Exploring the Divided Brain – Time, Space and Reality

20th August 2016 am – A 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 2 (am)

This is the third 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 are the links to my first two posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

 

Time and Space (What can the hemispheres tell us about the basic structure of reality in relation to time and space?)

This is one of the topics that Iain is currently working on (see my last post for the others). Iain had so much to say about this that ultimately this session was about ‘time’ – there was very little time or space for ‘space’ 😉

Time is full of paradoxes, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them. Iain thinks they illuminate the view of the two hemispheres. These time paradoxes were first noticed by the Ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC when they started to use more analytical tools which conflicted with other sources of reality.

Some examples of paradoxes of time are (see also p.137-140, The Master and his Emissary):

The Sorites Paradox

If one grain of sand is not a heap of sand, and two grains of sand do not make a heap of sand, but thousands of grains of sand make up a heap, which grain of sand determines that the grains of sand now make a heap? For the right hemisphere the heap is not a sharply defined category, but a matter of degree; it is a process rather than a thing.

Theseus’ Paradox

If Theseus’ ship is frequently repaired, each time restoring rotten wood with new timbers, then when the ship no longer has any of the original timbers, is it still the same ship? If you think of the ship as a sum of its parts then it isn’t the original ship. But if you think of the ship as a whole, then it is.

Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, which is very well explained in this website . See also William James’ explanation (p.52)

Leave Achilles and the tortoise out of the account altogether, he [Bergson] would have said—they complicate the case unnecessarily. Take any single process of change whatever, take the twenty seconds themselves elapsing. If time be infinitely divisible, and it must be so on intellectualist principles, they simply cannot elapse, their end cannot be reached; for no matter how much of them has already elapsed, before the remainder, however minute, can have wholly elapsed, the earlier half of it must first have elapsed. And this ever re−arising need of making the earlier half elapse first leaves time with always something to do before the last thing is done, so that the last thing never gets done.

Zeno’s arrow paradox

‘An arrow fired at a target cannot move, because, at any one moment, the arrow is either where it is, or it is where it is not. If it remains where it is, then it must be standing still, but if it moves where it is not, it can’t be there. So it cannot move at all.‘ (p.138. The Master and his Emissary).

William Blake wrote

William Blake

Source of image

These paradoxes illustrate how the left hemisphere’s take on reality conflicts with the right hemisphere’s take.

Iain’s talk then moved to Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides in the 5th century BC thought that reality is an illusion, motionless and changeless. (I find this a helpful site – The Timeless Infinite Universe  – for more information on Parmenides). But for Iain, it is Heraclitus, one of his ‘favourite’ philosophers, who seems to ‘have grasped the essence of the balance between the hemispheres, while remaining aware of the primacy of the right hemisphere’ (p.270, The Master and his Emissary). For Heraclitus everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary). ‘One cannot step twice into the same river’. This of course relates to the left and right hemispheres’ views of the world.

Failure to take into account context, inability to understand Gestalt forms, an inappropriate demand for precision where none can be found, an ignorance of process, which becomes a never-ending series of static moments: these are signs of left hemisphere predominance.’ (p.139, The Master and his Emissary)

The left hemisphere orders points in time and tries to fix it, but our sense of time as duration is entirely dependent on the right hemisphere. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) pointed out that there are two words for time in French – temps and durer – fixed time and duration. Time can be conceived and represented as something that has points in it, and it can be measured, but only retrospectively. Alternatively time flows. In this conception you can’t capture or measure it. You can’t capture movement or motion, you can only capture still frames. The projector gives you the motion.

moving hand

Image from Iain McGilchrist slide presentation

At this point Iain also talked about extension in space. He lost me on this and even looking it up and with a one-to-one explanation from Iain himself, I do not fully understand it, but I think that the The Timeless Infinite Universe site is helpful with this too. The bit I understand better is about ‘infinite divisibility’ because I remember doing a maths problem based on this when on a 20 day maths course for teachers, which just goes to show the value of embodied experience in learning.

Infinite divisibility refers to the idea that extension, or quantity, when divided and further divided infinitely, cannot reach the point of zero quantity. It can be divided into very small or negligible quantity but not zero or no quantity at all. Using a mathematical approach, specifically geometric models, Gottfried Leibniz and Descartes discussed the infinite divisibility of extension. Actual divisibility may be limited due to unavailability of cutting instruments, but its possibility of breaking into smaller pieces is infinite.

I also found this fun website – Why you can’t divide by zero.

I think the point that Iain was making is that this type of breaking down and analysis is a retrograde step. You can’t have motion without time and space and vice versa. Time and change and space are all bound together.

Iain then talked at some length about the experiences of time and space of people with right or left hemisphere damage. People with right hemisphere stroke will, when having a shower, see not a flow of water but separate drops of water with extreme clarity. People with left hemisphere stroke will see the water flowing more powerfully than before. Jason Padgett describes this experience of seeing parts rather than the whole and losing the fluidity of motion after his own brain damage.

We need both types of hemisphere vision to see something. The left hemisphere vision effect is to slow things down, but in reality there is no ceasing of motion and continuity cannot be composed of discrete objects even if there is an infinity of them. Precision is always an approximation. At what point do you see something precisely? We spatialise time in the left hemisphere and put points on it, but in reality there are no points. As soon as you say ‘now’ it’s no longer ‘now’. The past and future take place in your ‘now’.

Life is a narrative but you can lose this with right hemisphere damage. If you don’t have an understanding of flow, then you don’t have a narrative. Narrative is how we make sense of evidence and the right hemisphere needs to be involved. All living things and inanimate things flow. Flow is an unpredictable, generative force which when obstructed gives incredible patterns. Interestingly I recently heard this talked about in a seminar about the Shape of Air by Bronislaw Szerszynski, Reader in Sociology, Lancaster University, who wrote …..

The air is at once familiar and mysterious, and we can explore the intertwining of these two characteristics by thinking about the ‘shape’ of the air. There are many reasons why it is hard to conceive of air as having shape: because the air is more or less invisible to our eyes; because it is not a discrete object that we can stand alongside but a continuous medium that we inhabit; and because it is a constantly moving fluid that fills space and seems to have no external or internal boundaries of its own.

…. and showed us some amazing images of the patterns that air can make when obstructed.

Flow cannot and does not separate out parts. There are no slices of experience, time or space. Analytic thought can drive out intuitive observation. In flow you don’t notice time passing, you are flowing with time at the same speed.

Schizophrenia and autism, although there are many types, are conditions of right hemisphere damage. Iain suggested that autism is primarily a disorder of time, bound up with a sense of reality, flow and self. Absence of flow through right hemisphere damage can also be manifest in the body and patients with right hemisphere damage may lose fluid motion and become jerky in their physical movement and thought. Schizophrenics sometimes speak of themselves as being machines or robots. Interestingly more men than women tend to be on the extreme ends of the autism spectrum and many great analytical philosophers have been on the autism spectrum.

And for those of us in the latter years of our lives, why does time speed up as we get older? Iain suggested some reasons for this. Affect may be one reason; affect associated with the past and the future. For older people the past may be highly charged with meaning and we may be fearful of the future, so we want to hold on to the past. When we are older we are less good at allowing ourselves to be absorbed because we keep an eye on time passing. Ideally we would sustain a position of being in flow, when we would not notice time passing, but would be flowing with time at the same speed.

Personal reflection

A look in the index of the Master and his Emissary to find references to time and space reveals that there is a lot more to the relationship between time and space and the hemispheres than we discussed on the course. This was a difficult session to follow and it has been hard to make sense of my notes. I don’t have a background in metaphysics and many of the ideas and language were completely new to me. But at a basic level, I can see that an understanding of time and space as flow or fixed points must affect our perception of reality.

The main message for me has been the reminder of the importance of the state of flow, where we are not distracted by constant interruptions, where time is not broken into points. In my life ‘flow’ free of distractions is a luxury I don’t often experience!

Authors/people referred to during the session

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

William James (1909) – A Pluralistic Universe

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

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