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:

https://www.upworthy.com/people-are-freaking-out-over-this-rotating-cube-illusion

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4493744/Video-shows-car-driving-WITHOUT-wheels-rotating.html

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).

References

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

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

Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter with Things – further information

In my last post, I wrote that I have pre-ordered Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World, which will be published in two volumes. The writing of this book has been a 10 year long process, which means that no sooner had McGilchrist finished writing The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which is also a long book (over 500 pages), he started on this new book. He says the new book took over him and his life and demanded to be written.

Each volume of the new book is 750 pages long. (I have wondered how much juggling about was needed to make each volume of equal length!) Maybe, and hopefully, the text in the new volumes will not be so dense. A very short video on Channel McGilchrist, which turns the pages of the new book for us, indicates that this is the case. Below is a screenshot from that video. As you can see, this time the notes are included in the margin of the page. In The Master and His Emissary, the notes were included at the end of the book – 250 pages of very small typeface. I think this new format will make it easier to follow the notes.

I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about The Matter with Things a few times and it is interesting to hear how the book has evolved. The first time I heard him talk about it was in 2018. At that stage, the working title of the book was There are No Things. In 2019, I heard him talk about it again, in a series of one hour lectures given at the Field and Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK. I made notes and shared them on this blog. See the posts under the heading ‘2019 The Matter with Things’, on The Divided Brain page on this blog.

More recently I heard Iain talk about his new book in this video (published in October 2020). But some things have changed since this video was recorded, not least the publisher. Originally the book was due to be published by Penguin Random House, but we now know that the book will be published by Perspectiva Press. In this 2020 video Iain talks about the book being in three parts, but we now know that it has been published in two volumes. I can’t imagine how much work it must have been to make that change.

However, all has been resolved as we now have a short video on Channel McGilchrist where Iain explains what the new book is all about. You need to be a member of Channel McGilchrist to see this video, filmed in Iain’s beautiful garden on the Isle of Skye, but I will share some details here.

Although the book is in two volumes there is one overarching argument and that is that the horrendous natural challenges that we now face are a result of our way of looking at or being in the world, which has become increasingly left hemisphere dominated. Our brain has evolved to manipulate the world rather than understand it, such that we are blinded to a profound and beautiful reality. We think of the world as inert and mechanical, just a collection of things for us to use. The aim of the book is to open our eyes to this and to consider the questions of how this philosophically affects how we live in the world and how it might delude us of the world’s true nature. If our civilisation is going to survive, we need a radically different view of the world.

In this new book Iain is trying to expose the weakness, the ignorance and the simplicity of the current reductionist view of the world, which seems more or less unchallenged in the public intellectual arena.

Volume 1of The Matter with Things bears the title ‘The Ways to Truth’, not that there is a single truth, but rather that some things are truer than others. In the first part of this volume, Iain explores how we get an idea of what reality is and says that there are six or seven faculties that we bring to bear on reality – attention, perception, judgements formed on the basis of attention and perception, judgements formed on the basis of emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence and the capacity for creativity. These are the ways in which we can encounter ‘the Other’.

In the second part of Volume 1, Iain consider the four paths to an understanding of the world, four paths by which we can arrive at the truth – science, reason, intuition, and imagination. He explores what these are good at and their limitations, saying that we need each and must honour all four of them. Now, at any one time we honour one, or possibly two. Our view of science and reason has become narrow, and imagination and intuition are not sufficiently valued. In all four the right hemisphere’s view is more important than the left. I first heard Iain talk about these four paths at the Field and Field conference in 2019 and shared my notes on this blog. See The Divided Brain page on this blog, for more details.

In Volume 2 of The Matter with Things, Iain considers what we can do once we know (and have seen through what is covered in Volume 1) how in touch, or out of touch, the left and right hemisphere’s ways of looking at the world are. We can now recognise that there are paradoxical findings and very often these paradoxical findings can be traced to the characteristic ways of thinking of the left and right hemispheres. These paradoxes relate to fundamentally important things like time, space, consciousness, matter, value, purpose and a sense of the sacred. All these are very important for understanding our relation to the cosmos at large. In this volume Iain looks at the structure of the cosmos and shows that opposites must and do co-exist. We need both like the two poles of a magnet and there is no barrier between them. This is an important insight. Another important insight is the relationship between the one and the many. How does the uniqueness of everything we experience relate to the capacity we have to see it as a certain kind of general thing? What are the values and problems that emerge if we don’t understand this?

So, the new book is an attempt to provide an overall philosophy of life and consider where we stand in the cosmos, and to bring us back to a vision of and chance of living a better life within it.

The Matter with Things – Iain McGilchrist

I have just pre-ordered Iain McGilchrist’s new book, due to be published by Perspectiva Press on November 9th.

I have ordered my copy through Channel McGilchrist and have received the following email:

As you have pre-ordered the book, you will receive your copy at the discounted price of £79.95 (just over 11% discount of the RRP £89.95). You will be notified when the book is shipped to your address, which will be between mid-October 2021 and the official publication date of 9th November 2021.

Note: We are currently only accepting pre-orders from the UK. To be notified of when the book is available worldwide, please subscribe to our free newsletter here.

Iain McGilchrist has already started to read the Introduction to this massively long book (750 pages in each volume) on Channel McGilchrist, and has uploaded a video giving us more information about the book, how it is set out, what it covers, and what he hopes will be learned from the book. He tells us he will not be writing another long book in his lifetime. It has taken him the last 10 years to write this book.

If you are interested in this book, the best way to find out more about it is to join Channel McGilchrist. There is also a wealth of other resources on the Channel, and the opportunity to put questions to Iain, and to discuss his work with others.

If you have never heard of Iain McGilchrist and would like to know more, I have shared my perspective on this blog. For links to posts see the page The Divided Brain, and a post with the title Introducing the Work of Iain McGilchrist.

Finding different voices

In an OLDaily post this week, Stephen Downes has encouraged the authors of a recent publication ‘Open at the Margins’ to redouble their efforts to find the voices not being heard. I interpret this as a call by Stephen for greater diversity in the people who are being recognised as speaking for open education. I think all groups could and should aspire to this.

I’m not sure how I would go about finding voices not being heard. Perhaps it’s a question of being aware of the direction of our attention, and that what we choose to attend to determines not only what we see, but also what we don’t see. Rather than trying to find voices not being heard it might be easier to find different voices; this might require a cross or multi-disciplinary approach to seek different perspectives, which may or may not include minority voices.

On reflection I realise that I have spent most of this year seeking and listening to different voices. A positive outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic for me (and I realise how privileged I am to be in this position) has been to discover a wide range of different people who have made their work and thoughts available online (either freely or at minimum cost). Many organisations have supported this opening up of access to different voices. These are some that I have found interesting and enjoyed over the past few months, offering me new avenues for thought and/or exploration.

Channel McGilchrist

This is a new platform, which I joined in June. Membership requires paying a fee, but there is also access to some materials for non-paying members. Since Iain McGilchrist is a polymath, which is very evident from his book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, this channel has attracted a wide diversity of thinkers from different disciplines, which has generated very varied discussion. Lots of different voices here.

The London School of Economics and Political Science

Being Human Festival of Humanities

How to Academy

I’m looking forward to:

The Weekend University

Philosophy of Education Reading Network on Twitter @PhilofEd

  • 18-08-20 Discussion of Iris Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good

I’m looking forward to next month’s meeting of the network:

  • 15-09-20 Discussion of Gert Biesta’s The Beautiful Risk of Education

I have only just discovered (by chance, and most of these events/groups were discovered by chance) the Philosophy of Education Reading Network. Last night’s discussion was the first for this newly established group and was open to anyone. A few people in the zoom call clearly knew each other, but many, like me, were new to the network, and some were new to the philosophy of education. 17 people attended, a good mix of men and women, and of different ages, and the atmosphere was very inclusive without putting pressure on people to contribute. All contributions were welcomed and considered.

Returning to the point made at the beginning of this post about the need to encourage different voices to contribute to a group or collaborative endeavour, and in the light of my experience last night of a newly formed group, I wonder at what point does it become difficult for a group to recognise that some voices are not heard, or that critical perspectives are being narrowed and limited through group think and a lack of diversity? Is it inevitable that this happens in groups that share and enjoy a common interest?

This has reminded me of Stephen Downes work in 2007 on the difference between groups and networks, and his post Groups Vs Networks:The Class Struggle Continues, which I think speaks for itself and speaks to this topic of finding different voices.

Source of image:   https://www.flickr.com/photos/stephen_downes/252157734/

Introducing the work of Iain McGilchrist

Source of image: https://www.rozsavage.com/hi-from-skye/

 

Earlier this week, as I checked my online feeds early in the morning, I came upon this query on Twitter, from someone I don’t know either on or offline:

Should I be interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist (left and right brain stuff), what would I get from it and where should I start?

 

I was immediately interested in this question, because, not only have I spent the past nine years following Iain McGilchrist’s work, but I have also spent virtually every morning since the start of this COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, slowly and carefully re-reading, and making notes on his seminal text, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

Iain, who I have met on a number of occasions, once said that he was very surprised at how many people had told him they had read his book more than once. I am not surprised. It is a very long and very dense text. I am a very slow reader and it is taking me a week to read a chapter, which has turned out to be the perfect project for a lockdown! There are 13 chapters in the book. I said to Iain at the time, that since it took him 20 years to research and write the book, I fully expected it to take me quite a few years to read, re-read, and digest it in its entirety, which has proved to be the case.

In answer to the Twitter query, anyone who is concerned about the state of our world, will probably find something of interest in Iain’s work. In the The Master and His Emissary, Iain draws on extensive research to answer the question ‘Why is the brain divided?’ The book is in two parts.

Part I focusses on the brain itself, not on what the two hemispheres ‘do’, but on the ‘how’, i.e. the manner in which (not the means by which). The focus is on ways of being and ways of attending to the world. Each hemisphere offers a fundamentally different version of the human world and, as such, the two hemispheres are in conflict and stand in opposition to one another.

Part II focusses on the history of Western culture and how this relates to the divided brain. Both hemispheres have crucial roles to play. Iain believes that whilst science is integral to our understanding of the world and he does not want to undermine reason, we now live in a world dominated by left hemisphere thinking – mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised. Through bringing this to our attention, he would like us to consider how to redress the balance.

I know people who have started with reading Part 1, but have never got round to reading Part 2, and vice versa. This is not surprising. The book contains more than 500 pages of dense text, packed with information, inferences and references. It is not for the faint-hearted. It is not an easy read, but if you are prepared to give it the time, it contains something for everyone, no matter what your discipline. It is also a book that you can return to over and over again. You can skip sections, and return to the book later when you feel ready for them.

What did I get (and continue to get) from the book? I can’t speak for others, or tell the author of the tweet what he will get from it. Everyone will get something different. When I first came across the book in 2010, the idea that there are two ways of attending to the world immediately resonated. I could see this in my own life.  I was struck by the idea of the asymmetry of the two hemispheres, and the fact that although each hemisphere is in one way or another involved in everything we do, there is a power struggle between them. I recognised that I had felt/experienced this power struggle between the left hemisphere’s focus on language, and the right hemisphere’s focus on visual imagery, in my own life. As I got to know the book better, there were so many more ideas that resonated. I became interested in philosophy, and philosophers. As I continue to read the book and reflect on it, I sense a greater personal awareness and understanding of my approach to living in the world, and what is important to me. And of course, now, as we live through this global crisis, the idea that we are living in a left-hemisphere dominated world, seems so very evident and obvious.

So if you are interested in learning more about Iain McGilchrist’s work, where should you start? You can of course launch straight into the book, but maybe you would prefer a slow build up to it, which is now easier to do ten years after the book was published, because there are now many videos of Iain speaking about his work on YouTube. These are the steps I would take if you want a gentler introduction.

  1. Watch the RSA Animate Video which explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. (11.47 mins)

2. Watch The Divided Brain Documentary (I hour 18 mins). This is a beautifully produced and very informative documentary, well worth watching. It is not free, but you can rent it for 48 hours for only £4.99, or you can buy it for £14.99.

3. Read Ways of Attending. How our divided brain constructs the world. This was published in 2018. It is a short introduction to Iain McGilchrist’s ideas, only 30 pages long, and very accessible. For some reason I don’t understand it is expensive for such a short book – £14.99 in paperback, Kindle edition £8.67, but if you really want a brief introduction to the key concepts of Iain’s exploration of brain lateralization, and its impact on human culture, this is the book to buy.

4. If you are still unsure about whether you want to invest in a copy of The Master and his Emissary, then the Introduction to the book, is freely available online as a PDF

5. Hopefully, all this has been enough introduction to the full text: The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The paperback edition of this on Amazon Prime is cheaper than Ways of Attending! £13.63.

Update 03-07-20 – Since writing this post, I have created a wiki of the notes I made when reading The Master and His Emissary. See Wiki Notes

I could recommend many more articles, videos and podcasts, but I think five is enough to start with. You can find more on Iain McGilchrist’s own website.

You can also subscribe to a new platform, Channel McGilchrist for the most recent updates about Iain’s work. This platform is in development and will probably open fully in the summer, but currently if you subscribe, you will receive a monthly newsletter by email.