The Divided Brain – the documentary video

Anyone who follows this blog will be aware that I follow the work of Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. This book explores how our brain interprets the world and suggests that the problems we are facing in today’s world stem from the fundamental incompatibility between the left hemisphere and right hemisphere ways of thinking and seeing the world. Iain McGilchrist’s book is long and dense, over 500 pages of small typeface. Not an easy read, but for anyone concerned about the state of the world we live in, a very necessary read.

A wonderful introduction to the book’s key ideas has been produced in the form of a film which has taken a number of years to produce, but is now available to rent for the small sum of £3.89, on Vimeo, accompanied by this text:

Once in a generation someone puts forth a seemingly audacious idea that completely changes the way we see the world around us. Dr. Iain McGilchrist might just be that person. THE DIVIDED BRAIN is a mind-altering odyssey about one man’s quest to prove a growing imbalance in our brains, and help us understand how this makes us increasingly unable to grapple with critical economic, environmental and social issues; ones that shape our very future as a species.

The film runs for 1 hour 18 mins. It is beautifully shot, following Iain McGilchrist around the world as he speaks to a number of eminent scientists and celebrities about his ideas, not all of whom agree with him. The film ends with Iain suggesting that we need a paradigm shift in how we conceive of what a human being is, what the world is and what our relationship with it is. He further suggests that love is a pure attention to the existence of the ‘Other’ and that we’re on this planet to give attention to that ‘Other’, which includes not only people, but also the natural world.

For further information about the film see the divided brain website and the information below sent to me by the film’s producer Vanessa Dylyn.

After successful screenings in London, Washington and Toronto, we are pleased to announce:

The Divided Brain is now available to stream

*outside Canada

Just click The Divided Brain thumbnail on our web store


*Canadian residents will be able to watch the broadcast premiere on the CBC’s documentary channel on September 22nd, 2019 at 9pm ET (6pm PT). It will also be re-broadcast on Sept 24 at 11am/3pm/7pm (all ET) and Sun Sept 29 at 6am/11am/4pm.

Everything Flows

In early June I travelled to the Cotswolds for a 4-day course organised by Field and Field, and featuring the work of Iain McGilchrist. Iain was the keynote speaker on each of the 4 days giving 14 one hour talks/interviews over this time. Some of these talks related to his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, but five of them related to material he will include in his new book (due for publication by the end of 2020), which bears the provisional title – ‘The Matter with Things’. This new book will argue against reductionism and materialism and for ‘betweenness’. Iain told us that the reductionist approach is the norm, i.e. we start by thinking about material things and then how to connect them, but he believes that it should be the other way round. We should start with connections and networks and notice the parts and things later.

The first part of the new book will focus on the question ‘What do we mean by truth?’ For the left hemisphere, the truth is ‘out there’; for the right hemisphere, truth comes into being; things are potentially ‘out there’, but only come into being with consciousness. There is a chapter on paradox in the first part of the book.

Iain believes that it is important to consider:

  • How we attend to the world
  • How we attend to perceptions
  • How our judgements are formed

We need emotional, social and cognitive intelligence to understand what is going on, and the right hemisphere is superior in all this.

The third part of the book will explore what we know about the foundations of reality – time, space, matter, consciousness, the sacred, the divine and more. These are all dominated by the left hemisphere.

The second part of this new book is devoted to what Iain sees as the four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. We need all four, but tend to focus too much on science and reason (the left hemisphere way) and not enough on intuition and imagination (the right hemisphere way). These were discussed in four separate one hour talks. I have shared my notes on these talks in previous posts. See

The fifth talk, which also relates to Iain’s new book, was ‘Everything Flows’. In this post I will share the notes I made whilst listening to the talk, but before I do, I should explain that, for this talk in particular, I have found it difficult to make sense of my notes. This could be because this was the last of Iain’s talks on the final morning of the course, by which time I was exhausted. I lead a quiet life so am not used to high levels of stimulation as experienced on this course. I lost a lot of sleep! Or it could be that the ideas are complex and counter-intuitive. Or it could have been that Iain himself is still developing his thinking in relation to the idea that everything flows. Whatever the reason, my notes are not as coherent as I would have liked. As such this post may come across as somewhat disjointed. If so, then all I can recommend is that at the end of 2020, you look out for the new book, ‘The Matter With Things’, as I will be doing.

Everything Flows (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that it was the ancient philosophers, Heraclitus in particular, who had insights about flow, but these were later lost.

Heraclitus is famously obscure, but is well known for saying that everything flows and that you cannot step into the same river twice. He believed that the cause of coming into being is the vortex (flow) and that things are in a constant state of change and flow. Thus, everything keeps returning to a flowing state, a state of homeorhesis rather than homeostasis, where the former describes a steady flow, and the latter describes a steady state.

Iain then went on to discuss the idea of everything flows in relation to a variety of contexts with which we may be more or less familiar, making the point that

‘philosophy in the West is essentially a left hemisphere process. It is verbal and analytic, requiring abstracted, decontextualized, disembodied thinking, dealing in categories, concerning itself with the nature of the general rather than the particular, and adopting a sequential, linear approach to truth, building the edifice of knowledge from the parts, brick by brick. While such characterisation is not true of most pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, it is at least true of the majority of philosophers since Plato in the West until the nineteenth century…..’   (p.137 The Master and His Emissary)

Parts and wholes

We are used to the idea that the cells in our bodies are constantly dying and being replaced. So the question is, is it still your body after a number of years? Well – it depends on how you look at it. If you see your body as a made up of a number of parts (the left hemisphere view), then ‘No’, but if you see your body as a whole and more than the sum of its parts (the right hemisphere view), then ‘Yes’. People are not constituted part by part. There is continuity. This dilemma is illustrated by the Ship of Theseus Paradox. Paradox did not worry Heraclitus, but concerned later philosophers, as referred to in the quote above.

Iain then mentioned Leibniz in relation to lines, points and extension, and time. I have nothing more than this in my notes, so it has been difficult to make sense of, but the significance seems to be the belief that space and time are relational – ‘spatial and temporal relationships between objects and events are immediate and not reducible to space-time point relations, and all movement is the relational movement of bodies’. (Basil Evangelidis, 2017, p.1)

In 1714 Leibniz (1646-1716) wrote:

Some people who have misunderstood my ideas have thought ·me to have implied· that every soul has a mass or portion of matter which is its own and is assigned to it for ever, and therefore every soul has other living things that are inferior to it, destined always to be in its service. That doesn’t follow; and it isn’t true, because all bodies are in a perpetual state of flux, like rivers, with parts constantly coming into them and going out. (Leibniz, 71) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/leibniz1714b.pdf

There is no such thing as a piece of time and there are no parts of time (see a previous post which relates to this point – Exploring the Divided Brain – Time, Space and Reality).

What is called temporal sequencing is an ambiguous concept. Such sequencing, depending on what one means by that, may be right-hemisphere-dependent or, at least where the sequence has no ‘real world’ meaning, as it would in a narrative, left-hemisphere-dependent – the understanding of narrative is a right hemisphere skill; the left hemisphere cannot follow a narrative. But sequencing, in the sense of the ordering of artificially decontextualised, unrelated, momentary events, or momentary interruptions of temporal flow – the kind of thing that is as well or better performed by the left hemisphere – is not in fact a measure of the sense of time at all. It is precisely what takes over when the sense of time breaks down. Time is essentially an undivided flow: the left hemisphere’s tendency to break it up into units and make machines to measure it may succeed in deceiving us that it is a sequence of static points, but such a sequence never approaches the nature of time, however close it gets (p.76 The Master and His Emissary).

Streams and water

William James (1842-1910) first verbalised the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, i.e. the flow of thoughts in the conscious mind.

The Dao, a Chinese word signifying ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘route’, ‘road’, is usually described in terms of elements of nature, and in particular as similar to water. Like water it is undifferentiated, endlessly self-replenishing, soft and quiet but immensely powerful, and impassively generous. Much of Taoist philosophy centers on the cyclical continuity of the natural world, and its contrast to the linear, goal-oriented actions of human beings.

Water is the basis of life and exists in phases, solid, liquid, gas. Consciousness also has phases. One phase is relatively static matter, but in another phase, everything flows, not just living things. Everything is connected and moving. Seeing this is just a matter of pace. If you interrupt flow you will see a lot of individual parts. You can see things as particulate or continuous. It depends on how you look at something.

Turbulent flow

Most fluid flows in nature are turbulent.  Richard Feynman described turbulence as the most important unsolved problem in classical physics. We don’t understand it.  It is both orderly and disorderly, on the edge of order and chaos, an unstable state in which minor adjustments have to be made all the time, just as a tightrope walker does. Flow is creative in a way that is inconceivable.

Patterns of flow

A major component of turbulent flow are vortices, which are caused by obstructions in fluids. An example is the Kármán vortex street.

(Photo by Jürgen Wagner of the Von Kármán vortex street behind a circular cylinder in air flow. The flow is made visible by means of the release of oil vapour near the cylinder.)

Vincent van Gogh painted vortices.


The Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh 1889

Leonardo da Vinci was also fascinated by vortices. The British Library in London currently has an exhibition of this work, which I was fortunate to see a couple of weeks ago.

So flow can be chaotic and fractal, with vortices within vortices, and movement in both directions. These flows are never the same but always unique.

Even the normal heartbeat is irregular, not wildly irregular, but there are variations in times of beat. But as A. N. Whitehead said rhythm needs sameness and novelty; there needs to be pattern and variance in the pattern.

 

A.N. Whitehead, 1919, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, p.198).

 

 

 

 

 

Knowledge and flow

Knowledge arises out of flow and for a time has a form, like vortices in a stream only exist because of resistance and are not a separate element. At this point Iain made reference to Friedrich Schelling. I did not make a note as to why this reference was made, but presumably this relates to Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature, in which he put forward the idea of the unity of Nature, an ongoing process from which man has emerged as an integral part. In other words, life is not separate from matter. The ‘two are continuous with one another, different aspects of a single process.’ (Bryan Magee, 1998, p.156). We are like waves in the sea. We are not disconnected from the water. We are always connected.

All this is comprehensible to the right hemisphere. As William Blake understood, once you analyse flow, you stop the flow.

Source – https://poets.org/poem/eternity

An example of analysis of flow, which is how the left hemisphere sees flow, can be seen in the case of Jason Padgett, for whom the smoothness has gone from everything he sees as a result of brain injury. The left hemisphere can only approximate flow by putting together straight lines. This is how Padgett now sees water going down the drain in a shower or the sink.

Source: https://www.livescience.com/45326-gallery-drawings-of-a-mathematical-genius.html

Finally Iain finished this talk by referring to the double-slit experiment to illustrate that light and elementary particles can be seen as particles as well as waves.

The video of the double-slit experiment suggests that the wave trumps the particle. Everything flows. It also suggests that observation can alter what we see. This supports Iain’s argument that things take the form they do because of our consciousness. The way in which we attend to the world determines what we see.

It is not just that what we find determines the nature of attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find…. Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it, and in what way. … Attention has consequences. (p.133 The Master and His Emissary).

We can see the world as a series of static points and scenes, a sum of an infinite series of ’pieces’, or as natural and organically evolving in which everything flows.

Reference

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

This is the last post in this series.

This four day course will run again for the last time next year from 3rd – 6th October 2020 In the same location – Tewkesbury Park Hotel – in the Cotswolds, UK.

The Value and Limits of Intuition

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

This is the fourth post I am writing to share the notes I made on a 4-day Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, UK. The title of the course was Exploring the Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses and the keynote speaker for all four days was Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

For further background information to this post and the course, see the following previous posts and the page on this blog devoted to The Divided Brain and Iain McGilchrist’s work.

The Value and Limits of Intuition (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation)

Intuitions often get a ‘bad rap’ from psychologists. We don’t know when we are intuiting and intuitions can be a source of error. Sometimes they are wrong and we can be deceived by them, but often they are not. Intuitions process large amounts of information in a short time. Most of what we do we are not conscious of. For these reasons, Iain started this talk by telling us that we should not give up on intuitions.

He then went on to discuss intuitions in terms of

  • instincts,
  • prejudices,
  • knee-jerk reactions,
  • gut feelings, and
  • embodied skills.

Instincts

Instincts are fascinating. Do humans have them? Yes they do.  Iain referred to the work of William James, who believed that certain instincts are essential for human survival, e.g. fear, anger and love.

At the core of James’ theory of psychology, as defined in The Principles of Psychology (1890), was a system of “instincts”. James wrote that humans had many instincts, even more than other animals. These instincts, he said, could be overridden by experience and by each other, as many of the instincts were actually in conflict with each other. In the 1920s, however, psychology turned away from evolutionary theory and embraced radical behaviorism.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James

Instincts cover a lot of behaviour in all animals. For example, animals instinctively know what to eat, or how to fly and how to mate, including ‘on the wing’. The instinct to imitate is so important and explains how we learn so much. Children instinctively imitate other human beings. Learning begins at 45 minutes of life and babies respond to a smiling face within 48 hours. In his book (p.253) Iain writes:

The overwhelming importance of mimesis points to the conclusion that we had better select good models to imitate, because as a species, not only as individuals, we will become what we imitate. We will pass down the behaviours we have learnt to imitate by epigenetic mechanisms, and for this reason William James, in an inversion of the popular prejudice, saw the human species as having a larger array of apparently instinctual behaviours than any other.

But instincts are not for once and all. They are evolutionary. We can inherit them from our ancestors. Fear of a smell can be passed down through several generations. Physical gestures can be inherited. Anecdotal evidence suggests that transplant patients can inherit characteristics of donors, such as a love or hate of jazz. All this relates to epigenetic inheritance, the idea that inheritance does not only happen through the DNA code that passes from parent to offspring, but also by means of a parent’s experiences.

Rupert Sheldrake’s work on morphic fields and collective memory may also be relevant here, although it is worth noting that his ideas were considered so radical when first posited that his Ted Talk was, at the time, banned, but has since been reinstated. Iain also referenced Jungian archetypes, but both Sheldrake and Jung were only mentioned in passing and Iain concluded that we can’t say where all this is happening in terms of the left and right hemisphere’s of the brain, nor indeed whether there is any hemisphere relevance.

Prejudices

Prejudices are pre-judgements (forming an opinion before coming aware of the relevant facts) and are inevitable. Of course we make pre-judgements, but this is not the same as bias. Bias is the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence judgement. Prejudice does not necessarily lead to bias. By being aware of prejudice we can avoid bias. Most people ignore their prejudices, but information can override prejudice. For example, we make judgements on people’s faces within a tenth of a second, but we get better at judging faces with experience. The left hemisphere of the brain is more prone to bias than the right hemisphere. It tends to put things in categories, whereas the right hemisphere is important for pattern recognition.

Knee-jerk reactions, heuristics and rules of thumb

As nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman discussed in his international best seller, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, most of the time we do things ‘quick and dirty’ and make fast decisions, but when we need to, we slow down. In his book Kahneman discusses whether we need to slow down to avoid the errors that result from fast thinking, which he describes as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions and the planning fallacy. At the beginning of his book (p.10) he writes judgment heuristics “are quite useful, but sometimes lead to sever and systematic errors.” In another section of his book, Chapter 21, Kahneman discusses the accuracy of algorithmic formulas versus intuitions and calls into question the consistency of judgements made by professionals such as radiologists, auditors, pathologists, psychologists and organisational managers. For example, on p. 225 of his book he writes: Experienced radiologists who evaluate chest X-rays as “normal” or “abnormal” contradict themselves 20% of the time when they see the same picture on separate occasions.

In his talk, Iain talked of knee-jerk reactions, heuristics and rules of thumb more favourably than Kahneman, saying that intuitions are useful the majority of the time and that heuristics can be surprisingly useful. He illustrated this with the example of how ant colonies are built on the basis of random choices, but acknowledged that heuristics can lead to bias.

Gut feeling

In this part of the talk, Iain referenced Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter Struck an Malcolm Gladwell. In his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, Gigerenzer explains why gut feelings are so often right and can serve us better than reflection and reason. Sometimes less is more, and heuristics can make more accurate decisions with less effort. Peter Struck in his book Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity discusses how ancient philosophers ‘produced subtle studies into what was an odd but observable fact–that humans could sometimes have uncanny insights–and their work signifies an early chapter in the cognitive history of intuition. And Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink. The Power of Thinking without Thinking explores the phenomenon of ‘blink’, showing how a snap judgement can be far more effective than a cautious decision. By trusting your instincts, he reveals, you’ll never think about thinking in the same way again.

Iain told us that many gut feelings arise in social situations. An important element is to make quick decisions. This happens in the right hemisphere of the brain, the deep, ancient, emotional part of the brain, where decisions are made on the basis of empathy, intuition and morality, rather than utility. Gut feelings can take a long time to come to consciousness.

Embodied skills

Finally, in discussing embodied skills, Iain referenced the work of Dreyfus and Dreyfus. In their book Mind over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computer, Dreyfus and Dreyfus develop a 5-stage model of how expertise develops. Novices start by learning the rules and sticking to these rules. Gradually they develop an appreciation of context and move through stages of competence, proficiency and expertise, finally reaching mastery. It is in the final two stages that intuition comes into play and the learner can see patterns and can make connections between different aspects of the work. Pattern recognition is an important element in becoming an expert. In these later stages, most the time we are not deliberating but doing things unconsciously.

Functioning at this unconscious level of expertise can lead to fast, unconscious decision-making, such as the counter-intuitive idea of literally ‘fighting fire with fire’, i.e. in the case of the fireman who in the face of an oncoming forest fire lit a ring of fire around himself, lay down in the burned area, and lived to tell the tale. Intuitions can also be guided by beauty and elegance, rather than rule-bound thought; mathematicians often do this. Problem solving often involves visual rather than verbal forms of work. There is only a small role for conscious thinking in these processes.

Intuitive and analytical problem-solving can also evoke different physiological responses, such as feeling warm just before solving a problem, i.e. at the intuition stage. When people have insights, spikes can be seen in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere is better at regulating and inhibiting emotion as well as engaging with emotion.

The overarching message from this talk was that there is a place for intuition in our lives. We need a glimpse of the illusive nature of reality.

Today all the available sources of intuitive life – cultural tradition, the natural world, the body, religion and art – have been so conceptualised, devitalised and ‘deconstructed’ (ironised) by the world of words, mechanistic systems and theories constituted by the left hemisphere that their power to help us see beyond the hermetic world that it has set up has been largely drained from them. (p.244 The Master and His Emissary).

So we shouldn’t examine our interior thinking too early. There is a moment and a place to think consciously and critically, but this is a secondary phase and mustn’t come too early.

In the words of Kant:

‘concepts without intuitions are empty; intuitions without concepts are blind’ (cited on p.215 The Master and His Emissary)

References

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Source of image: The Divided Brain RSA Animate Video  https://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI

The Meaning of ‘Flow’ in Education

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist and what we can learn from his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Currently I am thinking about what implications some of the central themes of this book might have for education. The theme I have been exploring is ‘flow’.

When educators talk about ‘flow’ in education, they are more likely to be thinking of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘me-high-cheek-sent-me-high’) rather than Iain McGilchrist. Csikszentmihalyi’s work has been influential in encouraging teachers to consider questions of motivation and how to fully engage their students in learning. His theory of flow, ‘the holistic sensation that people have when they act with total involvement’ (Beard, 2014) or ‘being in the zone’, dates back to 1975, when he noticed that artists could be completely immersed in their work for hours and hours, losing sense of time passing, and completely focussing on process rather than outcome. They ‘go with the flow’. He wondered why then did schools treat children as if they were rats in a maze, ignoring the importance of process and focussing instead on outcome and reward.

Csikszentmihalyi has described eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

These characteristics describe the process needed to experience ‘flow’ in Csikszentmihali’s terms. Being in a state of ‘flow’ is thought to deepen learning or at the very least make learning more enjoyable.

Csikszentmihalyi is known to have related his work to education, whereas McGilchrist relates his work more broadly to living in and attending to the world, which, although not specific to education, certainly has implications for education. In his book The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist provides substantial evidence for two ways of attending to the world;  the way of the left hemisphere of the brain and the way of the right hemisphere. I have written a number of posts about this in the past and am not going to repeat it here. A good introduction to those new to McGilchrist’s work is this video  and this short book, which summarises his key ideas – Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World.

For Iain McGilchrist, ‘flow’ isn’t something experienced only when certain conditions are met. Rather he considers that all things are in flow all the time, including ourselves. He often uses the mountain behind his house to illustrate this, saying that if we could slow things down sufficiently we would be able to see the mountain flowing.

Source of image: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

We are always growing and are therefore always in a state of change and self-repair, and always in a state of flow. We are never the same from one moment to the next, neither is anything else. As Heraclitus is purported to have said, we can never step into the same river twice.

McGilchrist suggests that seeing the world as in a state of flow, is to understand it as ‘live, complex, embodied’, a ‘world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected’ (p.30). This perspective avoids fragmentation of knowledge, something that Csikszentmihalyi also believes is necessary to experience flow. But if everything is always in flow and always changing, how can anything ever be known?

The answer, according to McGilchrist, is that ‘We have to find a way of fixing [experience] as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow’ (p.30).  The evidence that we do this in education is all around us. However, there is a danger in doing this if it results in an obsession with ‘fixing’ such that our experience is fragmented, and knowledge is always broken down into measurable ‘bits’ which can be tested, the assumption being that we can then tick that ‘bit’ off as known. Stepping ‘outside the flow of experience’ gives us a view of the world that is ‘explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, fragmented [and] static (though its ‘bits’ can be re-set in motion, like a machine)…’ (p.93). Such a world is easier to manipulate and control, and makes us feel more powerful.

According to McGilchrist, the problem is that, whilst we need to ‘step back from the immediacy of experience’ to know anything, we tend to get ‘stuck’ in this view of the world which prioritises ‘clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up from the parts; sequential analytic logic as the path to knowledge; and […] detail over the bigger picture’ (p.177). As such we lose sight of the whole.

For McGilchrist experiencing ‘flow’ means experiencing the whole and understanding:

  • Empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness
  • The importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention
  • The implicit or hidden nature of truth
  • The emphasis on process rather than stasis,
  • The journey being more important that the arrival
  • The primacy of perception
  • The importance of the body in constituting reality
  • And emphasis on uniqueness
  • The objectifying nature of vision
  • The irreducibility of all value to utility
  • Creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.
  • The challenge for educators is how to reconcile the need to fix and test within a flow mindset.

McGilchrist has always stressed the importance of ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to the ‘either/or’ thinking, which seems to dominate much of our work in education. He tells us that for strength and stability, and to avoid fragmentation and disintegration, we need to be able to hold opposing ideas in dynamic equilibrium, an idea that seems particularly relevant to current times. He illustrates what he means by this with an image of the taut string of a bow or lyre (p. 270):

The taut string, its two ends pulling apart under opposing forces, that for bow or lyre is what gives its vital strength or virtue, is the perfect expression of a dynamic, rather than static, equilibrium. This holding of movement within stasis, of opposites in reconciliation, is also imaged in Heraclitus’ most famous saying, that ‘all things flow’. Stability in the experiential world is always stability provided by a form through which things continue to flow’.  

An education system which focused more on ‘both/and’ thinking and seeing the world as being in continuous ‘flow’, would need what McGilchrist has called ‘a change of heart’. Amongst other considerations, there would need to be less fragmentation and measurement, a greater focus on process, connection and context, an appreciation of depth, a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty and a view of the world as embodied rather than conceptual. From this perspective knowing would be seen as an emergent process, rather than fixed. Is such a paradigm shift achievable, or have we already stepped so far out of the flow of experience that we have lost sight of the importance of also viewing the world from a perspective of ‘flow’?

References

Beard, K.S. (2014). Theoretically Speaking: An Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow Theory Development and Its Usefulness in Addressing Contemporary Challenges in Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 27, 353-364

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

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.

 

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.’

Update 010918

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

Today Bruno Annetta has sent me the following question:

BRUNO ANNETTA September 1, 2018 / 3:24 am

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

JENNY MACKNESS RESPONSE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny

BRUNO ANNETTA COMMENT

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

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

Is paradoxical thinking a solution to the human condition?

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

Paradoxical thinking – a practical example

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers
Bruno Annetta