The Sense of the Sacred. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

[Indra’s Net]

The penultimate talk given by Iain McGilchrist at the 2021 Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, was ‘The Sense of the Sacred’. This is also the title of the final chapter (Chapter 28, which Ian has called his ‘God’ chapter) of his new book The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, due to be published on November 9th.

The purpose of the new book is to try and answer Plotinus’ question, ‘Who are We?’  What is the world and what are we to make of the cosmos and our place in it? The whole book and even, I would say, the Master and His Emissary describes a journey taken in quest of answering this question ‘Who are We?’ and ultimately ends up with the conviction (but not the only one) that we and our world lack a sense of the sacred.

A friend, who also attended the Field&Field conference, commented that he was impressed by how Iain developed his argument through the series of talks that we listened to, and Iain himself said that he had attempted to unfold the argument.  The titles of these talks, each lasting an hour, were:

  1. Introduction to the hemispheres/The Matter with Things
  2. Brain disorders of the hemispheres
  3. What is language for?
  4. The value and limits of science
  5. The value and limits of reason
  6. The value and limits of intuition
  7. The value and limits of imagination
  8. The coincidence of opposites
  9. The one and the many
  10. The nature of time
  11. Matter and consciousness
  12. What are values
  13. The sense of the sacred
  14. Closing thoughts

This would suggest that I should start with the first talk and work through them in making these posts, as I have done in the past (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/the-divided-brain/). But I also anticipate that one difference between this new book, The Matter with Things (TMWT), and the Master and His Emissary (TMAHE), is that it will be easier to dip into the new book, reading chapters independently of each other. So, I am starting with the final talk, which was completely new to me. I am already familiar with some of the content of most of the others, but I also hope to write about some of the other talks if time allows. Some (those that have links) I have already written about in the past, but I may expand on them.

At this point I should say that anything written here is my interpretation of what Iain said and should not be taken as evidence of what he actually said. We each hear things differently according to our own contexts, on top of which, as I get older my ability to make accurate notes at speed has significantly deteriorated!

In giving this talk Iain used no slides, making the point that the sacred cannot be represented. He acknowledged that it is paradoxical to write and talk about something that cannot be expressed in words, something that we do not know or understand. He explained that what he means by a sense of the sacred is the gravitational pull towards the ineffable, a wordless reaching out, the spiritual aspect of being human. To be human is to feel this deep gravitational pull to something ineffable. If we can just get beyond words and reasons, we can reach out wordlessly to something outside our conceptual grasp but nonetheless present to us, to a whole range of unfathomable experiences which we call spiritual.

The thrust of Iain’s argument is that in our modern world we are fast losing any sense of the sacred, and that this is detrimental to understanding who we are and our place in the cosmos. Iain’s understanding of this comes through his work on brain lateralisation, which has led him to suggest that we now live in a world dominated by the narrowly focussed, grabbing, and getting left hemisphere, which doesn’t understand the sacred. The left hemisphere analyses things, takes them apart and expresses everything reductively in language. It doesn’t see wholes. It sees things in categories wanting to compare one thing with another, but there is nothing with which the sacred, the divine, can be compared. The sense of the sacred cannot be expressed in language. We should not speak the name of God. God is not understandable, not a thing.  God can only be recognised by the right hemisphere, the hemisphere that sees the whole and tolerates ambiguity, uncertainty, and paradox. The left hemisphere is a very good servant (Emissary), but it should never be the Master, which is the role of the right hemisphere. (For the scientific evidence that supports this argument, see the first part of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World).

What can we call this profound experience for which we have no words? Whatever we call it is going to be potentially misleading. Different cultures call it something different. We in the West call it God, the name for something that gives rise to everything in the Universe. But as soon as we have the name, we think we have understood it. We have to hang on to the realisation that we have not understood it. The name of God is the unnameable name, or as St. Augustine said, if you understand it, then it’s not God you have understood.

There are also problems with understanding what belief is. In the modern world after several years of analytical philosophy, belief has been taken to mean assent to various propositions, but belief is not propositional, it is dispositional. How we are disposed to the world determines what we find in the world. Attention is the way you dispose consciousness. Just because belief is dispositional it’s not baseless or irrational. It’s transitional. Belief relates to love as a disposition towards the world. Belief is a relationship, not a thing but a betweenness, but it is not in the space between, it’s in the whole. Religions speak in images, parables, and paradoxes because there is no other way of grasping the reality to which they refer, but it is still a genuine reality.

So, what does a belief in God entail? What disposition would we have to adopt? We cannot approach it with the left hemisphere. Instead, it requires

  • Being open to something Other, active receptivity and being the devil’s advocate
  • Listening and attending
  • Accepting uncertainty, the new and unexpected, and tolerating ambiguity
  • Seeing limits to knowledge
  • Knowing in terms of Kennen rather than Wissen
  • Recognising the power of unknowing and not doing
  • Being open and receptive to paradox
  • Being able to apprehend betweenness, not just an assemblage of entities but a web of relationships
  • Relying on indirect metaphorical expression
  • Accepting that both contradictory elements might be true
  • Seeing continuous processes rather than a succession of things or isolated events
  • Appreciating the gestalt, the cohesive whole
  • Entering into I-Thou relation, not just I-It
  • Valuing empathy and vulnerability
  • Sustaining attention and stilling the inner voice
  • Accepting that relations are prior to relata. As with Indra’s net, the net begins with connections and only becomes a net after lots of connections have been made. You can’t start with things and then say how they are related because the way things are related tells you what they are
  • Seeing that spirit and body are not distinct or opposed, but different aspects of the same being. This is necessary for sustaining emotional depth

The right hemisphere is much better at all these things, at mindfulness and stilling the monkey mind to appreciate the reality we experience. The left hemisphere’s understanding of God is that belief needs organisation, hierarchies, laws etc. as is seen in militant atheism and religious fundamentalism, which both these see black and white categories, and believe the ‘Word’ to be infallible, reflecting the left hemisphere’s approach to the world and its focus on analysis and argument. The left hemisphere wants everything to be cut and dried, to be certain, to be structured and expressed in written language. This leads to theological disputation. Militant atheism and religious fundamentalism are mirror images of one another. The great divide is not between believers and agnostics, but between militant atheists and militant believers. Both express the left hemisphere’s view of certainty. More and more we see their narcissistic self-righteousness, accompanied, as reformations always were, by destruction of paintings, images, art and beauty, and the banishment of humour. We saw this in the 17th century Puritans and we are seeing it again today in our own lifetime.

The power of unknowing and not doing is a very important idea in Chinese philosophy, but also in the neglected Western tradition of medieval mysticism. Meister Eckhart writes of this unknowing as the fruitful darkness in which we dwell. He called this darkness a loving and open receptiveness which however in no way lacks being. It is a receptive potential by means of which all is accomplished. It is in the darkness that one finds the light.

In ethical terms the right hemisphere places huge emphasis on empathy and vulnerability. The left hemisphere is not good at this. The right hemisphere recognises the dark side to human consciousness and doesn’t try to deny or repress it. It is capable of understanding that good may emerge from suffering which is not necessarily negative (as Viktor Frankl recognised), but obviously we try to avoid suffering.

Iain describes himself as a Panentheist, not a Pantheist who believes that all things are God and God is all things; a Panentheist believes that all things are in God, and that God is in all things, which suggests a process. Panentheism is very much a processual vision of the world in which the world comes into being within the overarching veil of whatever it is we cannot name that is above it. Wordsworth talks about this in his poem Tintern Abbey. Wordsworth was a Panentheist.  Iain acknowledges that Rowan Williams and others are not enamoured of processual theology, but Iain himself sees it everywhere. In the Old Testament God appears to Moses in the burning bush and says, ‘I am that I am’, which in Hebrew translates as ‘I will be what I will be’. In the story of Creation, God looked and saw that it was good, i.e., not previously determined, not yet decided, but genuinely coming into being, genuinely being created.  Similar is the Christian idea that the Word was made flesh. In Greek this translates as the Word became flesh, rather than was made, which in turn is similar to the familiar Christian words, ‘Begotten not made’, i.e., not put together. Meister Eckhart writes of a constant emanating presence. The becoming is a constant longing and its fulfilment. David Bohm in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order writes about things unfolding their potential. This is how Iain sees the creation, as the world constantly unfolding into an infinite number of possible instantiations. David Bohm believes that it is then re-enfolded. There is a constant process of folding, unfolding and then re-enfolding. God and creation are enfolded together (implicatio), unfolded (explicatio) and then re-enfolded (complicatio). A.N Whitehead has written that the world and God bring each other into existence. The Jewish creation myth in the Kabbalah describes this process.

[Kintsugi: The Japanese art of repairing broken porcelain to make it something greater and more beautiful than before. In the Kabbalah myth humanity plays an important part, because little sparks of the divine are in all the broken pieces, and our role is to put these parts together, so we have a positive role to play in creation.]

The three phases of the Kabbalah creation myth relate to the way the world comes into being through the interaction of the hemispheres.

One of the reasons for having religions is constantly to remind us of a broader context of another order which is a moral order, not just a rational one; a network of obligations to other humans, to the earth and to the Other that lies beyond, extending beyond our lives in space and time, but rooted firmly in spaces, places, practices and the here and now. This is the sense of the sacred. Without it this sense of the sacred risks being dissipated. Trust depends on shared beliefs. Religion is the manifestation of that trust and the embedding of it into the fabric of daily life. It embodies an awareness of God in the world through myths, narratives, symbols, rituals, and holy places. The world cannot afford to lose this stream of wisdom. Both hemispheres are important for this but the left hemisphere must serve the right.

There are many myths and fables in many languages, like the story of the Master and his Emissary, about a force that gets above itself (in this case the left hemisphere). Recently, Iain has spoken a number of times of the 9th century Chinese text, The Secret of the Golden Flower, in this context. (I managed to find the whole text online – https://terebess.hu/keletkultinfo/Cleary-Thomas-Secret-of-the-Golden-Flower.pdf – and this short article helps to introduce the text – The ancient secret of the Golden Flower is a simple way to improve your whole life). Iain quotes from the text to illustrate another example of where a servant (in this case the general) usurps authority, not knowing what it is doing.

The conscious mind is like a violent general of a strong fiefdom controlling things from a distance, until the sword is turned around. (The Secret of the Golden Flower, Chapter 2, p.14)

The left hemisphere grabs but doesn’t understand. Understanding is from the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere has driven out a lot of what we need to understand the world. It’s view of the world is abstracted, disembodied, fixed, certain, general, represented, explicit and inanimate. For the left hemisphere the world is represented as a map. The left hemisphere is a bureaucrat’s dream. The right hemisphere sees the world being mapped as a whole, flowing, uncertain, implicit, unique, animate, and embodied. The right hemisphere is a bureaucrat’s nightmare.

But the world is paradoxical. The right hemisphere understands this and that opposites might both be true. Paradox is the conflict between what the right and left hemispheres see, but trust depends on shared beliefs, and religion is a manifestation of trust. Both hemispheres are important.

Interestingly I have heard Iain say a number of times that he does not follow a particular religion, although he draws a lot from Christianity and Daoism. So, I don’t think he is advocating a particular religion as a way of addressing the ills of the world. My understanding is that he has looked at a number of religions to find the common teachings that might help us understand who we are and our place in the cosmos and has concluded that a sense of the scared is essential to this.

References

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

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

Iain McGilchrist (2021). Hemispheric Asymmetry and the Approach to the Divine. Iain Ramsey Centre. https://youtu.be/qtArjSgM2I8

Source of image: Indra’s net –  https://focuspocusnow.com/2014/11/23/indras-net/

Source of Image: Kintsugi – https://asiatrend.org/arts/kintsugi-the-japanese-art-of-fixing-broken-pottery/

Left and Right Hemisphere Approaches to education

Having returned from the Field & Field conference on Exploring the Divided Brain with Iain McGilchrist, which took place in the Cotswolds, UK, between 2nd and 5th August 2021, I have spent some time reflecting on the workshop I ran, which was billed as follows:

Paradigm shift in education? What can we learn from Iain McGilchrist?

Many educators are concerned with the increasing instrumentalism of our education systems, where students are thought of as future economic assets. There are also concerns about the almost exclusive focus on a ‘back-to-basics’, essentialist approach in our schools. Some are happy with the existing system, others call for more progressive, existentialist approaches, and/or the greater integration of values such as integrity, diversity, inclusivity, and compassion. Iain McGilchrist has said that our current thinking is increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere’s narrowly focussed way of attending to the world. He believes that nothing short of a paradigm shift will bring about the change needed to counter this dominance. 

In this session we will discuss some of the key themes that run through The Master and His Emissary, themes such as two ways of knowing, flow, embodiment, depth and breadth. Could these themes be used to bring about a paradigm shift in education, i.e., a shift towards the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world? In this workshop, we will explore if and how this could happen.

As always (this is the fifth Field & Field conference I have attended) I found the conference completely exhausting and overwhelming in the content that I now need to process. Knowing this I asked for my workshop to run on the very first day, when I thought I would be more likely to be alert! This has both positive and negative consequences. The positive is that I and others do have more energy at the beginning of the conference (this was important because what I asked participants to do was not easy), the negative is that participants haven’t had the chance to listen to Iain’s lectures and so bring that knowledge to bear on the task.

Overall, I think the workshop went as well as could be expected, given the limited time we had (about an hour and a quarter) and the working space I was allocated, which was called the Piano Lounge. This was effectively the hotel lobby, so we had to compete with a lot of background noise, although the hotel did finally turn off the canned music on request. I assume I was given this space because I had said I would not be using technology (no PowerPoint presentation, just pencil, paper and talk) and there were other workshops using technology. The space wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t come anywhere near my worst experience of an allocated teaching space. Years ago, I was once timetabled to teach one group split into two small rooms at opposite ends of a long corridor. I reckon if you can pull that off you can run a session in any space 🙂

I did wonder what participants would make of the workshop. I knew it would be a challenge. As mentioned in my previous post on this topic, I hoped that we would be able to discuss whether it is possible to apply some of the themes that run though Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (themes relating to a right hemisphere approach to the world), to education.

But first we looked at a scenario (arias-school-experience-200721)  of what a 15 year old girl’s school experience might be like in 2030, if we continue to promote the left hemisphere dominated approach to education that many countries seem to be advocating. I named the girl Aria. To create this scenario, I adapted some work done by Neil Selwyn and colleagues (Neil Selwyn, Luci Pangrazio, Selena Nemorin & Carlo Perrotta (2019): What might the school of 2030 be like? An exercise in social science fiction, Learning, Media and Technology).

The question I asked the group was whether this scenario is realistic. If so how, if not, why not? The general consensus was that it is a recognisable scenario, although maybe not all the facts included in the scenario are found in one school, but rather across different schools. Selwyn et al. include five different vignettes in their paper. I used one because of time constraints,  but my workshop participants agreed that this scenario depicts a left hemisphere approach to education.

The reason for starting with this scenario was that I felt that if participants were to have any chance of reimagining an education experience that aligns more with the right hemisphere in the given time, they might need a story/narrative to help. We could imagine a real child’s experience rather than an abstract concept.

At this point I asked participants to consider what Aria’s school experience might be like if it was based on the themes,

  • Two kinds of knowing
  • Flow and betweenness
  • The ‘Other’
  • Depth and Breadth
  • Embodiment
  • Creativity
  • Qualification

All these themes reflect characteristics of the right hemisphere’s approach to the world. My idea was that participants would work in twos, threes, or fours, to discuss one of the themes and answer the question ‘What would Aria’s school experience be like if it was based on the theme you are working on?’ For each theme I gave participants some text taken from the Master and His Emissary, so that they could focus on what Iain McGilchrist has written about them. No group was given ‘Two Kinds of Knowing’, as I felt that in any discussion of education, no matter what the theme, the left hemisphere’s role should always be remembered. Although we were focussing on the right hemisphere’s way of working, my view is that we should not ignore or demonise the left hemisphere. Instead, we should aim to try and restore some balance.

This is the handout I provided on the themes (the-master-and-his-emissary-key-themes-150821). I wanted the focus to be on lessons from The Master and His Emissary, rather than on educational psychology and philosophy more broadly, although it is possible to see many parallels between some educational philosophers’ work and McGilchrist’s work.

Prior to the event, I tried to answer the question for each of the themes myself, to see whether it was achievable in the time and how hard a task I was setting. A result of this was that, against my better judgement, I decided to provide a worked example ( on the theme of imagination), as a sort of prop (advance organiser), to help people get going. This is the example of how I approached the task – see the-master-and-his-emissary-imagination-120821-1

I was well aware that there are many possible ways to approach this task and of the disadvantages of providing a worked example. I was also aware of the irony of retreating to this left hemisphere approach, but I didn’t want anyone to be defeated by the task and ultimately most participants ignored this example. Only one group produced something similar. Another group decided that a better theme, which would incorporate all these themes, would be health. In fact, each group interpreted the task differently as you would expect.

So, was the workshop a success? One participant told me it was hard. Another how much she had enjoyed it. Another that his group dynamic didn’t work for him. I wonder whether that related to left and right hemisphere approaches. For me, the ideal would have been a longer workshop in a quiet space, or a series of workshops with time to dig deep into this. Nevertheless, there was loads of discussion between the 16 participants, so much so that we ran over by 10 minutes and everyone was fully engaged and fully on task for the entire workshop. If they also went away with new thoughts and questions, for me that counts as a success.

What did intrigue me though is how difficult it is to suppress the left hemisphere. I asked participants to try and think completely outside the box, and not to consider the constraints that would be imposed by the current education system if a more right hemisphere approach was proposed, but it really is difficult to escape the left hemisphere.

Any thoughts on any of this by any readers of this post, would be most welcome.

Source of image: https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

A Right Hemisphere Approach to Education

In a week’s time, I will be once again in the Cotswolds, UK, attending the Field & Field 4 day conference at which Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, will be the keynote speaker. This will be the fifth time I have attended this conference (or retreat as the organiser likes to call it). On all prior occasions I have shared my notes from the conference on this blog. They can be found on The Divided Brain page, linked to here.

The last time this conference took place in 2019, I ran an hour long workshop in which we discussed the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/coming-to-your-senses-with-iain-mcgilchrist/). For that workshop, I didn’t assume that everyone was familiar with McGilchrist’s book, so we examined and discussed the key characteristics of the left and right hemispheres’ take on the world, how these might affect education, and what changes to education this knowledge might suggest. An hour is nowhere near long enough for this discussion, so we only scratched the surface.

This year, despite the shortage of time once again, I would like to take this discussion further, by focussing on what a right hemisphere approach to education might involve and include. To do this we will first briefly consider the direction that education might take if it continues to be dominated by left hemisphere approaches. We will then spend the rest of the session discussing how some key themes from McGilchrist’s book, related to the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world, might be implemented in schools. The themes I have selected for discussion are: flow and betweenness; depth and breadth; embodiment; qualification; creativity; the ‘Other’; and two kinds of knowing. There are, of course, many other possible themes, and if participants want to work on an alternative theme, that would be fine with me. I have written about some of these themes on this blog (see The Divided Brain page).

Because of the shortage of time, I will be providing notes to support this activity, but I see this is as a more challenging task than the one we worked on in 2019. It requires escaping from left hemisphere thinking and trying to imagine an alternative approach to education. There will be no one way of doing this, no ‘right’ answer. Hopefully there will be many alternative perspectives. But more than this, my hope is that the session will provoke new ways of thinking, suggest new possibilities for education, or, at the very least, raise questions to take away and think about. McGilchrist has said that we need a paradigm shift, a change of hearts and minds to redress the balance between left and right hemisphere. I will be interested to see whether this sort of activity has the potential to start this process.

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: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

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 (https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html)

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)). https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html 

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.’ http://www.downes.ca/post/67894 

16-03-2018 Update

See also notes from last years course – Where we can go for Truth – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/exploring-the-divided-brain-where-can-we-go-for-truth/

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 https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/category/the-divided-brain/). 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.

https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/exploring-the-divided-brain-a-4-day-course-with-iain-mcgilchrist-day-1-am/

https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/exploring-the-divided-brain-a-4-day-course-with-iain-mcgilchrist-day-1-pm/

https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/the-divided-brain-implications-for-education/

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 https://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI )

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 https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/category/the-divided-brain/). 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 – http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist – 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,  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/fildes-the-doctor-n01522

Now death is often surrounded by machines. Unlike elephants and other animals who know how to mourn death (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/08/elephants-mourning-video-animal-grief/), 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.