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

The Divided Brain and the Power of ‘No’

Monday 23rd March am

This is the penultimate (or that is the plan!) in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

The Power of No. Iain McGilchrist

Iain will explore creativity and the role that negation inevitably plays in it. (From the course booklet)

In this session Iain discussed the value of saying ‘No’, which I took to mean saying ‘No’ to the dominance of the left hemisphere’s view of the world, and referred us to others who have said this before in a variety of ways. Many ideas were referenced and my notes feel like a list of references that should be followed up, but they all relate to ‘The Power of No’ and the role of negation in creativity. Because what follows feels to me a bit disjointed, I have tried to pull out the key messages (at least the key messages for me) in bold font.

There are two choices – saying ‘no’ and ‘not saying no’, in order to say yes later.

Iain told us that capitalism wants us to be ‘doing’ and saying ‘Yes’. However, there are things being done that should not be done and we should give more thought to not doing things. We need to stop, attend and listen to what emerges. ‘No’ comes prior to ‘Yes’.

(Here, I need to stress again that this course was not about politics or religion, but much of what was discussed could be applied to our understanding of both).

Wisdom from the Greek philosophers onwards is associated with not knowing (e.g. Socrates), which should not be confused with ignorance.

‘Do nothing and there is nothing left undone’ is a pearl of ancient Chinese wisdom inspired by chapter 48 of the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching) written by Lao Zi (Lao Tsu) (See Shawn Cartwright, Yinong Chong and Ted Nawalinski’s website).

In Lewis Carroll’ s ‘Through the Looking Glass’, we see Alice finding the Red Queen by standing back and walking in the opposite direction:

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 16.16.47Source of image

‘I think I’ll go and meet her,’ said Alice, for, though the flowers were interesting enough, she felt that it would be far grander to have a talk with a real Queen.

‘You can’t possibly do that,’ said the Rose: ‘I should advise you to walk the other way.’

This sounded nonsense to Alice, so she said nothing, but set off at once towards the Red Queen. To her surprise, she lost sight of her in a moment, and found herself walking in at the front-door again.

A little provoked, she drew back, and after looking everywhere for the queen (whom she spied out at last, a long way off), she thought she would try the plan, this time, of walking in the opposite direction.

It succeeded beautifully. She had not been walking a minute before she found herself face to face with the Red Queen, and full in sight of the hill she had been so long aiming at.

Alice achieved her goal by taking an indirect route. Negation is important in not doing the obvious and not taking the direct route. This has also been written about by John Kay in his book Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. Systems theory thrives on obliqueness and may provide a language with which to explore otherness (See references to Peter Checkland and Donella Meadows). Parsimony and not wanting more and more (which the left hemisphere might drive us to do) may be better than striving to get hold of more things.

The strategy of delaying or taking an indirect approach can be seen throughout history, with the classic example coming from the Roman dictator Fabius Maximus and his avoidance of frontal assaults in favour of a war of attrition. William Ophuls in his books ‘Immoderate Greatness’ and ‘Plato’s Revenge’, also takes up this theme that civilizations thrive better without grandiose schemes. (See also ‘The Blunders of our Governments’ by King & Crewe). There is a strong relationship between quantity and quality; more is not better, as we can see in what tourism is doing to some places on our planet.

We can also see the relationship between negation and creativity in Genesis in the Bible. As mentioned in a previous post, the story tells of a world created by taking things apart.

John Keats was the first person to use the term ‘negative capability’  to describe this capability of tolerating uncertainty, doubt and ambivalence. Familiarity has a deadening effect but negation unleashes things and opens them up. Wordsworth used negatives and comparators in his poetry especially in the poem Tintern Abbey. The principle of ‘negative capability’ – the capacity to be uncertain and think beyond presuppositions – is important for tolerating ambiguity and not closing things down.

According to the Kabbalah the first act of creation is often ‘withdrawal’, followed by ‘shattering’ and then ‘repair’. This website explains this in more detail.

Also as mentioned in previous posts, things become clearer by being cleared away and our brains need to lose neurons to grow, which can be thought of as neuronal pruning. See also the reference to sculpture in my first post in this series. Like sculpture, good literary criticism also reveals, whereas bad literary criticism gets in the way, gets between you and the subject.

The words “Das Nichts nichtet’ have been attributed to Heidegger. Possible meanings are ‘The nothing noths’ or ‘Nothing is something that does nothing’ expressing the need to create space for creativity. See also Brad Warner’s book – ‘There is no God and He is Always With You’. Related to this is Karl Popper’s emphasis on the logic of falsification:

‘The Popperian criteria for truth incorporate the notion that we can never prove something to be true; all we can do is prove that the alternatives are untrue.’ (p.230 The Master and his Emissary).

Sometimes less is more, although they can be very close and every ‘Yes’ brings its ‘No’. Asymmetry stems from symmetry and vice versa.

The session ended with reference to Heraclitus’ belief in the unity of opposites, that everything fits together in a relationship of tension, that oppositional forces enrich… and finally

… a reading from William Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey , Iain’s favourite poem by his favourite poet.


Authors and Philosophers referred to during this session

Lewis Carroll (1872). Through the Looking Glass

Peter Checkland. Soft Systems Methodology 

Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

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

King, A. & Crewe, I. (2013). The Blunders of our Governments. Oneworld Publications

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

Donella Meadows (1972). The Limits to Growth. Signet. See also http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/a-synopsis-limits-to-growth-the-30-year-update/

Donella Meadows. Dancing with Systems

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

William Ophuls (2013). Plato’s Revenge. Politics in the Age of Ecology. MIT Press

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

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) Tintern Abbey

Re-purposing, poetry and plagiarism

Since 2008 I have been aware that re-purposing is a key activity of connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs).  George Siemens, Stephen Downes and Dave Cormier explained what they meant by this in their introduction to Change 11 MOOC,  where they wrote:

We don’t want you simply to repeat what other people have said. We want you to create something of your own.

Remember that you are not starting from scratch. Nobody ever creates something from nothing. That’s why we call this section ‘repurpose’ instead of ‘create’.

In a paper that my colleagues Marion Waite, George Roberts, Elizabeth Lovegrove and I have had published this week, we have pointed out, as others have before us, the tensions between repurposing and plagiarism. It seems to be an intractable problem for Higher Education institutions wanting to go down the ‘MOOC with accreditation’ route.

A discussion in ModPo  this week about Dadaist poetry and with reference to Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem, is closely related to ideas around open educational resources, repurposing, creativity and plagiarism.

Tzara’s instructions

Take a newspaper. Take some scissors. Choose from this paper an article the length you want to make your poem. Cut out the article. Next carefully cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them all in a bag. Shake gently. Next take out each cutting one after the other. Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag. The poem will resemble you. And there you are–an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

Source: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5774

This video illustrates the idea for those who relate better to video than text.

Is a poem written in this way an example of repurposing, or plagiarism, or both?

As chance would have it, just in the past week there has been a ‘storm’ about plagiarism by two Australian poets.

Toby Fitch of the Guardian writes:

But in all the outrage, and the quibbling over how poets should footnote their poems, the very legitimate poetic practice called “collage” is being dragged through the proverbial mud. Other experimental practices have been implicated, too – homage, misquotation, mistranslation, and more.


…..  it would be a great shame if, in our rush to lynch a couple of plagiarists and their misguided ideas of “patchwork”, “sampling” and “remixing”, we forget to remember why poetry needs experimentation.

Looking around it seems that plagiarism has been a concern in poetry for a while. See this excellent article by Kenneth Goldsmith in The Chronicle Review back in 2011 –

It’s Not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing’.

It seems that the boundaries between plagiarism and repurposing, what is creativity and what is not, remain very blurred and a bit of a minefield. Did Tzara plagiarise the newspaper article he cut up? At what point does repurposing end and plagiarism begin?

Interestingly, plagiarism has been made much of in ModPo, although, if I remember correctly, the word was not used in discussion of Tristan Tzara’s instructions on how to make a Dadaist poem.

I wonder  – how many poets license their poetry under Creative Commons?  Of course for this to work, poets would need to publish in the open. Perhaps its ‘openness’ and all that entails that is the problem, rather than plagiarism.

Update 28-01-14

See also this video – Embrace the Remix

‘Open space rewards consensus and punishes dissent’

Dave Snowden made a number of provocative statements  in his presentation to Week 17 of ChangeMooc, but ‘open space leads to consensus’ and ‘consensus is rewarded, dissent is punished’ were two that caught my attention.

As with all such statements, they have to be taken in context. He was arguing that spaces that lead to consensus are a constraint on innovation and creativity and that more conflict and processes such as Ritual Dissent, where people are literally harangued for their ideas, are needed in today’s education system. He denounced what he called ‘fluffy bunny’ approaches to learning and even suggested that good facilitation could be counter-productive.

So – what should we make of all this.

In some ways it is easy to understand and have some sympathy for these ideas. Open space (and it’s important to remember that he was not talking about ‘openness’) allows people to come and go as the please into the learning network or environment.

So would it be fair to say that the people who stay are those who can find like-minded people and ideas of mutual interest in the environment and feel reasonably comfortable there? We don’t often find out much about the reasons why many people don’t stay, but it could be that those are the people with alternative perspectives who either try and fail to ‘rock the boat’ (dissent), or just don’t have the patience to engage in ‘dissent’/posting counter-arguments, or for one reason or another can’t cope with the environment.

Are dissenters punished? My experience in Moocs (where most of my experience with open space has occurred) is that they can be, particularly if they make strongly dissenting posts. Usually the punishment is subtle. Dissenters are ignored. Or sometimes the dissenter receives a volley of angry posts and may even be openly asked to stop dissenting; these dissenters may be labelled as ‘trolls’ as happened in CCK08

A strong dissenting post into an online environment may be accepted if there is already a consensus that the dissenting person is ‘OK’ or has some authority and a respected reputation, as in the case of Stephen Downes and George Siemens, for example, and even Dave Snowden himself. For those not in this position of authority, any dissenting comment is often made tentatively, apologetically or politely, in the knowledge that it could be completely ignored or receive a lot of flak. On the whole, people don’t seem to know a lot about how to constructively handle conflict or dissent in open online spaces, so that we can learn from this and avoid group think.

So does this mean that ‘open space’ leads to consensus and if it does, is that a problem? We have to remember that Dave Snowden’s context for his work is in areas such as counter-terrorism and highly complex situations, where innovation and creativity, rather than consensus, is essential for effective decision making. But the open space offered by the net and open courses such as Moocs, allows those of us who are not learning in such highly complex situations to encounter a greater diversity of alternative perspectives than might otherwise be the case.  That is the point of Moocs, along with learning from these alternative perspectives through interaction and having the autonomy to vote with your feet (i.e. walk away) if you so wish.

I would suggest that if we see consensus as a problem (and it may or may not be according to the context), then it is not the ‘open space’ itself that is the problem. Rather it is knowing how to engage constructively with alternative perspectives, such that this engagement will lead to learning and higher levels of innovation and creativity. I don’t see an engagement with alternative perspectives as necessarily requiring dissent or conflict, but rather requiring ‘openness’ – an open environment, open resources and an openness of mind, self and spirit.

Constraints drive creativity?

Reading through the wealth of ideas that Jon Dron has presented us with this week, the idea that constraints drive creativity caught my attention. See this post of Jon’s with reference to the quote by Stravinsky – “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. ….”

This raises the question of constraints in MOOCs where there is extensive learner autonomy, diversity, openness and connectedness and an abundance of information. These are the principles of connectivism and MOOCs are based on 4 types of activities

1. Aggregation (collecting information and making connections)
2. Remixing (organizing information and connections to suit yourself)
3. Repurposing ( creation – ‘we want you to create something of your own’)
4. Feeding forward (sharing)

So a key purpose of MOOCs is the creation of artifacts that can be shared with others. But as Rita Kop and Hélène Fournier reported as a result of their research in the PLENK MOOC, the minimal creation of artefacts in that MOOC was a real disappointment for the course convenors.

From the above we could deduce that MOOCs simply don’t integrate enough constraints. It is all too free, open and distributed. John Mak, Roy Williams and I discussed this in our paper – The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC.

However, by all accounts ds106,  another MOOC convened by Jim Groom on the topic of Digital Storytelling, was enormously successful in the number of artifacts that were produced by participants and the levels of creativity demonstrated. So were there greater constraints in that MOOC and if so, what were they? Was it the extensive use of technologies in ds106 that  imposed the constraints? I haven’t been a participant in that MOOC, so I can’t judge.

Ultimately it comes down yet again to context (I know that there is a general weariness with that observation ☺) Too much freedom and we could get chaos and too many constraints and we get creativity stultified.

So what do I personally think? I think the ChangeMOOC type of MOOC – if it wants the creation of artifacts – needs to look to MOOCs like ds106 and see what can be learned from them and I don’t think that the ‘constraints drives creativity argument stands up’. So where are the ChangeMOOC artifacts and what are the reasons for participants’ reluctance to produce them? Including me ☺

Now I shall try to get back to what Jon is hoping we will talk about. But there are no constraints in this MOOC and therefore no possibility of predicting what participants will do ☺