Exploring the Divided Brain – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 1 (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.


19th August 2016 pm – An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2 (Embodied beings: language, thought, emotion, spirituality – and the brain, of course)

500,000 years ago man lived in social groups but how did he communicate? Language developed 80-40,000 years ago and written language developed 4000 years ago. So it can’t have been through speech.

There are two important things for speech, control of breathing and control of the tongue. Apes can do neither, but birds can control breathing which enables them to sing.

Whilst language is associated with both hemispheres (but it has different meanings in each hemisphere; an analogy is the paint box, left hemisphere and the picture, right hemisphere – p.99 the Master and his Emissary), there is every reason to suppose that language emerged from music, from the right hemisphere and that in infants language starts in the right hemisphere. New-born children communicate through music (squeals, howls, repetition, rhythm) and also through the face. Babies learn their mother’s voice in the womb and pay attention after birth to stories that were read to them in the womb.

But plenty of animals communicate without language (whales and dolphins), and even some human groups can communicate without language. For example, whistled Turkish is still used to communicate across valleys.

We don’t need language for communication or thinking, as evidenced by crows that can perform sequential reasoning tasks (see this post about last year’s course – Two types of language ) and pigeons can distinguish between Monet and Picasso.

Left hemisphere stroke sufferers, who lose the power of speech are still able to communicate and do quite complicated reasoning such as needed for solving mathematical puzzles.

Robin Dunbar argued that the development of language was related to the inability to sustain communication through manual grooming, which we see in apes and other animals, as populations grew in size. We need language to administer large groups and to give us boundaries.

Whilst Dunbar’s research has been criticised, it supports Iain’s view that there is a close link between language and the hand, a strong connection between language and the body and that the whole of experience is, at some level, embodied.

Understanding is related to grasping, ‘grasping the meaning’. As we know, we can get meaning from ‘body language’. We also get meaning from metaphor. Language links us to the world through metaphor. It is not insignificant that Iain chose a metaphor for the title of his book. We use metaphor to talk about experience. Every word we have is rooted in the body. Meaning is always contextual and embodied, never detached and thinking is a deeply embodied process because it is related to action. It is about our relationship with the world. Language grows in us. Thinking is an aspect of the way we attend to the world and in most languages there are two words for knowing, which each has a different root in experience.

The right hemisphere is more attuned to spiritual experience, which is rooted in the body, involves bodily practices and integrates emotion with thought. (See Charles Foster – Wired for God. The Biology of Spiritual Experience). All thought originates in the right hemisphere and is processed in the left.

Iain also talked about thinking in last year’s course.

This year he seems to have put greater emphasis on thinking as an embodied process and perhaps we shall see why when his forthcoming books are published, which according to his profile in our course booklet will include:

  • a critique of contemporary society and culture from the standpoint of neuropsychology;
  • a study of the paintings of subjects with schizophrenia;
  • a series of essays about culture and the brain with subjects from Andrew Marvell to Serge Gainsbourgh;
  • a short book of reflections on spiritual experience.

For the rest of the session Iain talked about the two ways of being in the world.

  1. The way of the left hemisphere is the way of certainty where things are cut off from the environment, static, fixed, known and abstracted – a representation of the world.
  2. The way of the right hemisphere is where things are complex, uncertain, fluid, changing wholes (which does not mean anything goes) – a more real world.

From the Ancient Greeks to the early Renaissance, we have seen the rise and fall of civilization in the West three times, each time associated with flowering of both hemispheres in balance followed by left hemisphere dominance. This is laid out in detail in the second part of Iain’s book – The Master and his Emissary.

Iain believes that we are now in a hall of mirrors; we have cut ourselves off from what would lead us back into the right hemisphere:

  • the natural world – the ‘space’ offered by nature
  • culture – which used to be embodied and passed on in folk wisdom, but mobilisation changed this
  • the body, which is treated like a machine
  • art – twentieth century art has abandoned its role to play clever games
  • religion – which has become very left hemisphere dominated or abandoned all together.

Some of us had an interesting discussion on the third day about conceptual art, which Iain does not appreciate! He feels that art does not need text and should not need to be articulated. For him it should be visceral and embodied. My own perspective is that whether or not art is visceral can only be judged by the viewer and maybe for some people, conceptual art can evoke a visceral response. It may also depend on how you define conceptual art. A Google search for conceptual artists includes Marina Abramović. Her work can evoke a visceral response in me as can some architecture.

Iain closed this session by saying that a left hemisphere dominated world looks bleak. It involves

  • loss of the broader picture
  • knowledge replaced by information, tokens or representations
  • loss of concepts of skill and judgment
  • abstraction and reification
  • bureaucracy (Berger):
    • procedures that are known
    • anonymity
    • organisability
    • predictability
    • justice reduced to mere equality
    • explicit abstraction
  • loss of the sense of uniqueness
  • quantity the only criterion
  • ‘either/or’
  • reasonableness replaced by rationality
  • failure of common sense
  • systems designed to maximise utility
  • loss of social cohesion
  • depersonalisation
  • paranoia and lack of trust
  • need for total control
  • anger and aggression
  • the passive victim
  • art conceptual
    • visual art lacks a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives
    • music would be reduced to little more than rhythm
    • language diffuse, excessive, lacking in concrete referents
  • deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder
  • flow just the sum of an infinite series of ‘pieces’
  • discarding of tacit forms of knowing
    • ‘network of small complicated rules’
  • spectators rather than actors
  • dangerously unwarranted optimism

(Source of text in this list – Iain McGilchrist presentation slide. See also another post I made after hearing Iain talk in Edinburgh – The Divided Brain – Implications for Education).

This bleak view of a left hemisphere dominated world is outlined in detail in the conclusion of his book, The Master Betrayed, p.428-462.

Personal reflection

This session resonates with some work on embodied learning I did with my colleagues Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau, in which we explored learning, perception and action through the senses, with particular reference to synesthesia. In one of the ‘cases’ that we discuss in the published paper a child on the autism spectrum responds with his whole body to the colour purple.  In another, we discuss how infant children in Montessori classrooms engage in embodied learning to explore mathematical patterns. I think if you have worked with infant children (which I have) or children on the autism spectrum (which I have but not as a teacher, only as a researcher and observer) then the idea of embodied learning is very familiar. At what point in our education system does embodied learning become less important and why? Perhaps we spend too much time talking and not enough time making enough use of all the senses we have.

On a separate point, it is interesting that the bleak view of the left hemisphere’s world was presented as a bullet-point list, whereas the right hemisphere’s view of the world was presented with an image of a coral reef (see the first post in this series). Iain did not use many slides for this course and when he did use them they were usually images. This was the only session in which we were presented with a list. The bullet points seem to make the listed content even more bleak and of course they make a point, the point! But whilst this day ended with this pessimistic view, the overall message was thought-provoking rather than depressing.

Authors/people referred to during the session

Charles Foster (2010) Wired for God. The Biology of Spiritual Experience

Iain McGilchrist (1982) Against Criticism. Faber & Faber

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

David McNeill’s work on thought, gesture and language.

Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2015).  Synesthesia: from cross-modal to modality-free learning and knowledge.  Leonardo Journal 

5 thoughts on “Exploring the Divided Brain – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 1 (pm)

  1. Benjamin David Steele March 18, 2019 / 11:28 pm

    As I said elsewhere, I associate my experience of depression with left hemisphere dominance. When I’m in a deep depressive funk, all imagination and creativity grinds to a halt. The world loses vitality and meaning. Everything feels empty, even to the point of loss of feeling itself, often along with apathy and depersonalization.

    But there is an interesting aspect of this. There is also what is known as depressive realism. I know how starkly honest and direct I can be at the furthest extremes of depression. And research supports this. Pessimists do more accurately assess the factual conditions of the world, including in assessing themselves. A pessimist is more likely to correctly perceive the world as it is, on the most basic level.

    There is one failing to this attitude, though. In experiencing reality so starkly, it becomes difficult to imagine any other possibility, much less act toward it. The optimist is more likely to act toward what doesn’t exist or at least what doesn’t yet exist. So, the optimist has greater capacity to change present conditions for the very reason they see things as they prefer them to be.

    Without balance with the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere dominant person could make for a great accountant, scientist, technician, etc — someone who only needs to focus on the details of cold hard facts. But probably wouldn’t make for a great leader, minister, community organizer, etc. In this mentality, I’m great at obsessive analysis (i.e., brooding) and can dissect the world around me, humans included, like a frog pinned down.

  2. jennymackness March 20, 2019 / 3:18 pm

    I didn’t know about depressive realism, and I don’t get really depressed (as opposed to having odd days when I feel down), but I do know that I am often a glass half full person and included some thoughts about this in this post – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/reflective-learning-and-the-glass-half-empty/ I suspect, though, that most people are a mixture, i.e. optimist on some days and in some situations, pessimist on others.

    From friends who have suffered clinical depression, to the point of being hospitalised, my understanding is that this is a physical condition as opposed to pessimism which probably isn’t – but I have to say, I don’t know a lot about it, having not experienced clinical depression.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Brendan Clarke May 13, 2019 / 4:13 pm

    I’m really enjoying these blog posts on the Divided Brain workshop Jenny. It’s saving me the work of having to read the Master & His Emissary. Also fascinated by the first comment here. As a CBT therapist, my clinical experience-and possibly the clinical literature-would say that pessimism and the physical aspects of depression both cause each other, which is why depression can play out in a kind of vicious cycle, ie physical symptoms lead to further pessimism which further adds to physical symptoms. @Benjamin I would say that the research on rumination resonates with what you described as “Left Hemisphere dominant” depression, ie an endless thought process by which we try to reason our way out of problematic thoughts, but inevitable sink deeper into them. The best approach to this, in my experience is to try to avoid this reasoning/ruminating Left Hemisphere process completely and access a sense of presence, through the body-a very Right Hemispherical process I think.

    The question of depressive realism is also fascinating! But maybe one for another comment.

  4. Benjamin David Steele May 14, 2019 / 12:41 am

    @Brendan – About depression, there is another factor to consider, that of food. A high-carb diet has been linked to increased rates of depression. Over the past year, I’ve eliminated most of the carbs from my diet and, after decades of chronic depression, my mood has been improved along with greater energy and motivation. One of the obvious changes is that I brood less these days. I simply feel better

    A possible explanation for this involves stabilized insulin and blood sugar levels, but maybe more importantly decreased inflammation, as depressives are more likely to have brain inflammation. Research has shown high-carb to be associated with depression and low-carb with its alleviation. There are other aspects of diet that would have an influence as well, such as the potentially addictive nature of certain foods.

    Changing diet can alter the functioning of the brain, gut-brain nexus, microbiome, and nervous system. In particular, the ketogenic diet (extreme carb restriction) has been used to improve numerous neurocognitive and psychiatric conditions, from epileptic seizures to Alzheimer’s. There is about a century of research into ketosis at this point.

    Maybe carbs, especially sugar, affects the way the brain hemispheres function and relate. Inflammation, for example, could have a detrimental impact on the corpus callosum or maybe other mechanisms of neuronal communication. Whatever the cause, a high-carb diet seemed related to my own depression. The kind of depression or other neurocognitive condition would depend on which part of the brain happened to be affected.

    View at Medium.com

  5. jennymackness May 14, 2019 / 9:55 am

    Thank you both for your comments and it’s good to know that you are finding these posts helpful Brendan.

    Iain McGilchrist seems to be increasingly in the public eye and now there are quite a number of videos of him giving various presentations on YouTube.

    Most helpful for me has been attending these Field & Field four day courses. In less than a month I will attend another one. I think there are still a few places left if you are interested – https://www.field-field.com/courses/iain-mcgilchrist-exploring-the-divided-brain/

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