The Divided Brain: What does it mean to think? Part 2- Iain McGilchrist

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)

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

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