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.




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.


Questions for Iain McGilchrist on the implications of the divided brain for education

At the end of next week I will attend, for the second year running, Iain McGilchrist’s four-day course on Exploring the Divided Brain  organised by Field & Field and taking place in the Cotswolds, UK.

At the end of last year’s course, Iain talked very briefly about the implications of left hemisphere dominance for education. I know from another of Iain’s talks that I attended in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, that he is now writing a book which focuses on education – The Porcupine is a Monkey . I am hoping that we will hear more about this on this year’s course.

I have been interested in the links between Iain McGilchrist’s ideas about the Divided Brain and teaching and learning, since I was pointed to his book by Matthias Melcher (@x28de) in 2011. Matthias and I have often discussed the possible links between McGilchrist’s work and Siemens’ and Downes’ work on connectivism. As such I am hoping that the following questions might be discussed on the course next week.

If (as discussed in the book The Master and his Emissary) we are living in an age of left hemisphere dominance, then how can a left hemisphere dominant population recognise the merits of right hemisphere thinking?

A recently developed theory for education in a digital age is ‘connectivism’. This theory has been proposed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The theory posits that knowledge is in the network of connections between people, concepts and neurons, and that learning involves the creation and navigation of networked connections. In addition, Stephen Downes claims that knowledge is pattern recognition, although in a paper critiquing connectivism, Clara and Barbera have questioned how we can recognise something that we don’t already know. In what ways does the theory of connectivism align with the functions of the left and right hemispheres of the brain in relation to recognition and representation?

Connectivism is a theory for a digital age. Advances in technologiy increasingly focus on virtual and augmented reality and machine learning (e.g. the use of pattern recognition machines to study paintings ) Given these sorts of developments, can we say that technology can function like the right hemisphere and if so, what might be the implications for left hemisphere dominance?

Last year’s course was very thought provoking. I wrote a blog post about each of Iain’s sessions. Here are the links – The Divided Brain – A four day course with Iain McGilchrist.  I am expecting to find this year’s course equally thought-provoking.

The Divided Brain: implications for education

Screen Shot 2014-11-18 at 10.51.53

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

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

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

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

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

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

 DrawingHandsSource of image 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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