The Matter With Things. Chapter 3. Perception

To repeat: don’t think, but look! (Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1976)

The Channel McGilchrist reading group met again yesterday to discuss the third chapter, Perception, of Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter With Things. The discussion was quite wide-ranging, and not always on topic, but nevertheless interesting. For example, there was a discussion about whether we can trust McGilchrist’s interpretation of the research papers he has read and referenced in support of his overarching argument that ‘the right hemisphere is a more important guide and more reliable one to the nature of reality’. The question was asked, how many readers will actually seek out and read the papers that McGilchrist references to check whether or not we agree with his interpretation, and if we do not, then how can we be sure that his interpretations are correct? I wasn’t sure that everyone grasped the significance and importance of this question, and I haven’t quite sorted out in my own head, how relevant it is to discussions of McGilchrist’s book, but it is easy to recognise that McGilchrist’s work attracts people who have already bought into his key hypothesis, that we live in a world increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere, and therefore it is quite difficult to engage in critical discussion. But one person did say that we don’t necessarily have to read McGilchrist’s work and engage with his ideas by standing outside it and analysing it objectively. We can wear it like a garment and dance around in it, until we no longer need it. This reading group is only just getting going, and I hope it won’t shy away from more challenging discussions.

My interpretation of the discussion around perception was that no-one had really got to grips with it. Compared to other chapters in the book, this is quite a short chapter – 30 pages, and McGilchrist sticks to discussing perception in relation to the hemispheres, considering hemispheric differences in normal perception, and the hemispheres and pathologies of perception. So, he does not mention philosophy of mind, although questions about the relationship between mind and body, and brain and body, and how we can know whether what we perceive is real or not, seem to me to be implicit in the writing. In his book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist does briefly mention ‘the mind-brain question’, although he says that it is not the subject of the book and that he does not have the skill or space to address the topic at any length (McGilchrist, 2009, p.19). He seems to have taken the same approach in this book, The Matter With Things.

McGilchrist starts Chapter 3 by writing:

‘Perception is not the same as attention, and not at all the same as thinking. But the world we choose to attend to, indeed choose whether and how to attend to, is nothing without perception.’ (p.105, The Matter With Things). It is worth remembering at this point that Part 1 of The Matter With Things, which includes Chapter 3 on Perception, is about the hemispheres and the means to truth. So along with Attention (Chapter 2), which we discussed in our first meeting and which I have already written about, McGilchrist considers perception to be a means to truth.

McGilchrist defines perception as follows:

‘Perception is the act whereby we reach out from our cage of mental construct to taste, smell, touch, hear and see the living world.’ (p.105. The Matter With Things) and ‘To be good at perceiving is to be good at integrating information.’ (p.106 The Matter With Things). 

There was some discussion in the group about the difference between sense and sensation, and the role of emotions and feelings in relation to perception, but we didn’t come to a clear understanding of this, and McGilchrist doesn’t explicitly address this in the chapter. Perhaps the nearest McGilchrist comes to addressing this is when he tells us that Merleau-Ponty saw perception as a reciprocal encounter.

“Experience is a sensorimotor – and intuitive – participation, a fusion of one’s own awareness with awareness of the world. Speaking of his perception of the blue sky, Merleau-Ponty wrote that ‘I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it “thinks itself within me”… Perception is not passive reception, but participation.” (p.106 The Matter With Things). Perception is an active process, bound up with motion. We see something as an opportunity to act. When we see things, our whole body is engaged in perception; perception is embodied.

In this chapter McGilchrist looks in some depth at the left and right hemispheres’ roles in visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, local and global perception. He also discusses what happens to perception if the left or right hemisphere is damaged, writing at some length about visual hallucinations and distortions, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile hallucinations, and concluding from examining a wide range of scientific evidence that hallucinations are more often due to right hemisphere damage than left hemisphere dysfunction. I am not going to repeat the details of the evidence that McGilchrist provides here. They are all in the chapter, and you can listen to McGilchrist talking to Alex Gomez-Marin about this chapter in this YouTube video:

Lastly, one of the questions we considered was, if we agree with McGilchrist that the right hemisphere is a more important guide and a more reliable one to the nature of reality (because of its pattern recognition ability, its ability to deal with incomplete information and its ability to see the whole), then can we train ourselves to make more and better use of our right hemisphere and be less dominated by the left hemisphere (which tends to objectify and jump to quick conclusions, seeing things out of context, seeing the map rather than reality)?

McGilchrist has suggested that practising mindfulness or meditation is one method, but also spending more time in nature, looking at art, and listening to music.

Another method is to think about optical illusions. McGilchrist uses the image of Schroeder’s stairs (p.114 The Matter With Things).

He writes:  ‘While the left hemisphere underwrites local attention, the right hemisphere underwrites global attention – and the ability to switch between them.’ This ‘… inevitably makes a difference to the world we perceive. What it means is that both to perceive the form of something as a whole, and to see it differently to the way you are accustomed to see it, depends on the way of taking in the world that is underwritten by the right hemisphere of the brain. If you think and adopt the way of being of the left hemisphere world, not only will you struggle to see the overall shape, but you won’t be able so easily to switch – or even be aware that you can. If someone else tells you they see something quite different there, you might well, sincerely but wrongly, believe that they must be mistaken.’

Members of the reading group provided further links to interesting illusions for us to think about:

https://www.upworthy.com/people-are-freaking-out-over-this-rotating-cube-illusion

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4493744/Video-shows-car-driving-WITHOUT-wheels-rotating.html

And finally, here is an exercise suggested by Cynthia Ford in the comments under McGilchrist’s video,  which might be interesting to try out.

There’s a writing exercise in which you walk somewhere deeply familiar, that you know so well that you hardly see it, and you notice and write down only one color, every instance of that color. Or, following the Oulipo school, you notice only the unnoticed, the trash, or detritus, or signs, the unaesthetic. You can actually feel the perceptual shift from the left brain to the right brain as the place changes and becomes new.

Our next reading group meeting will take place on Friday 3rd June at 4.00 pm UK time, when we will discuss Chapter 4. Judgment (as a means to truth).

References

McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva Press.

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

Publication of Iain McGilchrist’s new book. The Matter With Things

On Tuesday (Nov 9th) Iain McGilchrist’s new book The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, was published by Perspectiva Press. The launch was celebrated in a conversation between Iain and Philip Pullman, which was hosted by the How to Academy. This was a wonderful meeting of minds. There was also, of course, a launch party hosted by Jonathan Rowson, Director of Perspectiva, at which both Jonathan and Iain, as well as a few others spoke.

I now own copies of the two volumes and have started reading. The volumes are beautifully produced and I agree with Jonathan Rowson that the book is also beautifully written.

When I attended the Field&Field four day conference at the beginning of October 2021, where Iain gave 14 one hour talks, the opening talk outlined the process of writing this book, which took 10 years and was started soon after the publication of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World in 2009.

Iain spoke about a demon possessing him in the writing of The Matter with Things. It was originally intended to be a shorter and more accessible book than The Master and His Emissary but ended up twice as long. The book takes forward the ideas discussed in The Master and His Emissary and tries to answer Plotinus’ question ‘But we – who are we?’ Iain feels that this question is more pressing now than it has ever been because humanity has lost the plot, imperilling the existence of our species. The planet will survive, but will we? And even if we can stop destroying the world, we will have to reimagine who we are and how we relate to the cosmos. These are the issues that Iain tries to address in The Matter with Things.

The book is in two volumes and three parts. Volume 1 contains Parts 1 and 2; Volume 2 contains Part 3 and a bibliography which itself is over 200 pages long.

Part 1 focusses on neuropsychology (how our brains shape reality). The Hemispheres and the Means to Truth

(attention, perception, judgment, apprehension, emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence, creativity)

Part 2 focusses on epistemology (how we can come to know anything at all). The Hemispheres and the Paths to Truth

(science, reason, intuition, and imagination)

Part 3 focusses on metaphysics (the nature of what we find in the cosmos). The Unforeseen Nature of Reality

(the coincidentia oppositorum, the one and the many, time, flow and movement, space and matter, matter and consciousness, value, purpose, life and the nature of the cosmos, the sense of the sacred)

In total The Matter with Things is 1579 pages long. Iain has been asked whether anyone in this day and age has the time (or inclination?) to sit down and read a book of this length. In the book launch party Jonathan Rowson pointed out that to his knowledge, at this time, only about 10 people in the world have read the entire book.

A good reason for reading the book from beginning to end is that Iain develops his argument through the book culminating with the final chapter in which he tells us that one of the great losses from our modern world, perhaps the greatest loss, is a sense of the sacred. This, together with the loss of other values such as goodness, beauty, truth, and purpose, has led to the world’s current predicament. The book is so long because Iain doesn’t simply state his opinion. For each argument he makes he backs it up with extensive research into science, philosophy, ancient wisdom, and spiritual traditions from around the world. And through this research he has found that what he instinctively felt as a young man in his twenties, when writing ‘Against Criticism’, has been discussed in many traditions and cultures throughout history – that the whole is not the sum of the parts, the world is not inert and unresponsive, that opposites coincide as well as diverge, history is not linear but moves in spirals and everything flows. So, if you wanted to follow the development of his arguments it would probably be best to read The Matter with Things from beginning to end, particularly if you haven’t read The Master and His Emissary. The book ‘is intended as a single whole, each part illuminating, and in turn illuminated by, the others.’ (p. xvii)

But, Iain writes, the book ‘can be explored according to whim’ (p. xvii), which will be my approach. I have decided to dip into this long book and read chapters out of sequence, so I have read the last chapter (Chapter 28) The Sense of the Sacred first, because it seemed to me, having read The Master and His Emissary more than once, and being familiar with many of Iain’s core ideas, that this is the chapter that introduces ideas that I haven’t heard Iain pull together before. I next read the chapter on Values (Chapter 26) because I have been discussing values with a friend. I am now reading Chapter 20, The coincidentia oppositorum, because I have recently heard Iain speak of the coincidence of opposites twice and want to consolidate my understanding of the points he is making. So, for The Matter With Things, I will be dipping in and out and will not be in any rush to read the whole book.

Jonathan Rowson mentioned that Iain has a lot of speaking events lined up, so it will be helpful to follow those along with reading the book. Iain’s speaking events are usually advertised by Channel McGilchrist on their website, their Twitter stream (@dr_mcgilchrist) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DrIainMcGilchrist). By joining Channel McGilchrist you can receive a regular newsletter of updates, if you are interested in following the developments surrounding this book.

The Matter With Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, can be ordered on on the Channel McGilchrist website, and a Kindle edition can be purchased on Amazon.

Update 12-11-2021

See also this post by Charles Foster – http://blog.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/2021/11/how-we-got-into-this-mess-and-the-way-out/

The Relationship between Matter and Consciousness. A talk by Iain McGilchrist

This post reports on a talk given by Iain McGilchrist at the Field&Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK, in October 2021. Iain is author of ‘The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’ (2009) and ‘The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World’, his new book which will be published on November 9th 2021.

The talk relates to Chapter 25, Matter and Consciousness, in his new book. In this chapter, Iain discusses (so he told us. I haven’t yet received my pre-ordered copy of the book) the relationship between consciousness and matter; consciousness and life, and what we can learn from the hemisphere hypothesis. The hemisphere hypothesis was explored in his book ‘The Master and His Emissary’.

As in other posts on these difficult topics covered by Iain, I need to say at the start that any errors in this post are mine and should be attributed to my understanding, or lack of it, and my interpretation of what Iain said, rather than what he actually said. I have included full references to Iain’s two books at the end of this post, where some of my sources can be checked.

Iain started this talk by saying that there has been no progress on the hard problem of consciousness. “The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of how physical processes in the brain give rise to the subjective experiences of the mind and of the world.” (David Chalmers)

The relationship between matter and consciousness

Iain suggests that the brain and consciousness are intimately related and work in tandem, and that there are three possible relationships between the brain and consciousness.

  1. The brain emits consciousness
  2. The brain transmits consciousness
  3. The brain permits consciousness i.e., the brain shapes forms and brings into being the consciousness that we experience.

Iain believes that consciousness is neither emitted, nor passively transmitted, but permitted by the brain. Some things are allowed to be transmitted and others are not. The idea of emission gained traction amongst biologists because they think we understand matter, but matter is just as difficult to understand as consciousness. The relationship between matter and consciousness is baffling. Iain suggests five possible routes to resolving this:

  1. Deny the existence of consciousness
  2. Deny the existence of matter
  3. Believe that both exist but are totally distinct
  4. Believe that both exist and are the same
  5. Believe that consciousness and matter are distinct phenomena reflecting different aspects of an indivisible reality.

One of the problems is that we think in terms of things and thingness. We need to move away from things and whatness (the left hemisphere’s view of the world) to processes and howness (the right hemisphere’s view).

The word consciousness has many meanings as is explored in Adam Zeman’s book, Consciousness. A user’s guide, but Iain is not talking about losing consciousness when we sleep or die and similar meanings, but about the experiential; something that has inwardness. This covers all activities that go on unconsciously, pre-consciously and consciously. The conscious and the unconscious don’t inhabit separate chambers. Iain uses the image of a spotlight on a stage to explain this.

A spotlight illuminates just one part of the stage (consciousness) but the rest of the stage (the unconscious) is still present. We are just not focussed on it. The unconscious is very large, but not inferior. The right hemisphere is aware of this unconscious and what is being focussed on (the conscious), but the left hemisphere is only aware of what is under the spotlight. We’re only conscious of a small part of all that we know. The unconscious is the most important and extensive part of our experience. We do many things in our unconscious minds; discriminate, reason, find things beautiful, solve problems, imagine possibilities, fall in love and so on, without being wholly aware of this. For this we rely on our whole embodied being. We only bring consciousness into play when there is a problem, which needs our focussed attention.

Can we deny consciousness? Some senior academics do and think consciousness is an illusion, but where is it an illusion if not in consciousness itself? Galen Strawson has written:

[Some philosophers] are prepared to deny the existence of experience. At this we should stop and wonder. I think we should feel very sober, and a little afraid, at the power of human credulity, the capacity of human minds to be gripped by theory, by faith. For this particular denial is the strangest thing that has ever happened in the whole history of human thought, not just the whole history of philosophy. It falls, unfortunately, to philosophy, not religion, to reveal the deepest woo-woo of the human mind. I find this grievous, but, next to this denial, every known religious belief is only a little less sensible than the belief that the grass is green. (Galen Strawson, 2008, Real Materialism and other essays. Oxford University Press).

Philosophers are now beginning to wake up to the idea that consciousness is foundational in the cosmos. There is nothing more certain than the existence of experience. It can’t be an illusion because an illusion requires consciousness.

Could consciousness be reduced to anything else at all? Many prize winning physicists state that it is impossible for consciousness to be reduced to anything else. We know about the experiential directly from experience; it’s the thing we know most about but we understand very little of it. We know that matter is disclosed to us by our minds, but we do not know that our minds are disclosed to us by matter. Denying consciousness doesn’t solve the hard problem.

Can consciousness emerge? This doesn’t explain anything. There is no such thing as consciousness being nascent. It doesn’t emerge. Once consciousness is born, there it is. It must have been present at the origin of things; it can’t simply emerge out of matter. If it did do this it would have to keep repeating this, not only in evolution, but every time a creature is born.

And what of matter? Can we deny matter? Matter is an adjective that describes an experience; it is not a thing. It is a mental abstraction, a convenient fiction, that no-one has seen. We’ve only seen elements of the world to which we attribute the quality within our consciousness of being material. Matter substitutes an idea for an experience and in doing so produces something static, no longer in process, no longer an experience, now a thing. Matter and mind remain mysterious. We shouldn’t deny matter, although it may not be what we think it is. Matter is that which persists and endures. It appears to be an element within consciousness that provides necessary resistance to creation, and for individuality to arise. Our bodies are ever flowing rivers. Matter causes change to slow down for a while. It gives shape and meaning.

Are matter and consciousness one and the same? Matter and consciousness interact. There is nothing merely physical about the physical. Consciousness and the observation of an event seem to alter the nature of that physical event. Thoughts and ideas can change matter. Simple belief can make something work, e.g., the placebo effect. Consciousness can interact with matter.

Iain is not convinced by the argument that matter and consciousness don’t look alike or behave similarly. They can be and are aspects of the same phenomenon or entity, just as water can be liquid, solid or gas, but nevertheless is always water. Schrödinger wrote:

It is the same elements that go to compose my mind and the world. This situation is the same for every mind and its world, in spite of the unfathomable abundance of ‘cross-references’ between them. The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist. (p. 127 Schrödinger, E. 1944, What is Life? Cambridge University Press)

Does this mean that we make reality up? This is not the case. It’s like the performance of piece of music. The music only exists when we perform it. When we perform it, it’s always slightly different, but always recognisably the same, and some performances may be truer to the reality of that piece of music. We do deal with reality and know it. We don’t see a projection of it on a screen in our heads, but my consciousness can never see the whole of reality, just as all 15 stones in the Zen Garden at the Ryoanju temple in Japan, can never be seen at once. From any angle in the garden only 14 are visible at one time.  We can never get the whole picture, so it’s wise to have as many takes/perspectives on reality as possible.

We neither make reality up, nor is it just out there. We midwife experience into existence. The attention we give to nature, the way we approach it, determines what we find. It is a reciprocal process. Through our experience we change what is there and vice versa. Everything is reverberative. Reality is constantly coming into being. Reciprocity is a profoundly important idea. Relations are prior to relata.

Is consciousness then not just in us but in everything that exists? This is pan experientialism, panpsychism and Ian believes that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’, and that the idea is gaining traction in the Western world, a world that would have dismissed it 20 years ago. This is a universal idea in the East. Reality conforms to what you have been taught to believe. But panpsychism has been recognised in the West by a number of different philosophers such as Heraclitus, Spinoza, Leibniz, Goethe, Schopenhauer, and Diderot.

All beings circulate through each other—thus all the species . . . everything is in a perpetual flux . . . Every animal is more or less a human being, every mineral is more or less a plant, and every plant is more or less an animal. There is nothing fixed in nature . (Diderot, D. 1769. D’Alembert’s Dream).

So, summing up this section, we can say:

  • Mind and matter have a close relationship
  • We cannot logically dismiss the existence of consciousness or matter
  • Matter and consciousness are not so distinct that they cannot interact
  • Matter and consciousness are not identical and may be aspects of one and the same reality
  • Matter and consciousness are not equal. Consciousness is prior ontologically to matter

Consciousness and life and their relationship, and whether brains play an important part in this

Here Iain adopts the position taken by Robert Rosen, that inanimacy is the limit case of animacy. The whole cosmos is animate and living; the bits that we call inanimate are those in which the characteristics of life are at a minimum. Inanimacy is the ultimate reduced case of animacy; there is not a hard and fast boundary between them. Animacy is the norm. Inanimacy has to be explained. Animacy enables processes to develop many orders of magnitude faster than they would without it and magnifies the elements of inter-responsiveness in the cosmos. There are sacrifices to being animate. Inanimate things decay a lot slower than living things; there are costs to becoming more highly evolved beings, e.g., they have relatively short lives. “Life requires cognition at all levels” (James Shapiro); cells are themselves capable of cognition; they act purposively and solve problems that they couldn’t be programmed to have a solution to.

So where do brains fit into this? Are brains necessary for awareness? The evidence suggests that neuronal complexity is not sufficient nor necessary for awareness (waking consciousness). We can lead a conscious life without a cerebellum. Slime moulds have no neurones and can solve mazes. Some people can function without brains, the space being filled instead with cerebro-spinal fluid (John Lorber). Plants can remember and make decisions (Monica Gaglioano et al. 2016) and have intentions and experientiality. Sparse neuronal connectivity is sometimes superior to dense connectivity. Complexity is not always advantageous.  By the time of birth a human brain has already lost 70% of its neuronal connections. It is becoming less credible/credited that only humans have consciousness. Consciousness is in all forms of life (Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2017, Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness).

So why are there brains at all? Brains are the material counterpart of some aspect of consciousness, and they give relative permanence to it. Brains give a degree of persistence and endurance (Schopenhauer. Matter is that which persists and endures). Brains don’t have the capacity to predestine your thoughts, beliefs, or actions. They don’t know something before you do. The decision to act can be unconscious. (In relation to this see Iain’s argument reported on in this paper How a flawed experiment “proved” that free will doesn’t exist ).

How about permission and how can we relate this to the hemispheres?

Permission involves both inhibition and facilitation together. Some things are permitted, some things not. It is a sculpting process, like Michelangelo discarding stone to produce the image of David, which I have mentioned before on this blog. By discarding (by not permitting), the sculpture comes into being. Resistance as a creative act is essential. Consciousness has this role. Consciousness allows some things to come into being and filters others out, liked stained glass allows some things to come into being, because coloured glass blocks some frequencies of light. Another example is a cell membrane which is both a conductor and resistor – a semi-conductor.

Permission of consciousness is more likely than emission of consciousness from the brain. The brain becomes more powerful by shedding neurones and pruning connections. The primary function of the corpus callosum and frontal lobes is to inhibit. When people are approaching death, the filter appears to break down; a lot more might be permitted and we witness the experience of terminal lucidity. The same might occur when people take mind altering substances, which might filter the inhibitory effects of the frontal lobes of the brain. The idea of resistance is enormously important.

Reality is what it seems. We are not separated from reality; reality is not a projection on an internal screen. Our embodiment is what makes science possible, not our transcendence of it, and our imagination, not our avoidance of it. Imagination is necessary for every attempt to understand the world.

So, what is consciousness for? Consciousness is not to our purposes. We are to the purposes of consciousness. We speak the language of the cosmos and the cosmos speaks our language. The Universe is conscious. This is to make assumptions, but all models make assumptions.

How does our individual consciousness relate to this conscious universe? Iain’s preferred way is to think of waves in the sea or vortices in a stream; vortices are not separate from the stream, waves are not separate from the sea, they are there for a while, they have force, they are measurable and visible, they just are the nature of the sea or the stream for a while in that place.

What exists is locally differentiated, but ultimately a single field of potentiality which is constantly actualising itself. All is one and all is many. This is not simple unity. We need the non-duality of non-duality and duality. Each differentiation is a gestalt in itself, a new whole, not a fragment connected to the whole. This is the essence of creation, Differentiation is something not destroyed in its unity, but enriched as with the unfolding of something hitherto implicit into a new more explicit order which then re-enfolds it into an explicit whole (David Bohm writes similarly about consciousness).

Matter is a specific case of consciousness which is the primal stuff out of which the universe is made. The hemispheres attend to the world in different ways and their attention can alter the nature of reality. One is prior to the other, the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere, just as mind is prior to matter, and wave is prior to particle. Every point of view can be espoused in a left hemisphere or right hemisphere way.

This has been a difficult topic to understand and report on. It seems to me that what Iain is saying is that we need to move our attention from matter and particle (left hemisphere) to mind and wave (right hemisphere). If reality is mental and has a dual mode this is complementary to the two modes of attention of the brain hemispheres. Materialism is a product of the left hemisphere.

References

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

Iain McGilchrist (2021). The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World. Perspectiva Press

Source of image: The Matter with Things

Source of image: Spotlight on a stage

Source of image: The Vortex Effect

Left and Right Hemisphere Approaches to education

Having returned from the Field & Field conference on Exploring the Divided Brain with Iain McGilchrist, which took place in the Cotswolds, UK, between 2nd and 5th August 2021, I have spent some time reflecting on the workshop I ran, which was billed as follows:

Paradigm shift in education? What can we learn from Iain McGilchrist?

Many educators are concerned with the increasing instrumentalism of our education systems, where students are thought of as future economic assets. There are also concerns about the almost exclusive focus on a ‘back-to-basics’, essentialist approach in our schools. Some are happy with the existing system, others call for more progressive, existentialist approaches, and/or the greater integration of values such as integrity, diversity, inclusivity, and compassion. Iain McGilchrist has said that our current thinking is increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere’s narrowly focussed way of attending to the world. He believes that nothing short of a paradigm shift will bring about the change needed to counter this dominance. 

In this session we will discuss some of the key themes that run through The Master and His Emissary, themes such as two ways of knowing, flow, embodiment, depth and breadth. Could these themes be used to bring about a paradigm shift in education, i.e., a shift towards the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world? In this workshop, we will explore if and how this could happen.

As always (this is the fifth Field & Field conference I have attended) I found the conference completely exhausting and overwhelming in the content that I now need to process. Knowing this I asked for my workshop to run on the very first day, when I thought I would be more likely to be alert! This has both positive and negative consequences. The positive is that I and others do have more energy at the beginning of the conference (this was important because what I asked participants to do was not easy), the negative is that participants haven’t had the chance to listen to Iain’s lectures and so bring that knowledge to bear on the task.

Overall, I think the workshop went as well as could be expected, given the limited time we had (about an hour and a quarter) and the working space I was allocated, which was called the Piano Lounge. This was effectively the hotel lobby, so we had to compete with a lot of background noise, although the hotel did finally turn off the canned music on request. I assume I was given this space because I had said I would not be using technology (no PowerPoint presentation, just pencil, paper and talk) and there were other workshops using technology. The space wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t come anywhere near my worst experience of an allocated teaching space. Years ago, I was once timetabled to teach one group split into two small rooms at opposite ends of a long corridor. I reckon if you can pull that off you can run a session in any space 🙂

I did wonder what participants would make of the workshop. I knew it would be a challenge. As mentioned in my previous post on this topic, I hoped that we would be able to discuss whether it is possible to apply some of the themes that run though Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (themes relating to a right hemisphere approach to the world), to education.

But first we looked at a scenario (arias-school-experience-200721)  of what a 15 year old girl’s school experience might be like in 2030, if we continue to promote the left hemisphere dominated approach to education that many countries seem to be advocating. I named the girl Aria. To create this scenario, I adapted some work done by Neil Selwyn and colleagues (Neil Selwyn, Luci Pangrazio, Selena Nemorin & Carlo Perrotta (2019): What might the school of 2030 be like? An exercise in social science fiction, Learning, Media and Technology).

The question I asked the group was whether this scenario is realistic. If so how, if not, why not? The general consensus was that it is a recognisable scenario, although maybe not all the facts included in the scenario are found in one school, but rather across different schools. Selwyn et al. include five different vignettes in their paper. I used one because of time constraints,  but my workshop participants agreed that this scenario depicts a left hemisphere approach to education.

The reason for starting with this scenario was that I felt that if participants were to have any chance of reimagining an education experience that aligns more with the right hemisphere in the given time, they might need a story/narrative to help. We could imagine a real child’s experience rather than an abstract concept.

At this point I asked participants to consider what Aria’s school experience might be like if it was based on the themes,

  • Two kinds of knowing
  • Flow and betweenness
  • The ‘Other’
  • Depth and Breadth
  • Embodiment
  • Creativity
  • Qualification

All these themes reflect characteristics of the right hemisphere’s approach to the world. My idea was that participants would work in twos, threes, or fours, to discuss one of the themes and answer the question ‘What would Aria’s school experience be like if it was based on the theme you are working on?’ For each theme I gave participants some text taken from the Master and His Emissary, so that they could focus on what Iain McGilchrist has written about them. No group was given ‘Two Kinds of Knowing’, as I felt that in any discussion of education, no matter what the theme, the left hemisphere’s role should always be remembered. Although we were focussing on the right hemisphere’s way of working, my view is that we should not ignore or demonise the left hemisphere. Instead, we should aim to try and restore some balance.

This is the handout I provided on the themes (the-master-and-his-emissary-key-themes-150821). I wanted the focus to be on lessons from The Master and His Emissary, rather than on educational psychology and philosophy more broadly, although it is possible to see many parallels between some educational philosophers’ work and McGilchrist’s work.

Prior to the event, I tried to answer the question for each of the themes myself, to see whether it was achievable in the time and how hard a task I was setting. A result of this was that, against my better judgement, I decided to provide a worked example ( on the theme of imagination), as a sort of prop (advance organiser), to help people get going. This is the example of how I approached the task – see the-master-and-his-emissary-imagination-120821-1

I was well aware that there are many possible ways to approach this task and of the disadvantages of providing a worked example. I was also aware of the irony of retreating to this left hemisphere approach, but I didn’t want anyone to be defeated by the task and ultimately most participants ignored this example. Only one group produced something similar. Another group decided that a better theme, which would incorporate all these themes, would be health. In fact, each group interpreted the task differently as you would expect.

So, was the workshop a success? One participant told me it was hard. Another how much she had enjoyed it. Another that his group dynamic didn’t work for him. I wonder whether that related to left and right hemisphere approaches. For me, the ideal would have been a longer workshop in a quiet space, or a series of workshops with time to dig deep into this. Nevertheless, there was loads of discussion between the 16 participants, so much so that we ran over by 10 minutes and everyone was fully engaged and fully on task for the entire workshop. If they also went away with new thoughts and questions, for me that counts as a success.

What did intrigue me though is how difficult it is to suppress the left hemisphere. I asked participants to try and think completely outside the box, and not to consider the constraints that would be imposed by the current education system if a more right hemisphere approach was proposed, but it really is difficult to escape the left hemisphere.

Any thoughts on any of this by any readers of this post, would be most welcome.

Source of image: https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

A Right Hemisphere Approach to Education

In a week’s time, I will be once again in the Cotswolds, UK, attending the Field & Field 4 day conference at which Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, will be the keynote speaker. This will be the fifth time I have attended this conference (or retreat as the organiser likes to call it). On all prior occasions I have shared my notes from the conference on this blog. They can be found on The Divided Brain page, linked to here.

The last time this conference took place in 2019, I ran an hour long workshop in which we discussed the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/coming-to-your-senses-with-iain-mcgilchrist/). For that workshop, I didn’t assume that everyone was familiar with McGilchrist’s book, so we examined and discussed the key characteristics of the left and right hemispheres’ take on the world, how these might affect education, and what changes to education this knowledge might suggest. An hour is nowhere near long enough for this discussion, so we only scratched the surface.

This year, despite the shortage of time once again, I would like to take this discussion further, by focussing on what a right hemisphere approach to education might involve and include. To do this we will first briefly consider the direction that education might take if it continues to be dominated by left hemisphere approaches. We will then spend the rest of the session discussing how some key themes from McGilchrist’s book, related to the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world, might be implemented in schools. The themes I have selected for discussion are: flow and betweenness; depth and breadth; embodiment; qualification; creativity; the ‘Other’; and two kinds of knowing. There are, of course, many other possible themes, and if participants want to work on an alternative theme, that would be fine with me. I have written about some of these themes on this blog (see The Divided Brain page).

Because of the shortage of time, I will be providing notes to support this activity, but I see this is as a more challenging task than the one we worked on in 2019. It requires escaping from left hemisphere thinking and trying to imagine an alternative approach to education. There will be no one way of doing this, no ‘right’ answer. Hopefully there will be many alternative perspectives. But more than this, my hope is that the session will provoke new ways of thinking, suggest new possibilities for education, or, at the very least, raise questions to take away and think about. McGilchrist has said that we need a paradigm shift, a change of hearts and minds to redress the balance between left and right hemisphere. I will be interested to see whether this sort of activity has the potential to start this process.

Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter with Things – further information

In my last post, I wrote that I have pre-ordered Iain McGilchrist’s new book, The Matter with Things. Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World, which will be published in two volumes. The writing of this book has been a 10 year long process, which means that no sooner had McGilchrist finished writing The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which is also a long book (over 500 pages), he started on this new book. He says the new book took over him and his life and demanded to be written.

Each volume of the new book is 750 pages long. (I have wondered how much juggling about was needed to make each volume of equal length!) Maybe, and hopefully, the text in the new volumes will not be so dense. A very short video on Channel McGilchrist, which turns the pages of the new book for us, indicates that this is the case. Below is a screenshot from that video. As you can see, this time the notes are included in the margin of the page. In The Master and His Emissary, the notes were included at the end of the book – 250 pages of very small typeface. I think this new format will make it easier to follow the notes.

I have now heard Iain McGilchrist talk about The Matter with Things a few times and it is interesting to hear how the book has evolved. The first time I heard him talk about it was in 2018. At that stage, the working title of the book was There are No Things. In 2019, I heard him talk about it again, in a series of one hour lectures given at the Field and Field conference in the Cotswolds, UK. I made notes and shared them on this blog. See the posts under the heading ‘2019 The Matter with Things’, on The Divided Brain page on this blog.

More recently I heard Iain talk about his new book in this video (published in October 2020). But some things have changed since this video was recorded, not least the publisher. Originally the book was due to be published by Penguin Random House, but we now know that the book will be published by Perspectiva Press. In this 2020 video Iain talks about the book being in three parts, but we now know that it has been published in two volumes. I can’t imagine how much work it must have been to make that change.

However, all has been resolved as we now have a short video on Channel McGilchrist where Iain explains what the new book is all about. You need to be a member of Channel McGilchrist to see this video, filmed in Iain’s beautiful garden on the Isle of Skye, but I will share some details here.

Although the book is in two volumes there is one overarching argument and that is that the horrendous natural challenges that we now face are a result of our way of looking at or being in the world, which has become increasingly left hemisphere dominated. Our brain has evolved to manipulate the world rather than understand it, such that we are blinded to a profound and beautiful reality. We think of the world as inert and mechanical, just a collection of things for us to use. The aim of the book is to open our eyes to this and to consider the questions of how this philosophically affects how we live in the world and how it might delude us of the world’s true nature. If our civilisation is going to survive, we need a radically different view of the world.

In this new book Iain is trying to expose the weakness, the ignorance and the simplicity of the current reductionist view of the world, which seems more or less unchallenged in the public intellectual arena.

Volume 1of The Matter with Things bears the title ‘The Ways to Truth’, not that there is a single truth, but rather that some things are truer than others. In the first part of this volume, Iain explores how we get an idea of what reality is and says that there are six or seven faculties that we bring to bear on reality – attention, perception, judgements formed on the basis of attention and perception, judgements formed on the basis of emotional and social intelligence, cognitive intelligence and the capacity for creativity. These are the ways in which we can encounter ‘the Other’.

In the second part of Volume 1, Iain consider the four paths to an understanding of the world, four paths by which we can arrive at the truth – science, reason, intuition, and imagination. He explores what these are good at and their limitations, saying that we need each and must honour all four of them. Now, at any one time we honour one, or possibly two. Our view of science and reason has become narrow, and imagination and intuition are not sufficiently valued. In all four the right hemisphere’s view is more important than the left. I first heard Iain talk about these four paths at the Field and Field conference in 2019 and shared my notes on this blog. See The Divided Brain page on this blog, for more details.

In Volume 2 of The Matter with Things, Iain considers what we can do once we know (and have seen through what is covered in Volume 1) how in touch, or out of touch, the left and right hemisphere’s ways of looking at the world are. We can now recognise that there are paradoxical findings and very often these paradoxical findings can be traced to the characteristic ways of thinking of the left and right hemispheres. These paradoxes relate to fundamentally important things like time, space, consciousness, matter, value, purpose and a sense of the sacred. All these are very important for understanding our relation to the cosmos at large. In this volume Iain looks at the structure of the cosmos and shows that opposites must and do co-exist. We need both like the two poles of a magnet and there is no barrier between them. This is an important insight. Another important insight is the relationship between the one and the many. How does the uniqueness of everything we experience relate to the capacity we have to see it as a certain kind of general thing? What are the values and problems that emerge if we don’t understand this?

So, the new book is an attempt to provide an overall philosophy of life and consider where we stand in the cosmos, and to bring us back to a vision of and chance of living a better life within it.

Introducing the work of Iain McGilchrist

Source of image: https://www.rozsavage.com/hi-from-skye/

 

Earlier this week, as I checked my online feeds early in the morning, I came upon this query on Twitter, from someone I don’t know either on or offline:

Should I be interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist (left and right brain stuff), what would I get from it and where should I start?

 

I was immediately interested in this question, because, not only have I spent the past nine years following Iain McGilchrist’s work, but I have also spent virtually every morning since the start of this COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, slowly and carefully re-reading, and making notes on his seminal text, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

Iain, who I have met on a number of occasions, once said that he was very surprised at how many people had told him they had read his book more than once. I am not surprised. It is a very long and very dense text. I am a very slow reader and it is taking me a week to read a chapter, which has turned out to be the perfect project for a lockdown! There are 13 chapters in the book. I said to Iain at the time, that since it took him 20 years to research and write the book, I fully expected it to take me quite a few years to read, re-read, and digest it in its entirety, which has proved to be the case.

In answer to the Twitter query, anyone who is concerned about the state of our world, will probably find something of interest in Iain’s work. In the The Master and His Emissary, Iain draws on extensive research to answer the question ‘Why is the brain divided?’ The book is in two parts.

Part I focusses on the brain itself, not on what the two hemispheres ‘do’, but on the ‘how’, i.e. the manner in which (not the means by which). The focus is on ways of being and ways of attending to the world. Each hemisphere offers a fundamentally different version of the human world and, as such, the two hemispheres are in conflict and stand in opposition to one another.

Part II focusses on the history of Western culture and how this relates to the divided brain. Both hemispheres have crucial roles to play. Iain believes that whilst science is integral to our understanding of the world and he does not want to undermine reason, we now live in a world dominated by left hemisphere thinking – mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised. Through bringing this to our attention, he would like us to consider how to redress the balance.

I know people who have started with reading Part 1, but have never got round to reading Part 2, and vice versa. This is not surprising. The book contains more than 500 pages of dense text, packed with information, inferences and references. It is not for the faint-hearted. It is not an easy read, but if you are prepared to give it the time, it contains something for everyone, no matter what your discipline. It is also a book that you can return to over and over again. You can skip sections, and return to the book later when you feel ready for them.

What did I get (and continue to get) from the book? I can’t speak for others, or tell the author of the tweet what he will get from it. Everyone will get something different. When I first came across the book in 2010, the idea that there are two ways of attending to the world immediately resonated. I could see this in my own life.  I was struck by the idea of the asymmetry of the two hemispheres, and the fact that although each hemisphere is in one way or another involved in everything we do, there is a power struggle between them. I recognised that I had felt/experienced this power struggle between the left hemisphere’s focus on language, and the right hemisphere’s focus on visual imagery, in my own life. As I got to know the book better, there were so many more ideas that resonated. I became interested in philosophy, and philosophers. As I continue to read the book and reflect on it, I sense a greater personal awareness and understanding of my approach to living in the world, and what is important to me. And of course, now, as we live through this global crisis, the idea that we are living in a left-hemisphere dominated world, seems so very evident and obvious.

So if you are interested in learning more about Iain McGilchrist’s work, where should you start? You can of course launch straight into the book, but maybe you would prefer a slow build up to it, which is now easier to do ten years after the book was published, because there are now many videos of Iain speaking about his work on YouTube. These are the steps I would take if you want a gentler introduction.

  1. Watch the RSA Animate Video which explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. (11.47 mins)

2. Watch The Divided Brain Documentary (I hour 18 mins). This is a beautifully produced and very informative documentary, well worth watching. It is not free, but you can rent it for 48 hours for only £4.99, or you can buy it for £14.99.

3. Read Ways of Attending. How our divided brain constructs the world. This was published in 2018. It is a short introduction to Iain McGilchrist’s ideas, only 30 pages long, and very accessible. For some reason I don’t understand it is expensive for such a short book – £14.99 in paperback, Kindle edition £8.67, but if you really want a brief introduction to the key concepts of Iain’s exploration of brain lateralization, and its impact on human culture, this is the book to buy.

4. If you are still unsure about whether you want to invest in a copy of The Master and his Emissary, then the Introduction to the book, is freely available online as a PDF

5. Hopefully, all this has been enough introduction to the full text: The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The paperback edition of this on Amazon Prime is cheaper than Ways of Attending! £13.63.

Update 03-07-20 – Since writing this post, I have created a wiki of the notes I made when reading The Master and His Emissary. See Wiki Notes

I could recommend many more articles, videos and podcasts, but I think five is enough to start with. You can find more on Iain McGilchrist’s own website.

You can also subscribe to a new platform, Channel McGilchrist for the most recent updates about Iain’s work. This platform is in development and will probably open fully in the summer, but currently if you subscribe, you will receive a monthly newsletter by email.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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