Exploring the Divided Brain – Final Reflections

22nd August 2016 pm – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 4 (pm)

This is the last post in a series of posts in which I have shared the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?

Day 3 (pm). Trying to be sane in an insane world

Day 4 (am). Creativity, paradox and negation

The final session was a group question and answer session. Where appropriate I have included Iain’s answers in previous posts. In this post I am going to try and identify my own outstanding questions, or comment on ideas that I have not written about in previous posts.

the-fish-hotel-43031

Location of the course: The Fish Hotel, Broadway, The Cotswolds

Final reflections

Once again I found this a wonderful course – worth every penny. The location is beautiful, the accommodation and food really good, the participants wonderfully diverse, interesting and friendly, and Iain McGilchrist never fails to engage my attention. Last year for my evaluation of the course I wrote:

It was a great privilege to be able to spend time over four days listening and talking to Iain McGilchrist whose breadth of knowledge of science, history, literature, art, poetry and music is so impressive. It is rare to attend a course where the latest in scientific research, in this case into the functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is integrated so effortlessly with the words of William Wordsworth and the art of Claude Lorrain and much more. The course provided in depth information about the work of left and right brain hemispheres, whilst also allowing us time and space to reflect deeply on our views of the world and the implications of left hemisphere dominance for our humanity, health, happiness and well being.

I haven’t changed my mind. It was well worth attending this course for the second time. Some of the content was familiar, so I was able to ‘sit back’ a bit and think more about what it means for me, rather than simply what was said.

Some ‘messages’ stand out.

I was struck by the number of times Iain mentioned ‘mindfulness’ as being a practice of open attention (not waiting for but waiting ‘on’) and worthy of spending time on. I don’t remember mindfulness being mentioned in this way last year, but maybe I wasn’t listening properly.

Listening seemed much more important to me this year than last year. I am very aware of the limits of what I know. In this state it seems even more important to listen, observe and reflect. Once again I was reminded that although I am not uncomfortable in a large group, for discussion I like a very small group, ideally made up of people who all value listening. I was struck by how skilled the professional coaches in our participant group were at this.

Ideas of complexity, uncertainty, multiplicity and learning to live with paradoxes, struck a strong chord with me. I wondered what Iain McGilchrist thinks of Deleuze and Guattari (two French Philosophers). I have never heard him mention them, so I suspect there is no meeting of minds there, although they both write about multiplicity. If this is the case, I would be interested to know why.

Similarly, Iain did not mention systems thinking which seems relevant to me.  I wonder if this is because, as we were told, any form of model or framework will necessarily direct the attention in a particular way and so we have to consider what using a given model might prevent us from seeing.

But of course there’s a limit to what can be covered. The Master and his Emissary is amazing in its breadth and depth, but as Iain told us, when he started to write what he thought would be his next book, ‘The Porcupine is a Monkey’ , he found that he wanted to explore many of the ideas in the Master and his Emissary in more depth, so ended up writing a different book! That was both interesting and disappointing to hear. I am really keen to know more about his thoughts on education, which I think is going to be covered in The Porcupine is a Monkey if and when it gets written. I hope this also includes reference to learning theories and education research, which as yet I haven’t heard Iain mention, but maybe I have missed it.

As is often the case, it is the informal discussions that can be so interesting. I have already mentioned in one of the posts in this series a discussion about conceptual art which I found very thought provoking. We also had a discussion about whether writing should be easily accessible. Iain wants his book to reach a wider audience, which it is beginning to do. I believe it has sold 80, 000 copies. He is aware that to reach a wider audience he may have to present it in more accessible formats, but will this mean losing the richness that the detail of the book provides? He talked about how hard writing the Master and his Emissary had been (I wrote about this last year) and how impenetrable some philosophers’ writings are. I asked him whether this is because they themselves do not truly understand the ideas they are trying to communicate. His answer was ‘No’, the obscurity of the writing is deliberate. These philosophers believe that we should have to work hard to access and understand difficult ideas. This makes me think again about what we should expect from learning in the 21st century.

Finally, Iain left us with a request. He asked us to see if we could think of examples of paradoxical outcomes of left hemisphere thinking and if we can, then email them to him. His email address is on his brand new website .

Some references

Peter Checkland. Soft Systems Methodology 

Deleuze, Gilles, Guaattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus (1987). University of Minnesota Press. doi:10.1017/CCO9780511753657.008

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

Exploring the Divided Brain – Creativity, paradox and negation

22nd August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 4 (am)

This is the seventh 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 are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?

Day 3 (pm). Trying to be sane in an insane world

 

Negative capability (Creativity and the role that paradox and negation inevitably play in it)

We discussed the power of ‘No’ on last year’s course and looking back at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to write a coherent post. Looking at this year’s notes I can see that I am going to have the same problem. I am going to try and resolve this problem by saying ‘No’ to a lot of the detail of what Iain said and just stick with the key messages. Hopefully we will be able to refer to his forthcoming books for the detail.

Iain started this session by reminding us of the inhibitory effects of the hemispheres. If one hemisphere is damaged it promotes something in the other. In particular the frontal lobes achieve what they achieve through inhibition (p.91-92, The Master and his Emissary). The brain is a hugely complicated feedback system. ‘It’s not that we have free will, but that we have free won’t’. Saying ‘No’ may be the origin of what comes into being. Saying ‘No’ comes before saying ‘Yes’. Negation is a creative act. Division is part of creation. All is one and all is not one and out of this conjunction comes everything.

As in last year’s course, Iain referenced the Kabbalah to discuss the role of negation and division in creation. In the Kabbalah creation myth there are three phases.

  1. The first creative act is withdrawal, to make a space in which there can be anything, i.e. to attend to the right hemisphere.
  2. The second phase is the shattering of the vessels. Ten vessels of light created in the first phase cannot contain the force of life within them and shatter. This relates to the unpacking, unfolding and fragmenting role of the left hemisphere.
  3. The third phase is repair, when the pieces are gathered and things come into being, which relates to reconstitution by the right hemisphere.

This myth serves to illustrate how something comes from nothing and how ‘no’ thing is not the complete absence of anything; it has a positive force.

The act of creation is to remove what is obscuring the life force, to clear things away, to uncover, to ‘dis’ cover, to find ‘something that was there, but required liberation into being’ (p.230, The Master and his Emissary), just as a sculptor allows a statue to come into being by clearing away the stone.

MichelangeloAwakeningSlave

Source of image. Michelangelo – unfinished sculpture.

Negation is often an opening up. Even the most negative thing in life can have a positive effect. Iain only mentioned his personal experience of depression in passing in this year’s course, but this short video covers his thoughts about the pursuit of happiness and the potential positive effects of negative experience.

Not doing things is important, just as not saying things is important. Speech is silver, but silence is golden. We lose ourselves to find ourselves. The more we know the less we know, but not knowing can be more fruitful than knowing, although not knowing is not the same as ignorance.

We need both precision and vagueness, restriction and openness. Sometimes restriction is freedom. Boundaries are important in life. They should be robust but not completely impermeable, not too close but not too far. Everything in life is better with boundaries. The best things that exist are always on/off. We need both asymmetry and symmetry. We need both hemispheres, but we only see through particular frameworks and we don’t find what we were not expecting to see.

It is very hard to become aware of what you are not aware. We draw on the natural world as a model but we increasingly see the natural world from the left hemisphere’s perspective. All models are wrong, but some are more wrong than others.

Personal reflection

I have been reflecting on what saying ‘No’ means to me. If I lived in the city it could mean saying ‘No’ to the bright lights and moving to the country, but I am fortunate that I live in beautiful South Lakeland (Cumbria, UK) and am surrounded by nature in all its glory. Alternatively even living here it could mean disconnecting from all things technological (and more) as Susan Maushart did when she became concerned at how much of her children’s lives were governed by technological devices. Lots of these sorts of experiments are reported in the press, but very few are life-long changes.

For me saying ‘No’ is much more about clearing a space to allow for emergent learning, whatever that might be.

Recently I attended a course at Lancaster University about the materiality of nothing. I now realise how closely related Iain McGilchrist’s ideas are to the ideas discussed at the Lancaster seminar, but its interesting that conceptual art was used to illustrate the materiality of nothing. (See for example the post I wrote at that time – Letting go of control to create something our of nothing ).

What has been wonderful about this course is how I have been able to make many connections with my research and wider work, connections that are not immediately obvious, but are becoming more apparent as I learn more about Iain McGilchrist’s ideas.

Authors/people referred to during the session

B. Alan Wallace (2004). The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (2013). The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation.

Jakob Böhme. Notable ideas: The mystical being of the deity as the Ungrund (“unground”) or the ground without a ground.

Lewis Carroll (1872). Through the Looking Glass

John Kay (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. Profile Books

Susan Maushart (2010) The Winter of our Disconnect: How one family pulled the plug and lived to tell/text/tweet the tale 

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

Philip McCosker. Cambridge Theologian

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2013). Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.

Brad Warner (2013). There is no God and he is always with you. New World Library

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) Tintern Abbey

Exploring the Divided Brain – Trying to be sane in an insane world

21st August 2016 pm – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (pm)

This is the fifth 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 are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?

 

Trying to be sane in an insane world (What can we do about the mess we are in? Answers on the back of a postcard please.)

This question was also asked on the course last year at the same stage in the course. This is the post I wrote then – 28-03-2015: Trying to be sane in and insane world.

Iain started this year’s session by reading David Whyte’s beautiful poem – The Winter of Listening. Despite that it was a summer day, it was easy for us to see the relevance of this poem not just to the topic, ‘Trying to be sane in an insane world’, but also to previous sessions in the course.

Winterof listening

The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
forgetting
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
forgetting
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
difficulty
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
otherness.

Silence and winter
has led me to that
otherness.

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

Iain told us that he is a ‘hopeful pessimist’ and it was worth holding on to this as it turned out to be a ‘dark’ session, one that could easily leave you depressed.

For Iain, we have built a sick society, a WEIRD world (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic), where we are living a lie, where competition is more important than co-operation, and where we are seeing less and less of the world and are becoming more like machines. We are obsessed with making better machines rather than better people. We are not happier than when we were materially less well off. There are many kinds of truth and many points of view and there is strength in pluralism, but we are controlled and manipulated by the uniformity promoted by business, advertising and the like. Technology is not neutral. It is highly invasive and there is already evidence that shows that the impact of technology on children is a loss of intimacy and imagination. Teachers have noticed that children can no longer sustain attention, they lack empathy and have difficulties reading the human face, all consequences of left hemisphere dominance.

Iain has anecdotal evidence and has referenced research findings to support this pessimistic view of our Western society. Thinking further about this part of his session I have some sympathy with his view of technology, but technology is a broad brush term and maybe we need to be more specific. I would also like to see a bit more evidence for the observation about happiness and I would be interested to read the research on children being less imaginative and empathic these days.

Iain believes that invisible dogmas are even more dangerous than visible dogmas. Having and controlling has got us in this mess and now life is full of paradoxes. For example

  • In wanting a paperless technological environment we use more and more paper
  • In trying to improve education through dictating the curriculum we discourage free thinking
  • The overuse of antibiotics results in bacteria that we can’t control
  • In trying to protect our children we make them risk averse
  • In striving for equality we create inequality

As an aside, my current reading is Jeremy Knox’s book – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course, in which he seems to agree with this last point. Knox believes that massive online courses are promoting a new form of colonialism and new forms of exclusion. I both agree and disagree. I think its people who exclude, not courses or technology, but that’s not to deny that exclusion can happen.

Iain gave us many more examples of these paradoxes.

Through his research and his book The Master and his Emissary, Iain suggests that we are approaching another dark age, when the balance between left hemisphere and right hemisphere is lost and the left hemisphere dominates. This has happened before (as written about in the second part of his book), but he thinks this time, because of our technological advances, we have too much power over nature.

So what should we do? Iain’s view is that we need a call to arms to effect cultural change; change from both the bottom up and the top down, change of the hearts and minds of people. But the left hemisphere has a stranglehold on the means of communication of the right hemisphere (p.374, The Master and his Emissary). It is hard to articulate the right hemisphere’s point of view.

Iain thinks we need to be more modest in our material demands (see William Ophuls’ books in the reference list); we need to know each other better, to be the change we want to see in others, and instead of fighting the existing paradigm, create a new one which renders the old one obsolete. Most of all we need to start with the education of our children. The future lies in our children. At this point Iain (by his own admission) went off on a passionate rant about what schools should be doing. Here are some of the things he said:

  • Introduce mindfulness as a spiritual exercise into the curriculum. Children should practise mindfulness every day.
  • Use cognitive behavioural therapy in schools to help children detect biases in their thinking. There should be at least one session a year.
  • Teach children to think critically, learning to see both sides of every question
  • Teach conflict resolution
  • Re-introduce learning by heart (e.g. poetry) and the mastering of skills
  • Promote embodied learning
  • Schools should be challenging but give children the freedom to think
  • Remove from the curriculum topics/subjects that the children can easily learn out of the classroom

Personal reflection

If we agree that the left hemisphere has become dominant, and Iain presents plenty of evidence to support this view, then I appreciate the difficulty of making the case for the right hemisphere’s view of the world through the left hemisphere. Iain quotes a lovely passage from I. Berlin on p.374 of the Master and his Emissary that seems to perfectly sum up the difficulty.

I wish to convey something immaterial and I have to use material means for it. I have to convey something which is inexpressible and I have to use expression. I have to convey, perhaps, something unconscious and I have to use conscious means. I know in advance that I shall not succeed, and therefore all I can do is to get nearer and nearer in some asymptotic approach; I do my best ….

I am in broad agreement with Iain’s arguments, but I wonder whether in having to fight the case for the right hemisphere, we sometimes give the left hemisphere an unfairly rough deal. Iain was at pains to point out that we definitely need the left hemisphere’s view of the world. We would not, as a civilization, have achieved much of what we have achieved without the left hemisphere. But it seemed on the course that a lot of our society’s problems were being placed squarely at the door of technological advance. On the one hand the problem is obvious; it can seem as though life isn’t real if we don’t record it (see my post on The One and the Many); we take photos of our meals in restaurants, we tweet the minutiae of our lives and so on. On the other hand advances in technology have made an enormous difference for the better to so many people’s lives. For example, children on the autism spectrum with right hemisphere damage can communicate through robots, and people across the world can gather in global networks and communities of practice to effect change through the affordances that technology can offer for networked cooperation and collaboration. So it is not all bad.

Like some of the other course participants, I don’t think we can go backwards. I agree that we may need to be more modest in our demands, but I don’t think it will work to ask people to go backwards. We need to feel that we are growing and progressing. As one participant said, we cannot un-know what we already know. So I do agree that perhaps the only way forward will be to render the existing paradigm obsolete and offer something with more hope, something that makes sense and that we will not be able to refuse.

In listening to Iain over this four day course and in writing these posts, it might seem that it was four days of doom and gloom. It was easy ‘hear’ and understand this message, and I know I wasn’t the only person to find this session depressing, but I didn’t find the course as a whole depressing. ‘Challenging’ and ‘stimulating’ are the words that come to mind.

 

Authors/people referred to during the session

Nicholas Carr (2011).  The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read, remember

Sue Gerhardt (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain.

Susan Greenfield (2015). Mind Change. How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains

See also this Guardian article

Nancy Kline (2002). Time to think. Listening to ignite the human mind.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the MOOC: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Susan Maushart (2010) The Winter of our Disconnect: How one family pulled the plug and lived to tell/text/tweet the tale 

William Ophuls (2012). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

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

Sherry Turkle (2015) Reclaiming Conversation. The power of talk in a digital age.

Exploring the Divided Brain – Time, Space and Reality

20th August 2016 am – A 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 2 (am)

This is the third 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 are the links to my first two posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

 

Time and Space (What can the hemispheres tell us about the basic structure of reality in relation to time and space?)

This is one of the topics that Iain is currently working on (see my last post for the others). Iain had so much to say about this that ultimately this session was about ‘time’ – there was very little time or space for ‘space’ 😉

Time is full of paradoxes, but we shouldn’t be afraid of them. Iain thinks they illuminate the view of the two hemispheres. These time paradoxes were first noticed by the Ancient Greeks in the 4th century BC when they started to use more analytical tools which conflicted with other sources of reality.

Some examples of paradoxes of time are (see also p.137-140, The Master and his Emissary):

The Sorites Paradox

If one grain of sand is not a heap of sand, and two grains of sand do not make a heap of sand, but thousands of grains of sand make up a heap, which grain of sand determines that the grains of sand now make a heap? For the right hemisphere the heap is not a sharply defined category, but a matter of degree; it is a process rather than a thing.

Theseus’ Paradox

If Theseus’ ship is frequently repaired, each time restoring rotten wood with new timbers, then when the ship no longer has any of the original timbers, is it still the same ship? If you think of the ship as a sum of its parts then it isn’t the original ship. But if you think of the ship as a whole, then it is.

Zeno’s Paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles, which is very well explained in this website . See also William James’ explanation (p.52)

Leave Achilles and the tortoise out of the account altogether, he [Bergson] would have said—they complicate the case unnecessarily. Take any single process of change whatever, take the twenty seconds themselves elapsing. If time be infinitely divisible, and it must be so on intellectualist principles, they simply cannot elapse, their end cannot be reached; for no matter how much of them has already elapsed, before the remainder, however minute, can have wholly elapsed, the earlier half of it must first have elapsed. And this ever re−arising need of making the earlier half elapse first leaves time with always something to do before the last thing is done, so that the last thing never gets done.

Zeno’s arrow paradox

‘An arrow fired at a target cannot move, because, at any one moment, the arrow is either where it is, or it is where it is not. If it remains where it is, then it must be standing still, but if it moves where it is not, it can’t be there. So it cannot move at all.‘ (p.138. The Master and his Emissary).

William Blake wrote

William Blake

Source of image

These paradoxes illustrate how the left hemisphere’s take on reality conflicts with the right hemisphere’s take.

Iain’s talk then moved to Parmenides and Heraclitus. Parmenides in the 5th century BC thought that reality is an illusion, motionless and changeless. (I find this a helpful site – The Timeless Infinite Universe  – for more information on Parmenides). But for Iain, it is Heraclitus, one of his ‘favourite’ philosophers, who seems to ‘have grasped the essence of the balance between the hemispheres, while remaining aware of the primacy of the right hemisphere’ (p.270, The Master and his Emissary). For Heraclitus everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary). ‘One cannot step twice into the same river’. This of course relates to the left and right hemispheres’ views of the world.

Failure to take into account context, inability to understand Gestalt forms, an inappropriate demand for precision where none can be found, an ignorance of process, which becomes a never-ending series of static moments: these are signs of left hemisphere predominance.’ (p.139, The Master and his Emissary)

The left hemisphere orders points in time and tries to fix it, but our sense of time as duration is entirely dependent on the right hemisphere. Henri Bergson (1859-1941) pointed out that there are two words for time in French – temps and durer – fixed time and duration. Time can be conceived and represented as something that has points in it, and it can be measured, but only retrospectively. Alternatively time flows. In this conception you can’t capture or measure it. You can’t capture movement or motion, you can only capture still frames. The projector gives you the motion.

moving hand

Image from Iain McGilchrist slide presentation

At this point Iain also talked about extension in space. He lost me on this and even looking it up and with a one-to-one explanation from Iain himself, I do not fully understand it, but I think that the The Timeless Infinite Universe site is helpful with this too. The bit I understand better is about ‘infinite divisibility’ because I remember doing a maths problem based on this when on a 20 day maths course for teachers, which just goes to show the value of embodied experience in learning.

Infinite divisibility refers to the idea that extension, or quantity, when divided and further divided infinitely, cannot reach the point of zero quantity. It can be divided into very small or negligible quantity but not zero or no quantity at all. Using a mathematical approach, specifically geometric models, Gottfried Leibniz and Descartes discussed the infinite divisibility of extension. Actual divisibility may be limited due to unavailability of cutting instruments, but its possibility of breaking into smaller pieces is infinite.

I also found this fun website – Why you can’t divide by zero.

I think the point that Iain was making is that this type of breaking down and analysis is a retrograde step. You can’t have motion without time and space and vice versa. Time and change and space are all bound together.

Iain then talked at some length about the experiences of time and space of people with right or left hemisphere damage. People with right hemisphere stroke will, when having a shower, see not a flow of water but separate drops of water with extreme clarity. People with left hemisphere stroke will see the water flowing more powerfully than before. Jason Padgett describes this experience of seeing parts rather than the whole and losing the fluidity of motion after his own brain damage.

We need both types of hemisphere vision to see something. The left hemisphere vision effect is to slow things down, but in reality there is no ceasing of motion and continuity cannot be composed of discrete objects even if there is an infinity of them. Precision is always an approximation. At what point do you see something precisely? We spatialise time in the left hemisphere and put points on it, but in reality there are no points. As soon as you say ‘now’ it’s no longer ‘now’. The past and future take place in your ‘now’.

Life is a narrative but you can lose this with right hemisphere damage. If you don’t have an understanding of flow, then you don’t have a narrative. Narrative is how we make sense of evidence and the right hemisphere needs to be involved. All living things and inanimate things flow. Flow is an unpredictable, generative force which when obstructed gives incredible patterns. Interestingly I recently heard this talked about in a seminar about the Shape of Air by Bronislaw Szerszynski, Reader in Sociology, Lancaster University, who wrote …..

The air is at once familiar and mysterious, and we can explore the intertwining of these two characteristics by thinking about the ‘shape’ of the air. There are many reasons why it is hard to conceive of air as having shape: because the air is more or less invisible to our eyes; because it is not a discrete object that we can stand alongside but a continuous medium that we inhabit; and because it is a constantly moving fluid that fills space and seems to have no external or internal boundaries of its own.

…. and showed us some amazing images of the patterns that air can make when obstructed.

Flow cannot and does not separate out parts. There are no slices of experience, time or space. Analytic thought can drive out intuitive observation. In flow you don’t notice time passing, you are flowing with time at the same speed.

Schizophrenia and autism, although there are many types, are conditions of right hemisphere damage. Iain suggested that autism is primarily a disorder of time, bound up with a sense of reality, flow and self. Absence of flow through right hemisphere damage can also be manifest in the body and patients with right hemisphere damage may lose fluid motion and become jerky in their physical movement and thought. Schizophrenics sometimes speak of themselves as being machines or robots. Interestingly more men than women tend to be on the extreme ends of the autism spectrum and many great analytical philosophers have been on the autism spectrum.

And for those of us in the latter years of our lives, why does time speed up as we get older? Iain suggested some reasons for this. Affect may be one reason; affect associated with the past and the future. For older people the past may be highly charged with meaning and we may be fearful of the future, so we want to hold on to the past. When we are older we are less good at allowing ourselves to be absorbed because we keep an eye on time passing. Ideally we would sustain a position of being in flow, when we would not notice time passing, but would be flowing with time at the same speed.

Personal reflection

A look in the index of the Master and his Emissary to find references to time and space reveals that there is a lot more to the relationship between time and space and the hemispheres than we discussed on the course. This was a difficult session to follow and it has been hard to make sense of my notes. I don’t have a background in metaphysics and many of the ideas and language were completely new to me. But at a basic level, I can see that an understanding of time and space as flow or fixed points must affect our perception of reality.

The main message for me has been the reminder of the importance of the state of flow, where we are not distracted by constant interruptions, where time is not broken into points. In my life ‘flow’ free of distractions is a luxury I don’t often experience!

Authors/people referred to during the session

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

William James (1909) – A Pluralistic Universe

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

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

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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: implications for education

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I was fortunate to be able to attend this public lecture by Iain McGilchrist at Edinburgh University yesterday evening. The lecture can’t have been easy for McGilchrist, since he had a diverse audience ranging from novice to expert across various disciplines. He couldn’t assume that everyone knew the key ideas presented in his book, ‘The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’,  and therefore needed to cover this for novices, whilst at the same time presenting more challenging ideas for those very familiar with his book and work. From my perspective, the lecture was well worth the journey from southern Cumbria.

McGilchrist’s research interest focuses on the relationship and differences between the left and right brain hemispheres. Much past work has focused on the polarisation between the two hemispheres, often resulting in two lists of LH and RH characteristics as seen in the image below:

 Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 17.21.35Source of image 

These types of views which pit left brain against right brain, have now largely been discredited and McGilchrist is at pains to point out that both hemispheres are involved in everything. For example both the right and left hemispheres have a role to play in creativity. Nevertheless, he is also clear that his interest lies in the differences between the two hemispheres. After all, it is a physical fact that the brain as an organ is divided down the middle and is asymmetrical in just about every way you can think of; there definitely are differences. McGilchrist knows from his work in psychiatry that problems of symmetry are central to human dysfunction and there is a tension between the work of the left and right brain.

This tension is one of attention, which is so well depicted in this RSA Animate video.

‘Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis, like M.C. Escher’s hands that draws the hand that draws the hand.” (The Master and His Emissary, p.134)

 DrawingHandsSource of image 

Attention is a type of awareness and has to be conscious. There are two kinds of attention. We have to be able to focus with a lot of attention, but also be able to maintain wide open uncommitted attention. The former type of attention is the attention of the left hemisphere (LH) which gets things and manipulates them and controls with a grasping hand (‘I’ve grasped it’); the latter is the attention of the right hemisphere (RH) which sees the bigger picture and how complex life is. These differences are consistent across many domains, such as music, morality, language and all the domains of experience, and have been evidenced in scientific research of various types, e.g. work with stroke victims. Details of some of this research can be found in McGilchrist’s book.

McGilchrist acknowledged that it is very difficult to write a book about the work of the RH, because a book is, in most instances, necessarily presented in a linear format. Deleuze and Guattari, in their book ‘A Thousand Plateaus’ tried to overcome this by presenting their ideas as chapters and concepts that could be read independently of each other (independent plateaus) and in any order, but language is dominated by the left hemisphere, even if the RH has a role to play. The LH has the power of speech and manipulation and it is much easier to articulate ideas using the LH. So in the lecture McGilchrist resorted to a list to emphasise the tensions that exist between the right and left hemispheres, which he discussed under the following headings, with the right hemisphere presented on the left of each pair of tensions:

  • The new vs. the known
  • Possibility vs. certainty
  • Flow vs. fixity
  • The whole vs. parts
  • Integration vs. division
  • Implicit vs. explicit
  • Context vs. abstraction
  • Qualification vs. quantification
  • Animate vs. inanimate
  • Realistic vs. optimistic
  • Presence vs. representation

McGilchrist’s interest is in how the two hemispheres interact, in the nature of interhemispheric relations and the asymmetry of interhemispheric inhibition. Why? Because he believes that in this modern age there are increasing pressures to adopt a LH mode of thinking possibly to the detriment and neglect of the RH and for him this is history repeating itself. He pointed out that the Greek, Roman and Renaissance periods all had the left and right hemispheres working beautifully together at the outset, but over time, as these cultures developed empires and became more bureaucratic, dealing with things remotely and in abstraction, moved towards LH dominance. And what happened to these cultures? They ultimately collapsed.

The thrust of McGilchrist’s lecture was therefore a warning against valuing left hemisphere over right hemisphere thinking, which in his book he illustrates with reference to Einstein:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society which honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Albert Einstein

Allowing the left hemisphere to dominate our ways of thinking, learning and working will result in a world in which

  • We lose the broader picture
  • Knowledge is replaced by information
  • Wisdom is lost
  • There is a loss of the concepts of skills and judgment
  • There is increased abstraction and reification
  • Bureaucracy will flourish
  • There is a loss of a sense of uniqueness
  • There is a focus on quantity rather than quality
  • There is either/or thinking
  • Reasonableness is replaced by rationality
  • There is a failure of common sense
  • Systems are designed to maximize utility
  • There is a loss of social cohesion
  • The result is depersonalization
  • There is a lack of trust
  • We become passive victims
  • Art becomes conceptual, music is reduced to rhythm, and language becomes diffuse
  • There is deliberate undercutting of awe and wonder
  • Tacit forms of knowing are discarded
  • We become spectators rather than actors

And all this is accompanied by a dangerous optimism that we are doing the right thing. Clearly we are not learning from history.

So McGilchrist’s main message is that we are at risk of allowing the LH to dominate and we neglect the work of the RH at our cost. The Master (the RH) sent his Emissary (the LH) out to do his work, but his Emissary has taken control, believing that he no longer needs his Master and has betrayed him.

McGilchrist is now turning his attention to how this might impact on our education, schools and universities and is in the process of writing a book about how science and education are becoming increasingly left brained. The title of the book will be The Porcupine is a Monkey.

‘That is the major import of the title The Porcupine is a Monkey: that we live in a world where our theory about what life is like blinds us to what accumulated experience tells us it is like. We prioritise the consistency of our theory over what we know from experience. We take porcupines for monkeys because that is what our theory tells us they are.’

‘…..we need a whole new way of thinking about the nature of reality, one that understanding the way our brain works can help us achieve.’

Update 010918

Although Iain McGilchrist no longer intends to publish a book bearing the title. The Porcupine is a Monkey, the relevance of his ideas for education remain of critical importance.

Today Bruno Annetta has sent me the following question:

BRUNO ANNETTA September 1, 2018 / 3:24 am

Hi Jenny – I’m also a follower of iain McGilchrists work. I am a recently retired science teacher. I’d like to know your thoughts on paradoxical thinking and the role it might play in education? Cheers Bruno Annetta

JENNY MACKNESS RESPONSE

This is my response copied from https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/about/#comment-15834 where Bruno originally posted the question.

Hi Bruno – this is a great question and one which you should probably put to Iain McGilchrist himself rather than to me. Whilst you won’t find him on Twitter or Facebook, or the like, I have found that he does respond to questions that interest him by email, and paradoxical thinking is definitely a topic of interest to him. A couple of years ago at the end of a course I attended, he gave us examples of how life is now full of paradoxes and asked us to send him any more we could think of. Here are some of the ones he mentioned at the time, which I listed in this blog post https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/exploring-the-divided-brain-trying-to-be-sane-in-an-insane-world/

– In wanting a paperless technological environment we use more and more paper
– In trying to improve education through dictating the curriculum we discourage free thinking
– The overuse of antibiotics results in bacteria that we can’t control
– In trying to protect our children we make them risk averse
– In striving for equality we create inequality

You can see that he has already mentioned some paradoxes that have implications for education, and you will know that in The Master and his Emissary he has quite a lot to say about paradox (p.137-140). On p.140 he writes,

‘Paradox means, literally, a finding that is contrary to received opinion or expectation. That immediately alerts us, since the purveyor of received opinion and expectation is the left hemisphere. I call it a sign that our ordinary ways of thinking, those of the left hemisphere, are not adequate to the nature of reality.’

If we accept that reality is paradoxical and that we need both precision and vagueness, restriction and openness, ambiguity and clarity, uncertainty and certainty (a both-and rather than an either-or mentality) (https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/exploring-the-divided-brain-creativity-paradox-and-negation/) then this must have implications for education, don’t you think? Our curricula tend to shy away from these paradoxes, presenting ideas as ‘known’ and ‘fixed’, ‘testable’ and ‘measurable’, with ever increasing emphasis on STEM subjects and ever declining emphasis on the humanities. Recently I find myself thinking more and more that there is a real need for more study of philosophy in education.

On a course of McGilchrist’s that I attended in 2015, Ian talked about negative capability – the capacity to be uncertain and think beyond presuppositions, and tolerate ambiguity, rather than close things down (see
https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/the-divided-brain-and-the-power-of-no/) Maybe this is the direction in which education needs to go.

So what should we do? In 2016 I wrote this: Iain’s view is that we need a call to arms to effect cultural change; change from both the bottom up and the top down, change of the hearts and minds of people. We need to recognise the nature of the problem, be able to see patterns, question things, invert things to consciously seek a different perspective and change the ways in which we spend our time, allowing ourselves more space and quiet. But the left hemisphere has a stranglehold on the means of communication of the right hemisphere (p.374, The Master and his Emissary). It is hard to articulate the right hemisphere’s point of view. (https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/exploring-the-divided-brain-trying-to-be-sane-in-an-insane-world/ See also https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/the-divided-brain-implications-for-education/)

For me Heraclitus’s belief in the unity of opposites, that everything fits together in a relationship of tension, that oppositional forces enrich, might be a good place to start when thinking about how education might need to change.

Thankyou so much for your question which I think is so pertinent to education today. If you don’t mind, I am going to copy it and my response to my blog post about the implications of Iain’s work for education – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/the-divided-brain-implications-for-education/ – where maybe more people will see and think about your question.

Jenny

BRUNO ANNETTA COMMENT

Hi Jenny
Wow … what a great response! Thoughtful, detailed and quick! I’m more than happy for you to copy my question into your blog. I’ve read quite a bit of your blog so far and feel that I have found a kindred spirit. I will email Iain McGilchrist with regards to paradoxical thinking.

So that you know more about me, have a look at the following links:

Is paradoxical thinking a solution to the human condition?

I created this video in an effort to “work from the bottom up” (as Iain states) … to affect change. Then I created the follow up video in an effort to present an example of how I use it. And it was very difficult to do and as your quote from I. Berlin states: I wish to convey something immaterial and I have to use material means for it. I have to convey something which is inexpressible and I have to use expression. I have to convey, perhaps, something unconscious and I have to use conscious means. I know in advance that I shall not succeed, and therefore all I can do is to get nearer and nearer in some asymptotic approach; I do my best ….

Paradoxical thinking – a practical example

And here is an example of my art and efforts to impact education:

The meiosis square dance – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eaf4j19_3Zg&t=36s

It is a video I created to make learning fun and easy. I used paradoxical thinking techniques in making it. I didn’t put it into Youtube … a teenager from the United States did … I just haven’t done anything about taking it down. Why? That’s another post for another time.

I found it interesting that paradoxical thinking is being used in big business.

See the following link:
Paradoxical thinking and plate spinning – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E7KQ8SiLMcI&t=29s

Feel free to post my response into your blog as well … if you think it may cause others to think more about paradoxical thinking as this is definitely my aim.

Cheers
Bruno Annetta