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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal reflection

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

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

Authors/people referred to during the session

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

Iain McGilchrist (1982) Against Criticism. Faber & Faber

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

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

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

The Divided Brain. What does it mean to think?

Saturday 21st March am

This is the third 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 first two 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

Iain will problematise the phrase I think: in the morning Iain will look at the embodied nature of cognition and belief, and in the afternoon at the nature of the relationship between individual and society, the one and the many. (From the course booklet)

I found this day the hardest of all four days to get a handle on, but hopefully the process of working through my notes by recording them here, and having a long walk on this beautiful Spring day, will help me to make sense of them. The talks were framed around the phrase ‘I think’ with the morning focusing on ‘Think’ and the afternoon on ‘I’.

Iain started by saying that there is no objective reality – but there is an underlying reality that is there for us to respond to. All thinking – imagining, remembering, cogitating, pondering and so on – is about making things up; all thinking is creative. Creativity is about stopping and allowing it to happen – relating to the world. Thinking can be thought of as ‘methinks’ – it seems to me – or more literally ‘it thinks to me’. So thinking is something that comes into mind. Max Scheler believed that thinking is out there, not in the brain.

There are different kinds of ways of knowing the world and thinking about it; the kind of knowledge that comes from experience (phronesis); knowledge that comes from more information (episteme); techne-knowledge that a craftsman has; and theoretical wisdom (sophia). This relates to Dreyfus’ work on adult skill acquisition, which Iain referred to later in this talk and which I mention in more detail below.

Almost all the thinking we do we are not aware of. Even when unconscious we are planning, reasoning, making decisions – hence the expression ‘Sleep on it’.

Thinking and believing: Belief does not mean signing up to reasons. From ‘Lief’ meaning ‘beloved’, belief is about a process, a relationship. Truth is also always about relationship; being faithful or true to one another. Trust has the same root as truth.

All thinking, believing and notions of truth are tentative and need to be tested. It is not about certainty but about bringing into becoming. These processes are always two-way. Meaning, emotion and reason are not distinct. Thinking and feeling can’t be separated.

To think is to thank. Thinking is not made up by reason. It is not certain, unidirectional and detached. Thinking is receptive and grateful. It is relational. Mind relates to ‘to mind’, which relates to ‘to care’ again suggesting a relationship. Thinking is deeply connected with feeling (feeling probably comes first) and is an embodied way of sensing, which the RH tries to appreciate. The brain seems to ‘ready itself’ for thinking before the thinking takes place. Thinking and bodily preparation for action are closely related, but abstract thought closes down action. All thinking is dependent on the body.

Understanding depends on models and metaphors. A metaphor is how we make a connection between a word and an embodied experience. We tend to see ourselves as machines, but machines can be predicted and controlled and we can’t do this with humans. For example, computers and machines will never take over the work of therapists, i.e. a machine could not take the place of the ‘listening therapist’. We are not ‘things’. We are more than the sum of our parts. The RH is the hemisphere that attends to the whole, the LH to the parts. ‘There are, then, two widely different ways of attending to the world.’ (p.43, The Master and his Emissary).

In talking about the issue of reduction versus holism Iain referred us to Addy Pross’s book ‘What is Life? in which Pross writes (p.50) ‘… – the seeking of generalizations, the recognition of patterns – is at the core of all scientific understanding’. Pattern recognition is the work of the right hemisphere.

‘The right hemisphere sees the whole, before whatever it is gets broken up into parts in our attempt to ‘know’ it. Its holistic processing of visual form is not based on summation of parts. On the other hand, the left hemisphere sees part objects.’ (p.47, The Master and his Emissary).

As an example of this we were asked if we could see the pattern in this image. Of course, once you have seen it, you cannot ‘un-see’ it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.00.16

(See Figure 2.4. Emergence of the Gestalt. p.47 The Master and his Emissary)

The RH is also more active when looking at ambiguous figures such as in the figure below. In this image you can see either the duck or the rabbit, but you cannot see both at the same time. The RH is more tolerant of this uncertainty.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.18.36

Iain went through many more examples of right and left hemisphere differences with particular reference to the images in Chapter 2 of The Master and his Emissary.

Iain then went on to refer us to Dreyfus’ work on adult skill acquisition, which is summarized in this Table, taken from their paper, p.181 (see reference list at the end of this post and for a larger view, click on the image).

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 09.07.22

My understanding is that Iain used this reference as another example of reduction versus holism. As beginners when learning a skill it is helpful to have some rules (see the comments section of my first post in this series, where there is reference to close reading of poetry and the fact that more structure can be helpful for novice poetry readers). But beyond Skill Level 3 (see Table 1) rules hamper the process and at Stage 5 reflection doesn’t help. We don’t want our surgeons to be referring to a rule book when making life and death decisions, choices are not always a good thing and research has shown that when we have time to review a choice, we often end up making a worse choice. Here Iain referred us to Barry Schwartz’s book – The Paradox of Choice. I interpreted this as meaning that the ‘expert’ takes an intuitive holistic view. For the novice, the skill is first seen by the RH as totally embodied. This is then broken down into individual components when thinking moves to the LH. Ultimately when the level of experience means that the skill is intuitive, there is a return to the RH.

Embodied Thinking and Emotion: Our bodies are not assemblages of parts. There is a direct link between the heart and the brain via the vagal nerve. The heart feeds back to the brain, not just pain, as in the case of chest pain associated with heart conditions, but also in relation to other conditions such as epilepsy and depression. We talk about having a ‘heavy heart’. Depression is a condition of the heart and research has shown that after heart surgery there is an increase in the instance of depression.

Thinking is thus embodied and so we should be mindful of our bodies and how we allow our thoughts to come to us. Thinking is distributed through the body, and there was reference here to the limbic system, which is primarily responsible for our emotional life; we know that emotion affects our immune system. This all relates to the embodied nature of thinking and emotion and the role of the right hemisphere, not only in emotion, but also in empathy and theory of mind. In his book The Master and his Emissary (p.57-64), Iain writes (p.59)

‘… there is evidence that in all forms of emotional perception, regardless of the type of emotion, and in most forms of expression, the right hemisphere is dominant’.

We see this in

‘… the strong universal tendency to cradle infants with their faces to the left, so that they fall within the principal domain of attention of the adult’s right hemisphere, and they are exposed to the adult’s own more emotionally expressive left hemiface.’ (p.61).

Reading this makes me stop and think about which side of my face I present when interacting with others. The RH is more willing to accept someone else’s point of view and is more able to feel someone else’s pain.

The value of slowing down, silence and stopping: This was mentioned quite a few times during the course, i.e. that for creativity, stopping doing things is more important than doing things. We started and ended this session by being reminded that we need to create the mental space for quiet receptivity and more careful attention. Creativity is not just letting things all fall out; we also need to bring critical things into play.

There was a lot more from Chapter 2 (What do the Two Hemisphere’s ‘Do’?) of the Master and his Emissary in this session, which I have not mentioned here. The message I took from this session is that we have not given enough attention to the right hemisphere’s role in thinking, it’s role in believing, feeling, emotion, embodied perception, pattern recognition and creativity, and that we should be more aware of the relationship between these and thinking.

Authors referred to during this session

Anthony Damasio (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books.

Hubert Dreyfus (1979). What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. University of Chicago Press

Dreyfus, S. E. (2004). The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society. 24: 117 Retrieved from: http://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2012/03/Dreyfus-skill-level.pdf

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

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

Addy Pross (2014). What is Life? How Chemistry becomes Biology. Oxford University Press.

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

Barry Schwartz (2005). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (P.S.). Harper Perennial

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

Friday 20th March pm

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

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

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

 A basic grounding in the hemisphere hypothesis, including its significance for understanding the nature of language, which is often thought to be a left hemisphere tool only. (From the course booklet)

Looking at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to keep up in this session, maybe because it ran between 4.00 and 6.30 pm, at the end of a day which started at 9.00 – but here are some ideas that I captured and given their paucity, I can recommend Chapter 3 -Language, Truth and Music – of Iain McGilchrist’s book (The Master and his Emissary).

Iain started this session by reiterating that we need both the left and right hemispheres (LH and RH) – we need restraint and liberty, pleasure and adversity, hot and cold, thesis and antithesis; in this sense polarities are important. Language is not only in the LH, although language plays into the hands of the LH. Language is an embodied cry which can take us direct to experience and bring the whole world to life.

Iain quoted from Robert Graves’ poem, The Cool Web, in which Graves writes:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

Language protects us, but also insulates us from the reality of experience. Language is two faced. It distances us from and engages us with reality.

Iain reminded us that language is an outgrowth of music and that there are situations in life that don’t require words, which is what makes the telephone such a thin medium. Communication requires so much more than words. There is ‘talking to’ and ‘talking about’, and language is of greatest use when talking about. Language is not essential for communication and it is not essential for thought.  That thoughts don’t require words was illustrated with the story of the crow which solved an 8 stage logical problem. Here is a video of this from YouTube.

Language does help with certain kinds of thinking and communication, but obstructs others. Thoughts come before we have the language to speak them. We can see this in very young children who acquire language in an embodied way – they babble and point – always together. Speech is connected with arms and hands and gesticulation. Gesture and language are very closely connected.

Metaphor unsettles the meaning of our words. ‘It is what links language to life’. (p.115 The Master and his Emissary). Also on p.115 of The Master and his Emissary, Iain writes: ‘Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself.’

Nietzche wrote: ‘communication is shameless; words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common.’ It was this last point that Iain focused on – ‘words make the uncommon common’, telling us that language tends to bring us back to the abstract, but also that careful use of language can break beyond the abstract.

Different types of attention means that we see things in a different way. We can reach out to grasp, but we can also reach out to connect to make a bond.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 09.37.40

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

‘Both thought and its expression originate in the right hemisphere’ (p.189. The Master and his Emissary’. ‘… the richness of thought comes from the right hemisphere and is transferred across to the left hemisphere secondarily for translation into language’ (p.190). If we lose right hemisphere function then the world loses reality. This was illustrated with reference to Deglin and Kinsbourne’s work on an individual’s response to syllogisms when either LH or RH function is inhibited. This research showed that the RH remains true to experience, but the left hemisphere, ‘prioritises the system, regardless of experience: it stays within the system of signs’ (p.193. The Master and his Emissary) to the point of believing that a porcupine is a monkey because it is written on the card.

As was noted in the first session (see last blog post), the LH is a self-reflective hall of mirrors. Iain believes that we can break out of this through connecting with

  • the natural world
  • cultural truths
  • our bodies and embodiment, rather than thinking of the body as a sporting accessory
  • art
  • religion or spirituality, which is now a minority hobby when it used to be a framework for action

So – to sum up : The RH is more willing to pass information to the LH than vice-versa but the difficulty is in finding an appropriate language to represent the ‘embodied’ way in which the RH appreciates wholes. Hegel’s proposition (first suggested by Heraclitus) is that there is a unity of opposites and this is an important feature of dialectics – the co-existence of at least two conditions which are opposite to each other yet dependent on each other and presupposing of each other within a field of tension. This neatly describes the hemispheres – co-existing but continuously in tension.

Unfortunately the hemispheres can get out of balance. LH domination leads to a ‘hall of mirrors’ situation which results in less embodiment of learning and lack of awareness of ‘the other’.

This session ended with reference to a ‘loss of truth’ and the question ‘How do you get moral strength back into people who have lost it?’

Authors referred to during this session

Deglin, V. L. & Kinsbourne, M. (1996). Divergent Thinking Styles of the Hemispheres: How syllogisms are solved during transitory hemisphere suppression. Brain & Cognition, 31, 285-307

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

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967),

William Ophuls (2012). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

William Ophuls (2013). Plato’s Revenge. Politics in the Age of Ecology. MIT Press

Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt, 1947-2011

Eli Goldratt died yesterday June 11th 2011 at the age of sixty-four at his home in Israel.

“I smile and start to count on my fingers: One, people are good. Two, every conflict can be removed. Three, every situation, no matter how complex it initially looks, is exceedingly simple. Four, every situation can be substantially improved; even the sky is not the limit. Five, every person can reach a full life. Six, there is always a win-win solution. Shall I continue to count?” (Eli Goldratt)

This text and video below have been released by the Goldratt Group in his memory

Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt spent his entire adult life fighting to show that it is possible to make this world a better place. We must have the honesty to see reality as it is, we must have the courage to challenge assumptions, and above all, we must use the gift of thinking. Having applied these principles to various management fields, he created the Theory of Constraints. His concepts and teachings have expanded beyond management and are being used in healthcare, education, counseling, government, agriculture and personal growth – to name a few fields using TOC. His legacy is invaluable.

Video: https://www.toc-goldratt.com/TV/video.php?id=470

Eli Goldratt has been influential in our family since the 1980s. We have his books at home which are very well thumbed. I have heard him speak at a seminar in the UK, once, many years ago. He was a powerful force. Not someone you could easily forget. And then a few years later I attended a course on the Theory of Constraints, when I was looking for new ways of thinking about management in school education. It opened my eyes to new ways of thinking.

It’s good to know that Goldratt’s work will continue. Tomorrow sees the start of the annual Theory of Constraints conference http://www.tocico.or/?page=intl_conference_2011 in New York.