Exploring the Divided Brain – The One and the Many

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

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

Here are the links to my first previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Kingfisher's catch fire

Source of image


As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 

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

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 

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


I say móre: the just man justices; 

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 

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

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal reflection

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

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

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

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

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

Authors/people referred to during the session

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

Henri Bergson (1912). Bergson Introduction to metaphysics

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

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

William James (1909). A Pluralistic Universe

Anthony King (2013). The Blunders of our Governments

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press.

The Divided Brain: What does it mean to think? Part 2- Iain McGilchrist

Saturday 21st March pm

This is the fourth in a series of posts I am making following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year, can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language  

What does it mean to think? Iain McGilchrist

What does it mean to think? Part 2 Iain McGilchrist

 The nature of the relationship between individual and society, the one and the many. (From the course booklet)

The focus of this second day of the course was on what it means to think, with the morning session focusing on ‘Think’ and this afternoon session focusing on ‘I’.

At the end of this second day of the course, some participants were feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Iain recognized this so deliberately started on a lighter note and spent the first half hour proving to us that we fail to see what’s in front of our eyes. This was part of the recurring theme of how we attend to the world and how we need to recognize that there are two widely differing ways of attending to the world – the way of the left hemisphere and the way of the right hemisphere. However, most of the time we don’t really know what we are looking at and lack of attention and distractions stop us from seeing changes. This was amply illustrated by a number of videos, and reference to Richard Wiseman (who created the video below), and his work on inattentional blindness.

Focusing on the ‘I’ of ‘I Think’, Iain pointed out that people see what they expect to see and there is no objective reality. He asked, ‘What does it mean when we say ‘I’? ‘What does it mean to be an individual?’ and connected these questions with the concept of ‘necessary distance’. Our frontal lobes (of the brain) put distance between us and experience, but there is a paradox between generalized form and uniqueness. Reality is paradoxical.

We need to put a necessary and proper distance between us and the world. Too far away and we can’t see it. Too close and the fusion is not good. We need opposing forces, but balance is also always required. Iain referenced John Muir’s work on the inter-relationship of things – both competing and cooperating to maintain balance.

Standing back can serve two purposes. It enables us to selfishly manipulate the world, but it also enables us to empathise and be generous. So boundary management becomes important – recognising what the boundaries are and where they should be. Boundaries are necessary for freedom and life. They can’t be rigid. They have to be flexible.

Empathy exists because of the necessary distance we put between us and others. There is no conflict between love of self and love of others. In fact we have to love ourselves before we can love others. Divisions are not diminutions. It is not either/or. Consciousness is relational in every sense.

According to Iain the idea that ‘all is one’ is not true. All is many or at least two. He illustrated this by quoting from the King James Bible where it is written that God created the earth through division, dividing land from sea, night from day, heaven from earth.

But despite these divisions ‘there aren’t solid entities with fixed localities in the universe, …. there are only relationships between things’ and relationships are not things. They are in the spaces between things. ‘And this allows the possibility of things that are so contrary to one another, to complement one another, not to cancel one another out.’ (These quotes are taken from the video below).

Iain told us to put our faith in the ‘cantus firmus’ which will hold the core solid while allowing the possibilities of multiplicity. This reminded me of an online discussion that I had more than three years ago with Matthias Melcher who, with his deep appreciation of and for music, immediately saw the relevance of the cantus firmus. Rather than try and explain it any further here, I will do what Matthias did for me and point you to this video of Iain talking about it. The whole video is worth watching but reference to the relevance of the cantus firmus comes up between 24.53 and 28.37 minutes.

Diversity and sameness empower one another. Competition and co-operation are needed for co-evolution. In this context it is not surprising to be told that the right frontal expansion in the brain is the biggest expansion in the brain. This is the area of social behaviour and here Iain pointed us to Heidi Ravven’s book – The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will – in which she discusses how we are not independent of the culture in which we live.

All boundaries are permeable and we are not sharply defined. We are not autonomous. We share everything, but likewise we are subject to influence by authority and example, and we can be influenced to do terrible things. We are like nodes in a network, both separate and connected.

We can be ‘I as opposed to’ or ‘I as belonging and a part of’. The left hemisphere reinforces ‘I’ness dominated by publicly following the crowd, even if individuals think otherwise. This felt like a sobering note on which to end the day.

Authors referred to during this session

John Muir (1838-1914) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press

The King James Bible

Richard Wiseman https://richardwiseman.wordpress.com/