There are No Things. There are patterns.

As we can see from his website, Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is working on a number of further books, but the one that he talked to us about on the Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, was the one which bears the title: ‘There are No Things’, a book on epistemology and metaphysics.

Iain told us that this follow up book to The Master and his Emissary will focus on how everything is changing, flowing, connected and never fixed. He told us that if we could slow things down enough we would be able to see the mountain behind his house flowing.

Source of image:

Iain’s new book will make the case for no static and separate things, but instead relationships and patterns. For me, this brings to mind Stephen Downes’ work on the theory of connectivism and an early article that he wrote on his blog in 2009, where he wrote:

[Knowledge] is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition [pattern recognition], as a matter of subjective interpretation. 

  • Knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product.
  • It is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people.
  • The idea of acquiring knowledge as a series of truths, is obsolete

Even earlier than this in 2007  Stephen was writing about connectivism as follows:

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing (

The first time I heard Iain speak he told us that his follow up book to The Master and his Emissary would be a book entitled: The Porcupine is a Monkey.  The intention was to write ‘a popular Master and his Emissary’, a book that would discuss how science and education have become increasingly left-brained, but this book has been abandoned. He felt it would be repeating much of the work he has already done.

So Iain has moved away from an explicit focus on education, although clearly his work has implications for education, but Stephen has addressed how connectivism might influence pedagogy. He has written that connectivism:

… implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)). 

But both authors, as philosophers, are interested in the relationship between knowledge and ‘truth’.

Iain told us that the first part of his new book will attempt to answer the question of what we mean by ‘truth’. In the Master and his Emissary he writes

‘Truth is a process.’ (McGilchrist, p.154).

‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150).

‘The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’. If we had no concept of truth, we could not state anything at all, and it would even be pointless to act. There would be no purpose, for example, in seeking the advice of doctors, since there would be no point in having their opinion, and no basis for their view that one treatment was better than another. None of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150)

Stephen, in one of the quotes above, doesn’t write about a single truth so I am not sure what he thinks about this or whether or not he and Iain would agree about what we mean by truth. But it does seem to me that they agree on some epistemological positions, principally that ‘One must never [] lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (McGilchrist, p.154). The importance of patterns, relations and processes seem to be recognised by both.

The work of both authors work has implications for education, epistemology, and understanding our world and our existence.

16-03-2018 Update: Stephen Downes’ responds (Thank you).

I’ve said in the past that knowledge is recognition, and if I were pressed to describe what I think truth is, I would say that it is a strong feeling of recognition. This I think is consistent with what the early empiricists (like David Hume) would say. Formally, truth is an attitude toward a proposition: we say that a propositoon is ‘true’ or ‘not true’ and then try to explain that through an interpretation (such as Tarski’s theory of truth, or model theory, or some such thing). That makes truth easier to work with, but only because it abstracts the messier reality. Having said all this, I think this puts me in accord with Iain McGilchrist, cited by Jenny Mackness in this article, when he says things like ‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ 

16-03-2018 Update

See also notes from last years course – Where we can go for Truth –

Trust in the steps. Focussed and whole picture thinking

The Field & Field McGilchrist 4 day course about Iain’s book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is a very rich experience. Not only do we hear Iain McGilchrist speak twice a day, but we are also offered a range of optional workshops. This time (I have attended this course twice before) the workshops were designed to stimulate auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning and thinking, so we were offered workshops which focused on drawing, listening to music and embodied learning, in this case Tai Chi. We were also offered the opportunity to listen to speakers who, for personal reasons, have found that Iain McGilchrist’s writing on the Divided Brain – resonates with their practice.

One of these speakers was Bonita Norris,  a woman, who as a girl of 22, in 2010, was the youngest woman ever to climb Everest, and has since climbed many more Himalayan mountains and reached the North Pole. (She is only about 30 now! )

Bonita is a passionate speaker, and it was, I think, impossible not to be inspired by her story. Here is a woman who at the age of 20, whilst at University, happened to attend a lecture by two men who had climbed Everest. In that moment she decided that she also wanted to climb Everest, despite never having done any mountaineering before. A lot of things fell into place for her. The two lecturers responded to her email in which she wrote that this was what she wanted to do and asked for advice. Ultimately these men became her climbing partners, and she finally, after a great deal of effort, hard work and persistence got the funding she needed for the Everest expedition. Two years later at the age of 22 she climbed Everest.

In her talk she told us about her climb, how she prepared for it, how she experienced it and what that experience now means to her. But most importantly, in terms of the course, we could see how her experience resonated with Iain McGilchrist’s writing on how in optimal circumstances, the right and left hemispheres work together.

Bonita showed us wonderful photos of her climb and described her feelings on standing on the top of the world and at seeing a sky full of stars with no light pollution. In her words, ‘the world comes to meet you’ and she described seeing the curvature of the Earth. These seem to me to be statements that come from the right hemisphere, an appreciation of the ‘whole’ as opposed to the parts.

But one the most interesting parts of her talk was how focussed she had to be on taking the first step when she was afraid. She described a point at which, when having to cross a crevasse by walking over a ladder,  she was so afraid of taking the first step that she held up her team on the freezing slopes of Everest for 20 minutes.

Two things come out of this. First that she did take that first step and then the following steps were easier. Secondly that her team understood and supported her through this process saying that they had also experienced this paralysis in relation to taking a first step.

Here are some of the inspiring things that Bonita said during her talk.

‘There was no logic or reason for wanting to climb Everest. I just had to do it.’ ‘I can’t articulate why I wanted to do this’. Everest was where she put her attention.

‘Trust in the steps. Trust that small things will add up.’

‘My imagination is the biggest mountain I’m trying to climb’.

‘The big picture can be paralysing/overwhelming. Focus down to one step’.

‘Focus, be present, don’t fret about things you can’t control.’

‘Climbing is meditation. You focus on the present and are aware of the world around you.’

‘Take leaps of faith.’ “Do one thing every day that scares you”. (quote from Eleanor Roosevelt)

‘Each of us felt so insignificant and pointless in the grand scheme of things. We reached a deep flow state.’

‘Small things can defeat us.’

‘Nature can heal you in your lowest moments.’ (NB – Nature – not environment. Iain McGilchrist distinguishes between the two).

‘You have to trust in the possibility of the moment.’

‘The last step doesn’t matter as much as you think. It is not about the summit.’

‘To escape from the ‘Hall of mirrors” (LH thinking) you have to ground yourself in Nature, get rid of your ego, and retreat from the world to come back to it.’

Thank you Bonita.

Iain McGilchrist and the divided brain

Last weekend I attended a 4-day Field & Field course in which Iain McGilchrist discussed with us the main themes in his book – The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, and his recent thinking. I have attended this course twice before and first came across his work in 2011. Since then I have written a number of posts about his work (see Here, I will simply return to some of his key ideas for those new to his work.

The two key questions which led to the 20 years it took to write the book are:

  • Why is the brain divided at all?
  • Why is the brain asymmetrical?

Iain McGilchrist believes that the answers to these questions help to explain why our world is as it is today.

He tells us that whilst both hemispheres are involved in everything we do, each has its own ‘take’ on the world. The right hemisphere (RH) is the one that understands implicit meaning, the one that has a much richer connection with the body (an important point for those interested in the mind-body relationship), the one that understands the unique. For further information about the differences between the left and right hemispheres, see these three posts, and of course Iain’s book.

Each hemisphere not only communicates more with itself than with the other, but also attends to the world differently. The left hemisphere (LH) focusses attention. The RH keeps a broad overview. From an evolutionary point of view this relates to the need for animals to be able to apply both focussed attention to catch their prey and broad attention to keep a look out for predators. (see )

The thrust of Iain’s argument is that we are living in a time when the hemispheres are out of balance, a time of LH dominance.

In the Master and his Emissary, Iain explains that the title of his book comes from a story in Nietzche, where the Emissary sent out by the trusting Master to do his work ‘became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.’ (McGilchrist, 2010, p.14). For Iain, this tells the story of the left and right hemispheres, with the RH being the selfless, spiritual Master and the LH being the usurping Emissary.

On the Field & Field course (and in his book) Iain told us that three times in the history of man, the hemispheres have worked well together; in the Ancient World (6th century BC),  and during the Rennaissance and Romanticism periods.  During these times civilisation flourished, but each time ultimately overreached itself geographically (for example in the case of the Roman Empire), becoming increasingly abstract and bureaucratic, with a focus on power, manipulation and wealth grabbing, i.e. the LH became increasingly dominant, with a loss of balance between the two hemispheres and collapse of civilisation. As mentioned above, Iain believes that we are currently living in a LH dominated world. He believes that signs of this are in a loss of sight of the natural world and embodied culture, treating our bodies like machines, creating art, music and poetry that is too explicit, and religion becoming important or unimportant for the wrong reasons. He writes a lot more about this in his book.

In his book and on the course Iain discussed LH dominance in relation to a number of big themes. On the course these were music and language; life, death and machines; negation as a creative act; time, space, change and flow. I have heard him speak about these themes before and each time have shared my notes (see But each time I hear Iain speak I take away something new. As I told him this time, if it took him 20 years to write his book, it is going to take me more than a few courses to fully assimilate all he has to say.

All this can feel incredibly pessimistic, a feeling that some course participants resisted, but Iain describes himself as a hopeful pessimist, saying that humanity is incredibly innovative and creative. In the final lines of his book he writes, ‘… if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.’ (p.462)

Since returning from the course I have found this excellent video on Iain’s website. In case you haven’t seen it before, I share the link to it here – – as it covers a lot of what we heard him talk about last weekend and gives a very good sense of who he is, what is important to him and how he thinks. I don’t need to write more. The video speaks for itself.


Death is a friend of life

The Self-Unseeing (by Thomas Hardy)

Here is the ancient floor,

Footworn and hollowed and thin,

Here was the former door

Where the dead feet walked in.


She sat here in her chair,

Smiling into the fire,

He who played stood there,

Bowing it higher and higher.


Childlike, I danced in a dream;

Blessings emblazoned that day;

Everything glowed with a gleam;

Yet we were looking away!


At some point in life, I expect most people will wonder what life’s all about, what it means, what’s the point? For philosophers, answering these questions can be life’s pursuit. For others, these questions may only become significant at certain points in life, such as with the death of a loved one.

I have just returned from a 4-day course with Iain McGilchrist, author of the ‘Master and his Emissary – the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’. For reasons which I will explain later in this post, I was keen to hear Iain’s thoughts about life, death and dying. So, at the very start of the first day, when he read Hardy’s poem, ‘The Self-Unseeing’, and said that Hardy was unique and had he not existed there would be a Hardy-shaped hole in the Universe, I knew it had been worth battling the snow and dreadful motorway conditions in the worst freeze that the UK has had for years, to get there.

In a recent discussion that Iain had with Jordan Peterson, Peterson said that death is a friend of life (in Iain’s words, a friend of being) and a necessary stage in life.

We all know we are dying from the moment we are born and of course many cells in our body die and are replaced during life, so a different Jenny Mackness stands before you today than did yesterday, last week or a few years ago.

But Iain McGilchrist’s view is that life is literally on its way out in relation to the way in which we live our lives and behave as social animals in today’s society. Birth, sex, the body and death are all suffering. There is a declining birth rate and sex is also on the decline. For example, 20-40% of young men express no interest in having a sexual partner. Sex has been objectified through the internet and robbed of its power through explicitness. There has been a death of ‘flirting’ and hysteria about ‘touching’ to the extent that teachers are afraid to touch the children they teach and nurses are similarly cautious about touching patients. There has also been some research to show a declining mother-infant relationship. (Schore, A.N. 1994)

Likewise death is no longer talked about. In Victorian times, death was talked about, but sex was not. Now it is the other way round. Doctors used to be present at death, as depicted in this painting.

The Doctor, Sir Luke Fildes,

Now death is often surrounded by machines. Unlike elephants and other animals who know how to mourn death (, Iain McGilchrist believes that we no longer honour the reality of coming face-to-face with death, as we did in the past. Elephants seem to know and understand the reality of death.

The reason I was interested in this, is that my mother died just over a month ago. I have attended this Field & Field course twice before (each time writing up and sharing my notes), but this time I went with the specific purpose of creating a space in my life, to come to terms with the confusion I have felt about my mother’s death.

Although my mother required 24-hour care at the time of her death, she was not surrounded by machines and we were able to ensure that her wish to die at home in her own bed was respected and realised. Neither did she die alone, but was surrounded by those who understood that ‘death is a friend of life’.

I did not think of Hardy’s poem at the time of my mother’s death but a friend of my mother’s sent me Tennyson’s poem, Crossing the Bar, which we read at my mother’s Thanksgiving service

… and a friend of mine, sent me this beautiful music by Brahms, which we played at her service.

Iain McGilchrist’s stress on the importance of poetry, music and presence at a time of the death of someone you love, or indeed of anyone, resonated with me. I am fortunate to know at least two people who really understand this. As many testified at her death, my mother was unique. Had she not existed there would be a Betty-shaped hole in the Universe.

Reference: Schore, A.N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: the neurobiology of emotional development. Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale NJ.

Exploring the Divided Brain – Final Reflections

22nd August 2016 pm – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 4 (pm)

This is the last post in a series of posts in which I have shared the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

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

Day 3 (pm). Trying to be sane in an insane world

Day 4 (am). Creativity, paradox and negation

The final session was a group question and answer session. Where appropriate I have included Iain’s answers in previous posts. In this post I am going to try and identify my own outstanding questions, or comment on ideas that I have not written about in previous posts.


Location of the course: The Fish Hotel, Broadway, The Cotswolds

Final reflections

Once again I found this a wonderful course – worth every penny. The location is beautiful, the accommodation and food really good, the participants wonderfully diverse, interesting and friendly, and Iain McGilchrist never fails to engage my attention. Last year for my evaluation of the course I wrote:

It was a great privilege to be able to spend time over four days listening and talking to Iain McGilchrist whose breadth of knowledge of science, history, literature, art, poetry and music is so impressive. It is rare to attend a course where the latest in scientific research, in this case into the functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is integrated so effortlessly with the words of William Wordsworth and the art of Claude Lorrain and much more. The course provided in depth information about the work of left and right brain hemispheres, whilst also allowing us time and space to reflect deeply on our views of the world and the implications of left hemisphere dominance for our humanity, health, happiness and well being.

I haven’t changed my mind. It was well worth attending this course for the second time. Some of the content was familiar, so I was able to ‘sit back’ a bit and think more about what it means for me, rather than simply what was said.

Some ‘messages’ stand out.

I was struck by the number of times Iain mentioned ‘mindfulness’ as being a practice of open attention (not waiting for but waiting ‘on’) and worthy of spending time on. I don’t remember mindfulness being mentioned in this way last year, but maybe I wasn’t listening properly.

Listening seemed much more important to me this year than last year. I am very aware of the limits of what I know. In this state it seems even more important to listen, observe and reflect. Once again I was reminded that although I am not uncomfortable in a large group, for discussion I like a very small group, ideally made up of people who all value listening. I was struck by how skilled the professional coaches in our participant group were at this.

Ideas of complexity, uncertainty, multiplicity and learning to live with paradoxes, struck a strong chord with me. I wondered what Iain McGilchrist thinks of Deleuze and Guattari (two French Philosophers). I have never heard him mention them, so I suspect there is no meeting of minds there, although they both write about multiplicity. If this is the case, I would be interested to know why.

Similarly, Iain did not mention systems thinking which seems relevant to me.  I wonder if this is because, as we were told, any form of model or framework will necessarily direct the attention in a particular way and so we have to consider what using a given model might prevent us from seeing.

But of course there’s a limit to what can be covered. The Master and his Emissary is amazing in its breadth and depth, but as Iain told us, when he started to write what he thought would be his next book, ‘The Porcupine is a Monkey’ , he found that he wanted to explore many of the ideas in the Master and his Emissary in more depth, so ended up writing a different book! That was both interesting and disappointing to hear. I am really keen to know more about his thoughts on education, which I think is going to be covered in The Porcupine is a Monkey if and when it gets written. I hope this also includes reference to learning theories and education research, which as yet I haven’t heard Iain mention, but maybe I have missed it.

As is often the case, it is the informal discussions that can be so interesting. I have already mentioned in one of the posts in this series a discussion about conceptual art which I found very thought provoking. We also had a discussion about whether writing should be easily accessible. Iain wants his book to reach a wider audience, which it is beginning to do. I believe it has sold 80, 000 copies. He is aware that to reach a wider audience he may have to present it in more accessible formats, but will this mean losing the richness that the detail of the book provides? He talked about how hard writing the Master and his Emissary had been (I wrote about this last year) and how impenetrable some philosophers’ writings are. I asked him whether this is because they themselves do not truly understand the ideas they are trying to communicate. His answer was ‘No’, the obscurity of the writing is deliberate. These philosophers believe that we should have to work hard to access and understand difficult ideas. This makes me think again about what we should expect from learning in the 21st century.

Finally, Iain left us with a request. He asked us to see if we could think of examples of paradoxical outcomes of left hemisphere thinking and if we can, then email them to him. His email address is on his brand new website .

Some references

Peter Checkland. Soft Systems Methodology 

Deleuze, Gilles, Guaattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus (1987). University of Minnesota Press. doi:10.1017/CCO9780511753657.008

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

Exploring the Divided Brain – Creativity, paradox and negation

22nd August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 4 (am)

This is the seventh in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

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

Day 3 (pm). Trying to be sane in an insane world


Negative capability (Creativity and the role that paradox and negation inevitably play in it)

We discussed the power of ‘No’ on last year’s course and looking back at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to write a coherent post. Looking at this year’s notes I can see that I am going to have the same problem. I am going to try and resolve this problem by saying ‘No’ to a lot of the detail of what Iain said and just stick with the key messages. Hopefully we will be able to refer to his forthcoming books for the detail.

Iain started this session by reminding us of the inhibitory effects of the hemispheres. If one hemisphere is damaged it promotes something in the other. In particular the frontal lobes achieve what they achieve through inhibition (p.91-92, The Master and his Emissary). The brain is a hugely complicated feedback system. ‘It’s not that we have free will, but that we have free won’t’. Saying ‘No’ may be the origin of what comes into being. Saying ‘No’ comes before saying ‘Yes’. Negation is a creative act. Division is part of creation. All is one and all is not one and out of this conjunction comes everything.

As in last year’s course, Iain referenced the Kabbalah to discuss the role of negation and division in creation. In the Kabbalah creation myth there are three phases.

  1. The first creative act is withdrawal, to make a space in which there can be anything, i.e. to attend to the right hemisphere.
  2. The second phase is the shattering of the vessels. Ten vessels of light created in the first phase cannot contain the force of life within them and shatter. This relates to the unpacking, unfolding and fragmenting role of the left hemisphere.
  3. The third phase is repair, when the pieces are gathered and things come into being, which relates to reconstitution by the right hemisphere.

This myth serves to illustrate how something comes from nothing and how ‘no’ thing is not the complete absence of anything; it has a positive force.

The act of creation is to remove what is obscuring the life force, to clear things away, to uncover, to ‘dis’ cover, to find ‘something that was there, but required liberation into being’ (p.230, The Master and his Emissary), just as a sculptor allows a statue to come into being by clearing away the stone.


Source of image. Michelangelo – unfinished sculpture.

Negation is often an opening up. Even the most negative thing in life can have a positive effect. Iain only mentioned his personal experience of depression in passing in this year’s course, but this short video covers his thoughts about the pursuit of happiness and the potential positive effects of negative experience.

Not doing things is important, just as not saying things is important. Speech is silver, but silence is golden. We lose ourselves to find ourselves. The more we know the less we know, but not knowing can be more fruitful than knowing, although not knowing is not the same as ignorance.

We need both precision and vagueness, restriction and openness. Sometimes restriction is freedom. Boundaries are important in life. They should be robust but not completely impermeable, not too close but not too far. Everything in life is better with boundaries. The best things that exist are always on/off. We need both asymmetry and symmetry. We need both hemispheres, but we only see through particular frameworks and we don’t find what we were not expecting to see.

It is very hard to become aware of what you are not aware. We draw on the natural world as a model but we increasingly see the natural world from the left hemisphere’s perspective. All models are wrong, but some are more wrong than others.

Personal reflection

I have been reflecting on what saying ‘No’ means to me. If I lived in the city it could mean saying ‘No’ to the bright lights and moving to the country, but I am fortunate that I live in beautiful South Lakeland (Cumbria, UK) and am surrounded by nature in all its glory. Alternatively even living here it could mean disconnecting from all things technological (and more) as Susan Maushart did when she became concerned at how much of her children’s lives were governed by technological devices. Lots of these sorts of experiments are reported in the press, but very few are life-long changes.

For me saying ‘No’ is much more about clearing a space to allow for emergent learning, whatever that might be.

Recently I attended a course at Lancaster University about the materiality of nothing. I now realise how closely related Iain McGilchrist’s ideas are to the ideas discussed at the Lancaster seminar, but its interesting that conceptual art was used to illustrate the materiality of nothing. (See for example the post I wrote at that time – Letting go of control to create something our of nothing ).

What has been wonderful about this course is how I have been able to make many connections with my research and wider work, connections that are not immediately obvious, but are becoming more apparent as I learn more about Iain McGilchrist’s ideas.

Authors/people referred to during the session

B. Alan Wallace (2004). The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (2013). The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation.

Jakob Böhme. Notable ideas: The mystical being of the deity as the Ungrund (“unground”) or the ground without a ground.

Lewis Carroll (1872). Through the Looking Glass

John Kay (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. Profile Books

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

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

Philip McCosker. Cambridge Theologian

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2013). Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.

Brad Warner (2013). There is no God and he is always with you. New World Library

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) Tintern Abbey

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

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

This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

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


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

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

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

Winterof listening

The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence and winter
has led me to that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain gave us many more examples of these paradoxes.

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

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

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

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

Personal reflection

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

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

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

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

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


Authors/people referred to during the session

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

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

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

See also this Guardian article

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

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

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

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

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press

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