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.