The Matter With Things. Chapter 7. Cognitive Intelligence

I enjoyed this chapter. 

There are many aspects to intelligence. In Chapter 6, McGilchrist explored social and emotional intelligence as the means to truth. In this chapter he focusses on cognitive intelligence. Intelligence, he says, is difficult to define, but ‘we all know intelligence when we meet it, even if we can’t pin it down’. However, he does quote Linda Gottfredson’s definition published in the Wall Street Journal in 1994 and subsequently in the journal Intelligence in 1997:

Intelligence is a very general mental capacity which, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, or ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do. (Gottfredson, 1997)

Intelligence is about understanding, and understanding is the strength of the right hemisphere. It is not the left hemisphere’s forte. The left hemisphere’s forte is carrying out procedures. Both hemispheres working together are likely to be superior to either working alone.

As we know ‘general’ intelligence (g) is commonly measured using IQ tests, but general intelligence includes both ‘fluid’ intelligence (Gf), and ‘crystallised’ intelligence (Gc). ‘Crystallised’ intelligence is more culture bound and context dependent, whereas ‘fluid’ intelligence, as the name suggests, can be applied to any new situation or problem, and responds to stimuli more quickly correlating strongly with faster reaction times.

In this chapter McGilchrist argues that ‘fluid’ intelligence is in decline, but according to the ‘Flynn effect’, general intelligence is increased between the 1930s and 1990s. McGilchrist’s question is therefore, if we in the West are relying more and more on the left hemisphere, and it is the right hemisphere that is responsible for fluid intelligence, arguably the more important intelligence, then shouldn’t IQ be declining rather than increasing?

It is unsurprising that several factors need to be considered; these include environmental factors, such as better nutrition in early childhood and more years in school, and the well-recognised practice of ‘teaching to the test’, which could well result in the population simply getting better at taking the test rather than an improvement in IQ levels. There is also the recognised problem of grade inflation in schools and universities. All these factors could account for the noted increasing IQ levels.

More recently a ‘reverse Flynn effect’ has been noted. Since the 1990s research suggests that IQ levels have not only plateaued but are declining by two to three IQ points per decade. There is now evidence that even when there was thought to be a rise in IQ levels, in fact what was happening was that the gains were at the lower end of the cognitive development spectrum, but there were large losses at the highest level. Flynn now believes that the increasing IQ scores seen between the 1930s and the 1990s, were related to a corresponding increasing tendency to see the world through ‘scientific spectacles’, so there was bias built into the IQ tests in favour of a particular way of thinking; higher scores went to people who can express things in a scientific way. For McGilchrist this privileges the left hemisphere’s way of looking at the world, but people with high IQs rely on the right hemisphere.

McGilchrist concludes this chapter by writing on p.238

Evidence from a number of sources suggests that the right hemisphere contributes the majority, not just of emotional and social intelligence, but also of what is ordinarily meant by intelligence (IQ) – cognitive power, or g. This appears to be particularly true among children and adults of the highest intelligence.

In the following video, McGilchrist discusses this chapter with Alex Gomez-Marin


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

Gottfredson, L. S. (1997). “Mainstream Science on Intelligence (editorial)”, Intelligence, 24: 13–23

The Matter With Things. Chapter 6. Emotional and Social Intelligence

It is unsurprising that emotional and social intelligence is regarded by Iain McGilchrist as one of the ‘means to truth’. Both forms of intelligence are thought to be important aspects of education and learning, at least in the West, and many educators will know of Daniel Goleman’s work on this, not that McGilchrist mentions education. McGilchrist’s focus is on the role of the hemispheres in understanding the human world.

McGilchrist starts this chapter (p.193) with a nice quote (see below) from Johann Gottfried Herder, 1828, so clearly the role of emotional and social intelligence in our understanding of the world is not a new idea.

‘Anyone who wants to be all head is as much a monster as one who wants to be all heart’.

McGilchrist tells us that emotional and social understanding are central to understanding all human situations. Social and emotional intelligence are required for being able to judge what is real and what is not. Experience of the world is an encounter, a relationship, a process; it is not a static thing. Relations are of key importance in social and emotional intelligence. Everything exists as a relationship. How to understand people and see another person’s point of view involves emotional and social intelligence and our grasp of reality.

It is the right hemisphere that has a grip on reality. It’s ‘mode of attention, capacity for pragmatic understanding and communication, superior perceptual integration, and ability to shift belief appropriately in the light of new evidence’ (p.193) all make this possible. It understands how context changes meaning. Damage to the right hemisphere leads to a diminished sense of reality and emotional disconnectedness, whereas damage to the left hemisphere can lead to an increased intensity of experience. This was experienced by Jill Bolte Taylor following her left hemisphere stroke. The undamaged left hemisphere is less in touch with the body and the implicit than the right hemisphere, jumps to conclusion, is unable to shift mindset and does not ‘get’ the emotional import of human behaviour.

But all this does not mean that the right hemisphere is ‘emotional’ and the left hemisphere is ‘cool’ and rational. Both hemispheres can underwrite emotions. Anger, irritability, and disgust are all lateralised to the left hemisphere. Sadness, melancholy, and depression are more associated with the right hemisphere. So, there are differences in the emotional capacities of the two hemispheres.

Theory of mind – the capacity to put yourself in someone else’s position, see what they see, and feel some of what they feel (empathy) – is highly dependent on the right hemisphere. Right hemisphere damaged people (as in schizophrenia and autism) lose the ability to read faces, understand metaphor, sarcasm, and tone of voice. They become literalistic in the ways they interpret things, and ‘may show a ‘blanket disregard’ for the feelings, needs and expectations of others’. (p. 201) Following left hemisphere damage patients become better at understanding implicit metaphorical meanings.

Metaphor is not an addition or ornament at the top level; it is the bedrock of language, making connection between symbol and experience. Metaphor means to carry over. Whenever we use language, we are using metaphor, but we have become so familiar with many of them that they no longer act as metaphors. We have to distinguish between dead clichéd and live metaphors. The left hemisphere deals with cliches. Live metaphor is dependent on the right hemisphere.

The word ‘intelligence’ is derived from two words in Latin, inter (meaning between) and legere (meaning choose) (see  And the original meaning of the word ‘understand’ was to stand in the midst of, since ‘under’ did not mean ‘beneath’, but rather ‘among’ or ‘between’. So social and emotional intelligence through which we understand people, their motivations (‘why’ they behave in the way they do) and our world, depend on relations. The right hemisphere is dominant and superior for all forms of emotional receptivity and expressivity (p.204)

‘… emotion is a critical part of capacity to comprehend the world at all, the ability to understand and interact with other living things. Without it we are foolish, however much we may know, and we are only alive in a diminished sense of the word.’ (p.224) The right hemisphere is critical for this understanding.

There is far more in this chapter than I have written about here. For a discussion about the chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video


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

The Matter With Things. Chapter 5. Apprehension

This fifth chapter of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things, is short; only 10 pages long, compared to some chapters which are almost book length; for example, Chapter 28 is more than 100 pages long.

In Chapter 5 McGilchrist takes a different approach to that taken in preceding chapters in that instead of examining what happens after right hemisphere damage, here he focusses on what happens after left hemisphere damage. This is in relation to the left hemisphere’s propensity to manipulate the world by grasping or holding on to it, i.e., to apprehend it, as opposed to the right hemisphere’s propensity to encounter the world, explore it and hold things together, i.e., to comprehend it.

McGilchrist doesn’t explain why he took this different approach. Perhaps there is more evidence of what happens after left hemisphere damage, but I found myself wondering how the chapter might have been different had it been titled Comprehension instead of Apprehension.

As ever, McGilchrist shares his understanding of the etymology of the two words.

Ap-prehending, from Latin ad + prehendere, to hold onto – manipulating

Com-prehending, from Latin cum + prehendere, to hold together – understanding

I always find McGilchrist’s explanations of the origins of words helpful in understanding how he interprets and represents them. So, from this, the left hemisphere apprehends and the right hemisphere comprehends. When there is damage to the left hemisphere the world is still there and comprehensible, but it can no longer easily utilise the world or represent it. The simple act of utilisation is lost. We see this in left hemisphere stroke patients whose right arm and right hand function is impaired. McGilchrist uses further patient vignettes to illustrate this point that left hemisphere damage leaves the patient unable to use simple tools such as a key or a toothbrush.

The right hemisphere explores with the left hand. This behaviour can be seen in the great apes that use the right hand to grasp something, but the left hand for making contact with others. Right hemisphere damage rarely results in an inability to use tools, but instead affects the patient’s ability to perform a sequence of tasks to achieve an end, for example, make a cup of coffee.

When the left hemisphere is damaged, as in a stroke, not only is the patient’s right arm and hand function impaired, but also their use of language. McGilchrist suggests that the left hemisphere uses language to map the world, i.e., it uses language to manipulate the world and maps the territory through the use of a system of symbols. But a map leaves most of the world out. ‘In the left hemisphere’s world words are seen as arbitrary signs: in the right hemisphere’s world they are seen as to some extent fused with the aspect of reality they represent.’ (p.185).  The right hemisphere sees the reality of the terrain it maps. In the left hemisphere signs are substituted for experience, but the aspects of language that tether it to the lived world, and the body, metaphor, prosody (the inflection of the voice, the sound of the word and the meaning conveyed), and pragmatics (understanding utterances in context) are right hemisphere dependent.

Left hemisphere damage doesn’t alter reality; the world is still there but a left hemisphere damaged patient can’t use it. Damage to the right hemisphere causes alterations in reality.

The purpose of the left hemisphere is to become powerful, not to understand reality. Damage to the left hemisphere results in loss of this power to utilise and manipulate the world through the right hand and language, but reality remains largely unaltered.

For a discussion about this chapter between Iain McGilchrist and Alex Gomez-Marin watch this video


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

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.

The Matter With Things. Chapter 3. Perception

To repeat: don’t think, but look! (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1976)

The Channel McGilchrist reading group met again yesterday to discuss the third chapter, Perception, of Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter With Things. The discussion was quite wide-ranging, and not always on topic, but nevertheless interesting. For example, there was a discussion about whether we can trust McGilchrist’s interpretation of the research papers he has read and referenced in support of his overarching argument that ‘the right hemisphere is a more important guide and more reliable one to the nature of reality’. The question was asked, how many readers will actually seek out and read the papers that McGilchrist references to check whether or not we agree with his interpretation, and if we do not, then how can we be sure that his interpretations are correct? I wasn’t sure that everyone grasped the significance and importance of this question, and I haven’t quite sorted out in my own head, how relevant it is to discussions of McGilchrist’s book, but it is easy to recognise that McGilchrist’s work attracts people who have already bought into his key hypothesis, that we live in a world increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere, and therefore it is quite difficult to engage in critical discussion. But one person did say that we don’t necessarily have to read McGilchrist’s work and engage with his ideas by standing outside it and analysing it objectively. We can wear it like a garment and dance around in it, until we no longer need it. This reading group is only just getting going, and I hope it won’t shy away from more challenging discussions.

My interpretation of the discussion around perception was that no-one had really got to grips with it. Compared to other chapters in the book, this is quite a short chapter – 30 pages, and McGilchrist sticks to discussing perception in relation to the hemispheres, considering hemispheric differences in normal perception, and the hemispheres and pathologies of perception. So, he does not mention philosophy of mind, although questions about the relationship between mind and body, and brain and body, and how we can know whether what we perceive is real or not, seem to me to be implicit in the writing. In his book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist does briefly mention ‘the mind-brain question’, although he says that it is not the subject of the book and that he does not have the skill or space to address the topic at any length (McGilchrist, 2009, p.19). He seems to have taken the same approach in this book, The Matter With Things.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 3 by writing:

‘Perception is not the same as attention, and not at all the same as thinking. But the world we choose to attend to, indeed choose whether and how to attend to, is nothing without perception.’ (p.105, The Matter With Things). It is worth remembering at this point that Part 1 of The Matter With Things, which includes Chapter 3 on Perception, is about the hemispheres and the means to truth. So along with Attention (Chapter 2), which we discussed in our first meeting and which I have already written about, McGilchrist considers perception to be a means to truth.

McGilchrist defines perception as follows:

‘Perception is the act whereby we reach out from our cage of mental construct to taste, smell, touch, hear and see the living world.’ (p.105. The Matter With Things) and ‘To be good at perceiving is to be good at integrating information.’ (p.106 The Matter With Things). 

There was some discussion in the group about the difference between sense and sensation, and the role of emotions and feelings in relation to perception, but we didn’t come to a clear understanding of this, and McGilchrist doesn’t explicitly address this in the chapter. Perhaps the nearest McGilchrist comes to addressing this is when he tells us that Merleau-Ponty saw perception as a reciprocal encounter.

“Experience is a sensorimotor – and intuitive – participation, a fusion of one’s own awareness with awareness of the world. Speaking of his perception of the blue sky, Merleau-Ponty wrote that ‘I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it “thinks itself within me”… Perception is not passive reception, but participation.” (p.106 The Matter With Things). Perception is an active process, bound up with motion. We see something as an opportunity to act. When we see things, our whole body is engaged in perception; perception is embodied.

In this chapter McGilchrist looks in some depth at the left and right hemispheres’ roles in visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, local and global perception. He also discusses what happens to perception if the left or right hemisphere is damaged, writing at some length about visual hallucinations and distortions, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile hallucinations, and concluding from examining a wide range of scientific evidence that hallucinations are more often due to right hemisphere damage than left hemisphere dysfunction. I am not going to repeat the details of the evidence that McGilchrist provides here. They are all in the chapter, and you can listen to McGilchrist talking to Alex Gomez-Marin about this chapter in this YouTube video:

Lastly, one of the questions we considered was, if we agree with McGilchrist that the right hemisphere is a more important guide and a more reliable one to the nature of reality (because of its pattern recognition ability, its ability to deal with incomplete information and its ability to see the whole), then can we train ourselves to make more and better use of our right hemisphere and be less dominated by the left hemisphere (which tends to objectify and jump to quick conclusions, seeing things out of context, seeing the map rather than reality)?

McGilchrist has suggested that practising mindfulness or meditation is one method, but also spending more time in nature, looking at art, and listening to music.

Another method is to think about optical illusions. McGilchrist uses the image of Schroeder’s stairs (p.114 The Matter With Things).

He writes:  ‘While the left hemisphere underwrites local attention, the right hemisphere underwrites global attention – and the ability to switch between them.’ This ‘… inevitably makes a difference to the world we perceive. What it means is that both to perceive the form of something as a whole, and to see it differently to the way you are accustomed to see it, depends on the way of taking in the world that is underwritten by the right hemisphere of the brain. If you think and adopt the way of being of the left hemisphere world, not only will you struggle to see the overall shape, but you won’t be able so easily to switch – or even be aware that you can. If someone else tells you they see something quite different there, you might well, sincerely but wrongly, believe that they must be mistaken.’

Members of the reading group provided further links to interesting illusions for us to think about:

And finally, here is an exercise suggested by Cynthia Ford in the comments under McGilchrist’s video,  which might be interesting to try out.

There’s a writing exercise in which you walk somewhere deeply familiar, that you know so well that you hardly see it, and you notice and write down only one color, every instance of that color. Or, following the Oulipo school, you notice only the unnoticed, the trash, or detritus, or signs, the unaesthetic. You can actually feel the perceptual shift from the left brain to the right brain as the place changes and becomes new.

Our next reading group meeting will take place on Friday 3rd June at 4.00 pm UK time, when we will discuss Chapter 4. Judgment (as a means to truth).


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.

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:

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

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


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

The Coincidence of Opposites. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about the Coincidence of Opposites twice. Once at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, at the beginning of October 2021, and again at the end of October, in a talk given online to Ralston College, Savannah, GA, USA.

Also, I have now received my copy of Iain’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (abbreviated in this post as TMWT), which I have begun to read slowly, but as I explained in a previous post, not in the order written. The chapter on the coincidence of opposites, which bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ is the first chapter in the second volume of the book, Chapter 20.

There is a reason that this chapter bears the title ‘The coincidentia oppositorum’ as opposed to ‘The coincidence of opposites’ and that is that the word ‘coincide’ in this chapter,

‘… means more than that opposites happen to look like one another, even to cohere, to concur, or to be in accord, though those meanings are present, too: it means that they ‘fall together’, like the superposition of the two images which, when projected on a screen, overlap precisely to form a new image.’ (p.821, TMWT)

Like all the other chapters in this book, Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum’, starts with some quotes; for this chapter, with quotes from a philosopher, C.S. Peirce, a physicist, Niels Bohr and a poet, Friedrich Hölderlin. I think the quote from Peirce (1931-60) gets to the essence of what this chapter is about.

‘A thing without oppositions ipso facto does not exist … existence lies in opposition.’

In our increasingly divided world, where polarization is spreading across the globe, ‘The Coincidence of Opposites’ is an important idea for our times. Of the chapters that I have read so far in The Matter with Things, this is the one that seems to resonate strongly with current experience of the world we live in. But the coincidence of opposites is not a new idea. It is an ancient theme, which as Iain shows us in this chapter, has been recognised by many philosophers such as Empedocles, Heraclitus, Hegel, Goethe, Nietzsche, James, Schelling, and Whitehead amongst others, as well as across cultures.  In preparation for the Ralston College talk we were sent a copy of the opening pages of this chapter, in which Iain recounts an ancient Iroquois legend to illustrate that ‘All things arise from opposing, but in some form nonetheless related, drives or forces. Energy is always characterised by the coming together of apparent opposites …’ (p.816, TMWT)

So, Iain draws on a wide range of resources to substantiate his argument that things and their opposites are not as irreconcilable and far apart as they may seem. Opposites do not have a linear irreconcilable relationship; it is not the case that the further you go towards one end of the line the further away you are from the opposite end. Rather, opposites eventually tend to coincide. If we could grasp this we might live in a happier world. The example I can think of which might help to illustrate this and that I have heard Iain mention in other talks is that both extreme religious fundamentalists and extreme atheists ultimately have the same left hemisphere view of the world. They go full circle and eventually coincide.

‘A principle that is extended too far, without respect to the opposite that is always inherent in it, may turn into the very thing that is not only undesired, but is being denied.’ (p.829, TMWT). If you go far enough in any direction you reach not more of what you desired but its opposite.

Jacob’s Dream William Blake 1805

So instead of a linear model, Iain prefers one of circularity or better still a spiral, since a circle comes back to the same place and is static whereas a spiral is constantly moving and changing, and circles round to come back to a slightly elevated position.  Linearity and circularity co-exist in a spiral.

Whilst opposites genuinely coincide, they remain opposites and are mutually sustaining. They give rise to and fulfil one another and are conjoined; you can’t have one without the other, but they remain distinct as opposites, as in heat and cold, brightness and darkness, mountains and valleys. Everything that exists can be thought of as a form of energy which results from the coming together of apparent opposites. Iain provides us with many examples of this, e.g., the north and south poles of a magnet, the positive and negative poles of an electric circuit and the merging of male and female gametes in the origin of new life.

A thing and its opposite can both be true at the same time. The individual and the general, the temporal and the eternal, the embodied and the disembodied present simultaneously. They are inclusive. Jacob Needleman (2016) wrote: ‘Stay with the contradiction. If you stay you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.’ East and West are simultaneously present on a compass and need to be so, not just to navigate the world, but to have a world to navigate.

The idea of complementarity is foundational in Nature, morality, and spirituality. The whole is never an annihilation but rather a subsumption of the parts. All is one, but also all is many. Both are true. As Goethe (1948) noted, we need the union of union and division.

‘Dividing the united, uniting the divided, is the very life of Nature; this is the eternal systole and diastole, the eternal coalescence and separation, the inhalation and exhalation of the world in which we live, and where our existence is woven.’ (p. 837, TMWT)

Resistance and pulling in opposite directions are essential for creation, as we see in friction and Heraclitus’ bow and lyre.

Source of image:

The two hemispheres of the brain work together by being apart (separated by the corpus callosum). They cooperate by opposing one another. They inhibit and inform one another, at times standing back and away from one another, and also at times working in unison. Their relationship is oppositional, but not contradictory. The drive of the cosmos is about distinction without separation. But whilst the two hemispheres are equally necessary and need to work together, they are unequal in status. The left hemisphere needs to act as servant to the right hemisphere, which is the master.

There is an asymmetry at the heart of the coincidentia oppositorum. Union and division are asymmetrical. The principle for division and the principle for union need to be brought together, not divided ( p.833, TMWT). We need the union of union and division, not the division of union and division.

We need not either both/and or either/or, but both both/and and either/or.

We need not non-duality only, but the non-duality of duality and non-duality. (p.833, TMWT)

We need universality and particularity, precision and flexibility, restriction and openness, freedom and constraint.

We need to accept that in our society we are beset by paradoxes; by pursuing happiness we become less happy, by pursuing leisure through technology the average working day is longer and we have less time than before, through our eagerness that scientific research should lead to positive findings, scientific research has become less adventurous and more predictable, by trying to improve education through a focus on exam results we have seen a loss of free thinking, and through protecting our children from risk, we have made them more vulnerable. Everything has its dark side. There is nothing so good that it cannot have negative consequences and nothing so bad that it cannot occasionally give rise to good. We should not be tempted to deny the coincidence of opposites. The coincidence of opposites is at the origin of everything and gives rise to everything we know. It transcends ordinary reasoning and we mustn’t be tempted to resolve this.

Things change depending on the context, as we see in the phenomenon of hormesis. A very small amount of something, such as arsenic, may have beneficial effects, but may kill you if taken in large amounts. From any one position we can only see part of the picture. We should always try to see as many points of view as possible. As A. N. Whitehead (1954) noted, ‘To have seen it from one side only is not to have seen it.’ (p. 823, TMWT)

And to finish with another quote from Whitehead also from p.823 of TMWT,

‘… there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.’


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

This is the fourth post I have written which relate to chapters in Volume 2, Part 3, The Unforeseen Nature of Reality, of The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Here are the links to previous posts.

Chapter 28: The sense of the sacred  

Chapter 25: Matter and consciousness  

Chapter 26: Value

Publication of Iain McGilchrist’s new book. The Matter With Things

On Tuesday (Nov 9th) Iain McGilchrist’s new book The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, was published by Perspectiva Press. The launch was celebrated in a conversation between Iain and Philip Pullman, which was hosted by the How to Academy. This was a wonderful meeting of minds. There was also, of course, a launch party hosted by Jonathan Rowson, Director of Perspectiva, at which both Jonathan and Iain, as well as a few others spoke.

I now own copies of the two volumes and have started reading. The volumes are beautifully produced and I agree with Jonathan Rowson that the book is also beautifully written.

When I attended the Field&Field four day conference at the beginning of October 2021, where Iain gave 14 one hour talks, the opening talk outlined the process of writing this book, which took 10 years and was started soon after the publication of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World in 2009.

Iain spoke about a demon possessing him in the writing of The Matter with Things. It was originally intended to be a shorter and more accessible book than The Master and His Emissary but ended up twice as long. The book takes forward the ideas discussed in The Master and His Emissary and tries to answer Plotinus’ question ‘But we – who are we?’ Iain feels that this question is more pressing now than it has ever been because humanity has lost the plot, imperilling the existence of our species. The planet will survive, but will we? And even if we can stop destroying the world, we will have to reimagine who we are and how we relate to the cosmos. These are the issues that Iain tries to address in The Matter with Things.

The book is in two volumes and three parts. Volume 1 contains Parts 1 and 2; Volume 2 contains Part 3 and a bibliography which itself is over 200 pages long.

Part 1 focusses on neuropsychology (how our brains shape reality). The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth

(attention, perception, judgment, apprehension, emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence, creativity)

Part 2 focusses on epistemology (how we can come to know anything at all). The Hemispheres and the Paths to Truth

(science, reason, intuition, and imagination)

Part 3 focusses on metaphysics (the nature of what we find in the cosmos). The Unforeseen Nature of Reality

(the coincidentia oppositorum, the one and the many, time, flow and movement, space and matter, matter and consciousness, value, purpose, life and the nature of the cosmos, the sense of the sacred)

In total The Matter with Things is 1579 pages long. Iain has been asked whether anyone in this day and age has the time (or inclination?) to sit down and read a book of this length. In the book launch party Jonathan Rowson pointed out that to his knowledge, at this time, only about 10 people in the world have read the entire book.

A good reason for reading the book from beginning to end is that Iain develops his argument through the book culminating with the final chapter in which he tells us that one of the great losses from our modern world, perhaps the greatest loss, is a sense of the sacred. This, together with the loss of other values such as goodness, beauty, truth, and purpose, has led to the world’s current predicament. The book is so long because Iain doesn’t simply state his opinion. For each argument he makes he backs it up with extensive research into science, philosophy, ancient wisdom, and spiritual traditions from around the world. And through this research he has found that what he instinctively felt as a young man in his twenties, when writing ‘Against Criticism’, has been discussed in many traditions and cultures throughout history – that the whole is not the sum of the parts, the world is not inert and unresponsive, that opposites coincide as well as diverge, history is not linear but moves in spirals and everything flows. So, if you wanted to follow the development of his arguments it would probably be best to read The Matter with Things from beginning to end, particularly if you haven’t read The Master and His Emissary. The book ‘is intended as a single whole, each part illuminating, and in turn illuminated by, the others.’ (p. xvii)

But, Iain writes, the book ‘can be explored according to whim’ (p. xvii), which will be my approach. I have decided to dip into this long book and read chapters out of sequence, so I have read the last chapter (Chapter 28) The Sense of the Sacred first, because it seemed to me, having read The Master and His Emissary more than once, and being familiar with many of Iain’s core ideas, that this is the chapter that introduces ideas that I haven’t heard Iain pull together before. I next read the chapter on Values (Chapter 26) because I have been discussing values with a friend. I am now reading Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum, because I have recently heard Iain speak of the coincidence of opposites twice and want to consolidate my understanding of the points he is making. So, for The Matter With Things, I will be dipping in and out and will not be in any rush to read the whole book.

Jonathan Rowson mentioned that Iain has a lot of speaking events lined up, so it will be helpful to follow those along with reading the book. Iain’s speaking events are usually advertised by Channel McGilchrist on their website, their Twitter stream (@dr_mcgilchrist) and Facebook ( By joining Channel McGilchrist you can receive a regular newsletter of updates, if you are interested in following the developments surrounding this book.

The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, can be ordered on on the Channel McGilchrist website, and a Kindle edition can be purchased on Amazon.

Update 12-11-2021

See also this post by Charles Foster –

What are Values? A talk by Iain McGilchrist

This talk was given by Iain McGilchrist at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, October 2021. It relates to Chapter 26 of his new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World.

I have now received my copies of the two volumes of The Matter with Things (TMWT) and can see that there is very much more content included in Chapter 26, than was covered in the talk I listened to. I have included here elements of the talk that I found interesting, with reference, in some places, to the text of The Matter with Things for further clarity. Any errors in the content of this post are mine, and should not be attributed to Iain McGilchrist.

In this talk Iain discussed values as essential elements in the cosmos, in particular truth, goodness, and beauty, which, he said, are not simply painted onto the surface of life, but are ontological primitives. The cosmos is beautiful whether we are there or not to appreciate it. Life brings into being the capacity for value. As Thomas Nagel said, ‘Value is not just an accidental side effect of life; rather, there is life because life is a necessary condition of value.” (Nagel, 2012, 122-123). Values evoke a response in us and give meaning to life. Valuing depends on a relationship.


Science has one overarching value and that is truth, but science cannot help us understand the nature of values and may indeed help us misunderstand them. Science regards values as secondary phenomena, and when it does turn its gaze on values, regards them in a utilitarian way.

‘Truth carries within it the whole purpose of science, and gives meaning to its activities. However, science will not admit anything that is not empirically verifiable – yet the value of truth, like all value, is incapable of empirical proof.” (TMWT p.1123).

Truth is not the same as utility. “Values are not just validated by the outcomes they achieve; they are inseparable from our deepest emotional experience.” (TMAHE, p.1125). Useful assumptions are not always truthful and true assumptions are not always of practical use. Truth is not a function of another value. Truth is an act, a process; one of trust in or faithfulness towards, whatever is; an unrevealing of something. This process leads to a foundational web of interconnectedness. Not all values, e.g., utilitarian values, are fundamental in this way.

Since the whole of Part 2 of Volume 1 of The Matter with Things is devoted to the question of what is truth, and what are the paths to truth, Iain did not spend a lot of time on truth as a value in this talk. However, I have heard Iain give a complete talk on just truth in the past. Here is a link to the related blog post: Exploring the Divided Brain – Where can we go for truth?


Like truth, goodness is not an add-on to life, but part of the nature of consciousness. In our culture the dominant approach to ethics is utilitarianism. This is the governing value of the left hemisphere which is focussed on outcomes rather than the essential interiority of morality, but the evidence from brain studies shows that the right hemisphere is more important for morality. Utilitarianism is a characteristic of brain damage, as seen in psychopaths. Morality is intrinsic in our cosmos and it is our duty to respond to it. Moral values and judgements can’t be explained in a calculating way; they rely on intuition and everything we know from experience.

Thought experiments are often used to illustrate the moral dilemmas we face. Should a doctor sacrifice the life of one patient with healthy organs, so that five other patients can receive organ transplants and live? Thought experiments like these seem to presume that we are machines, but ‘Normal judgements of morality require full interhemispheric integration of information critically supported by the right temporal parietal junction and right frontal processes. In moral decision-making, then, the right hemisphere is more important: it takes into account intention and context.’ (TMWT, p.1133). Moral and immoral behaviour are deeply bound with the right and left hemispheres respectively.

Goodness and morality are irreducible to utility. ‘There comes a point where one has to say ‘certain things are wrong: if you can’t see it for yourself, I can’t help you.’ (TMWT, p.1137)

Morality is a nexus, not a chain; it is a disposition towards the world. Utilitarianism overvalues individualistic pleasure and determination, but “A pleasure-filled life is not the same as a happy life, and a happy life is not the same as a meaningful life.’ (TMWT, p.1139). We’re not just here to enjoy ourselves. We need to balance hedonic pleasure with eudaimonic pleasure, taking into account the happiness of others. We are not squalid, selfish apes. When we act intuitively, we are often gracious and generous. Prosocial behaviours tend to result from intuitive behaviour. Evolution involves both competition and cooperation; collaboration is the best survival tactic. The prevailing view of science is cynical, i.e., that we are blind, selfish mechanisms, that altruism must be covert selfishness, and that we maximise our self-interest. But cynicism has been shown to be related to lower intelligence. ‘Cynicism appears to be a coping strategy by the cognitively less gifted, to avoid being duped by others’. (TMWT, p.1143)

Neither a utilitarian, nor a deontological approach to ethics solves the problem of how to understand moral principles. Instead, Iain suggests virtue ethics as an approach that is not so much concerned with outcomes as with an attitude founded on the ontology of the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere acknowledges moral ambiguity and that goodness is in some form constitutive of the cosmos.


A utilitarian view of beauty is to see it as a means of ensuring sexual attraction, necessary for evolution, but when we start making things, we want them to be beautiful, not just utilitarian. Darwin recognised that how a sense of beauty is first acquired is not known, even if it is used afterwards for sexual attraction. Our sense of beauty, e.g., the beauty of nature or of the landscape serves no utility. Beauty is not a luxury or superfluity as many scientists think. People’s wellbeing depends on being surrounded by beauty. Schools should be beautiful. Hospitals too.

Like truth and goodness, beauty is foundational. It is one of the things life is for. It is not a human invention. It is not a luxury that we can afford only once our basic survival needs have been met. Appreciation of beauty is a primal instinct.

Beauty doesn’t have designs on us; Its purposiveness is without purpose. As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Beauty – be not cause – It is –

Chase it, and it ceases –

Chase it not, and it abides

Beauty is more universal than we have been taught to think. It is not purely culturally determined. There is enormous commonality across cultures in what people find beautiful. Watch, in this video (06.35), how an Amazonian tribe respond to the beauty of Maria Callas singing Bellini’s ‘Casta Diva’, despite knowing nothing about her, or her music.

The essence of beauty is harmony, the appreciation of the relations between things. This is a strength of the right hemisphere. A sense of beauty aligns with tolerance of ambiguity, appreciation of asymmetry, and understanding the implicit and embodiment in nature. These are all characteristics of the right hemisphere which appreciates beauty through a broad, open, receptive gaze. The left hemisphere’s gaze is sharply defined and grasping. This is similar to how the Navajos have two ways of looking at the landscape; with hard and soft eyes. Soft eyes are used for taking in beauty. The left hemisphere fails to make sense of beauty.

Iain ends Chapter 26 of The Matter with Things, with the following two sentences:

‘Beauty, morality and truth have been downgraded, dismissed or denied. If you want to see the consequences, you need do no more than look around you.’ (TMWT, p.1165)


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

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press.

Source of Image: Libquotes

The Relationship between Matter and Consciousness. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

This post reports on a talk given by Iain McGilchrist at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, in October 2021. Iain is author of ‘The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ (2009) and ‘The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World’, his new book which will be published on November 9th 2021.

The talk relates to Chapter 25, Matter and Consciousness, in his new book. In this chapter, Iain discusses (so he told us. I haven’t yet received my pre-ordered copy of the book) the relationship between consciousness and matter; consciousness and life, and what we can learn from the hemisphere hypothesis. The hemisphere hypothesis was explored in his book ‘The Master and His Emissary’.

As in other posts on these difficult topics covered by Iain, I need to say at the start that any errors in this post are mine and should be attributed to my understanding, or lack of it, and my interpretation of what Iain said, rather than what he actually said. I have included full references to Iain’s two books at the end of this post, where some of my sources can be checked.

Iain started this talk by saying that there has been no progress on the hard problem of consciousness. “The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of how physical processes in the brain give rise to the subjective experiences of the mind and of the world.” (David Chalmers)

The relationship between matter and consciousness

Iain suggests that the brain and consciousness are intimately related and work in tandem, and that there are three possible relationships between the brain and consciousness.

  1. The brain emits consciousness
  2. The brain transmits consciousness
  3. The brain permits consciousness i.e., the brain shapes forms and brings into being the consciousness that we experience.

Iain believes that consciousness is neither emitted, nor passively transmitted, but permitted by the brain. Some things are allowed to be transmitted and others are not. The idea of emission gained traction amongst biologists because they think we understand matter, but matter is just as difficult to understand as consciousness. The relationship between matter and consciousness is baffling. Iain suggests five possible routes to resolving this:

  1. Deny the existence of consciousness
  2. Deny the existence of matter
  3. Believe that both exist but are totally distinct
  4. Believe that both exist and are the same
  5. Believe that consciousness and matter are distinct phenomena reflecting different aspects of an indivisible reality.

One of the problems is that we think in terms of things and thingness. We need to move away from things and whatness (the left hemisphere’s view of the world) to processes and howness (the right hemisphere’s view).

The word consciousness has many meanings as is explored in Adam Zeman’s book, Consciousness. A user’s guide, but Iain is not talking about losing consciousness when we sleep or die and similar meanings, but about the experiential; something that has inwardness. This covers all activities that go on unconsciously, pre-consciously and consciously. The conscious and the unconscious don’t inhabit separate chambers. Iain uses the image of a spotlight on a stage to explain this.

A spotlight illuminates just one part of the stage (consciousness) but the rest of the stage (the unconscious) is still present. We are just not focussed on it. The unconscious is very large, but not inferior. The right hemisphere is aware of this unconscious and what is being focussed on (the conscious), but the left hemisphere is only aware of what is under the spotlight. We’re only conscious of a small part of all that we know. The unconscious is the most important and extensive part of our experience. We do many things in our unconscious minds; discriminate, reason, find things beautiful, solve problems, imagine possibilities, fall in love and so on, without being wholly aware of this. For this we rely on our whole embodied being. We only bring consciousness into play when there is a problem, which needs our focussed attention.

Can we deny consciousness? Some senior academics do and think consciousness is an illusion, but where is it an illusion if not in consciousness itself? Galen Strawson has written:

[Some philosophers] are prepared to deny the existence of experience. At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that the grass is green. (Galen Strawson, 2008, Real Materialism and other essays. Oxford University Press).

Philosophers are now beginning to wake up to the idea that consciousness is foundational in the cosmos. There is nothing more certain than the existence of experience. It can’t be an illusion because an illusion requires consciousness.

Could consciousness be reduced to anything else at all? Many prize winning physicists state that it is impossible for consciousness to be reduced to anything else. We know about the experiential directly from experience; it’s the thing we know most about but we understand very little of it. We know that matter is disclosed to us by our minds, but we do not know that our minds are disclosed to us by matter. Denying consciousness doesn’t solve the hard problem.

Can consciousness emerge? This doesn’t explain anything. There is no such thing as consciousness being nascent. It doesn’t emerge. Once consciousness is born, there it is. It must have been present at the origin of things; it can’t simply emerge out of matter. If it did do this it would have to keep repeating this, not only in evolution, but every time a creature is born.

And what of matter? Can we deny matter? Matter is an adjective that describes an experience; it is not a thing. It is a mental abstraction, a convenient fiction, that no-one has seen. We’ve only seen elements of the world to which we attribute the quality within our consciousness of being material. Matter substitutes an idea for an experience and in doing so produces something static, no longer in process, no longer an experience, now a thing. Matter and mind remain mysterious. We shouldn’t deny matter, although it may not be what we think it is. Matter is that which persists and endures. It appears to be an element within consciousness that provides necessary resistance to creation, and for individuality to arise. Our bodies are ever flowing rivers. Matter causes change to slow down for a while. It gives shape and meaning.

Are matter and consciousness one and the same? Matter and consciousness interact. There is nothing merely physical about the physical. Consciousness and the observation of an event seem to alter the nature of that physical event. Thoughts and ideas can change matter. Simple belief can make something work, e.g., the placebo effect. Consciousness can interact with matter.

Iain is not convinced by the argument that matter and consciousness don’t look alike or behave similarly. They can be and are aspects of the same phenomenon or entity, just as water can be liquid, solid or gas, but nevertheless is always water. Schrödinger wrote:

It is the same elements that go to compose my mind and the world. This situation is the same for every mind and its world, in spite of the unfathomable abundance of ‘cross-references’ between them. The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist. (p. 127 Schrödinger, E. 1944, What is Life? Cambridge University Press)

Does this mean that we make reality up? This is not the case. It’s like the performance of piece of music. The music only exists when we perform it. When we perform it, it’s always slightly different, but always recognisably the same, and some performances may be truer to the reality of that piece of music. We do deal with reality and know it. We don’t see a projection of it on a screen in our heads, but my consciousness can never see the whole of reality, just as all 15 stones in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanju temple in Japan, can never be seen at once. From any angle in the garden only 14 are visible at one time.  We can never get the whole picture, so it’s wise to have as many takes/perspectives on reality as possible.

We neither make reality up, nor is it just out there. We midwife experience into existence. The attention we give to nature, the way we approach it, determines what we find. It is a reciprocal process. Through our experience we change what is there and vice versa. Everything is reverberative. Reality is constantly coming into being. Reciprocity is a profoundly important idea. Relations are prior to relata.

Is consciousness then not just in us but in everything that exists? This is pan experientialism, panpsychism and Ian believes that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, and that the idea is gaining traction in the Western world, a world that would have dismissed it 20 years ago. This is a universal idea in the East. Reality conforms to what you have been taught to believe. But panpsychism has been recognised in the West by a number of different philosophers such as Heraclitus, Spinoza, Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Diderot.

All beings circulate through each other—thus all the species . . . everything is in a perpetual flux . . . Every animal is more or less a human being, every mineral is more or less a plant, and every plant is more or less an animal. There is nothing fixed in nature . (Diderot, D. 1769. D’Alembert’s Dream).

So, summing up this section, we can say:

  • Mind and matter have a close relationship
  • We cannot logically dismiss the existence of consciousness or matter
  • Matter and consciousness are not so distinct that they cannot interact
  • Matter and consciousness are not identical and may be aspects of one and the same reality
  • Matter and consciousness are not equal. Consciousness is prior ontologically to matter

Consciousness and life and their relationship, and whether brains play an important part in this

Here Iain adopts the position taken by Robert Rosen, that inanimacy is the limit case of animacy. The whole cosmos is animate and living; the bits that we call inanimate are those in which the characteristics of life are at a minimum. Inanimacy is the ultimate reduced case of animacy; there is not a hard and fast boundary between them. Animacy is the norm. Inanimacy has to be explained. Animacy enables processes to develop many orders of magnitude faster than they would without it and magnifies the elements of inter-responsiveness in the cosmos. There are sacrifices to being animate. Inanimate things decay a lot slower than living things; there are costs to becoming more highly evolved beings, e.g., they have relatively short lives. “Life requires cognition at all levels” (James Shapiro); cells are themselves capable of cognition; they act purposively and solve problems that they couldn’t be programmed to have a solution to.

So where do brains fit into this? Are brains necessary for awareness? The evidence suggests that neuronal complexity is not sufficient nor necessary for awareness (waking consciousness). We can lead a conscious life without a cerebellum. Slime moulds have no neurones and can solve mazes. Some people can function without brains, the space being filled instead with cerebro-spinal fluid (John Lorber). Plants can remember and make decisions (Monica Gaglioano et al. 2016) and have intentions and experientiality. Sparse neuronal connectivity is sometimes superior to dense connectivity. Complexity is not always advantageous.  By the time of birth a human brain has already lost 70% of its neuronal connections. It is becoming less credible/credited that only humans have consciousness. Consciousness is in all forms of life (Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2017, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness).

So why are there brains at all? Brains are the material counterpart of some aspect of consciousness, and they give relative permanence to it. Brains give a degree of persistence and endurance (Schopenhauer. Matter is that which persists and endures). Brains don’t have the capacity to predestine your thoughts, beliefs, or actions. They don’t know something before you do. The decision to act can be unconscious. (In relation to this see Iain’s argument reported on in this paper How a flawed experiment “proved” that free will doesn’t exist ).

How about permission and how can we relate this to the hemispheres?

Permission involves both inhibition and facilitation together. Some things are permitted, some things not. It is a sculpting process, like Michelangelo discarding stone to produce the image of David, which I have mentioned before on this blog. By discarding (by not permitting), the sculpture comes into being. Resistance as a creative act is essential. Consciousness has this role. Consciousness allows some things to come into being and filters others out, liked stained glass allows some things to come into being, because coloured glass blocks some frequencies of light. Another example is a cell membrane which is both a conductor and resistor – a semi-conductor.

Permission of consciousness is more likely than emission of consciousness from the brain. The brain becomes more powerful by shedding neurones and pruning connections. The primary function of the corpus callosum and frontal lobes is to inhibit. When people are approaching death, the filter appears to break down; a lot more might be permitted and we witness the experience of terminal lucidity. The same might occur when people take mind altering substances, which might filter the inhibitory effects of the frontal lobes of the brain. The idea of resistance is enormously important.

Reality is what it seems. We are not separated from reality; reality is not a projection on an internal screen. Our embodiment is what makes science possible, not our transcendence of it, and our imagination, not our avoidance of it. Imagination is necessary for every attempt to understand the world.

So, what is consciousness for? Consciousness is not to our purposes. We are to the purposes of consciousness. We speak the language of the cosmos and the cosmos speaks our language. The Universe is conscious. This is to make assumptions, but all models make assumptions.

How does our individual consciousness relate to this conscious universe? Iain’s preferred way is to think of waves in the sea or vortices in a stream; vortices are not separate from the stream, waves are not separate from the sea, they are there for a while, they have force, they are measurable and visible, they just are the nature of the sea or the stream for a while in that place.

What exists is locally differentiated, but ultimately a single field of potentiality which is constantly actualising itself. All is one and all is many. This is not simple unity. We need the non-duality of non-duality and duality. Each differentiation is a gestalt in itself, a new whole, not a fragment connected to the whole. This is the essence of creation, Differentiation is something not destroyed in its unity, but enriched as with the unfolding of something hitherto implicit into a new more explicit order which then re-enfolds it into an explicit whole (David Bohm writes similarly about consciousness).

Matter is a specific case of consciousness which is the primal stuff out of which the universe is made. The hemispheres attend to the world in different ways and their attention can alter the nature of reality. One is prior to the other, the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere, just as mind is prior to matter, and wave is prior to particle. Every point of view can be espoused in a left hemisphere or right hemisphere way.

This has been a difficult topic to understand and report on. It seems to me that what Iain is saying is that we need to move our attention from matter and particle (left hemisphere) to mind and wave (right hemisphere). If reality is mental and has a dual mode this is complementary to the two modes of attention of the brain hemispheres. Materialism is a product of the left hemisphere.


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

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Source of image: The Matter with Things

Source of image: Spotlight on a stage

Source of image: The Vortex Effect