The Value and Limits of Imagination

On a 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended on The Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses, Iain McGilchrist told us that there are four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He gave a one-hour talk on each of these topics. In these posts I am sharing the notes I made whilst listening to the talks. For previous posts see:

And for further posts on Iain McGilchrist’s work, see

The Value and Limits of Imagination (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that imagination is a bit suspect these days.

‘Inspiration is something we cannot control, towards which we have to exhibit what Wordsworth called a ‘wise passiveness’. As the nineteenth century wore on, this lack of control fitted ill with the confident spirit engendered by the Industrial Revolution, and this lack of predictability with the need, in accord with the Protestant ethic, for ‘results’ as the reward for effort. Imagination was something that could not be relied on: it was transitory, fading from the moment it revealed itself to consciousness (in Shelley’s famous phrase, ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’), recalcitrant to the will. In response to this, ‘the Imaginative’, a product of active fantasy, rather than of the receptive imagination, began to encroach on the realm of imagination itself….’ (p.381 The Master and His Emissary)

The Reformation of the sixteenth century could be seen as having involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor, incarnation, the realm that bridges this world and the next, matter and spirit, towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. (p.382 The Master and His Emissary)

But imagination is not something that leads us astray; it is our only hope of leading us to reality and not only for great artists. It is for each of us in our everyday experience. We should go to meet it. If we don’t we are closed in a hermetic cell. We need imagination to get out of this.

In talking about imagination, Iain referred to Schelling (1854-1775) and Coleridge (1772-1834), saying that Schelling was a very profound philosopher and that Coleridge helped to make his ideas more comprehensible. Beyond this, Iain said little about Schelling. I know nothing of Schelling and it appears from a brief internet search that he is a philosopher who would take some getting to know, but as far as I can fathom, Schelling’s main thesis was an opposition to mechanism, materialism and scientific theorising and a view that nothing in nature is completely lifeless. ‘Nature is mind in the process of becoming conscious. Mind (or the self), on the other hand, is something which in its cognitive, rational activity, creates nature.’ (Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin. P.555). Further brief reading around this topic suggests that understanding this relationship between mind and matter requires a leap of imagination.

Coleridge drew on Schelling’s ideas to develop his theory of imagination. Coleridge distinguished between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy is about escaping reality. It recombines things that are already known to us. But imagination is bound up with reality. It looks at what is and sees it for the first time. Imagination is a process where we never quite arrive, a process where we go to meet things, where the progress towards reality is one of ascending a spiral and seeing the whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Blake’s painting of Jacob’s ladder

When ascending the spiral, reaching a higher plane also involves a ‘coming back’ and being able to see and maintain contact with what is below.

Coleridge thought human imagination had two distinct parts, the primary and the secondary. Primary imagination is, he thought, the spontaneous act of creation that is not at our beckoning or under our control. There may have been years of mental work prior to this. Secondary imagination is the conscious act of bringing a composition into being from primary imagination. In other words, as Shelley said, inspiration is already dying when composition starts, hence ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’. Poetry, music and composition come through us.

Creativity

Iain then went on to talk about creativity, telling us that the right hemisphere of the brain is much more creative than the left hemisphere, although both hemispheres are involved in creativity. We can’t make the creative act happen. To encourage it, don’t do things.

Iain then discussed three stages of the creative process:

  • Preparation, a long process involving hard work, skills and knowledge, both conscious and unconscious
  • Incubation, an unconscious stage which is not under voluntary control and can only be impeded by conscious effort
  • Illumination, when a flash of insight flowers out of unconsciousness

In looking for this model of creativity I found it can be attributed to Graham Wallas. Maria Popova has written a useful post about this on her brainpickings site.

Iain also told us that for creativity there must be generative, permissive and translation requirements. The generative phase brings together things that normally can’t be brought together. In the permissiveness phase we have to get out of the way so that this can work for us; there is a relaxation of self-imposed constraints. Creation is always also self-creation. We make things and ourselves. The self and the Other create one another.

“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the translation phase, the analytic mind plays a part, but it needs intuition to discover things. Criticism mustn’t happen too early. The subliminal self is superior to the conscious self. It’s interesting to consider the extent to which scientists actually use the scientific method, and how much they rely on the subliminal self, imagination and intuition.

Does the right hemisphere play a part in creativity?

Evidence of the right hemisphere’s special role in creativity comes from studying the work of renowned artists, composers and poets, before and after having a stroke. See, for example, a paper written by H. Bäzner and M.G. Hennerici – Painting after Right-Hemisphere Stroke – Case Studies of Professional Artists. In this Bäzner and Hennerici discuss the work of Otto Dix, whose paintings became flatter and more schematic following a right hemisphere stroke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This move towards static, flatter and more narrowly focussed images can also be seen in film makers following a right hemisphere stroke.

A left hemisphere stroke has the opposite effect. For example, Benjamin Britten is thought to have done his best work after a left hemisphere stroke; Stravinsky composed more after a left hemisphere stroke; Handel wrote his Messiah in just three weeks shortly after his left hemisphere stroke, and William Carlos Williams’ poetry output became prolific after his left hemisphere stroke.

Damage to the left hemisphere, or just suppressing the left hemisphere, can lead to improvement in all kinds of creativity, e.g. the 9-dot problem can be solved much quicker following a left hemisphere stroke.

The challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the dots without taking the pencil off the paper

 

The Relationship between creativity and mental illness


Aristotle linked melancholy to creativity, and research has linked depression and alcoholism to creativity. Rates of creativity are abnormally high in people with mental illness or mood disorders. Studies on male and female poets have shown higher rates of mental disorders, and in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, American psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison examined the relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. Comedians tend to suffer from depression. But no-one is very creative while they are ill. When they are well, the fact of having been ill makes them creative, but stress and anxiety promote the left hemisphere’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, as Iain told us at the beginning of his talk there seems to be a resistance against the notion of imagination. In briefly following this suggestion up, I found that in her paper The Odd Position of the Melancholic – The Loss of an Explanatory Model? Dr. Helena De Preester has written (p.18) that this resistance also applies to notions of melancholy and inspiration.

‘ …. the notion of melancholy is pushed to the side of a very subjective and personal discourse, and seems to have lost its all-pervading cultural and historical meaning, which was very helpful in directing discussions about (artistic) creativity, inspiration and imagination.’

‘ … the term ‘imagination’ is not very popular anymore: young artists or students in the arts often prefer to say that it all comes down to working very hard and to having the accidental (and economic) luck of becoming famous.’ …

‘creativity’ is an effect of working very hard, but it does not figure in a broader discourse on inspiration. The notions of ‘imagination’, ‘creativity’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘inspiration’ thus seem to have become vague and private notions, which rather block than deepen a discussion on the specificity of artistic creation and the position of the artist.

But Iain suggested that to be creative we need to open ourselves up to unconscious influences. This critical phase must be out of our control. We have to avoid interruptions and stress for creativity. Play and being relaxed are important. Consciousness is a stage with a spotlight. We need to get out of the glare of consciousness, out of the spotlight for creativity to flourish.

Iain McGilchrist and the divided brain

Last weekend I attended a 4-day Field & Field course in which Iain McGilchrist discussed with us the main themes in his book – The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, and his recent thinking. I have attended this course twice before and first came across his work in 2011. Since then I have written a number of posts about his work (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/category/the-divided-brain/). Here, I will simply return to some of his key ideas for those new to his work.

The two key questions which led to the 20 years it took to write the book are:

  • Why is the brain divided at all?
  • Why is the brain asymmetrical?

Iain McGilchrist believes that the answers to these questions help to explain why our world is as it is today.

He tells us that whilst both hemispheres are involved in everything we do, each has its own ‘take’ on the world. The right hemisphere (RH) is the one that understands implicit meaning, the one that has a much richer connection with the body (an important point for those interested in the mind-body relationship), the one that understands the unique. For further information about the differences between the left and right hemispheres, see these three posts, and of course Iain’s book.

https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/exploring-the-divided-brain-a-4-day-course-with-iain-mcgilchrist-day-1-am/

https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/exploring-the-divided-brain-a-4-day-course-with-iain-mcgilchrist-day-1-pm/

https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/the-divided-brain-implications-for-education/

Each hemisphere not only communicates more with itself than with the other, but also attends to the world differently. The left hemisphere (LH) focusses attention. The RH keeps a broad overview. From an evolutionary point of view this relates to the need for animals to be able to apply both focussed attention to catch their prey and broad attention to keep a look out for predators. (see https://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI )

The thrust of Iain’s argument is that we are living in a time when the hemispheres are out of balance, a time of LH dominance.

In the Master and his Emissary, Iain explains that the title of his book comes from a story in Nietzche, where the Emissary sent out by the trusting Master to do his work ‘became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.’ (McGilchrist, 2010, p.14). For Iain, this tells the story of the left and right hemispheres, with the RH being the selfless, spiritual Master and the LH being the usurping Emissary.

On the Field & Field course (and in his book) Iain told us that three times in the history of man, the hemispheres have worked well together; in the Ancient World (6th century BC),  and during the Rennaissance and Romanticism periods.  During these times civilisation flourished, but each time ultimately overreached itself geographically (for example in the case of the Roman Empire), becoming increasingly abstract and bureaucratic, with a focus on power, manipulation and wealth grabbing, i.e. the LH became increasingly dominant, with a loss of balance between the two hemispheres and collapse of civilisation. As mentioned above, Iain believes that we are currently living in a LH dominated world. He believes that signs of this are in a loss of sight of the natural world and embodied culture, treating our bodies like machines, creating art, music and poetry that is too explicit, and religion becoming important or unimportant for the wrong reasons. He writes a lot more about this in his book.

In his book and on the course Iain discussed LH dominance in relation to a number of big themes. On the course these were music and language; life, death and machines; negation as a creative act; time, space, change and flow. I have heard him speak about these themes before and each time have shared my notes (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/category/the-divided-brain/). But each time I hear Iain speak I take away something new. As I told him this time, if it took him 20 years to write his book, it is going to take me more than a few courses to fully assimilate all he has to say.

All this can feel incredibly pessimistic, a feeling that some course participants resisted, but Iain describes himself as a hopeful pessimist, saying that humanity is incredibly innovative and creative. In the final lines of his book he writes, ‘… if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.’ (p.462)

Since returning from the course I have found this excellent video on Iain’s website. In case you haven’t seen it before, I share the link to it here – http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist – as it covers a lot of what we heard him talk about last weekend and gives a very good sense of who he is, what is important to him and how he thinks. I don’t need to write more. The video speaks for itself.

 

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 – Where can we go for truth?

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

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

 

Where can we go for truth? (Some thoughts about the question of what constitutes truth)

I think this may have been a repeat of the Laing Lecture that Iain gave earlier in the year at Regent College in Vancouver. It bore the same title. I can’t find a video recording of that lecture, but the introductory text on the web page  is …

How do we think about truth? Where do we go to find it? While science and reason have undeniable power to disclose many aspects of reality, they do not reveal everything. In this lecture, Iain McGilchrist explains why we cannot rely only on the reports of science or the power of rational argument and demonstrates that it is both unscientific and irrational to do so.

… and these were the same topics and questions that Iain covered in our session.

How do we think about truth? Iain’s answer was that if there is a God (and for him God is a process, an eternal becoming) then how can we stop ourselves thinking about truth, but he believes there is no definitive answer to this question.

On reflection I wonder if underpinning all Iain’s work is a search for an understanding of the meaning of ‘God’ (and here I use the word ‘God’ for want of an alternative). As he writes on p.150 of the Master and his Emissary, ‘Things are not whatever we care to make them. There is something that exists apart from our own minds’… and on p.151, he writes, ‘[Truth]is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together.’

For the left hemisphere where understanding is built up from parts, there is objective evidence for truth, but for the right hemisphere, truth is derived from the whole and can only ever be provisional (p.142, The Master and his Emissary).

Where shall we go for truth? Iain suggested that we go to the beauty and awe-inspiring magic of the non-academic, non-religious natural world, where opposites tend to coincide as much as disperse and where intuition and insight is more directly compelling than reason. Reason, he said, is the endless paperwork of the mind, but for truth uncertainty is essential.

We cannot go to science for truth. Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Iain quoted Edmund Burke as saying – ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’, and Rabindranath Tagore:

Tagore

Source of image

Truth is not a proposition but a disposition towards the world. It is related to trust and what one believes. Belief is not signing up to a proposition but about a relationship. Truth and belief used to be embodied. We can’t passively wait for them. We have to make a move to meet them. There is no fail-safe path to truth.

Iain believes that truth has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. He mentioned but disagreed with Pascal’s wager. Pascal proposed that whether or not there is a God, we should live our lives as though there is one – just to be on the safe side! Iain believes truth is a moral value, like beauty and goodness. It is not a human convention. There will be truth when we are no longer around to see it. The pursuit of truth is greater than the possession of truth. Potential is greater than actuality.

Personal Reflection

I don’t remember God being mentioned on last year’s course as much as on this year’s course and it was interesting to hear Iain describe briefly what ‘God’ means to him. There was virtually no explicit reference to religion during the course. It seemed to me that the word ‘God’ was being used to identify or name ideas for which there is no adequate universally agreed explanation.

Reflecting on this session I remember that I have, in the past, done my fair share of searching for answers to the question of what is life all about and thinking that there must be more to it than all this. I was a child of the 60s (actually I wasn’t a child, I was already in my twenties), so I followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, owned a copy of the I Ching and practised meditation, before becoming dissatisfied and moving on to ‘religion’ (Christianity), with which, after a few year, I became equally dissatisfied.

I also remember that in the 90s when doing an MA in Education I read and wrote about the meaning of truth in relation to an assignment on research methods. On digging out this assignment, I find it includes these quotes:

‘No finitely describable system, or finite language, can prove all truths. Truth cannot fully be caught in a finite net’ (Nagel & Newman quoting Godel’s Theorem, 1959).

‘… there can be many points of view, or many faces of truth, some even mutually contradictory, and yet all equally real in the potential sense …’ (Zohar & Marshall, 1994).

So on reflection I can see that questions about truth have accompanied my life since my twenties and maybe even before, which perhaps explains my interest in Iain McGilchrist’s work and why it resonates. Having said that, what I like about Iain’s work is that whilst it makes reference to spirituality, it is more about how the right and left hemispheres view the world than about ‘God’ or religion. As he writes in The Master and his Emissary (p.92)

‘There is not likely to be ‘a God spot’ in the brain, and the area is fraught with problems of terminology and methodology: but there are areas that are often implicated as accompaniments of religious experience.‘

It’s not religion, but the idea of being able to see the ‘big picture’ and what it means to have an open mind that intrigues me.

 

Authors/people referred to during the session

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

Sir William Empson (1930). Seven Types of Ambiguity

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Edmund Burke 

Rabindranath Tagore

 

Authors/philosophers who have most influenced Iain’s thinking

Of most interest for Iain is Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

Heidegger (1889-1976) – a struggle but a revelation

Hegel (1770-1831) – also a struggle but a revelation

The early and late phases of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work (1889-1951)

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Scheler (1874-1928) – difficult

Mary Midgley – a modern philosopher – born 1919

John Cutting – psychiatrist and author

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

The work of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) on God and the Cosmos

Exploring the Divided Brain – The One and the Many

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

This is the fourth 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 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

 

The One and the Many (Thoughts about the puzzle of unity versus multiplicity and what the brain can tell us about it).

Some see the universe as an unchanging unity, i.e. ‘the One’, but how would this account for the multiplicity of objects in the universe that are constantly changing. How do we recognise sameness, stability and constancy across objects that change? What is the one unifying aspect behind the universe and everything? How is there unity with diversity?

Everything is connected. All is one, but also all is many, but not in an additive way. Heraclitus used the lyre and the bow to show that although they have a connection, this connection, through a tension of opposites, results in something completely different. Hegel believed that all things we encounter are an equilibrium of opposing tendencies from which something new emerges.

‘All things come out of the one, and the one out of all things.’ (Heraclitus, 500 BC)

171-The+Elephant

In relation to the hemispheres of the brain, there are two kinds of parts. Both the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere see parts, but they see and aggregate them differently. The left hemisphere sees fragments, non-unique referents, which it classifies into abstract categories. The right hemisphere sees uniqueness and individuality. It can distinguish specific examples within a category, ‘individuals of all kinds, places as well as faces’ (p.51 The Master and his Emissary).

‘…it is precisely its capacity for holistic processing that enables the right hemisphere to recognise individuals. Individuals are, after all, Gestalt wholes: that face, that voice, that gait, that sheer ‘quiddity’ of the person or thing, defying analysis into parts.’

The right hemisphere focuses on ‘this ness’, wholeness, quiddity, appreciation of things just as they are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins did in his poem ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’.

Kingfisher's catch fire

Source of image

 

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

 

I say móre: the just man justices; 

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

‘…. creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately’ (p.42, The Master and his Emissary’).

The problem is that in today’s world we are losing sight of ‘the One’ that can’t be grasped, pinned down, easily articulated. We live in a world where everything is recorded. There seems to be a common feeling that if it isn’t recorded it didn’t happen, it isn’t real and that we must record reality or it doesn’t exist. But a recording is a representation. It is the work of the left hemisphere. So recordings, representations, replicas are becoming reality whilst embodied experience of uniqueness and ‘the One’ is being downgraded. The story of Lieutenant Kijé was mentioned here as an illustration of how someone can cease to exist through a failing in recording (see further information in the list of references at the end of this post).

Every single experience we have alters our brain, so if we live most of our lives in a 2D world (e.g. online) we will lose the experience of uniqueness (the right brain’s view of the whole); we will only do what the machine does (Dreyfus – What computers can’t do).

The question of the One and the Many also relates to the self and whether we have no self, one self or many selves, or all these. Evidence from research into babies suggests that they experience the same things as their mothers, having a self that is both separate and not separate. Babies learn to hear their mother’s voice in the womb, and if read a story whilst in the womb, will respond to this story after birth.

Our selves are diffuse and shared by others; others help to make us who we are (see The Self Beyond Itself by Heidi Ravven). The South African greeting ‘Ubuntu’ is relevant here.

According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of Ubuntu can best be summarised as follows:

“ ‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”. 

And for Iain McGilchrist this relates to love. ‘Love is a pure attention to the existence of another’.

The self is a product of both hemispheres. The intrinsically, empathically inseparable from the world self and continuous sense of self is dependent on the right hemisphere. The objectified self, the self as an expression of will depends on the left hemisphere (p.87, The Master and his Emissary).

Personal reflection

There is something in this idea of the One and the Many that relates to my own work in networked online learning – some parallels that I sense are there but I am not yet able to fully articulate. Much of the demise of society was laid at the door of technology in this course, which was a bit hard to take for those of us whose work, which we consider to meaningful and worthwhile, makes extensive use of technology; although, to be fair, Iain made a point of telling us that he uses technology extensively too, but not Twitter. Twitter is an anathema to him

It seems to me that when learning in global online networks we are experiencing the one and the many. We are aware of ourselves as individuals in the network and of many other individuals in the network, but we also know that it is impossible to see the whole network. But is the whole network greater than the sum of the parts I wonder?

Iain talked about the relationship between the right hemisphere’s view of the world and uncertainty. In this digital age, an overload of fast changing information and uncertainty are ever present problems. We know that we have to live, learn and work in complex environments that we will never fully understand and will never be predictable. We know we have to self-organise and that to make our networks effective we have to be open and generous in sharing our work and learning. In my work this is what it means to live with complexity.

I can see a parallel here with the ‘chaotic, super abundant universe filled with a multiplicity of differential being’ that Iain talked about as the right hemisphere’s view of the world. But I can also see the paradox that in my work and research I have been exploring complexity as it relates to global open online networking afforded by technology.

On reflection, it would have been interesting to discuss the ways in which technology can (if it can), rather than can’t, promote right hemisphere thinking.

Authors/people referred to during the session

Matthew Crawford (2015). The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction Bergson 

Henri Bergson (1912). Bergson Introduction to metaphysics

Hubert Dreyfus (1972). What computers can’t do.

The Dunning-Kruger effect – The more you know the less you think you know

William James (1909). A Pluralistic Universe

Anthony King (2013). The Blunders of our Governments

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.

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.