The Divided Brain. Seeing beyond black and white and embracing paradox

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Last night, February 10, 2016, Iain McGilchrist spoke with host Iwan Russell-Jones, Carolyn Arends, and Krish Kandiah on how the brain’s two hemispheres are shaping our consciousness, our faith, and our culture. (Source of image and text. Regent Redux website)

This was an interesting hour – an hour well spent. All the speakers were well worth listening to. This was a discussion about the complexity and mystery of human life. You can find a recording of the discussion on the Regent Redux website   

The information provided on the Regent Redux website for this Google Hangout was:

Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World explores the nature of the brain’s two hemispheres, their relationship to one another, and their role in shaping our consciousness and our culture.

The effective functioning of the brain—and by extension, of society as a whole—is subject to a delicate balance between the two hemispheres’ distinct ways of interpreting the world. But over the past few centuries, states McGilchrist, we have favoured the left hemisphere’s rational, fact-driven approach at the expense of the right hemisphere’s emphasis on metaphor, paradox, and context.

What are some of the implications of this imbalance for contemporary culture in general, and for faith in particular? How do we go about redressing it? And what can theology contribute to this conversation?

The Hangout started with Iain Mc Gilchrist talking about his book. He told us that the brain exists only to make connections. Both the left (LH) and right (RH) hemispheres contribute to everything, but they do so differently and with different attentions. Attention is the foundation of our experience. It changes what we find. (See the RSA Animate video on The Divided Brain for more about this). The LH and RH create two different worlds beyond the level of consciousness. The LH focuses on little pieces to put together to make a picture. For the RH nothing is fixed and certain. Everything is evolving, changing, flowing. Ideally these two different views of the world would complement each other. In past history these two types of knowing worked well together, but now we are locked into a mechanistic, reductionist model of the world. We need to get back to embodied experience. Metaphor helps us to do this. Metaphor is the route back to the richness of experience. Christianity used to be a huge resource for mystical understanding, but in recent history it has been complicit in the triumph of the left hemisphere.

Carolyn Arends responded to this by saying that there are two ways of knowing: propositional knowledge (2 + 2 = 4) and experiential knowledge (I know my husband). These two types of knowledge have different words in different languages, but not in English, where we have resisted too many meanings. Christianity also resists too many meanings and has reduced everything so that we know only what we can articulate. Christianity has put God in a box, but religion is about disposition not proposition. It is about where your heart is and about inexhaustible and irreducible meanings. For Iain the things that can’t be articulated are the really important things. He pointed out how much we rely on measurement, but we can only measure what can be measured.

Krish Kandiah also thinks that there is evidence that Christianity now favours the left hemisphere. We have the science of theology, the four spiritual laws and so on. In his book Paradoxology: why christianity was never meant to be simple he discusses why many have lost confidence in the Gospel and said that this is because we have over simplified it. We have tried to domesticate God.

The discussion then moved on to the question of embodiment and why people seem to be frightened of the power of the body, imagination and emotion. There seemed to be agreement that the body is at the centre of spirituality. Iain pointed out that ritual is embodied metaphor and that you can’t separate the soul from the body. The right hemisphere is embodied in thinking and practice. Mental life isn’t just cognitive.

Whilst Krish and Carolyn were keen to discuss the world views of the left and right hemisphere from the perspective of their Christian faith, I did not get the sense that it is necessary to have a religious faith to benefit from their exchange. Iain’s view was that there are many paths to a more spiritual life, or a more embodied experience of life. The key points that I took away were that there is much in life that cannot be explained or articulated – that the left hemisphere dismisses. We need to get more in touch with the right hemisphere’s view of the world to appreciate what we are missing!

I will be hearing Iain McGilchrist speak again when I attend Field an Field’s four day course in August.

Exploring the Divided Brain: Understanding the relationship between the two hemispheres with world-renowned author, psychiatrist and lecturer Iain McGilchrist

I attended this last year and blogged about it: The Divided Brain: A four day course with Iain McGilchrist. It was a wonderfully stimulating and thought-provoking course in a beautiful part of the country. I am looking forward to going again.



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