Exploring the Divided Brain – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 1 (pm)

This is the second 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 is a link to the first post. An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1.


19th August 2016 pm – An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2 (Embodied beings: language, thought, emotion, spirituality – and the brain, of course)

500,000 years ago man lived in social groups but how did he communicate? Language developed 80-40,000 years ago and written language developed 4000 years ago. So it can’t have been through speech.

There are two important things for speech, control of breathing and control of the tongue. Apes can do neither, but birds can control breathing which enables them to sing.

Whilst language is associated with both hemispheres (but it has different meanings in each hemisphere; an analogy is the paint box, left hemisphere and the picture, right hemisphere – p.99 the Master and his Emissary), there is every reason to suppose that language emerged from music, from the right hemisphere and that in infants language starts in the right hemisphere. New-born children communicate through music (squeals, howls, repetition, rhythm) and also through the face. Babies learn their mother’s voice in the womb and pay attention after birth to stories that were read to them in the womb.

But plenty of animals communicate without language (whales and dolphins), and even some human groups can communicate without language. For example, whistled Turkish is still used to communicate across valleys.

We don’t need language for communication or thinking, as evidenced by crows that can perform sequential reasoning tasks (see this post about last year’s course – Two types of language ) and pigeons can distinguish between Monet and Picasso.

Left hemisphere stroke sufferers, who lose the power of speech are still able to communicate and do quite complicated reasoning such as needed for solving mathematical puzzles.

Robin Dunbar argued that the development of language was related to the inability to sustain communication through manual grooming, which we see in apes and other animals, as populations grew in size. We need language to administer large groups and to give us boundaries.

Whilst Dunbar’s research has been criticised, it supports Iain’s view that there is a close link between language and the hand, a strong connection between language and the body and that the whole of experience is, at some level, embodied.

Understanding is related to grasping, ‘grasping the meaning’. As we know, we can get meaning from ‘body language’. We also get meaning from metaphor. Language links us to the world through metaphor. It is not insignificant that Iain chose a metaphor for the title of his book. We use metaphor to talk about experience. Every word we have is rooted in the body. Meaning is always contextual and embodied, never detached and thinking is a deeply embodied process because it is related to action. It is about our relationship with the world. Language grows in us. Thinking is an aspect of the way we attend to the world and in most languages there are two words for knowing, which each has a different root in experience.

The right hemisphere is more attuned to spiritual experience, which is rooted in the body, involves bodily practices and integrates emotion with thought. (See Charles Foster – Wired for God. The Biology of Spiritual Experience). All thought originates in the right hemisphere and is processed in the left.

Iain also talked about thinking in last year’s course.

This year he seems to have put greater emphasis on thinking as an embodied process and perhaps we shall see why when his forthcoming books are published, which according to his profile in our course booklet will include:

  • a critique of contemporary society and culture from the standpoint of neuropsychology;
  • a study of the paintings of subjects with schizophrenia;
  • a series of essays about culture and the brain with subjects from Andrew Marvell to Serge Gainsbourgh;
  • a short book of reflections on spiritual experience.

For the rest of the session Iain talked about the two ways of being in the world.

  1. The way of the left hemisphere is the way of certainty where things are cut off from the environment, static, fixed, known and abstracted – a representation of the world.
  2. The way of the right hemisphere is where things are complex, uncertain, fluid, changing wholes (which does not mean anything goes) – a more real world.

From the Ancient Greeks to the early Renaissance, we have seen the rise and fall of civilization in the West three times, each time associated with flowering of both hemispheres in balance followed by left hemisphere dominance. This is laid out in detail in the second part of Iain’s book – The Master and his Emissary.

Iain believes that we are now in a hall of mirrors; we have cut ourselves off from what would lead us back into the right hemisphere:

  • the natural world – the ‘space’ offered by nature
  • culture – which used to be embodied and passed on in folk wisdom, but mobilisation changed this
  • the body, which is treated like a machine
  • art – twentieth century art has abandoned its role to play clever games
  • religion – which has become very left hemisphere dominated or abandoned all together.

Some of us had an interesting discussion on the third day about conceptual art, which Iain does not appreciate! He feels that art does not need text and should not need to be articulated. For him it should be visceral and embodied. My own perspective is that whether or not art is visceral can only be judged by the viewer and maybe for some people, conceptual art can evoke a visceral response. It may also depend on how you define conceptual art. A Google search for conceptual artists includes Marina Abramović. Her work can evoke a visceral response in me as can some architecture.

Iain closed this session by saying that a left hemisphere dominated world looks bleak. It involves

  • loss of the broader picture
  • knowledge replaced by information, tokens or representations
  • loss of concepts of skill and judgment
  • abstraction and reification
  • bureaucracy (Berger):
    • procedures that are known
    • anonymity
    • organisability
    • predictability
    • justice reduced to mere equality
    • explicit abstraction
  • loss of the sense of uniqueness
  • quantity the only criterion
  • ‘either/or’
  • reasonableness replaced by rationality
  • failure of common sense
  • systems designed to maximise utility
  • loss of social cohesion
  • depersonalisation
  • paranoia and lack of trust
  • need for total control
  • anger and aggression
  • the passive victim
  • art conceptual
    • visual art lacks a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives
    • music would be reduced to little more than rhythm
    • language diffuse, excessive, lacking in concrete referents
  • deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder
  • flow just the sum of an infinite series of ‘pieces’
  • discarding of tacit forms of knowing
    • ‘network of small complicated rules’
  • spectators rather than actors
  • dangerously unwarranted optimism

(Source of text in this list – Iain McGilchrist presentation slide. See also another post I made after hearing Iain talk in Edinburgh – The Divided Brain – Implications for Education).

This bleak view of a left hemisphere dominated world is outlined in detail in the conclusion of his book, The Master Betrayed, p.428-462.

Personal reflection

This session resonates with some work on embodied learning I did with my colleagues Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau, in which we explored learning, perception and action through the senses, with particular reference to synesthesia. In one of the ‘cases’ that we discuss in the published paper a child on the autism spectrum responds with his whole body to the colour purple.  In another, we discuss how infant children in Montessori classrooms engage in embodied learning to explore mathematical patterns. I think if you have worked with infant children (which I have) or children on the autism spectrum (which I have but not as a teacher, only as a researcher and observer) then the idea of embodied learning is very familiar. At what point in our education system does embodied learning become less important and why? Perhaps we spend too much time talking and not enough time making enough use of all the senses we have.

On a separate point, it is interesting that the bleak view of the left hemisphere’s world was presented as a bullet-point list, whereas the right hemisphere’s view of the world was presented with an image of a coral reef (see the first post in this series). Iain did not use many slides for this course and when he did use them they were usually images. This was the only session in which we were presented with a list. The bullet points seem to make the listed content even more bleak and of course they make a point, the point! But whilst this day ended with this pessimistic view, the overall message was thought-provoking rather than depressing.

Authors/people referred to during the session

Charles Foster (2010) Wired for God. The Biology of Spiritual Experience

Iain McGilchrist (1982) Against Criticism. Faber & Faber

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

David McNeill’s work on thought, gesture and language.

Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2015).  Synesthesia: from cross-modal to modality-free learning and knowledge.  Leonardo Journal 

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language

Friday 20th March pm

This is the second 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 is a link to the first post. An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1.

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language

 A basic grounding in the hemisphere hypothesis, including its significance for understanding the nature of language, which is often thought to be a left hemisphere tool only. (From the course booklet)

Looking at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to keep up in this session, maybe because it ran between 4.00 and 6.30 pm, at the end of a day which started at 9.00 – but here are some ideas that I captured and given their paucity, I can recommend Chapter 3 -Language, Truth and Music – of Iain McGilchrist’s book (The Master and his Emissary).

Iain started this session by reiterating that we need both the left and right hemispheres (LH and RH) – we need restraint and liberty, pleasure and adversity, hot and cold, thesis and antithesis; in this sense polarities are important. Language is not only in the LH, although language plays into the hands of the LH. Language is an embodied cry which can take us direct to experience and bring the whole world to life.

Iain quoted from Robert Graves’ poem, The Cool Web, in which Graves writes:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

Language protects us, but also insulates us from the reality of experience. Language is two faced. It distances us from and engages us with reality.

Iain reminded us that language is an outgrowth of music and that there are situations in life that don’t require words, which is what makes the telephone such a thin medium. Communication requires so much more than words. There is ‘talking to’ and ‘talking about’, and language is of greatest use when talking about. Language is not essential for communication and it is not essential for thought.  That thoughts don’t require words was illustrated with the story of the crow which solved an 8 stage logical problem. Here is a video of this from YouTube.

Language does help with certain kinds of thinking and communication, but obstructs others. Thoughts come before we have the language to speak them. We can see this in very young children who acquire language in an embodied way – they babble and point – always together. Speech is connected with arms and hands and gesticulation. Gesture and language are very closely connected.

Metaphor unsettles the meaning of our words. ‘It is what links language to life’. (p.115 The Master and his Emissary). Also on p.115 of The Master and his Emissary, Iain writes: ‘Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself.’

Nietzche wrote: ‘communication is shameless; words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common.’ It was this last point that Iain focused on – ‘words make the uncommon common’, telling us that language tends to bring us back to the abstract, but also that careful use of language can break beyond the abstract.

Different types of attention means that we see things in a different way. We can reach out to grasp, but we can also reach out to connect to make a bond.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 09.37.40

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

‘Both thought and its expression originate in the right hemisphere’ (p.189. The Master and his Emissary’. ‘… the richness of thought comes from the right hemisphere and is transferred across to the left hemisphere secondarily for translation into language’ (p.190). If we lose right hemisphere function then the world loses reality. This was illustrated with reference to Deglin and Kinsbourne’s work on an individual’s response to syllogisms when either LH or RH function is inhibited. This research showed that the RH remains true to experience, but the left hemisphere, ‘prioritises the system, regardless of experience: it stays within the system of signs’ (p.193. The Master and his Emissary) to the point of believing that a porcupine is a monkey because it is written on the card.

As was noted in the first session (see last blog post), the LH is a self-reflective hall of mirrors. Iain believes that we can break out of this through connecting with

  • the natural world
  • cultural truths
  • our bodies and embodiment, rather than thinking of the body as a sporting accessory
  • art
  • religion or spirituality, which is now a minority hobby when it used to be a framework for action

So – to sum up : The RH is more willing to pass information to the LH than vice-versa but the difficulty is in finding an appropriate language to represent the ‘embodied’ way in which the RH appreciates wholes. Hegel’s proposition (first suggested by Heraclitus) is that there is a unity of opposites and this is an important feature of dialectics – the co-existence of at least two conditions which are opposite to each other yet dependent on each other and presupposing of each other within a field of tension. This neatly describes the hemispheres – co-existing but continuously in tension.

Unfortunately the hemispheres can get out of balance. LH domination leads to a ‘hall of mirrors’ situation which results in less embodiment of learning and lack of awareness of ‘the other’.

This session ended with reference to a ‘loss of truth’ and the question ‘How do you get moral strength back into people who have lost it?’

Authors referred to during this session

Deglin, V. L. & Kinsbourne, M. (1996). Divergent Thinking Styles of the Hemispheres: How syllogisms are solved during transitory hemisphere suppression. Brain & Cognition, 31, 285-307

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

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967),

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

Identity and the Language Poets


ModPo has been moving too fast for me again. We are already on Week 9 and I am struggling to get to grips with Week 8.

Week 8 focussed on an introduction to Language Poetry. This is how the week was introduced (in part) on the Coursera site:

By starting with Silliman’s “Albany” and Hejinian’s My Life, we focus on ways in which – and reasons why – Language poets refused conventional sequential, cause-and-effect presentations of the writing self. The self is languaged – is formed by and in language – and is multiple across time (moments and eras) and thus from paratactic sentence to paratactic sentence. While this radical revision of the concept of the lyric self (and of the genre of memoir) emphasizes one aspect of the Language Poetry movement at the expense of several other important ideas and practices, it is, we feel, an excellent way to introduce the group.

Other poets introduced in Week 8 were Bob Perelman (Chronic Meanings – a beautiful pre-elegy), Susan Howe (My Emily Dickinson) and Charles Bernstein’s “In a Restless World Like This Is” (my mother used to sing the song – When I fall in Love – that this title comes from, when I was a child. At the age of 88 she can still sing it now). And we were introduced to another Ron Silliman poem – BART – written whilst travelling on the BART – the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transport, which I travelled on a couple of years ago on a visit to California.

I don’t have time to give enough thought to the Language Poets  – week 9 is upon us – so here I will record (and at some stage will need to come back to) – the key idea that came out of Week 8 for me – and that is that:

Language constructs the self

This was discussed particularly in relation to Lynn Hejinian’s work – My Life.

The idea that language is central to the construction of the self and identity resonates with me. This explains the ever-changing self as we continually reconstitute ourselves in response to language and social interaction. I like the idea that every time I speak/write I am involved in the act of constructing/reconstructing myself. It makes sense to me that I can use language to construct my self, but that language will also construct me.

Is the self multiple across time – as mentioned in the introduction to Week 8 above? This would fit with Bonnie Stewart’s work on Digital Identities. I have always felt that although I will inevitably be perceived differently by different people, I have one identity with many facets.  All the facets make up me! But I can see how the language I use and the discourse I engage in creates different perceptions of me. I can also see how language and our use of it influences who we are, and that the self is a fluid construct. But I’m not sure that this means that we have multiple identities. I need to think about this a bit more.

This has been in haste! A marker for future reference. There is lots more to think about and I will have to come back. The week 9 poets are calling!

In what way has this sentence, this blog post constructed/reconstructed my self?