The Matter With Things. Chapter 4. Judgment

In Part 1 of his most recent book, The Matter With Things. Our Brain, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World, Iain McGilchrist discusses The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth. Currently I am reading and discussing the nine chapters that make up this first part of the book with a group from Channel McGilchrist, who meet once a month to discuss one or two chapters at a time. To date we have met and discussed Chapters 2 and 3:

The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

The Matter With Things. Chapter 3: Perception

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist discusses Judgment as a means to truth and asks the question, what roles do the hemispheres play in reaching beliefs and making judgments?

In Chapter 4 McGilchrist notes the difference but also overlap between hallucinations which result from perceptual distortions associated with right hemisphere dysfunction, and delusions (distorted reality judgments) which also result from right hemisphere dysfunction. He writes (p.135)

‘Distinguishing delusions (distorted reality judgments) from hallucinations (distorted perceptions) is to some degree arbitrary, since misperceptions can give rise to misbeliefs, and misbeliefs give rise to misperceptions. Added to which, all perceptions involve a judgment undertaken before we are aware of it. We don’t see a shape, a texture, a bunch of colours, and only then deduce ‘a tree’. We see the tree whole and immediately, because somewhere way below consciousness we are discriminating what fits best in the context in which we find ourselves.’

Altered perceptions are treated separately from altered judgments in psychiatry, but it is artificial to separate them as they might affect each other. Altered perceptions result in things like hallucinations; altered judgments result in thinking bizarre things or delusions. The question is, how much can we trust the testimony of the left and right hemispheres? On its own the left hemisphere tends to delusion.

The thrust of this chapter is summed up on p.180, where McGilchrist writes that ‘Virtually all delusional syndromes are more commonly the result of right hemisphere than left hemisphere dysfunction;  ….’ And ‘Overall, in general it is the judgments on reality made by the right hemisphere that are more reliable.’

In the preceding 45 pages, McGilchrist presents an extensive synthesis of the research into hemispheric difference in pathologies of judgment (e.g., delusional misidentification, paranoia, Othello syndrome and more) and altered role of the body (e.g., Phantom limb, xenomelia and more). To be honest, I found this chapter tedious. Perhaps this is because after 10 years or so of reading and re-reading The Master and His Emissary, I don’t need further scientific research to convince me that we are living in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. I am more interested in what the implications are for how we live our lives.

Some of the ideas in this chapter that might implicitly inform how we live our lives relate to:

Pessimism, optimism and realism (p.150)

  • the left hemisphere is .. unreliable in daily life: it has a tendency to jump to conclusions, to become entrenched, to be unwilling to see other points of view and, frankly, to make stuff up, if it needs to, in order to maintain its point of view. It has a desperate need for certainty. (p.154)
  • Optimism is related to denial by the left hemisphere.
  • Insight is very largely right hemisphere dependent. (p.150)
  • Although relatively speaking the right hemisphere takes a more pessimistic view of the self, it is also more realistic about it. (p.150)
  • … depression has repeatedly been shown to be associated with greater realism – provided the depression is not too severe. (p.150) Depressed patients make better judgments.
  • The evidence is … that.… up to a point, being depressed gives you insight. (p.150)
  • Insight into yourself and your own illness is dependent on the right hemisphere.
  • The right hemisphere is important for reality testing.

False ‘memories’ and confabulation (p.155)

  • … the left hemisphere just is not reliable about the self. And since, in a sense, the self is all we know directly, that’s got to be a handicap.’ (p.158)

Magical thinking (p.158)

  • Magical thinking is associated with creativity. (p.158)
  • … ‘magical ideation’ is by definition not in itself delusional, though it may be on a continuum with delusion. It simply suggests a greater willingness to consider connexions, some of which are no doubt non-existent, but some of which may simply not be recognised in the current Western standard model. (p.1610
  • … to be ‘totally “unmagical” is very unhealthy’, and reduces one’s capacity to appreciate value and to take enjoyment in life. (p.162)
  • Most people engage in magical thinking. There are certain truths that can only be understood through a myth. Deep truths can’t be encompassed in words.

Judgments formed on intuition (p.162)

  • There are differences between men and women. There is more specialisation in each hemisphere in men, and more overlap between the hemispheres in women.
  • In normal adults, sex differences in functional cerebral asymmetries have been reported in a wide range of areas, including decision-making …. but extending to areas such as language, working memory, spatial orientation, spatial attention, face perception, verbal and musical creativity tasks, emotional ‘processing’ and appreciation of beauty. Except in the case of language, males have generally been found in every one of these areas to be more reliant on the right hemisphere than females. (p.163)

The role of reasoning in forming judgments (p.167)

  • both hemispheres contribute to reasoning. (p.167)
  • the old dichotomy – left hemisphere rational, right hemisphere emotional – is profoundly mistaken, on both counts; not to mention the fact that reason and emotion are never entirely separable. (p.167)
  • the tendency of the left hemisphere is to treat things as more certain than they are. (p.169)
  • Induction is associated with the left hemisphere. Induction is based on an assumption of the normal and expectable (p.169). The left hemisphere tends to reach hasty conclusions on the basis of what seems likely. (p.170)
  • The left hemisphere is more likely to act on its theory as though it represented reality. (p.179)
  • Deduction  … is seeing something is implied by what one knows, and is latent or implicit in it …
  • … the right hemisphere is our bullshit detector. (p.172)
  • … unlike the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere can operate with several types of uncertainties: inexactness, incompleteness, probabilities, fuzziness, observer error and so on. (p.174)

So, as McGilchrist writes in the summary to this chapter (p.180)

‘Both hemispheres play a part in reasoning, and when the situation is relatively simple, completely specified and the outcome in accord with expectation, the left hemisphere plays the key role; when any of these conditions does not apply, the right hemisphere is more reliable and veridical.’

As on the previous zoom calls, although the discussion was interesting and enjoyable, I did not feel any the wiser at the end of it. More questions were raised than answered, such as:

  • In a non-clinical setting, is it possible to be able to identify predominantly left hemisphere individuals? If so, could two of the identifying traits be blanket cynicism and fragmentation?
  • Is it possible that hemisphere specialization or preference could lead to the evolution of two distinct human species? Homo Machine/Bureaucrat v Homo??
  • How do we use this work to understand early childhood development?
  • What are McGilchrist’s genuinely helpful contributions to neuroscience or philosophy? How do we best judge the value of his work?
  • What is belief? How does this differ from world view? Where does emotion or pre/unconscious fit into belief? Is personal investigation the best way to find truth?

Thanks to Laura Thomas for collating these questions.

The next meeting of this reading group will be on Friday 8th July at 4.00 pm UK time, to discuss Chapters 5 (Apprehension) and 6 (Emotional and Social Intelligence) of The Matter With Things.


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.

4 thoughts on “The Matter With Things. Chapter 4. Judgment

  1. donsalmon June 12, 2022 / 7:43 pm

    I remember during my graduate studies in clinical psychology seeing something along these lines:

    :… depression has repeatedly been shown to be associated with greater realism – provided the depression is not too severe. (p.150) Depressed patients make better judgments.”

    The caveat “provided the depression is not too severe” was not often included.

    A few thoughts:

    First, whenever you see ANY psychological research (and I’ve conducted some so I speak from personal experience) it’s important to keep in mind the so called “replication crisis” in psychology. Turns out – interestingly enough – it stems in large part from a SUCCESSFUL parapsychology experiment conducted by Dr. Daryl Bem. The critics have basically concluded the following:

    We can no longer accuse parapsychologists of fraud, poor methodology, insufficient effect size, or failure to replicate. Since parapsychologists get success after success using widely accepted scientific methods – AND SINCE WE KNOW PARAPSYCHOLOGY IS NOT REAL – the only conclusion we can come to is there is something wrong with scientific methods!

    So keeping that in mind (not saying I agree with the critics just to show that otherwise intelligent critics can become fanatic when it comes to parapsychology), I think even the definition of depression is very limited. If you ever work with real patients – and not just a few but hundreds or thousands – you realize one depressed patient is not like any other. And there are DEFINITELY large numbers of depressed patients whose mood colors and distorts almost everything in their lives.

    It is well known that cognitive behavior therapy (which may appear mechanistic but can be right as well as left “brained” if conducted from the heart as well as the limited analytic perspective) succeeds as well as medication even for the most severe depression by challenging cognitive distortions.

    So I hope one takes this information with some caution.

    As far as the issue of perception in depth, I think it helps to know what underlying metaphysic we are using to understand it. Merleau Ponty and the other phenomenologists were struggling to come up with a non physicalist, participatory understanding of perception without slipping into an overly one sided idealist view.

    Sri Aurobindo spoke of an underlying “knowledge by identity” when we awaken to our true nature, a recognition that underlying the percept of “Don” and the percept of “words typed on computer screen” is one Divine Reality – but I know this goes far beyond anything Dr. McGilchrist has explicitly written about; just thought it was worth mentioning.

  2. jennymackness June 13, 2022 / 6:05 am

    Many thanks for your comments Don. With respect to depression, I don’t see how Iain’s writing can not be influenced by his own experience of depression, I expect you will have seen the videos in which he talks about this, e.g. and read what he has written for Channel McGilchrist – I think your comment about how one depressed patient is not like any other is exemplified in what people have written in response to Iain’s article. I cannot comment further because I do not have any background in psychology or psychiatry, and fortunately have never experienced serious depression,

  3. jarwillis June 13, 2022 / 1:25 pm

    Thank you Jenny for another lucid post. Your series is by far the most helpful commentary on the book that I have seen, and much more so, I have to say, than anything I have seen on Channel McGilchrist.
    Please carry on!

  4. jennymackness June 13, 2022 / 5:00 pm

    Thank you James. I will try and keep up with it 🙂

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