Trust in the steps. Focussed and whole picture thinking

The Field & Field McGilchrist 4 day course about Iain’s book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is a very rich experience. Not only do we hear Iain McGilchrist speak twice a day, but we are also offered a range of optional workshops. This time (I have attended this course twice before) the workshops were designed to stimulate auditory, visual and kinaesthetic learning and thinking, so we were offered workshops which focused on drawing, listening to music and embodied learning, in this case Tai Chi. We were also offered the opportunity to listen to speakers who, for personal reasons, have found that Iain McGilchrist’s writing on the Divided Brain – resonates with their practice.

One of these speakers was Bonita Norris,  a woman, who as a girl of 22, in 2010, was the youngest woman ever to climb Everest, and has since climbed many more Himalayan mountains and reached the North Pole. (She is only about 30 now! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonita_Norris )

Bonita is a passionate speaker, and it was, I think, impossible not to be inspired by her story. Here is a woman who at the age of 20, whilst at University, happened to attend a lecture by two men who had climbed Everest. In that moment she decided that she also wanted to climb Everest, despite never having done any mountaineering before. A lot of things fell into place for her. The two lecturers responded to her email in which she wrote that this was what she wanted to do and asked for advice. Ultimately these men became her climbing partners, and she finally, after a great deal of effort, hard work and persistence got the funding she needed for the Everest expedition. Two years later at the age of 22 she climbed Everest.

In her talk she told us about her climb, how she prepared for it, how she experienced it and what that experience now means to her. But most importantly, in terms of the course, we could see how her experience resonated with Iain McGilchrist’s writing on how in optimal circumstances, the right and left hemispheres work together.

Bonita showed us wonderful photos of her climb and described her feelings on standing on the top of the world and at seeing a sky full of stars with no light pollution. In her words, ‘the world comes to meet you’ and she described seeing the curvature of the Earth. These seem to me to be statements that come from the right hemisphere, an appreciation of the ‘whole’ as opposed to the parts.

But one the most interesting parts of her talk was how focussed she had to be on taking the first step when she was afraid. She described a point at which, when having to cross a crevasse by walking over a ladder,  she was so afraid of taking the first step that she held up her team on the freezing slopes of Everest for 20 minutes.

Two things come out of this. First that she did take that first step and then the following steps were easier. Secondly that her team understood and supported her through this process saying that they had also experienced this paralysis in relation to taking a first step.

Here are some of the inspiring things that Bonita said during her talk.

‘There was no logic or reason for wanting to climb Everest. I just had to do it.’ ‘I can’t articulate why I wanted to do this’. Everest was where she put her attention.

‘Trust in the steps. Trust that small things will add up.’

‘My imagination is the biggest mountain I’m trying to climb’.

‘The big picture can be paralysing/overwhelming. Focus down to one step’.

‘Focus, be present, don’t fret about things you can’t control.’

‘Climbing is meditation. You focus on the present and are aware of the world around you.’

‘Take leaps of faith.’ “Do one thing every day that scares you”. (quote from Eleanor Roosevelt)

‘Each of us felt so insignificant and pointless in the grand scheme of things. We reached a deep flow state.’

‘Small things can defeat us.’

‘Nature can heal you in your lowest moments.’ (NB – Nature – not environment. Iain McGilchrist distinguishes between the two).

‘You have to trust in the possibility of the moment.’

‘The last step doesn’t matter as much as you think. It is not about the summit.’

‘To escape from the ‘Hall of mirrors” (LH thinking) you have to ground yourself in Nature, get rid of your ego, and retreat from the world to come back to it.’

Thank you Bonita.

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 – 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.

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

This is the second in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course – Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist .

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal reflection

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

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

Authors/people referred to during the session

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

Iain McGilchrist (1982) Against Criticism. Faber & Faber

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

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

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