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 

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

During this course, run by Field & FieldIain McGilchrist spoke to us twice a day, for an hour and a half at the start of the day and an hour and three quarters in the late afternoon, although these times were flexible and usually ran over. He also ate with us and had coffee with us, as well as making himself available during the day for discussion and questions. He was very generous with his time.

I tried to take comprehensive notes of his talks, although he speaks fast, sometimes reads and doesn’t always use slides, so it wasn’t easy. Perhaps he would say, as one of the participants said to me, it is enough to be in the experience, we don’t need to record everything. Last year I had a similar discussion with a close friend about taking photos and blogged about it then – Photography and ‘Living in the Moment’.

For me, I want to make sense of the course. For this I need to remember and reflect on what Iain has said and I have a terrible memory, so note taking is essential for my understanding, which does not come immediately but later with reflection and further study. I like to think that my poor memory is not due to right or left brain hemisphere damage but who knows ☺

So this is the first in a series of blog posts that I will make about what I have heard and learned. I did this last year. These were the posts I made then. So this is the second time I have attended this course. To repeat what I wrote last year, these posts should not be read as what Iain said, but as what I think he said, i.e. my interpretation. Every one of the 40 participants will have heard something different. We each attend to the world from our own perspective, from our own right and left hemispheres. If you are reading this post and have a different perspective, I would welcome your comment. The course was highly stimulating and I loved the discussion between participants, so it would be great to continue this.

Now to write about the first session.

19th August 2016 am – An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1

This first session covered an introduction to the divided brain and a discussion of why hemisphere differences matter (in particular asymmetry – front and back, top and bottom, side to side), some current understandings and misunderstandings.

The session was similar to last year’s Day 1. I noted some of the same content, but also some differences.

Perhaps it would be good to start by reiterating something Iain said frequently throughout the course and that is that we always use both hemispheres of the brain for everything, but each hemisphere contributes something different – so, for example, it would be wrong to say that creativity or emotion are functions of the right hemisphere only.

An analogy for the functions of the left and right hemispheres is your glasses and your eyes. Your eyes (your right hemisphere) are more important than your glasses (your left hemisphere). If you wear your glasses with your eyes shut, then your glasses serve no function at all and you see nothing; but if you don’t wear your glasses and have your eyes open, then you can’t see properly.


Source of image

Although I attended this course last year and have followed Iain McGilchrist’s work for a number of years, and although I had seen many of his slides before (if not all of them), I still came away with a sense of having learned more.

An image of a coral reef, like the one above, was the first slide we were shown. Its purpose is to demonstrate that the universe doesn’t work by the law of parsimony. It is not tidy nor ordered, but chaotic, super abundant and filled with a multiplicity of differential being. This is the world of the right hemisphere. The whole is more than the sum of the parts and this is what Iain realised on leaving school that he had not been taught. At that time a number of propositions that he held true seemed to be in opposition to what was being taught. He was being taught that the world is inert, but he knew it to be deeply responsive. He was being told that progress is linear, but he knew it to be circular; we arrive back at the place just above where we started. As a teacher I am reminded of Bruner’s work on the ‘spiral’ curriculum. I would also say that progress is not only circular but can be the result of multidirectional and backwards and forwards pathways, which calls into question prescriptive lockstep progression through a given curriculum and schemes of work.

At the time Iain was questioning whether progress is linear. He feels that the purpose of the intellect is not to abstract, classify and generalise, but to pursue the unique and embodied. We have to make generalisations, but categorising is not the whole story.

This interest in embodiment and mind/body relationships continued when he was studying English at Oxford under John Bayley, where Iain learned that the more you analyse something, the more you try to take something apart (e.g. literature or poetry), the more you put barriers up. Analysis is only an intermediary. We must go back to the whole, just as when learning to play a musical piece, we must ultimately forget the ‘learning to play’ in order to give the final performance. This seems to me to be an important message for researchers, i.e. don’t lose sight of the whole when steeped in data analysis.

Why do we constantly stop at the point of analysis (i.e. in the left hemisphere)? Why does so much learning appear to be disembodied, when we know, for example, that reading poetry such as Wordsworth, or listening to music, can have a physical effect, changing our pulse and breathing, making the hairs on our skin stand up? This is a mind/body problem and it was questions like these, together with further study in medicine and psychiatry and a particular interest in what happens to patients with right hemisphere damage that led Iain to spend 17 years writing his world acclaimed book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

Iain also noticed that what is implicit loses its value when made explicit and from his work in medicine and psychiatry and discussions with John Cutting  came to know that for patients with right hemisphere damage (such as schizophrenics) experience of the whole world changes. I do now wonder, retrospectively, whether trying to elicit tacit understanding through deeply reflective processes is counter productive, as by definition it makes the implicit explicit. I need to think further about this as some of my own research has focussed on eliciting tacit understanding.

But we know from Iain’s work that the reason we have left hemisphere dominance is because the Emissary (the left hemisphere) fails to return what is learned to the right hemisphere, so we have to return what we have learned by making things explicit to the right hemisphere, and not lose sight of the whole. I didn’t get a sense from the course that any of us really know how to do this, but more of this in a later post.

After this introduction to his thinking and the types of questions he is trying to answer, Iain turned his attention to the physically divided brain. The detail related to this is in the first part of his book.

The Divided Brain
We could ask why is this organ, which is all about making connections, wastefully divided? The answer lies in the need to pay two different kinds of attention to the world. To stay alive we need to eat and, at the same time, watch out for predators, i.e. we need to attend to the world in two ways. This is best illustrated by this RSA Animate video, although I think nothing will serve as a substitute for reading the book.

There was an interesting discussion later in the course about whether needing two different kinds of attention means that we have to be able to multi-task, but Iain said, no, we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time. There might be a lot going on at the periphery of our vision and attention, and our focus might rapidly change from one thing to another, but we can only focus our attention on one thing at a time.

Attention creates the world we live in. It changes the world. We can only know the world we can attend to.

The two hemispheres pay different kinds of attention, therefore it follows that the two hemispheres create two worlds. We each inhabit two worlds, which can be depicted by the Yin Yang symbol or Escher’s hands.

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 18.00.55Some people don’t like the dichotomies which these images depict, but the point is that some differences are substantial. Some differences are not reductive but illuminating. We can see that Donald Trump and Einstein have more similarities than differences but it is the differences that are important, just as it is the differences between the hemispheres, rather than their similarities that are important. Iain McGilchrist sees the two hemispheres as different personalities, which have had a profound effect on the history of civilization and the making of the western world. Whilst it is important to stress that both hemispheres are involved in everything (and Iain did stress this many times), the right and left hemisphere do this differently; they have different views of the world as follows:

Screen Shot 2016-08-26 at 18.03.57

(Adapted from Iain McGilchrist presentation slide. See also – The Divided Brain – Implications for Education)

The purpose of Iain’s work is to elucidate and provide evidence for his concern that in the Western hemisphere the left hemisphere’s view of the world dominates our culture and through this we lose an embodied experience of the world. We need more balance. Each hemisphere’s view is necessary, but each is not as truthful. The message that Iain wants us to take from his book is that the right hemisphere’s view is more like reality.

‘The divided nature of our reality has been a consistent observation since humanity has been sufficiently self-conscious to reflect on it. That most classical representative of the modern self-conscious spirit, Goethe’s Faust, famously declared that ‘two souls, alas! Dwell in my breast’ […]. Schopenhauer described two completely distinct forms of experience […]; Bergson referred to two different orders of reality […]. Scheler described the human being as a citizen of two worlds […] and said that all great European philosophers, like Kant, who use the same formulation, had seen as much.’ (p.461-462, The Master and his Emissary).

Personal reflection
The key message for me from this session is that differences are important. This resonates because my recent research suggests that it is difficult to maintain and sustain diversity and heterogeneity in a community; communities tend towards homogeneity. This can close down the possibility for seeing alternative perspectives. It is multiplicity and difference that enrich our lives.

Authors/people referred to during the session
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.

Oliver Sacks (1973) Awakenings. Vintage Books.

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

The Divided Brain. Seeing beyond black and white and embracing paradox

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 19.55.33

Last night, February 10, 2016, Iain McGilchrist spoke with host Iwan Russell-Jones, Carolyn Arends, and Krish Kandiah on how the brain’s two hemispheres are shaping our consciousness, our faith, and our culture. (Source of image and text. Regent Redux website)

This was an interesting hour – an hour well spent. All the speakers were well worth listening to. This was a discussion about the complexity and mystery of human life. You can find a recording of the discussion on the Regent Redux website   

The information provided on the Regent Redux website for this Google Hangout was:

Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World explores the nature of the brain’s two hemispheres, their relationship to one another, and their role in shaping our consciousness and our culture.

The effective functioning of the brain—and by extension, of society as a whole—is subject to a delicate balance between the two hemispheres’ distinct ways of interpreting the world. But over the past few centuries, states McGilchrist, we have favoured the left hemisphere’s rational, fact-driven approach at the expense of the right hemisphere’s emphasis on metaphor, paradox, and context.

What are some of the implications of this imbalance for contemporary culture in general, and for faith in particular? How do we go about redressing it? And what can theology contribute to this conversation?

The Hangout started with Iain Mc Gilchrist talking about his book. He told us that the brain exists only to make connections. Both the left (LH) and right (RH) hemispheres contribute to everything, but they do so differently and with different attentions. Attention is the foundation of our experience. It changes what we find. (See the RSA Animate video on The Divided Brain for more about this). The LH and RH create two different worlds beyond the level of consciousness. The LH focuses on little pieces to put together to make a picture. For the RH nothing is fixed and certain. Everything is evolving, changing, flowing. Ideally these two different views of the world would complement each other. In past history these two types of knowing worked well together, but now we are locked into a mechanistic, reductionist model of the world. We need to get back to embodied experience. Metaphor helps us to do this. Metaphor is the route back to the richness of experience. Christianity used to be a huge resource for mystical understanding, but in recent history it has been complicit in the triumph of the left hemisphere.

Carolyn Arends responded to this by saying that there are two ways of knowing: propositional knowledge (2 + 2 = 4) and experiential knowledge (I know my husband). These two types of knowledge have different words in different languages, but not in English, where we have resisted too many meanings. Christianity also resists too many meanings and has reduced everything so that we know only what we can articulate. Christianity has put God in a box, but religion is about disposition not proposition. It is about where your heart is and about inexhaustible and irreducible meanings. For Iain the things that can’t be articulated are the really important things. He pointed out how much we rely on measurement, but we can only measure what can be measured.

Krish Kandiah also thinks that there is evidence that Christianity now favours the left hemisphere. We have the science of theology, the four spiritual laws and so on. In his book Paradoxology: why christianity was never meant to be simple he discusses why many have lost confidence in the Gospel and said that this is because we have over simplified it. We have tried to domesticate God.

The discussion then moved on to the question of embodiment and why people seem to be frightened of the power of the body, imagination and emotion. There seemed to be agreement that the body is at the centre of spirituality. Iain pointed out that ritual is embodied metaphor and that you can’t separate the soul from the body. The right hemisphere is embodied in thinking and practice. Mental life isn’t just cognitive.

Whilst Krish and Carolyn were keen to discuss the world views of the left and right hemisphere from the perspective of their Christian faith, I did not get the sense that it is necessary to have a religious faith to benefit from their exchange. Iain’s view was that there are many paths to a more spiritual life, or a more embodied experience of life. The key points that I took away were that there is much in life that cannot be explained or articulated – that the left hemisphere dismisses. We need to get more in touch with the right hemisphere’s view of the world to appreciate what we are missing!

I will be hearing Iain McGilchrist speak again when I attend Field an Field’s four day course in August.

Exploring the Divided Brain: Understanding the relationship between the two hemispheres with world-renowned author, psychiatrist and lecturer Iain McGilchrist

I attended this last year and blogged about it: The Divided Brain: A four day course with Iain McGilchrist. It was a wonderfully stimulating and thought-provoking course in a beautiful part of the country. I am looking forward to going again.



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

The Divided Brain: Trying to be Sane in an Insane World

Sunday 22nd March pm

This is the sixth 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:

Trying to be sane in an insane world

With the course now nearing the end, key messages are repeated and key themes emerge more clearly, principally that the malaise of modern man is a malaise of the spirit.

(I should say, at this point, that it might sound from the progression of these course notes, that this was a depressing, dark course, but not at all. The words I would use to describe the course in general are thought-provoking, stimulating and deeply affective.)

And so we started this session with a quote from Carl Jung.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 10.00.51Source of Image

The inscription reads Vocatus Atque Non Vocatus Deus Aderit, which translates as ‘Invoked or not, God will be present’.

The premise of this session was that our society is sick and going off the rails. The illnesses we see at the level of the individual we also see at the level of society (and we need to remember here that Iain comes from a medical background and practices as a psychiatrist). The microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of society reflect each other. The connection with sanity was illustrated with five principles to follow for good health:

  1. Take self-responsibility and awareness of boundaries seriously so as not to become subsumed amongst a common mass of misunderstanding
  2. Take trust and acceptance seriously
  3. Promote balance and harmony in work and relationships
  4. Try to see the ‘big picture’
  5. Be aware of ‘otherness’ beyond the material world

These five principles reflect Iain’s personal view based on his experience, reading and knowledge of great scholars from the past, such as Erasmus, who developed sophisticated critiques of contemporary life.

In addition an important part of the process of growth and health is to accept the notion of the ‘dark side’ or the ‘shadow side’ and not to deprive it of its power. This is an ancient wisdom which was recognized by Shakespeare in The Tempest. In looking this up, I found this written about and explained by Barry Beck in his writing about a Jungian Interpretation of the Tempest (the underlining is mine).

A very important line which Prospero speaks near the end of the play is, ‘These three have robbed me, and this demi-devil (for he’s a bastard one) had plotted with him to take my life. Two of these fellows you must know and own; this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.’ Prospero is saying Trinculo and Stephano are the responsibility of Alonzo’s court, but more importantly, Prospero is finally fully owning, acknowledging and taking responsibility for Caliban, his shadow, his unconscious. In his growth and individuation, he has taken a big step toward integrating his shadow within himself.

How sane is our society?

Responsibility and boundaries: From an individual point of view, we can take too much or too little responsibility. We have to accept responsibility for who we are and in this boundaries are important, because they are creative and make us who we are. Boundaries are semi-permeable, but some boundaries are necessary for freedom. An important boundary is that between inner and outer. From a society view, boundaries and responsibility have been eroded by the State. We don’t take responsibility for ourselves. We are ‘nannied’. The State spies on us and we are manipulated by the internet. For example, Google controls our searches, giving us back what it thinks we want, and trapping us in a ‘hall or mirrors’.

Trust and acceptance: From an individual point of view, we are social animals so trust and acceptance are very important. Nothing can happen without trust. We can’t do anything unless we are able to trust. The need for certainty and aversion to risk in our society leads to conditions such as panic and agoraphobia. Without trust we are on a treadmill of trying to achieve more. Trust is also needed for self-acceptance. We need self-acceptance before we can accept others. We need to accept ourselves with our limitations and face the ‘dark side’. Comparing oneself with others is toxic. The question of whether and how trust can be restored in a modern democracy was the subject of Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith lectures.  Reith lectures are available to download from the BBC but I’m not sure how accessible these are to people outside the UK. From a society view, trust is an old fashioned idea. We used to police ourselves, but now we live in a society of surveillance. A lack of trust in society is costly as we see in cases of litigation.

Balance and harmony: From an individual point of view, there is a tendency in today’s society for people to get unbalanced. Instead of allowing things to balance by taking a more circular approach to life, we follow linear targets. From a society view, work-life balance is difficult to manage. At work everyone is asked to do more and there is more to do, because of lack of trust. Think of all that accountability paperwork.

Seeing the big picture: From an individual point of view, there are lots of problems associated with having a narrow view rather than seeing the broader picture. In doing this we tend to personalize and generalize things that have gone wrong, and spend too much time living in an abstract world in our heads. From a society view, it is difficult to see the big picture. We live in a ‘black and white’ world, focusing on the short-term rather than taking a long-term view. We see this in companies and governments and the evidence is that they do not thrive by taking the narrow, short-term view.

Awareness of ‘other’: From an individual point of view we need to be open to the unknown. A failure of gratitude and forgiveness leads to problems. When there is no sense of ‘beyond’ we have no need to attend. Meditation and mindfulness can help us to step aside. From a society view, the official view is one of materialism. Awareness of ‘other’ is played down, but not to know the divine is to be very diminished.

In closing this session Iain referred to some of the philosophical movements that are the subject of the second part of his book The Master and His Emissary. These movements, with evidence from art and literature, show how we have moved away from RH thinking to become dominated by LH thinking.

The session ended with reference again to the work of Carl Jung, who believed that there are things that we are not aware of that are powerful, that are good and bad, that are beyond our consciousness and that have consequences, whether or not we take them into account. We can be drawn towards a virtuous life in which we are disposed to believe (or love) or we can be driven from behind, pushed by a set of propositions.

What does it mean to lead a virtuous life? What does it mean to flourish?

Authors and Philosophers referred to during this session

Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) Panopticon 

Desiderius Erasmus (1466 -1536)

Jonathan Haidt (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Allen Lane.

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

Onoro O’Neill (2002). A Question of Trust: The BBC Reith Lectures. Cambridge University Press.

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

The Divided Brain: Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

Sunday 22nd March am

This is the fifth 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:

Are we actually alive? Iain McGilchrist

Iain will reflect on the way our society is drifting towards mechanism and the destroying of the grounds of mental and spiritual health. (From the course booklet)

Participants on the course commented that somehow this session generated a collective energy. I recognized this too, but at the time felt that the content of this session was easier to follow and maybe related more closely to our personal experiences of life and work. Whatever the reason, it was on this third day that I could see a lot of ‘Ah-Ha’ moments in the group.

Iain’s opening question was one to make us all sit up.

‘You will die, but were you ever alive?’

For Iain, life is spontaneous, super-abundant, diverse and full of possibility. Possessions do not provide the means to understand the joy of life. People can have a genuine delight in living with relatively little.

He explained that in this session he would talk about:

  • the business of life – birth, sex and marriage (procreation), death
  • the hemispheres and machines
  • machines and deanimation
  • are we becoming machines?

Birth, sex and marriage, death

Iain made it clear that in talking about this he was talking about the situation in the West, and more than that, within Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democracies, the group that has now come to be known as WEIRD. (See this article on the problems of using this sample for studies of human behaviour). Despite this, and because those of us on the course were almost all WEIRDos :-), he shared with us that research into this sample has shown that

  • the birth rate is declining and mother/infant relationships are under threat with increasing numbers of women working full time;
  • 70% of internet activity is related to porn and 20-40% of 19-25 year olds have no interest in sex. The attraction of sex is declining;
  • porn robs sex of its power through its explicitness.

Iain illustrated this point through the example of hikikomori – young Japanese who withdraw from society and never leave their rooms (see image below), even to the point of having trays of food left outside their doors.

Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 15.42.23 Source of image

  •  Neither has the relationship between the sexes improved over the years –  what used to be a dance is now a legal code.
  • Touch has become an issue in many spheres of life and professions. Nurses are not permitted to touch patients and teachers are not permitted to touch their pupils. Life is less embodied. There is less activity in the natural world- things are more virtual and disembodied. Risk avoidance has become an obsession, but we will die.

Death confirms life, but the ability of death to tell us about life and the value of life, is on the decline. We attempt to preserve life and defy death by hooking up to machines. This reminded me of a recent radio programme that suggested that many of the elderly would welcome death and that we don’t do them any favours by prohibiting this through interventions such as flu jabs. In the past, flu would have been a cause of death for many of the elderly, at a time when death would have been welcomed. I know that this is a generalization, but I found it interesting.

The hemispheres and machines

The left hemisphere world works the way machines work. It is a world of certainty, fixity, parts, division, abstraction, reification, quantification, inanimation, representation, utility, depersonalisation ……. and more. The question of ‘What would the left hemisphere’s world look like?’ is fully explained in the final chapter of Iain’s book – The Master and his Emissary (see p. 428).

Machines and deanimation

Machines devitalise us. They remodel the boundaries of a person such that we lose sense of proper boundaries. The internet erodes privacy, photos create emotional distance and technology can give inappropriate power.

We have become over-reliant on machines. Here in the UK we are the most observed society on earth and we can’t rely on machines being in the hands of people who are benign. It is now possible to send a drone through the open window of your home to observe you. Are we going to have to live in a world where we can’t open our windows? This reminded me of this video I saw recently – not on Iain’s course – but relevant to the topic and showing a scary level of surveillance.

Machines (Iain was principally talking about the effects of the internet here) affect our emotional movement and attention. We think we can multitask but in fact this is impossible (I agreed with this!). We need to pay attention. Our involvement with machines stops depth of reflection and robs us of the time to live.

Machines also bring unrealistic expectations. We now think we can outsource our memories through machines, through the use of calculators, sat navs etc. Of course these machines are useful, a lot about technology is good, but not if we over rely on it. Why? – because we are the sum of our memories. For example, memorizing a poem becomes part of us, and influences how we feel about things (and Iain was able to quote poetry liberally from memory). If we stop remembering then we are not a full person. For anyone who has a relation with Alzheimer’s disease or Dementia, this resonates.

For a story which explores dependence on machines, read E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops – . Here is an online link to the whole story – http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html

Are we becoming machines?

There is some evidence to suggest that we are in danger of losing aspects of our humanity. A Toronto teacher contacted Iain to tell him that after a career in teaching for many years, she now has to teach children how to read the human face. The children are less empathic than they used to be and less able to maintain sustained attention. This is an indication of left hemisphere dominance over the right hemisphere.

People with right hemisphere failure, such as schizophrenics, believe that they and others are machines.

These days we want explicitness, precision and speed, i.e. we want things to be machine-like, but all these replace trust and human things are better if they are not explicit, precise and fast. Most realities of life don’t allow us to be precise. Life is not like Sudoku. There is not one solution. In life there are no clear and constant objectives, no limited possibilities, no precision. Life is always open to interpretation, objectives are conflicting, consistency is a dubious virtue, and certainty is not necessarily a good thing, although this is not to be in praise of vagueness. The complexity of systems we handle means that they are recursive – we change them by intervention.

There is a lot that can’t be measured or can’t be measured in any way that helps us, e.g. love. We can’t make love explicit or change it’s nature. Measurement leaves things out. Theory deals poorly with the unique. Following rules results in a loss of spirituality and flow, leading to premature ossification of working processes. By focusing we lose the whole picture. Uncertainty and impression are necessary for life.

Hegel has written that the more certain our knowledge, the less we know. (As an aside Hegel, Heidegger and Heraclitus are Iain’s favourite philosophers).

Happiness comes from connection and community. Mental well-being depends on social connectedness. Meaning comes from living and connection. It is a matter of belief. We have to trust and start the process. We have to go and meet life. Mindfulness engages the right hemisphere.

All this might sound as though technology and machines were being demonized, but that was not the case. Everyone on the course recognized the advantages of technology and machines, but perhaps we don’t think enough about the disadvantages. We cannot go backwards, but a machine cannot replace life and it is not the ideal model for life. The world of the left hemisphere is a bit bleak, being more disembodied, lacking in empathy, believing more in representations than presence, and being frighteningly confident and optimistic in its certainty.

Should we say no to the machine model?

Authors referred to during this session

John Elster (1985). Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge University Press. http://home.sandiego.edu/~baber/gender/Elster.pdf

Forster, E. M. (1909). The Machine Stops. Oxford and Cambridge Review

Jonathan Haidt (2007). The Happiness Hypothesis: Putting ancient wisdom to the test of modern science. Arrow

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

Robert Putnam (2001). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster Ltd.

Martin Seligman (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

The Divided Brain: What does it mean to think? Part 2- Iain McGilchrist

Saturday 21st March pm

This is the fourth 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:

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1

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

What does it mean to think? Iain McGilchrist

What does it mean to think? Part 2 Iain McGilchrist

 The nature of the relationship between individual and society, the one and the many. (From the course booklet)

The focus of this second day of the course was on what it means to think, with the morning session focusing on ‘Think’ and this afternoon session focusing on ‘I’.

At the end of this second day of the course, some participants were feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Iain recognized this so deliberately started on a lighter note and spent the first half hour proving to us that we fail to see what’s in front of our eyes. This was part of the recurring theme of how we attend to the world and how we need to recognize that there are two widely differing ways of attending to the world – the way of the left hemisphere and the way of the right hemisphere. However, most of the time we don’t really know what we are looking at and lack of attention and distractions stop us from seeing changes. This was amply illustrated by a number of videos, and reference to Richard Wiseman (who created the video below), and his work on inattentional blindness.

Focusing on the ‘I’ of ‘I Think’, Iain pointed out that people see what they expect to see and there is no objective reality. He asked, ‘What does it mean when we say ‘I’? ‘What does it mean to be an individual?’ and connected these questions with the concept of ‘necessary distance’. Our frontal lobes (of the brain) put distance between us and experience, but there is a paradox between generalized form and uniqueness. Reality is paradoxical.

We need to put a necessary and proper distance between us and the world. Too far away and we can’t see it. Too close and the fusion is not good. We need opposing forces, but balance is also always required. Iain referenced John Muir’s work on the inter-relationship of things – both competing and cooperating to maintain balance.

Standing back can serve two purposes. It enables us to selfishly manipulate the world, but it also enables us to empathise and be generous. So boundary management becomes important – recognising what the boundaries are and where they should be. Boundaries are necessary for freedom and life. They can’t be rigid. They have to be flexible.

Empathy exists because of the necessary distance we put between us and others. There is no conflict between love of self and love of others. In fact we have to love ourselves before we can love others. Divisions are not diminutions. It is not either/or. Consciousness is relational in every sense.

According to Iain the idea that ‘all is one’ is not true. All is many or at least two. He illustrated this by quoting from the King James Bible where it is written that God created the earth through division, dividing land from sea, night from day, heaven from earth.

But despite these divisions ‘there aren’t solid entities with fixed localities in the universe, …. there are only relationships between things’ and relationships are not things. They are in the spaces between things. ‘And this allows the possibility of things that are so contrary to one another, to complement one another, not to cancel one another out.’ (These quotes are taken from the video below).

Iain told us to put our faith in the ‘cantus firmus’ which will hold the core solid while allowing the possibilities of multiplicity. This reminded me of an online discussion that I had more than three years ago with Matthias Melcher who, with his deep appreciation of and for music, immediately saw the relevance of the cantus firmus. Rather than try and explain it any further here, I will do what Matthias did for me and point you to this video of Iain talking about it. The whole video is worth watching but reference to the relevance of the cantus firmus comes up between 24.53 and 28.37 minutes.

Diversity and sameness empower one another. Competition and co-operation are needed for co-evolution. In this context it is not surprising to be told that the right frontal expansion in the brain is the biggest expansion in the brain. This is the area of social behaviour and here Iain pointed us to Heidi Ravven’s book – The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will – in which she discusses how we are not independent of the culture in which we live.

All boundaries are permeable and we are not sharply defined. We are not autonomous. We share everything, but likewise we are subject to influence by authority and example, and we can be influenced to do terrible things. We are like nodes in a network, both separate and connected.

We can be ‘I as opposed to’ or ‘I as belonging and a part of’. The left hemisphere reinforces ‘I’ness dominated by publicly following the crowd, even if individuals think otherwise. This felt like a sobering note on which to end the day.

Authors referred to during this session

John Muir (1838-1914) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press

The King James Bible

Richard Wiseman https://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/