Exploring the Divided Brain – Trying to be sane in an insane world

21st August 2016 pm – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (pm)

This is the fifth 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 previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?


Trying to be sane in an insane world (What can we do about the mess we are in? Answers on the back of a postcard please.)

This question was also asked on the course last year at the same stage in the course. This is the post I wrote then – 28-03-2015: Trying to be sane in and insane world.

Iain started this year’s session by reading David Whyte’s beautiful poem – The Winter of Listening. Despite that it was a summer day, it was easy for us to see the relevance of this poem not just to the topic, ‘Trying to be sane in an insane world’, but also to previous sessions in the course.

Winterof listening

The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous

Silence and winter
has led me to that

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

Iain told us that he is a ‘hopeful pessimist’ and it was worth holding on to this as it turned out to be a ‘dark’ session, one that could easily leave you depressed.

For Iain, we have built a sick society, a WEIRD world (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic), where we are living a lie, where competition is more important than co-operation, and where we are seeing less and less of the world and are becoming more like machines. We are obsessed with making better machines rather than better people. We are not happier than when we were materially less well off. There are many kinds of truth and many points of view and there is strength in pluralism, but we are controlled and manipulated by the uniformity promoted by business, advertising and the like. Technology is not neutral. It is highly invasive and there is already evidence that shows that the impact of technology on children is a loss of intimacy and imagination. Teachers have noticed that children can no longer sustain attention, they lack empathy and have difficulties reading the human face, all consequences of left hemisphere dominance.

Iain has anecdotal evidence and has referenced research findings to support this pessimistic view of our Western society. Thinking further about this part of his session I have some sympathy with his view of technology, but technology is a broad brush term and maybe we need to be more specific. I would also like to see a bit more evidence for the observation about happiness and I would be interested to read the research on children being less imaginative and empathic these days.

Iain believes that invisible dogmas are even more dangerous than visible dogmas. Having and controlling has got us in this mess and now life is full of paradoxes. For example

  • In wanting a paperless technological environment we use more and more paper
  • In trying to improve education through dictating the curriculum we discourage free thinking
  • The overuse of antibiotics results in bacteria that we can’t control
  • In trying to protect our children we make them risk averse
  • In striving for equality we create inequality

As an aside, my current reading is Jeremy Knox’s book – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course, in which he seems to agree with this last point. Knox believes that massive online courses are promoting a new form of colonialism and new forms of exclusion. I both agree and disagree. I think its people who exclude, not courses or technology, but that’s not to deny that exclusion can happen.

Iain gave us many more examples of these paradoxes.

Through his research and his book The Master and his Emissary, Iain suggests that we are approaching another dark age, when the balance between left hemisphere and right hemisphere is lost and the left hemisphere dominates. This has happened before (as written about in the second part of his book), but he thinks this time, because of our technological advances, we have too much power over nature.

So what should we do? Iain’s view is that we need a call to arms to effect cultural change; change from both the bottom up and the top down, change of the hearts and minds of people. But the left hemisphere has a stranglehold on the means of communication of the right hemisphere (p.374, The Master and his Emissary). It is hard to articulate the right hemisphere’s point of view.

Iain thinks we need to be more modest in our material demands (see William Ophuls’ books in the reference list); we need to know each other better, to be the change we want to see in others, and instead of fighting the existing paradigm, create a new one which renders the old one obsolete. Most of all we need to start with the education of our children. The future lies in our children. At this point Iain (by his own admission) went off on a passionate rant about what schools should be doing. Here are some of the things he said:

  • Introduce mindfulness as a spiritual exercise into the curriculum. Children should practise mindfulness every day.
  • Use cognitive behavioural therapy in schools to help children detect biases in their thinking. There should be at least one session a year.
  • Teach children to think critically, learning to see both sides of every question
  • Teach conflict resolution
  • Re-introduce learning by heart (e.g. poetry) and the mastering of skills
  • Promote embodied learning
  • Schools should be challenging but give children the freedom to think
  • Remove from the curriculum topics/subjects that the children can easily learn out of the classroom

Personal reflection

If we agree that the left hemisphere has become dominant, and Iain presents plenty of evidence to support this view, then I appreciate the difficulty of making the case for the right hemisphere’s view of the world through the left hemisphere. Iain quotes a lovely passage from I. Berlin on p.374 of the Master and his Emissary that seems to perfectly sum up the difficulty.

I wish to convey something immaterial and I have to use material means for it. I have to convey something which is inexpressible and I have to use expression. I have to convey, perhaps, something unconscious and I have to use conscious means. I know in advance that I shall not succeed, and therefore all I can do is to get nearer and nearer in some asymptotic approach; I do my best ….

I am in broad agreement with Iain’s arguments, but I wonder whether in having to fight the case for the right hemisphere, we sometimes give the left hemisphere an unfairly rough deal. Iain was at pains to point out that we definitely need the left hemisphere’s view of the world. We would not, as a civilization, have achieved much of what we have achieved without the left hemisphere. But it seemed on the course that a lot of our society’s problems were being placed squarely at the door of technological advance. On the one hand the problem is obvious; it can seem as though life isn’t real if we don’t record it (see my post on The One and the Many); we take photos of our meals in restaurants, we tweet the minutiae of our lives and so on. On the other hand advances in technology have made an enormous difference for the better to so many people’s lives. For example, children on the autism spectrum with right hemisphere damage can communicate through robots, and people across the world can gather in global networks and communities of practice to effect change through the affordances that technology can offer for networked cooperation and collaboration. So it is not all bad.

Like some of the other course participants, I don’t think we can go backwards. I agree that we may need to be more modest in our demands, but I don’t think it will work to ask people to go backwards. We need to feel that we are growing and progressing. As one participant said, we cannot un-know what we already know. So I do agree that perhaps the only way forward will be to render the existing paradigm obsolete and offer something with more hope, something that makes sense and that we will not be able to refuse.

In listening to Iain over this four day course and in writing these posts, it might seem that it was four days of doom and gloom. It was easy ‘hear’ and understand this message, and I know I wasn’t the only person to find this session depressing, but I didn’t find the course as a whole depressing. ‘Challenging’ and ‘stimulating’ are the words that come to mind.


Authors/people referred to during the session

Nicholas Carr (2011).  The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read, remember

Sue Gerhardt (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain.

Susan Greenfield (2015). Mind Change. How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains

See also this Guardian article

Nancy Kline (2002). Time to think. Listening to ignite the human mind.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the MOOC: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Susan Maushart (2010) The Winter of our Disconnect: How one family pulled the plug and lived to tell/text/tweet the tale 

William Ophuls (2012). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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

Sherry Turkle (2015) Reclaiming Conversation. The power of talk in a digital age.

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