education are becoming increasingly left brained. The title of the book will be The Porcupine is a Monkey.
‘That is the major import of the title The Porcupine is a Monkey: that we live in a world where our theory about what life is like blinds us to what accumulated experience tells us it is like. We prioritise the consistency of our theory over what we know from experience. We take porcupines for monkeys because that is what our theory tells us they are.’
‘…..we need a whole new way of thinking about the nature of reality, one that understanding the way our brain works can help us achieve.’