The Divided Brain: Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

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 –

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.

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.

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