The Matter With Things. Chapter 2: Attention

I have joined a new online reading group, which will meet once a month to discuss chapters of Iain McGilchrist’s latest book, The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. This has been organised by Laura Thomas and Elspeth Crawford, two members of Channel McGilchrist. Many thanks to them for taking this initiative, as The Matter With Things is an overwhelmingly long book, over 1500 pages, and I suspect I am not alone in wanting some help in reading it. Unlike some of the others in the group, I have not yet read the whole book, and what I have read has been selective, i.e. I haven’t started at the beginning but have so far read the chapters that appeared to me to be potentially the most interesting. I have written some posts about them. I have also written about the overall structure of book before, so I won’t repeat that here.

So far the group has met on zoom once, to discuss Chapter 2 on Attention, although necessarily quite a bit of time was spent on ‘getting to know each other’ and administrative issues.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 2 by writing, ‘Who we are determines how we see. And how we see determines what we find. …. Attention brings the world into being’. Not only this, but how we attend changes who we are. What we mean by reality depends on attention from the word go. We are in a reciprocal relationship with the world. There is a back and forth between the attending person and what is attended to.

Those who are familiar with McGilchrist’s work will know that everything he writes is based on the premise that the two hemispheres of the brain attend to the world differently. The right hemisphere’s attention is broad, sustained and vigilant. It attends to the whole. The left hemisphere’s attention is narrow and focussed. We need both kinds of attention. In the Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, McGilchrist explained this in terms of a bird having to focus on the grit in the ground to find the seed to eat, whilst at the same time keeping an open eye out on the whole surroundings for a predator.

            “ In order to stay alive, birds have to solve a conundrum: they need to be able to feed and watch out for predators simultaneously. How are you to focus closely on what you are doing when you are trying to pick out that grain of seed from the grit on which it lies while, at the same time, keeping the broadest possible open attention to whatever may be, in order to avoid being eaten? It’s a bit like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach at the same time – only worse, because it is impossible. What we know is that the difference in attention between the hemispheres makes the apparently impossible possible. Birds pay narrowly focused attention with their right eye (left hemisphere) to what they are eating, while keeping their left eye (right hemisphere) open for predators.” (McGilchrist, 2019, p.13)

But we are not birds and we do not have eyes on the sides of our heads. Are we humans able to use our left hemisphere to focus attention whilst at the same time using our right hemisphere to attend to the whole? McGilchrist argues that whilst these two kinds of attention are mutually incompatible, ‘we need to be able to employ both simultaneously.’ (McGilchrist, 2019, p.14). His argument is that we now live in a world where we are losing the ability to see the whole and are increasingly attending to the world from the perspective of the left hemisphere, with a narrow, focussed gaze.

There are at least two significant problems with this increased reliance on the left hemisphere for attention. First, the left hemisphere’s focussed attention makes it blind to everything else. There are a number of videos that neatly illustrate this point.

The Invisible Gorilla: https://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo

If you have seen this video before it won’t come as a surprise, but if you are watching it for the first time, it will probably be an eye-opener!

And second, not only is the left hemisphere blind to what it is not attending to, but what is not seen completely ceases to exist for the left hemisphere. This is starkly illustrated by the following video in which a woman with damage to her right hemisphere and therefore reliant on her left hemisphere, is unaware of anything on her left side (hemineglect). The left hemisphere only attends to half a world.

In addition, because the left hemisphere does not know what it does not know, when there are obvious gaps in its knowledge and understanding it confabulates. It invents stories to fill the gaps and blind spots and is ‘quite confident it is right’. So, a patient with right hemisphere damage will deny the existence of their left arm, and if asked to look at the left arm and say who it belongs to, will claim it belongs to another person. Whilst we do not all have physical damage to our right hemispheres, you don’t have to look very far in modern society to see behaviours that mirror those observed in people with right hemisphere damage, and it is quite concerning to realise how easily these behaviours can be induced through right hemisphere damage or split brain experiments.

McGilchrist argues that it is the right hemisphere that is more in touch with reality. It’s attention to the world is more open and receptive, and without preconceptions. The left hemisphere has an impoverished, devitalised view of the world, which lacks depth of space, time and motion. It re-presents the visual world as flattened, abstract and schematic, like a two-dimensional map, rather than in three dimensions. In The Matter With Things, McGilchrist references a large body of research (184 references in this chapter) to substantiate the differences between the left and right hemisphere’s ways of attending. Much of this research focuses on what happens to patients who experience right hemisphere damage, and their experience of attending to the world through the left hemisphere. In the final chapter of a small book he published in 2019, ‘Ways of Attending’, McGilchrist conducts a thought experiment. ‘What would it look like if the left hemisphere came to be the sole purveyor of our reality? The picture he paints is not a happy one. As is written on the back cover of this book:

‘Attention is not just receptive, but actively creative of the world we inhabit. How we attend makes all the difference to the world we experience. And nowadays in the West we generally attend in a rather unusual way: generated by the narrowly focussed, target-drive left hemisphere of the brain.’

In the first meeting of the Channel McGilchrist online reading group, a few people expressed the desire to find pragmatic responses to the problems of a left-hemisphere dominated world. Serendipitously, at around the same time as these thoughts were being discussed in the reading group, Matthias Melcher wrote a post outlining ways he thinks we could become more right-hemisphere dominant. See https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2022/04/08/seven-ways-to/

McGilchrist himself tends to resist trying to find solutions to the left hemisphere dominated world he describes, although I have heard him suggest that it’s mostly to do with raising awareness, which aligns with Matthias’ approach. But McGilchrist does believe that we can train ourselves to attend to the world with our right hemispheres, through skills such as meditation and mindfulness, and through believing that the attention that we pay to the world alters what we find there.

For myself I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of demonising the left hemisphere. Obviously we need it’s focussed way of attending, but we don’t need it to the exclusion of the whole picture, and we should try to resist its dominance in the way we attend to the world. McGilchrist believes that if we ask which way of attending to the world is more viridical, which reality should we trust, then the right hemisphere has the upper hand.

The next meeting of the Channel McGilchrist reading group is on Friday May 6th Pacific Time (Los Angeles time zone), when we will discuss Chapter 3: Perception. The idea is that we will each submit a comment/question or provocation a few days before the meeting to help focus the discussion. This is how the Philosophy of Education Reading Network organises their meetings and it works well.

And fortunately for the Channel McGilchrist group, McGilchrist has just started to discuss the chapters of The Matter With Things with Alex Gomaz. Here are links to the first two episodes:

Understanding The Matter with Things Dialogues: Episode 1: The Introduction

Understanding the Matter With Things Dialogues: Chapters 1 & 2

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.

McGilchrist, I. (2019). Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World. Routledge