The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

I have joined a new online reading group, which will meet once a month to discuss chapters of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. This has been organised by Laura Thomas and Elspeth Crawford, two members of Channel McGilchrist. Many thanks to them for taking this initiative, as The Matter With Things is an overwhelmingly long book, over 1500 pages, and I suspect I am not alone in wanting some help in reading it. Unlike some of the others in the group, I have not yet read the whole book, and what I have read has been selective, i.e. I haven’t started at the beginning but have so far read the chapters that appeared to me to be potentially the most interesting. I have written some posts about them. I have also written about the overall structure of book before, so I won’t repeat that here.

So far the group has met on zoom once, to discuss Chapter 2 on Attention, although necessarily quite a bit of time was spent on ‘getting to know each other’ and administrative issues.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 2 by writing, ‘Who we are determines how we see. And how we see determines what we find. …. Attention brings the world into being’. Not only this, but how we attend changes who we are. What we mean by reality depends on attention from the word go. We are in a reciprocal relationship with the world. There is a back and forth between the attending person and what is attended to.

Those who are familiar with McGilchrist’s work will know that everything he writes is based on the premise that the two hemispheres of the brain attend to the world differently. The right hemisphere’s attention is broad, sustained and vigilant. It attends to the whole. The left hemisphere’s attention is narrow and focussed. We need both kinds of attention. In the Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, McGilchrist explained this in terms of a bird having to focus on the grit in the ground to find the seed to eat, whilst at the same time keeping an open eye out on the whole surroundings for a predator.

            “ In order to stay alive, birds have to solve a conundrum: they need to be able to feed and watch out for predators simultaneously. How are you to focus closely on what you are doing when you are trying to pick out that grain of seed from the grit on which it lies while, at the same time, keeping the broadest possible open attention to whatever may be, in order to avoid being eaten? It’s a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach at the same time – only worse, because it is impossible. What we know is that the difference in attention between the hemispheres makes the apparently impossible possible. Birds pay narrowly focused attention with their right eye (left hemisphere) to what they are eating, while keeping their left eye (right hemisphere) open for predators.” (McGilchrist, 2019, p.13)

But we are not birds and we do not have eyes on the sides of our heads. Are we humans able to use our left hemisphere to focus attention whilst at the same time using our right hemisphere to attend to the whole? McGilchrist argues that whilst these two kinds of attention are mutually incompatible, ‘we need to be able to employ both simultaneously.’ (McGilchrist, 2019, p.14). His argument is that we now live in a world where we are losing the ability to see the whole and are increasingly attending to the world from the perspective of the left hemisphere, with a narrow, focussed gaze.

There are at least two significant problems with this increased reliance on the left hemisphere for attention. First, the left hemisphere’s focussed attention makes it blind to everything else. There are a number of videos that neatly illustrate this point.

The Invisible Gorilla: https://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo

If you have seen this video before it won’t come as a surprise, but if you are watching it for the first time, it will probably be an eye-opener!

And second, not only is the left hemisphere blind to what it is not attending to, but what is not seen completely ceases to exist for the left hemisphere. This is starkly illustrated by the following video in which a woman with damage to her right hemisphere and therefore reliant on her left hemisphere, is unaware of anything on her left side (hemineglect). The left hemisphere only attends to half a world.

In addition, because the left hemisphere does not know what it does not know, when there are obvious gaps in its knowledge and understanding it confabulates. It invents stories to fill the gaps and blind spots and is ‘quite confident it is right’. So, a patient with right hemisphere damage will deny the existence of their left arm, and if asked to look at the left arm and say who it belongs to, will claim it belongs to another person. Whilst we do not all have physical damage to our right hemispheres, you don’t have to look very far in modern society to see behaviours that mirror those observed in people with right hemisphere damage, and it is quite concerning to realise how easily these behaviours can be induced through right hemisphere damage or split brain experiments.

McGilchrist argues that it is the right hemisphere that is more in touch with reality. It’s attention to the world is more open and receptive, and without preconceptions. The left hemisphere has an impoverished, devitalised view of the world, which lacks depth of space, time and motion. It re-presents the visual world as flattened, abstract and schematic, like a two-dimensional map, rather than in three dimensions. In The Matter With Things, McGilchrist references a large body of research (184 references in this chapter) to substantiate the differences between the left and right hemisphere’s ways of attending. Much of this research focuses on what happens to patients who experience right hemisphere damage, and their experience of attending to the world through the left hemisphere. In the final chapter of a small book he published in 2019, ‘Ways of Attending’, McGilchrist conducts a thought experiment. ‘What would it look like if the left hemisphere came to be the sole purveyor of our reality? The picture he paints is not a happy one. As is written on the back cover of this book:

‘Attention is not just receptive, but actively creative of the world we inhabit. How we attend makes all the difference to the world we experience. And nowadays in the West we generally attend in a rather unusual way: generated by the narrowly focussed, target-drive left hemisphere of the brain.’

In the first meeting of the Channel McGilchrist online reading group, a few people expressed the desire to find pragmatic responses to the problems of a left-hemisphere dominated world. Serendipitously, at around the same time as these thoughts were being discussed in the reading group, Matthias Melcher wrote a post outlining ways he thinks we could become more right-hemisphere dominant. See https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2022/04/08/seven-ways-to/

McGilchrist himself tends to resist trying to find solutions to the left hemisphere dominated world he describes, although I have heard him suggest that it’s mostly to do with raising awareness, which aligns with Matthias’ approach. But McGilchrist does believe that we can train ourselves to attend to the world with our right hemispheres, through skills such as meditation and mindfulness, and through believing that the attention that we pay to the world alters what we find there.

For myself I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of demonising the left hemisphere. Obviously we need it’s focussed way of attending, but we don’t need it to the exclusion of the whole picture, and we should try to resist its dominance in the way we attend to the world. McGilchrist believes that if we ask which way of attending to the world is more viridical, which reality should we trust, then the right hemisphere has the upper hand.

The next meeting of the Channel McGilchrist reading group is on Friday May 6th Pacific Time (Los Angeles time zone), when we will discuss Chapter 3: Perception. The idea is that we will each submit a comment/question or provocation a few days before the meeting to help focus the discussion. This is how the Philosophy of Education Reading Network organises their meetings and it works well.

And fortunately for the Channel McGilchrist group, McGilchrist has just started to discuss the chapters of The Matter With Things with Alex Gomaz. Here are links to the first two episodes:

Understanding The Matter with Things Dialogues: Episode 1: The Introduction

Understanding the Matter With Things Dialogues: Chapters 1 & 2

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

McGilchrist, I. (2019). Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World. Routledge

6 thoughts on “The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

  1. jarwillis April 14, 2022 / 12:35 pm

    As ever, your posts are lucid and helpful.

    I did read the book right through and I would encourage others to do the same.

    McGilchrist has expended extraordinary, almost superhuman, efforts to prepare the ground for the massively important things he is building up to say, precisely because those things are so radically in conflict with the mainstream of contemporary thought. This includes the extraordinary care he took in the appearance and readability of the book itself, which is a thing of great beauty.

    I hope you will continue to blog after each of your discussions of the coming chapters. As I read it six months ago I longed to share the journey with receptive minds, but almost nobody on the Channel bit. I will hugely value your insightful reactions.

  2. donsalmon April 14, 2022 / 12:48 pm

    Hi Jenny – wonderful post. One question and one comment – is the Channel McGilchrist reading group open, and if so, how does one join?

    And the comment – the Asian contemplative tradition (really, all contemplative traditions) has such rich, varied and masterful ways of engaging with the world both in a right hemisphere way and in an integrated hemispheric way (and far far beyond what I’ve seen in either of Iain’s wonderful books). I think it’s wonderful to explore new ways, and there’s no doubt that the way that many of these ancient/medieval practices have been brought into the modern world has ended up being filtered/deconstructed/distorted by the left hemisphere’s obsession with model-making and ordering.

    But I’m quite sure that at least taking a look is worthwhile.

    Here’s a passage I wrote some years ago on developing intuition. it is based in part on the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “analytic meditation” (which is a dialectic interplay of embodied analysis and intuitive seeing):

    An Exercise in Developing Intuitive Knowing

    What makes it difficult for us to access our intuitive abilities? It is the same now-familiar culprits – the overactivity of the surface intellect and the distorting influence of ego and desire. Thus, in order to cultivate our intuitive capacity, the first necessity is to develop the calm mind, one capable of quietly observing the play of thought. Having attained a certain measure of quietude, one may choose to engage in a contemplative exercise. One could begin by reflecting on a particular topic, making use of the imagination, the emotions and the senses, as well as a full range of critical and creative reasoning. This would be analogous to Helmholtz’ “saturation” phase.

    At some point during the reflection, if the mind is resting on a base of sufficient calm, and the attention is sufficiently one-pointed, an insight or intuitive flash will arise. It is important to recognize this moment, and to concentrate all one’s energy on the arising insight, suspending all active thinking, remaining alert to the impulse of the intellect to grasp at or manipulate the intuitive perception. After a period of time, the capacity to remain concentrated on the intuition will flag, and one can resume active thought.

    This phase of the contemplative process combines Helmholtz’ second and third phases, but it intensifies the incubation process by adding to it the heat of intense concentration. It also adds a sustained alertness to the arising of intuitive insights. Let’s now consider an example of how such a contemplative exercise might unfold in practice.

    Cultivating Intuitive Awareness

    Imagine that having been intrigued by the possibility of dissolving the ego, the false sense of self, you wish to go beyond a mere intellectual understanding and gain some kind of intuitive insight. Engaging in the process described above, you might begin by inquiring into what contributes to the sense of “me” as an independent, clearly defined and separate being. What part does the body contribute to my overall sense of my self? What would happen if I lost my limbs? How can my identity depend on a body whose components are in a state of constant flux? What about my emotions? What if I were to become manic-depressive, subject to wild mood swings, would I still be “me”? Looking at my thoughts, if I were to lose my memory, or succumb to Alzheimer’s disease and lose my ability to think, who would “I” be?

    In the course of such reflections, remaining connected to the stillness “behind” the mind, I remain alert to the emergence of a visceral, intuitive sense of the nature of the ego, the sense of an independent, separate “self.” If such an insight arises, I stop reflecting, and bring all my attention to that visceral sense of the illusive nature of the self I have taken myself to be. If my attention begins to wander or dissipate, I resume active reflection. I might now look at the interaction of the mental, vital and physical consciousness, looking at the whole network of patterns created by sensing, feeling and thinking. Can I find anywhere a solid unchanging “I” that the mind can define or grasp? Once again, if an intuitive sense of this arises, I stop active reflection and focus intently on the insight.

    I may switch my focus, choosing an object such as a chair or desk, and again inquire, is there some hard, unchanging “thing” which constitutes the object? What would the object be apart from any awareness or experience of it? Continuing in this way, alternating between active reflection and quiet, focused contemplation, I may get a sense of the interdependent relationship between “self” and “world.” An intuition may arise that my “self” as well as the objects that make up the “world” are a manifestation of some greater Reality, something beyond all conceptual frameworks, something Infinite, a Conscious-energy pervading, containing all. Opening still further to this intuitive awareness, I may perceive some greater Force guiding my mind and feelings, deepening my consciousness, bringing it to a state of profound Silence.

    The above is a contemplative exercise involving an alternation between periods of deliberate reflection and calm focused attention. However, the same process can happen spontaneously. What is essential here is not a specific technique, but rather, the basic movements of consciousness – a deep concentration coupled with calm detachment, an attitude of receptivity to deeper or higher intuitive promptings, and an opening to a greater Force which can guide the consciousness to further development.

    As described here, the development of intuition seems to require solitude and physical immobility. However, this process can take place just as readily while walking, interacting with others, or when engaged in any other activity. The intense concentration that a basketball player brings to his practice often results in a kind of body-intuition that guides him to make the right movements on the court with effortlessness and spontaneous grace. Someone listening to the words of a grieving friend may open to a kind of emotional intuition which brings forward just the words the friend needs to hear at that moment. The researcher, intensely focused on analyzing a particular hypothesis, can stay attuned to the arising of an intuitive mental understanding which can lead to further scientific breakthroughs.

    As these movements of consciousness are gradually perfected, several things will begin to happen. The activity of discursive reasoning takes on a more intuitive and global quality, and the intuitions that emerge gain in acuteness of perception and discernment. Over time, there develops a greater integration of intellect and intuition. This affects not only the mind but the vital and physical consciousness as well, because this newly emerging way of knowing is, by nature, profoundly integral.

  3. jennymackness April 14, 2022 / 6:15 pm

    Hello James, Thank you for your encouraging comments. I hope to continue to blog about the different chapters in TMWT, but I can’t promise. These days life seems to have a tendency to get in the way of reading and writing 🙂

  4. jennymackness April 14, 2022 / 6:26 pm

    Hello Don, Many thanks for sharing your writing in response to my post. As you will probably know Iain writes about Intuition in Part 2 of TMWT, so I will be interested to come back to your writing here when we get to that chapter in our discussions.

    I see you have joined Channel McGilchrist, so yes you can join the reading group. If you scroll up from your post in the ‘Introduce yourself here’ forum you will find two posts by Laura Thomas and Elspeth Crawford, which let you know how to join the group.

    If you have any difficulties joining let me know and I’ll try and help.

    Looking forward to seeing you at our next meeting. Jenny

  5. donsalmon April 14, 2022 / 7:07 pm

    Thank you so much. Looking forward to the meeting.

  6. donsalmon April 15, 2022 / 12:33 pm

    Hi, thought this might be of interest:

    Dr. Marco Masi has written what I believe is the single best book on science and spirituality – ever. He will be presenting an online class beginning May 1. Here is the link:

    https://lagracecenter.com/events/science-and-spirituality-in-the-light-of-sri-aurobindo/

    I’ve been studying the foundations of science and looking at the connections with various philosophic and contemplative traditions for – ok, I have to put a number in – over 50 years. Jan (my wife) and I spent 5 years writing a book on the topic, “Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity.”

    I’ve given presentations on the topic at psychological and philosophic conferences, and have probably had thousands of conversations with scientists over the years. I think there are excellent writers on these topics, including Michel Bitbol, Iain McGilchrist, Neil Theise and many others.

    Among other things, Marco has written an undergraduate textbook on quantum physics. though being entirely uneducated in the field of physics, I was amazed to see among all the physics books I’ve ever tried to read, Marco’s was the first that helped me to make sense of the subject.

    I found Marco’s book, “Spirit Calls Nature: Bridging Science and Spirituality, Consciousness and Evolution in a Synthesis of Knowledge,” last summer and was astonished to see he had integrated quantum physics, evolutionary biology, anthropology, neuroscience, psychology and many other scientific disciplines with contemplative views – particularly those of Sri Aurobindo – with a clarity and wisdom I’ve never seen elsewhere.

    Marco is also a clear, engaging speaker. i highly recommend taking his course if you can.

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