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

Friday 20th March pm

This is the second in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist .

Here is a link to the first post. An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1.

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

 A basic grounding in the hemisphere hypothesis, including its significance for understanding the nature of language, which is often thought to be a left hemisphere tool only. (From the course booklet)

Looking at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to keep up in this session, maybe because it ran between 4.00 and 6.30 pm, at the end of a day which started at 9.00 – but here are some ideas that I captured and given their paucity, I can recommend Chapter 3 -Language, Truth and Music – of Iain McGilchrist’s book (The Master and his Emissary).

Iain started this session by reiterating that we need both the left and right hemispheres (LH and RH) – we need restraint and liberty, pleasure and adversity, hot and cold, thesis and antithesis; in this sense polarities are important. Language is not only in the LH, although language plays into the hands of the LH. Language is an embodied cry which can take us direct to experience and bring the whole world to life.

Iain quoted from Robert Graves’ poem, The Cool Web, in which Graves writes:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

Language protects us, but also insulates us from the reality of experience. Language is two faced. It distances us from and engages us with reality.

Iain reminded us that language is an outgrowth of music and that there are situations in life that don’t require words, which is what makes the telephone such a thin medium. Communication requires so much more than words. There is ‘talking to’ and ‘talking about’, and language is of greatest use when talking about. Language is not essential for communication and it is not essential for thought.  That thoughts don’t require words was illustrated with the story of the crow which solved an 8 stage logical problem. Here is a video of this from YouTube.

Language does help with certain kinds of thinking and communication, but obstructs others. Thoughts come before we have the language to speak them. We can see this in very young children who acquire language in an embodied way – they babble and point – always together. Speech is connected with arms and hands and gesticulation. Gesture and language are very closely connected.

Metaphor unsettles the meaning of our words. ‘It is what links language to life’. (p.115 The Master and his Emissary). Also on p.115 of The Master and his Emissary, Iain writes: ‘Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself.’

Nietzche wrote: ‘communication is shameless; words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common.’ It was this last point that Iain focused on – ‘words make the uncommon common’, telling us that language tends to bring us back to the abstract, but also that careful use of language can break beyond the abstract.

Different types of attention means that we see things in a different way. We can reach out to grasp, but we can also reach out to connect to make a bond.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 09.37.40

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

‘Both thought and its expression originate in the right hemisphere’ (p.189. The Master and his Emissary’. ‘… the richness of thought comes from the right hemisphere and is transferred across to the left hemisphere secondarily for translation into language’ (p.190). If we lose right hemisphere function then the world loses reality. This was illustrated with reference to Deglin and Kinsbourne’s work on an individual’s response to syllogisms when either LH or RH function is inhibited. This research showed that the RH remains true to experience, but the left hemisphere, ‘prioritises the system, regardless of experience: it stays within the system of signs’ (p.193. The Master and his Emissary) to the point of believing that a porcupine is a monkey because it is written on the card.

As was noted in the first session (see last blog post), the LH is a self-reflective hall of mirrors. Iain believes that we can break out of this through connecting with

  • the natural world
  • cultural truths
  • our bodies and embodiment, rather than thinking of the body as a sporting accessory
  • art
  • religion or spirituality, which is now a minority hobby when it used to be a framework for action

So – to sum up : The RH is more willing to pass information to the LH than vice-versa but the difficulty is in finding an appropriate language to represent the ‘embodied’ way in which the RH appreciates wholes. Hegel’s proposition (first suggested by Heraclitus) is that there is a unity of opposites and this is an important feature of dialectics – the co-existence of at least two conditions which are opposite to each other yet dependent on each other and presupposing of each other within a field of tension. This neatly describes the hemispheres – co-existing but continuously in tension.

Unfortunately the hemispheres can get out of balance. LH domination leads to a ‘hall of mirrors’ situation which results in less embodiment of learning and lack of awareness of ‘the other’.

This session ended with reference to a ‘loss of truth’ and the question ‘How do you get moral strength back into people who have lost it?’

Authors referred to during this session

Deglin, V. L. & Kinsbourne, M. (1996). Divergent Thinking Styles of the Hemispheres: How syllogisms are solved during transitory hemisphere suppression. Brain & Cognition, 31, 285-307

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

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967),

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

5 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language

  1. francesbell March 25, 2015 / 3:36 pm

    You can imagine how thrilled I am that McGilchrist quoted from The Cool Web especially as I have just got back from Deia where I visited Graves’ house and learned more about his life there and how he wrote.
    When you said “Language protects us, but also insulates us from the reality of experience. Language is two faced. It distances us from and engages us with reality.” I wanted to substitute education (that depends a lot on language) for that to help think about the possible value of education.
    It seems to me that it’s important for all in education to be aware of its Janus position, make the most of it and also yo go beyond education.
    I love the last question in your post.

  2. jennymackness March 25, 2015 / 4:27 pm

    I thought of you Frances, when Iain McGilchrist quoted the lines from Robert Graves’ poem. I should point out that it was Iain who said “Language protects us, but also insulates us from the reality of experience. Language is two faced. It distances us from and engages us with reality.” Or that’s what I think he said. I have only used quote marks if I am sure it is what he said – but there was such a lot to take in that mostly I just picked out what was important for me and tried to interpret it in the moment as best I could.

    I did ask Iain about education, right at the end of the course. I might write a bit about that in my last post – but I agree. From the start I have been interested in his work because I can see so many implications for education. His work resonates on so many levels. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Simon Ensor March 25, 2015 / 10:17 pm

    Thank you Jenny very much for pointing me towards McGilchrist which I am enjoying reading. Your blog posts were a useful springboard. Thanks.

  4. jennymackness March 26, 2015 / 9:47 am

    Thank you Simon. Having attended this course, I now know of many more books which will be fascinating to read. I am adding them to each post. I think McGilchrist’s book is the tip of the iceberg 🙂 Not surprising when you consider that it took him 20 years to write!

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