The Divided Brain: implications for education

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.51.53

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:

 Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 17.21.35Source of image 

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)

 DrawingHandsSource of image 

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
  • Optimistic vs. realistic
  • 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.’

12 thoughts on “The Divided Brain: implications for education

  1. keith.hamon November 18, 2014 / 6:47 pm

    Thanks, Jenny. I wish I had been there, as McGilchrist’s ideas have influenced my own thinking about how to behave in the world and how to educate oneself. I particularly like his image of the extended hand, and how, at first, we often cannot tell if a hand is extended to connect or to manipulate—they often look the same. We can’t tell which it is whether it’s our own hand extended or a hand extended toward us, probably because it is seldom all one or the other but a mix of both. Very tricky. I notice that I’m often at my most manipulative when I think I’m being my most helpful and relational.

  2. jennymackness November 18, 2014 / 8:58 pm

    Many thanks for your comment Keith. That’s a great last sentence which has got me thinking 🙂

  3. francesbell November 19, 2014 / 12:53 pm

    Thanks Jenny, I am definitely warming to McGilchrist:)
    So I am wondering if (in community terms) participation is a right brain thing and reification is a right brain thing. Of course, it’s probably much more complicated than that because in ‘participating’ in this conversation, I am reifying (some of) my thoughts and feelings and intuiting some of your meanig from what I know of you.

  4. Rhonda Riachi (@rhonda_riachi) November 19, 2014 / 6:36 pm

    Thank you, Jenny, for this great summary of a fascinating lecture. I heard Iain McGilchrist some years ago on this topic (at Beyond the Brain IX) and I am glad he is developing the arguments further. (During the discussion I likened the brain’s asymmetry to the Tao black-and-white divided circle symbol.)
    The point about quantity versus quality is an important one with regard to published research and the dominance of quantitative methods in areas of human experience which most need qualitative appraisal – such as the quality of life for people with dementia. But don’t get me started on that…

  5. francesbell November 19, 2014 / 7:23 pm

    Oops, I meant reification as left brain thing. Also like Rhonda’s Yin yang.

  6. jennymackness November 20, 2014 / 5:31 pm

    Hi Frances – thanks for taking the time to comment here and for the interesting thoughts/questions. Yes, I would think of reification as a left-brained activity, because it is a way of ‘fixing’ what we know. I’m not sure that participation could be equated with right-brained activity. My understanding is that the function of the right hemisphere is to detect new overarching patterns, sense the ‘new’, recognise the pattern (in Stephen Downes’ terms), be open to uncertainty and the unknown, have an overview. I don’t think participation necessarily equates to this, as some participation leads to ‘group think’. Would uncommitted participation in a very diverse network, where you have no idea what you are going to encounter or how you are going to react to it, promote right brain activity? I have to think about this 🙂

  7. jennymackness November 20, 2014 / 5:40 pm

    Hi Rhonda – how lovely to hear from you. Thanks for your comment. Your ‘Tao black-and-white’ reminds me of Etienne Wenger’s dualities. What I learned from Etienne (to put it simplistically) is that there are two sides to every coin and the interplay between them is what is interesting – which relates to the interhemispherric relations that McGilchrist talks about. I would love to hear more about your thoughts about how this relates to people with dementia. My mother has dementia and I agree that quality of life is a paramount concern.

  8. jennymackness November 20, 2014 / 5:48 pm

    Hi Frances – returning to the ideas around participation and reification – as you know Etienne Wenger has a lot to say about this. I’ll just quote him from his 1998 book, p.66
    “Participation and reification are not defined merely by opposition to each other. The tacit is that which is not made explicit; the informal that which is not formalized; the unconscious that which is not conscious. But participation is not merely what is not reified. Both participation and reification are processes defined each in their own terms. As a result, they are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they take place together; they are two constituents intrinsic to the process of negotiation of meaning, and their complementarity reflects the inherent duality of this process.”

  9. Rhonda Riachi December 14, 2014 / 3:35 pm

    Hi again, Jenny – Looks like my reply did not upload, as I suspected. Very sorry to hear your mother has dementia. My comment was about the proliferation of quantitative studies in current dementia research. My own project was qualitative, and I feel strongly that when we attempt to address quality of life – in fact the quality of anything – we should use qualitative methods. If I’d had more time I would have employed some quantitative methods, too, but the key thing for me was to explore the range and depth of the emotional engagement of my research participants, who were all carers using the SPECAL method. I chose to focus on their communication techniques and how they promote well-being in their clients. (Happy to share my dissertation report…)

  10. jennymackness December 14, 2014 / 6:15 pm

    Hi Rhonda – thanks so much for your comment. I haven’t done any formal research into dementia, but it makes perfect sense to me that qualitative methods should be used to explore this distressing (from my perspective) condition. I have read about the SPECAL method. I am not sure whether my mother’s carers consciously apply this method, but she receives excellent care. She still lives in her own home, in a contented bubble which we all do our best not to pierce, but she appears to have very little idea about what is going on and her short term memory is down to seconds. However she still has a wonderful singing voice and can sing all the old musical songs word perfect. She is 89 and everyone, including me, thinks she is wonderful. I would love to read your dissertation report. Thank you.

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