Notes on McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.
This is an exceptional and extraordinary book. Its breadth and learning are awe-inspiring. Its topic of profound importance, its argument fascinating, thought-provoking and compelling. It defies categorisation: it is a work of reasoned ontology that bridges science and philosophy, history and literary criticism. It talks about the most important questions of how we “be in the world”, using reason and language but transcending them, a worthy exemplar of a “finger pointing at the moon”.
1. Brain lateralization exists
Brain lateralization exists i.e. that there are differences in function and consciousness between left and right hemispheres.
2. Brain lateralization is significant
Brain lateralization is significant. Significant not just in the basic sense that, say, language is left-lateralized but in the deeper sense that there is, crudely, a left-brain and right-brain way of seeing and being in the world. (Note: the two hemispheres work in collaboration and almost no function is completely lateralized)
Left-brain: the left brain perceives in pieces, serially. Analytical, logical, dislikes paradox. Focused on the familiar, on categorising. Language and symbols. Grabbing, controlling, goal-oriented (it controls the right hand which is usually dominant).
Right-brain: the right brain is gestalt, it sees as a whole, all at once. It is the source of experiencing and comprehending. It is happy with contradiction, the seat of common-sense. Focused on the new, on discovery, on relations and connectedness (rather than difference and categories). Handles metaphor and music.
3. The left-brain should be the servant of the right brain.
The left-brain should be the servant of the right brain. It is the right brain that sees the world as a whole.
As McGilchrist puts it: the right brain experience goes out into the left brain and then comes back to form a coherent whole in the right brain …
4. But the left brain is taking over
But, at least in western culture, the left brain (or the left brain way of seeing the world) has been taking over. The servant is usurping the master – the emissary has become the master.
We can trace periods where the balance between the hemispheres has changed with the left or right more dominant. Part II of the book provides fascinating argument and evidence for this claim.
[ed: necessarily this section is much more speculative: McGilchrist is talking about vast swathes of human history in all its complexity and then seeking to demonstrate a connection with the initial evidence for hemispherical differences in ways of seeing the world. I see this section as more fascinating than convincing – and as somewhat secondary to the main thrust of the argument. This is something McGilchrist himself acknowledge: “These thoughts [in Part II] are inevitably contingent, to some extent fragmentary and rudimental. [Introduction]”
5. Especially in the West
In the West today “left-hemisphere” ways of thinking and being have taken over (and this a problem because they are mistaken and limited).
How do we understand the world, if there are different versions of it to reconcile? Is it important which models and metaphors we bring to bear on our reality? And, if it is, why has one particular model come to dominate us so badly that we hardly notice its pervasiveness? [Introduction]
6. This is problematic because the left brain creates its own “hall of mirrors”
This is so problematic because the hemispheres literally create [our perception of] the world and so if the left hemisphere takes over it can blind us to its own errors – creating the world in its own image.
Here I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.
7. There is room for hope
There is room for hope, not least the existence of other cultures less infected by western left-dominated ways of being.
There is much serious ontology in the book, in fact you could think of the entire book as dedicated to a kind of scientific ontology. Scientific not simply in the sense of using neuroscience but in the way buddhism is scientific: in being critically open-minded, in being based in reason rather than rationality. The position McGilchrist reaches, heavily grounded in phenomenology, is one that is very close to Buddhist ontology e.g. interdependent co-arising [ed: and one I largely agree with]:
”… the world is not independent of our observation of it, attention to it, and interaction with it, …”
“The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation [of the world]”
McGilchrist spends half the book (Part I) setting out evidence on differences between the hemispheres and their way of seeing the world. However, ultimately the lateralisation point is secondary to the central argument that there are different ways of seeing the world and that one of these (the right brain version) is preferable / better / more correct.
In this sense the lateralisation analysis serves more as a motivation and basis for enquiry than the main point. For example, the (lateralisation) neuroscience helps us build up a picture of these two different ways of seeing the world which might be difficult otherwise: (from the Introduction) “ … why do I not just deal with mind, and forget about the brain? And in particular why should we be concerned with the brain’s structure? … After all, my pancreas is doing fine, without my being able to remember much about its structure. … [but] the structure of the brain is likely to tell us something we otherwise could not so easily see.”
Connection with Buddhism: there is a huge overlap with Buddhist teaching but one that McGilchrist seems only vaguely aware of. He gets closest to making a connection in a section of the conclusion on “The Oriental Mind” which suggests that Oriental thinking is more right brain and offers hope for the west.
The book also includes one of the most beautiful expositions in a “western style” of the inter-related errors of anti-rational post-modernism and excessive rationality.
… I may at times seem to be sceptical of the tools of analytical discourse … however … I hold absolutely no brief for those who wish to abandon reason or traduce language. … The attempt by some post-modern theoreticians to annex the careful anti-Cartesian scepticism of Heidegger to an anarchic disregard for language and meaning is an inversion of everything that he held important. To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth (though it certainly can do), or, much worse, that there is no such thing as truth (though it may be far from simple). … Equally this book has nothing to offer those who would undermine reason, which, along with imagination, is the most precious thing we owe to the working together of the two hemispheres. My quarrel is only with an excessive and misplaced rationalism which has never been subjected to the judgment of reason, and is in conflict with it. … I am in no sense opposed to science … only to a narrow materialism, which is not intrinsic to science at all. Science is neither more nor less than patient and detailed attention to the world, and is integral to our understanding of it and of ourselves.
Excerpts and Commentary
What follows below are excerpts from particular sections of the book with occasional comments. Note excerpting is somewhat sporadic depending less on the importance or interest of a section and more to the coincidence of reading and having my laptop to hand.
Note on page numbering: the various PDFs I have differ in their total number of pages. My desktop copy has 1094 whilst my mobile has around 868.
This book tells a story about ourselves and the world, and about how we got to be where we are now. While much of it is about the structure of the human brain – the place where mind meets matter – ultimately it is an attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.
Whatever the relationship between consciousness and the brain – unless the brain plays no role in bringing the world as we experience it into being, a position that must have few adherents – its structure has to be significant. It might even give us clues to understanding the structure of the world it mediates, the world we know. So, to ask a very simple question, why is the brain so clearly and profoundly divided? Why, for that matter, are the two cerebral hemispheres asymmetrical? Do they really differ in any important sense? If so, in what way?
I have come to believe that the cerebral hemispheres differ in ways that have meaning. There is a plethora of well-substantiated findings that indicate that there are consistent differences – neuropsychological, anatomical, physiological and chemical, amongst others – between the hemispheres. But when I talk of ‘meaning’, it is not just that I believe there to be a coherent pattern to these differences. That is a necessary first step. I would go further, however, and suggest that such a coherent pattern of differences helps to explain aspects of human experience, and therefore means something in terms of our lives, and even helps explain the trajectory of our common lives in the Western world.
My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.
STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
Here he sets out in summary much of the thesis about brain lateralization and its relation to “ways of being” in the world.
What is it they do that is so different? Well, I will argue, nothing much: it is quite true that almost everything we once thought went on in one or other hemisphere alone is now known to go on in both.5 So where does that leave the pursuit of hemisphere differences? Right on track. The whole problem is that we are obsessed, because of what I argue is our affiliation to left-hemisphere modes of thought, with ‘what’ the brain does – after all, isn’t the brain a machine, and like any machine, the value of it lies in what it does? I happen to think this machine model gets us only some of the way; and like a train that drops one in the middle of the night far from one’s destination, a train of thought that gets one only some of the way is a liability. The difference, I shall argue, is not in the ‘what’, but in the ‘how’ – by which I don’t mean ‘the means by which’ (machine model again), but ‘the manner in which’, something no one ever asked of a machine. I am not interested purely in ‘functions’ but in ways of being, something only living things can have.
Right is whole, left is parts
One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words are processed serially, while pictures are taken in all at once.
One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words are processed serially, while pictures are taken in all at once
Right is for newness, left for the familiar
What if one hemisphere is, apparently, attuned to whatever is new? Is that, too, just a specialised form of ‘information processing’? What role does imitation play in releasing us from determinism (a question I return to in different forms throughout the book)? I am not, of course, the first to ask such questions, and they undoubtedly admit of more than one answer, and more than one type of answer. But, while only a fool would claim to have definitive answers, I shall make some suggestions that I hope may encourage others to think differently about ourselves, our history and ultimately our relationship with the world in which we live.
The hemispheres provide different attention
Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay to them, the disposition we hold in relation to them. This is important because the most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world.
Great point about non-duality in our thinking – i.e. crude, absolutist materialism or nihilistic, relativistic idealism
But it’s also important because of the widespread assumption in some quarters that there are two alternatives: either things exist ‘out there’ and are unaltered by the machinery we use to dig them up, or to tear them apart (naïve realism, scientific materialism); or they are subjective phenomena which we create out of our own minds, and therefore we are free to treat them in any way we wish, since they are after all, our own creations (naïve idealism, post-modernism). These positions are not by any means as far apart as they look, and a certain lack of respect is evident in both. In fact I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it into being.6 A central theme of this book is the importance of our disposition towards the world and one another, as being fundamental in grounding what it is that we come to have a relationship with, rather than the other way round. The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation. This means we have a grave responsibility, a word that captures the reciprocal nature of the dialogue we have with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves. I will look at what philosophy in our time has had to say about these issues. Ultimately I believe that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but that they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another – hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain.
And a beautiful defense of true reason and science and the need to avoid both anti-rational post-modernism and rational reductivism
Because I am involved in redressing a balance, I may at times seem to be sceptical of the tools of analytical discourse. I hope, however, it will be obvious from what I say that I hold absolutely no brief for those who wish to abandon reason or traduce language. The exact opposite is the case. Both are seriously under threat in our age, though I believe from diametrically opposed factions. The attempt by some post-modern theoreticians to annex the careful anti-Cartesian scepticism of Heidegger to an anarchic disregard for language and meaning is an inversion of everything that he held important. To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth (though it certainly can do), or, much worse, that there is no such thing as truth (though it may be far from simple). But equally we should not be blind to the fact that language is also traduced and disregarded by many of those who never question language at all, and truth too easily claimed by those who see the subject as unproblematic. It behoves us to be sceptical. Equally this book has nothing to offer those who would undermine reason, which, along with imagination, is the most precious thing we owe to the working together of the two hemispheres. My quarrel is only with an excessive and misplaced rationalism which has never been subjected to the judgment of reason, and is in conflict with it. I hope it will not be necessary for me to emphasise, too, that I am in no sense opposed to science, which, like its sister arts, is the offspring of both hemispheres only to a narrow materialism, which is not intrinsic to science at all. Science is neither more nor less than patient and detailed attention to the world, and is integral to our understanding of it and of ourselves.
Lovely summary of our conflicted nature and the value of examining it
… the conflicts … between will and desire, between intention and action, and broader disjunctions between whole ways of conceiving the world in which we live – are the proper concern, not just of psychiatrists and psychologists, but of philosophers, and of artists of all kinds, and of each one of us in daily life.
CHAPTER 2: WHAT DO THE HEMISPHERES DO?
Empathy and theory of mind
Self-awareness, empathy, identification with others, and more generally inter-subjective processes, are largely dependent upon … right hemisphere resources.’194 When we put ourselves in others’ shoes, we are using the right inferior parietal lobe, and the right lateral prefrontal cortex, which is involved in inhibiting the automatic tendency to espouse one’s own point of view.195 In circumstances of right-hemisphere activation, subjects are more favourably disposed towards others and more readily convinced by arguments in favour of positions that they have not previously supported.196
Assuming you are autistic that means you are more in your left than than in your right hemisphere (equivalently you are more left brain than right brain). It explains much – eg a propensity to cataloging things such as datasets.
Aside: given right hemisphere concern with “living things” and left with inanimate I wonder where robots and computers go.
We have an unconscious, involuntary urge to imitate someone we are watching carrying out an action – so much so that, especially if it’s something we’ve practised ourselves, the empathic entrainment is actually stronger than the voluntary desire to do something we’d like to see happen. But this is true only if we think it is a real person that’s acting. If we think it’s a computer, we just are not engaged.201
But is this changing as computers become more lifelike?
Reason versus rationality
That the precuneus is involved is in itself interesting, because the precuneus, a centre that lies deep inside the parietal lobe, is deeply connected both with emotion – it forms part of the limbic system – and the sense of the self. It is one of the brain’s most consistently ‘hot’ spots, with a high resting metabolic rate, and it goes quiet in altered states of consciousness where the sense of self is no longer active, such as sleep, anaesthesia and vegetative states. It seems to play an important role in episodic memory, which is critical for personal identity, and in adopting the first person perspective.325
Music and Time
Music lives in right hemisphere even though language is in the left
Music and our physiology:
We are all aware of the many ways in which music affects us physically through our emotions. Musical phrases act like metaphors emanating from, and enormously expanding the meaning of, movement in and of the body: rising, falling, pulsing, breathing. Many features of music, including obviously syncopations, but also melodic appoggiaturas and enharmonic changes, set up patterns of expectation which are ultimately either confirmed or disappointed;381 and this process leads to physiological reactions such as alterations in breathing, or changes in heart rate, in blood pressure, and even in temperature, as well as bringing us out in a sweat, bringing tears to our eyes, or making our hair stand on end.382 Such changes are again mediated through the right hemisphere’s vital connection with subcortical centres, with the hypothalamus, and with the body in general.
On sadness and music:
It has been said that music, like poetry, is intrinsically sad,383 and a survey of music from many parts of the world would bear that out – not, of course, that there is no joyful music, but that even such music often appears to be joy torn from the teeth of sadness, a sort of holiday of the minor key. It is what we would expect in view of the emotional timbre of the right hemisphere; and there is a stronger affinity between the right hemisphere and the minor key, as well as between the left hemisphere and the major key.384 The pre-Socratic philosopher Gorgias wrote that ‘awe [phrike] and tearful pity and mournful desire enter those who listen to poetry’, and at this time poetry and song were one.385
Bach and contrapuntal music
While we are gathering new information, the right hemisphere is responsible, but once whatever it is becomes thoroughly ‘known’, familiar, it is taken over by the left hemisphere.406 The discovery that the contrapuntal music of J. S. Bach causes a strong right-hemisphere activation even in trained musicians is fascinating. It was explained by the researchers who made the finding on the basis that a range of melodic contours needs to be maintained in awareness simultaneously, requiring the right hemisphere’s greater capacity to hold experience in working memory.407 While that may be right, an alternative explanation might lie in the impossibility of attending to all parts of such music in its entirety, so that it can never be experienced in exactly the same way on different hearings. Because it is never finally captured, it is always new. And the two explanations are perhaps not so different, since the left hemisphere ‘capture’ that results in inauthenticity is possible only by limiting the scope of what is attended to.
The next paragraphy follows on but is worth taking separately as it flows on its own with aphoristic, allusive yet penetrating lucidity:
Music – like narrative, like the experience of our lives as we live them – unfolds in time. The movement of time is what makes music what it is. Not just that it has ictus and rhythm; its structure extends through and across time, depending on memory to hold it together.
Time is the context that gives meaning to everything in this world, and conversely everything that has meaning for us in this world, everything that has a place in our lives, exists in time. This is not true of abstractions and re- presentations of entities, but all that is is subject to time. The sense of time passing is associated with sustained attention, and even if for that reason alone, it is only to be expected that this arises in the right hemisphere, subserved by the right prefrontal cortex and inferior parietal lobe.408
It is a great illustration of the wonderful mix of poetical philosophy and “hard” aseptic science that is a constant feature of this marvellous book.
The section concludes with this brilliantly constructed climax:
Music takes place in time. Yet music also has the capacity to make us stand outside time. As George Steiner put it, ‘music is … time made free of temporality’.420 Equally it works through the body, but transports us beyond the world of the merely physical: it is highly particular, and yet seems to speak of things that are universal.421 Perhaps this going ‘through’ a thing to find its opposite is an aspect of the right-hemisphere world, in which ‘opposites’ are not incompatible, an aspect of its roundness, rather than linearity. However, I would say, at the risk of pushing language to or beyond its proper limits, that time itself is (what the left hemisphere would call) paradoxical in nature, and that music does not so much free time from temporality as bring out an aspect that is always present within time, its intersection with a moment which partakes of eternity. Similarly it does not so much use the physical to transcend physicality, or use particularity to transcend the particular, as bring out the spirituality latent in what we conceive as physical existence, and uncover the universality that is, as Goethe spent a lifetime trying to express, always latent in the particular. It is also a feature of music in every known culture that it is used to communicate with the supernatural, with whatever is by definition above, beyond, ‘Other than’, our selves.422
Self-awareness and emotional timbre
The right hemisphere is also more realistic about how it stands in relation to the world at large, less grandiose, more self-aware, than the left hemisphere.452 The left hemisphere is ever optimistic, but unrealistic about its short-comings.
Denial is a left-hemisphere speciality: in states of relative right-hemisphere inactivation, in which there is therefore a bias toward the left hemisphere, subjects tend to evaluate themselves optimistically, view pictures more positively, and are more apt to stick to their existing point of view.467 In the presence of a right-hemisphere stroke, the left hemisphere is ‘crippled by naively optimistic forecasting of outcomes’.468 It is always a winner: winning is associated with activation of the left amygdala, losing with right amygdala activation.469
Before embarking on this chapter, I suggested that there were two ways of being in the world, both of which were essential. One was to allow things to be present to us in all their embodied particularity, with all their changeability and impermanence, and their interconnectedness, as part of a whole which is forever in flux. In this world we, too, feel connected to what we experience, part of that whole, not confined in subjective isolation from a world that is viewed as objective. The other was to step outside the flow of experience and ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: to re- present the world in a form that is less truthful, but apparently clearer, and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world and one another. This world is explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, fragmented, static (though its ‘bits’ can be re-set in motion, like a machine), essentially lifeless. From this world we feel detached, but in relation to it we are powerful.
… granted that the contributions made by the left hemisphere, to language and systematic thought in particular, are invaluable. Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance – second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. Even if we could abandon them, which of course we can’t, we would be fools to do so, and would come off infinitely the poorer. There are siren voices that call us to do exactly that, certainly to abandon clarity and precision (which, in any case, importantly depend on both hemispheres), and I want to emphasise that I am passionately opposed to them. We need the ability to make fine discriminations, and to use reason appropriately. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring. Alone they are destructive. And right now they may be bringing us close to forfeiting the civilisation they helped to create.
What about the fact that we could use non verbal means to communicate …
Chapter 4: THE NATURE OF THE TWO WORLDS
p. 252 Wisdom as something that arises from intention but not through will or rule following – it requires a kind of active passivity.
I described as ‘apparently passive’ the openness of the right hemisphere to whatever is. That is because, in the absence of an act of will, this is how the left hemisphere sees it. But there is a wise passivity that enables things to come about less by what is done than by what is not done, that opens up possibility where activity closes it down.
Chapter 5 – THE PRIMACY OF THE RIGHT HEMISPHERE
THE INTERMEDIATE PROCESSING CARRIED OUT BY THE LEFT HEMISPHERE
A succint encapsulation of a commitment to meaningful enquiry and that there is a reality out there whilst acknowledging our limitations (reverbabative, balanced, judgment over science, reasonable reason over absolutism either of science or religion) p.382-3
I take it that there is something that exists outside the mind. One has to have a starting point, and if you do not believe at leastthat, I have nothing to say, not least because, if you are right, you are not there for me to say it to. The relationship of our brains to that something whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves could be of four kinds: (1) no relationship at all – which returns us to solipsism, since my brain would be the sole source of everything I experienced; (2) receptive – in the sense that, perhaps like a radio set, the brain picked up at least something of whatever it was from out there, and that became what is experienced; (3) generative – in the sense that the brain created at least something of the whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves; or (4) reverberative, that is to say, both receptive and generative – both picking up, receiving, perceiving, and in the process making, giving back, creating ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves but includes ourselves’. I am simply going to state at this point that I adopt the last of these alternatives. Of course, which is right is a terribly important question for philosophy, but if such a thing is susceptible of proof, I can’t prove it. All I can say is that all the evidence available to me as a living, thinking, experiencing human being leads me to that conclusion.
The Process of Reintegration
[p.390 / 1094]
The left hemisphere knows things the right hemisphere does not know, just as the right knows things of which the left hemisphere is ignorant. But it is only, as I have tried to suggest in earlier chapters, the right hemisphere that is in direct contact with the embodied lived world: the left hemisphere world is, by comparison, a virtual, bloodless affair. In this sense, the left hemisphere is ‘parasitic’ on the right. It does not itself have life: its life comes from the right hemisphere, to which it can only say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’.
[p.391] [Romanticism] [it] is the only term we have to refer to a philosophical, as much as cultural, revolution which heralded the beginnings of a reawareness of the power of metaphorical thought, of the limitations of classical, non-paraconsistent logic, and the adoption of non-mechanistic ways of thinking about the world, which belatedly enabled us to catch up with ideas that have been for centuries, if not millennia, current in Eastern cultures. With the advent of Romanticism, paradox became once more not a sign of error, but, as it had been seen by Western philosophers before Plato, and by all the major schools of thought in the East before and since, as a sign of the necessary limitation of our customary modes of language and thought, to be welcomed, rather than rejected, on the path towards truth. ‘Paradox is everything simultaneously good and great’, wrote Friedrich Schlegel.96
REINTEGRATION AS AUFHEBUNG
I have expressed this reintegration in terms of a ‘return’ to the right hemisphere. This risks suggesting that the achievements of the left hemisphere’s interventions are lost or nullified, reduced only to a remembrance to be borne in mind when looking at the new whole achieved by the right hemisphere, as though one were looking at the same whole as before, only with new eyes. This would be like a child taking a watch to bits and putting it together again. The only significant sense in which the reintegrated watch would now be different would be in the child’s newfound knowledge of its constituent parts; an important difference for the child, to be sure, but not effectively altering the watch. Once again we are misled by the metaphor of a mechanism, a watch, that is, at least in one sense, no more than the sum of its parts.
Instead, the pattern I would adopt to explain the way in which this process occurs in the bihemispheric apprehension of the world is that of Hegel’s Aufhebung. The word, often translated as sublation, literally means a ‘lifting up’ of something, and refers to the way in which the earlier stages of an organic process, although superseded by those that come after, are not repudiated by them, even though the later stages are incompatible with the earlier ones. In this sense the earlier stage is ‘lifted up’ into the subsequent stage both in the sense that it is ‘taken up into’ or ‘subsumed’ into the succeeding stage, and in the sense that it remains present in, but transformed by, a ‘higher’ level of the process. In a famous passage near the opening of the Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel illustrates it by reference to the development of a plant:
The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant’s existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.108 Thus what is offered by the left hemisphere should be and needs to be aufgehoben by the right hemisphere, not cancelling the left hemisphere’s contribution, but taking it further, by drawing it back into the realm of unification (in fact in German aufgehoben positively includes the idea of being preserved, as well as transformed).
Unification of entities and the dissolution of self (“interbeing”) [p.404]:
Rather than separate entities in a vacuum, we might think of individual entities as dense nodes within some infinitely stretchable or distensible viscous substance, some existential goo – neither ultimately separable nor ultimately confounded, though neither without identity nor without the sense of ultimate union.
This idea explains the apparently paradoxical attempt according to the spiritual practices of all traditions to ‘annihilate’ the self. Why would one want to do such a thing, if the point of creation was to produce the infinite variety embodied in the myriad selves of all the unique existing beings in the created world? Would this not be just to strive to reverse the creative process, and return from Being to Nothing? Instead what I understand by this miscalled ‘annihilation’ of the self is a sacrifice of the boundaries which once defined the self, not in vitiation of the self, but in its kenosis, a transformation whereby it is emptied out into a whole which is larger than itself.112 So it is that neither the bud nor the blossom is repudiated by, but rather aufgehoben in, the fruit.
Chapter 6: THE TRIUMPH OF THE LEFT HEMISPHERE
The left hemisphere is competitive, and its concern, its prime motivation, is power. If the working relationship were to become disturbed, so that the left hemisphere appeared to have primacy or became the end point or final staging post on the ‘processing’ of experience, the world would change into something quite different. And we can say fairly clearly what that would be like: it would be relatively mechanical, an assemblage of more or less disconnected ‘parts’; it would be relatively abstract and disembodied; relatively distanced from fellow-feeling; given to explicitness; utilitarian in ethic; over-confident of its own take on reality, and lacking insight into its problems – the neuropsychological evidence is that these are all aspects of the left hemisphere world as compared with the right.
Looks at neurological and phenomenlogical evidence from split brain patients as a way to look at what happens when one hemisphere is no longer balanced by the other.
Nonetheless, in the first months following surgery, split- brain patients reported some rather disconcerting experiences. These took the form of an apparent conflict of will, displayed in so-called intermanual conflict. Such was the case of a man who found himself in the unfortunate position of going to embrace his wife with one arm and pushing her away with the other.5 Other patients with disruption of the corpus callosum have reported similar experiences, for example:
On several occasions while driving, the left hand reached up and grabbed the steering wheel from the right hand. The problem was persistent and severe enough that she had to give up driving. She reported instances in which the left hand closed doors the right hand had opened, unfolded sheets the right had folded, snatched money the right had offered to a store cashier, and disrupted her reading by turning pages and closing books.6
Or: ‘I open the closet door. I know what I want to wear. As I reach for something with my right hand, my left comes up and takes something different. I can’t put it down if it’s in my left hand. I have to call my daughter.’7 Notice that it is always the left hand that is ‘misbehaving’: I will return to that shortly.
Aside: corpus callosum is about keeping hemispheres separate – and in equilibrium. Not necessarily in connecting them. In allowing one hemisphere to inhibit the other.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE HEMISPHERES
Ingenious metaphor about the possible developing relationship between the hemispheres.
What do we know of the normal working relationship of the hemispheres, in those whose brains have not been artificially split? Is it one of harmony or discord? The question is not simple. Just as inhibition may be maintained in the interests of co-operation, co-operation may be maintained in the interests of competition: where two co-operate, the first may do so in a reciprocal spirit, while the second does so out of self-interest, that self- interest benefitting from the generosity of spirit of the first. Moreover we have to distinguish between different levels of a relationship. Think of the relationship between two colleagues, who together run a small business. Which relationship are we talking about? At the simplest level one could describe the business partners’ day-to-day mode of working together. So, for example, one could say that they share an office, and, what’s more, share a breadth of training and experience in the work that they do, so that both can field enquiries. Each is acknowledged, nonetheless, to have special interests and expertise, and accordingly, where practicable, they split the work along agreed lines, especially where the work is complex; but where it would be quicker or more expedient, because, say, one of them is out of the office and an immediate response is needed, the other will step in and do whatever is required. At this level, and in this sense, the relationship appears pretty balanced and unproblematic. But that might not be the relationship I’m thinking of. I mean, how do their roles interact, and how does each contribute to the work of the company as a whole? This is a rather different question, and takes us beyond the day-to- day, to something more like ‘month-to-month’ mode, a middle level. Here, say, it might turn out that Franny is particularly interested in, and gifted at, bringing in new business; Fred, being a bit more of a backroom type, is better at doing the accounting and IT work. Without new business coming in, the outfit will fold; equally they will hardly survive without proper accountancy and IT support. So each needs the other. However, let’s say that Fred has decided that the future lies in developing new and better accounting software systems, that that’s what really matters. Anyone, he says to himself, can find the business; it takes someone special to keep the figures balanced, the systems running and ticking over. As a result Fred spends much of his time using the business data to help him develop more sophisticated software, and doesn’t prioritise getting the figures ready for Franny’s meetings with clients. He is given to feeling superior to Franny, telling himself there’s nothing much she does that anyone couldn’t do. At the same time Franny resents Fred spending so much of his time on what appear to be technicalities, freeloading on her ability to forge connections and make deals, and then letting her down at the last minute. There is an atmosphere in the office: bad-tempered exchanges, cool silences. And that represents another aspect of their relationship. But there is a third level to this relationship; not the day- to-day, not even the month-to-month, but the long-term plan, which I just happen to have heard about. Unknown to Franny, Fred has decided he is going to take the company’s data, ditch Franny, do a moonlight flit and start up an IT business all of his own. I’m well aware that hemispheres are not people. Nor is this vignette supposed to sum up the relationship between the cerebral hemispheres. It is designed to do one thing only: to suggest that there would be different answers to the question how the hemispheres relate depending on the level at which we are looking. We need to look at the lowest level, the ‘day-to-day’ nitty-gritty of how they get through the work together – who answers the telephone. We need also to step back a bit, to the middle level, and look at how their roles complement one another in constructing our world – in theory, and, which may not be the same thing, in practice. And we should not forget to look at the long-term strategy, something that an outsider might know about before one of the partners.
At a global level we can prefer one or the other hemisphere
Some interesting sidelights on the relationship between the hemispheres can be seen by examining the way in which these individual differences affect competition for the control of visual attention. In experiments where a task is carried out requiring attention to one’s non-favoured visual field (the field contralateral to one’s non-favoured hemisphere), while irrelevant, distracting information is presented to the favoured visual field, those subjects with a characteristic left-hemisphere bias found that the already strong tendency for the left hemisphere to prioritise the right visual field, and downplay the left visual field, was enhanced. This meant that the irrelevant information on the right interfered with the task going on in the left visual field (controlled by the right hemisphere). But for those with a characteristic right-hemisphere bias, when conditions were reversed, no such competitive effects were seen: irrelevant information in the right hemisphere’s favoured left visual field did not interfere with the subject’s ability to attend to the matter in hand going on, now, in the right visual field (the field favoured by the left hemisphere).33
This suggests a more even distribution of concern in the right hemisphere than in the left. We know that the right hemisphere ‘looks out’ for both hemispheres’ territory, not just its own, like the left hemisphere. But this goes further: having a ‘utilisation bias’ in favour of the left hemisphere intensifies this effect, whereas having a similar bias in favour of the right hemisphere does nothing to upset the even-handedness of its concern. This resonates with another well-established research finding: that transfer of information from left hemisphere to right hemisphere takes place more slowly than transfer from right to left.34 And, be it noted, this is regardless of whether the task is by nature better suited to the right hemisphere or left hemisphere.35
The image suggests, of course, that the two hemispheres have wills that may not always be in harmony. How legitimate is it to think of the hemispheres as having wills in this sense? Bogen refers to two ‘crucial facts’: that ‘it takes only one hemisphere to have a mind’, and that ‘hemispheres can sustain the activity of two separate spheres of consciousness following commissurotomy’.42 Sperry writes that, in commissurotomy patients, each hemisphere can be shown to experience its own private sensations, percepts, thoughts, and memories that are inaccessible to awareness in the other hemisphere. Introspective verbal accounts from the vocal left hemisphere report a striking lack of awareness in this hemisphere for mental functions that have just been
performed immediately before in the right hemisphere. In this respect each surgically disconnected hemisphere appears to have a mind of its own, but each cut off from, and oblivious to, conscious events in the partner hemisphere.43 And it is not just like this in surgically disconnected hemispheres. Temporary inactivation of one or other hemisphere, through the Wada test, produces similar results. Even without such specialised procedures, sometimes the brain of the ordinary subject shows disconnection comparable to that found in split-brain subjects.44 If there are separate sensations, percepts, thoughts and memories, as well as separate ways of dealing with all of these, it would hardly be surprising if there were separate desires formed, separate wills, to each hemisphere – and we know from the split-brain subjects’ experience that this is the case.
Consciousness as a tree, not a bird p. 436:
Panksepp sees consciousness as something that begins very deep indeed, in the so-called peri-aqueductal grey matter in the midbrain, and ‘migrates’ through higher regions of the brain, especially the cingulate, temporal and frontal regions of the cortex.47 So he sees it as something that is not all or nothing, but has a continuous existence, transforming itself as it travels upwards, through the branches, to what he calls, by analogy with the forest canopy, the ‘cerebral canopy’, until in the frontal cortices it becomes high-level cognitive awareness.48 I like this image of the cerebral ‘canopy’ because it reminds us that consciousness is not a bird, as it often seems to be in the literature – hovering, detached, coming in at the top level and alighting on the brain somewhere in the frontal lobes – but a tree, its roots deep inside us. It reinforces the nature of consciousness not as an entity, but as a process.49
Consciousness and self-consciousness:
The most robust distinction that can be made, however, although it is itself far from unproblematic, is that between self-consciousness and consciousness ‘pure and simple’. But what is consciousness without self- consciousness? We cannot tell whether another creature has self-consciousness – or, strictly, consciousness at all – so we are obliged to introspect on our own experience. However, such introspection is by definition self-conscious, and so we will not get to know what it is like to be conscious without being self-conscious by this route, either. One can however distinguish between times when one is aware of oneself as the object of attention and times when one is simply aware of being. This is the closest I can get to the distinction. It has the double advantage of coinciding with what we normally mean by ‘self-consciousness’ in everyday parlance; and of pinpointing the abnormality in subjects whose psychopathology, as in many anxiety disorders, especially social phobia, is of excessive self- consciousness.
Self and awareness and non-existence of self:
More specifically, the idea that things come into being through an apophatic process (see p. 197) also casts light, I believe, on the problem of the self, and helps to confirm this view. Hume introspected and found no sign of the self, just a string of sense impressions [note strong similarity with Buddhist ontology]. Fichte thought that was quite natural. The self, he believed, would not emerge in cognition: the more absorbed you are in the process of attending, the less aware you are of yourself as the absorber. It is only when there is some kind of resistance that one becomes aware of the self, ‘not as an object but as that which is obtruded upon by some kind of recalcitrant reality’.58 This is as if things become, in Heidegger’s terms, vorhanden, separate from us, and we feel ourselves separate from them. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms, it has to do with the plane of focus: whether the ‘I’ is transparent or opaque. I come into being as a self through the experience of resistance, as a lake is bounded by the shore which makes it a lake. These associations with opacity and Vorhandenheit again suggest that the self-conscious self emerges only when the focus of left-hemisphere attention is brought to bear on the right-hemisphere world.
Consciousness goes deep – it is not just in the canopy but in the roots (and an interesting neuroscience result) [p.446-447]:
Patients with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease can now be treated by a procedure known as deep brain stimulation, which involves surgically implanting electrodes in the subthalamic nuclei and stimulating them for brief periods (a painless procedure that is carried out, and indeed must be carried out, with the patient fully conscious). Professor Yves Agid and his team at the Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris found that by minute variation in the position of the electrode, they caused a patient to change from the impassive, immobile, ‘switched- off’ Parkinsonian state, to one of severe depression. In video recordings their patient can be seen grimacing, holding her head in her hands, and expressing feelings of sadness, guilt, uselessness, and hopelessness: ‘I’m falling down in my head, I no longer wish to live, to see anything, hear anything, feel anything …’ When asked why she was crying and if she felt pain, she responded: ‘No, I’m fed up with life, I’ve had enough …I don’t want to live any more, I’m disgusted with life …Everything is useless …worthless: I’m scared in this world.’ When asked why she was sad, she replied: ‘I’m tired. I want to hide in a corner …I’m crying over myself, of course …I’m hopeless, why am I bothering you …’ Less than 90 seconds after stimulation was stopped, the depression disappeared. For the next five minutes she was in a mildly hypomanic state, laughing and joking with the examiner, and playfully pulling his tie. By moving the probe minutely, she became frankly hypomanic, appearing not just cheerful, but being ‘over the moon’, and restlessly active – all within minutes or seconds.60
Experience that is completely ‘fused’ or unified in its automatic recruitment of cognitive, emotional and motor aspects of being, and which is experienced at the highest phenomenological level as an integrated phenomenon, with thoughts about the uselessness of carrying on living, feelings of deep sadness and gestures of despair, is already coherently constituted (and ‘ready to go’) at this low level in the tree of consciousness. It is not as if moving the electrode caused incoherent experience, such as the motor restrictions of Parkinson’s disease, with the cognitions of mania and the affect of depression, parts without relationship that would need to await the highest levels of cortical function for integration. Experiential wholes, that are completely coherent across all realms, and affect us at the most conscious as well as unconscious levels, are already present well below consciousness.
Important summary: one consciousness, two wills (or more), one associated with each hemispheres. Wills may be in conflict and each hemisphere has a special flavour. Wills may be in conflict – and probably are.
… with one consciousness we can have more than one will, expressive of more than one aim. … [T]he two hemispheres do have different concerns, goals and values, and that these are therefore likely to be expressed in different wills; … a conflict of wills may be exactly what we find. … on a range of both philosophical and neuropsychological grounds the right hemisphere has primacy … [On the] millisecond-to-millisecond, level, the most obvious fact about the relationship between the hemispheres is that it depends on separation and mutual inhibition, which is coherent with the view of the relationship between the phenomenological worlds of the two hemispheres, according to which each must, for different reasons, remain ignorant of the other. At the second level, that of their more global interaction over longer time periods that form the basis of conscious experience, the evidence is that the relationship is not symmetrical or reciprocal, with the advantage being taken by the left hemisphere.
There is therefore a conflict of asymmetries.
Full version without excerpting:
To recap. More than one will (and a fortiori more than one set of goals or values) does not mean more than one consciousness: so with one consciousness we can have more than one will, expressive of more than one aim. In Chapters 2 to 4, I suggested that the two hemispheres, as two vast coherent neurological systems, each capable of sustaining consciousness on their own, do have different concerns, goals and values, and that these are therefore likely to be expressed in different wills; and in this chapter I have put forward evidence suggesting that a conflict of wills may be exactly what we find. In Chapter 5, I showed that on a range of both philosophical and neuropsychological grounds the right hemisphere has primacy, and that, though the left hemisphere has a valuable role, its products need to be returned to the realm of the right hemisphere and once more integrated into a new whole, greater than the sum of its parts. Earlier in this chapter I showed that on the first, millisecond-to-millisecond, level, the most obvious fact about the relationship between the hemispheres is that it depends on separation and mutual inhibition, which is coherent with the view of the relationship between the phenomenological worlds of the two hemispheres, according to which each must, for different reasons, remain ignorant of the other. At the second level, that of their more global interaction over longer time periods that form the basis of conscious experience, the evidence is that the relationship is not symmetrical or reciprocal, with the advantage being taken by the left hemisphere.
There is therefore a conflict of asymmetries.
Two reasons right hemisphere should predominate:
- Ontological asymmetry: “In favour of the right hemisphere there is what might be calledontological asymmetry (the primacy of the right hemisphere’s interaction with whatever exists).”
- Asymmetry of function: “Also in favour of the right hemisphere is an asymmetry of function, which follows from the first asymmetry. In the functioning together of the two hemispheres, the products of the left hemisphere need to be returned to the realm of the right hemisphere in order to live. While experience is enriched by the opposite process, whereby the products of the right hemisphere are sent to the left hemisphere for ‘unpacking’, there is no necessity for that process. One process is literally vital: the other is not.”
However, right hemisphere is not favoured as it should be, in fact the balance of power lies with the left:
These two asymmetries indicate where the interhemispheric balance of power ought to lie, and indeed needs to lie: with the right hemisphere. But it does not. There are three other asymmetries which mean that in fact the balance of power is doomed to be dangerously skewed towards the lesser hemisphere, the left. These are an ‘asymmetry of means’, ‘asymmetry of structure’ and ‘asymmetry of interaction’.
- Asymmetry of means: “The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates, because it is most accessible: closest to the self-aware, self-inspecting intellect. Conscious experience is at the focus of our attention, usually therefore dominated by the left hemisphere. It benefits from an asymmetry of means. The means of argument – the three Ls, language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so that the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere which speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere.”
- Asymmetry of structure: “And then there is an asymmetry of structure. There is an asymmetry inherent in this system building, namely the difficulty of escape from a self-enclosed system. The system itself closes off any possible escape mechanisms. The existence of a system of thought dependent on language automatically devalues whatever cannot be expressed in language; the process of reasoning discounts whatever cannot be reached by reasoning. In everyday life we may be willing to accept the existence of a reality beyond language or rationality, but we do so because our mind as a whole can intuit that aspects of our experience lie beyond either of these closed systems. But in its own terms there is no way that language can break out of the world language creates – except by allowing language to go beyond itself in poetry; just as in its own terms rationality cannot break out of rationality, to an awareness of the necessity of something else, something other than itself, to underwrite its existence – except by following Gödel’s logic to its conclusion. Language in itself (to this extent the post- modern position is correct) can only refer to itself, and reason can only elaborate, ‘unpack’ the premises it starts with.”
- Asymmetry of interaction: “Finally there is an asymmetry of interaction. It seems to me that the overall way in which the hemispheres relate has critically shifted from a form of what might be called stable dynamic equilibrium to an inequilibrium. When there are two necessary but mutually opposed entities in operation together, an imbalance in favour of one can, and often will, be corrected by a shift in favour of the other – a swing of the pendulum. But negative feedback can become positive feedback, and in the left hemisphere there is an inbuilt tendency for it to do so.63”
Asymmetry of means
Sequential analytic ‘processing’ also makes the left hemisphere the hemisphere par excellence of sequential discourse, and that gives it the most extraordinary advantage in being heard. It is like being the Berlusconi of the brain, a political heavyweight who has control of the media. Speech is possible from the right hemisphere, but it is usually very limited. We have seen that thought probably originates in the right hemisphere, but the left hemisphere has most syntax and most of the lexicon, which makes it very much the controller of the ‘word’ in general. Coupled with its preference for classification, analysis and sequential thinking, this makes it very powerful in constructing an argument. By contrast it is hard for the right hemisphere to be heard at all: what it knows is too complex, hasn’t the advantage of having been carved up into pieces that can be neatly strung together, and it hasn’t got a voice anyway.
A beautiful, poetic, philosophical piece that is, as usual, rather dense:
The left hemisphere, with its rational system-building, makes possible the will to action; it believes it is the one that makes things happen, even makes things live. But nothing in us, actively or positively, make things live – all we can do is permit, or not permit, life, which already exists. It may still seem difficult to understand how a set of relations that are predicated, as I would agree with Scheler (and for that matter with Heidegger) that they are, on negation – the power to say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’ – can prove to have life and be creative. It seems obvious to the left hemisphere, which is all that we have to ‘think’ (reason) with, and which remains ignorant of what the right hemisphere knows, that creation must be the result of something positive it does. It makes things, as it makes things happen, and it thinks it gives life to them. In this it is like a cat pushing a dead mouse about the floor in order to see it move. But we do not have the power to make things live: like the cat, we can only either permit life, or not permit it.
This idea is not as strange, however – or as unusual in the history of philosophy – as it may seem. The act of creation may be one of invention, not in the modern sense of the word, but in its older sense: one of discovery, of finding something that was there, but required liberation into being. The word invention used to mean discovery (Latin invenire, to find), and it is only since the seventeenth century that the word has come to take on the grandiose sense of something we make, rather than something we uncover. Un-covering, or ‘dis-covering’, has built into the very word the act of negation, of saying ‘no’ to something that conceals. It was Spinoza who first made the point that omnis determinatio est negatio – ‘all determination [in the sense of the bringing into sharper focus of anything] is negation’. And Hegel, who is here, as so often, in the forefront of modern philosophy, emphasised the creative importance of negation. But the idea is familiar to mainstream science. The Popperian criteria for truth incorporate the notion that we can never prove something to be true; all we can do is prove that the alternatives are untrue.
CODA: SLEEPWALKING INTO THE ABYSS
The danger and self-delusion of the left hemisphere:
Although the left hemisphere does not see and cannot understand what the right hemisphere understands, it is expert at pretending that it does, at finding quite plausible, but bogus, explanations for the evidence that does not fit its version of events. It will be remembered from the experiments of Deglin and Kinsbourne that the left hemisphere would rather believe authority, ‘what it says on this piece of paper’, than the evidence of its own senses. And remember how it is willing to deny a paralysed limb, even when it is confronted with indisputable evidence?
Ramachandran puts the problem with his customary vividness:
In the most extreme cases, a patient will not only deny that the arm (or leg) is paralysed, but assert that the arm lying in the bed next to him, his own paralysed arm, doesn’t belong to him! There’s an unbridled willingness to accept absurd ideas. But when the damage is to the left hemisphere (and the sufferer is therefore depending on the right hemisphere), with paralysis on the body’s right side, they almost never experience denial. Why not? They are as disabled and frustrated as people with right hemisphere damage, and presumably there is as much ‘need’ for psychological defence, but in fact they are not only aware of the paralysis, but constantly talk about it …It is the vehemence of the denial – not a mere indifference to paralysis – that cries out for an explanation.66
The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility. If the defect might reflect on the self, it does not like to accept it. But if something or someone else can be made to take responsibility – if it is a ‘victim’ of someone else’s wrongdoing, in other words – it is prepared to do so. Ramachandran carried out an experiment in which a patient with denial of a left arm paralysis received an injection of harmless salt water that she was told would ‘paralyse’ her (in reality already paralysed) left arm. Once her left hemisphere had someone else to blame for it, it was prepared to accept the existence of the paralysis.68
Ramachandran again: ‘The left hemisphere is a conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies, whereas the right hemisphere is the opposite: highly sensitive to perturbation.’69 Denial, a tendency to conformism, a willingness to disregard the evidence, a habit of ducking responsibility, a blindness to mere experience in the face of the overwhelming evidence of theory: these might sound ominously familiar to observers of contemporary Western life.
Part Two: HOW THE BRAIN HAS SHAPED OUR WORLD
Basic contention that there is a switch in culture between “left” and “right” brain ways of being in the world.
Does not claim this necessarily occur at the actual level of evolution in brain structure but via epigenetics etc …
### Chapter VII: IMITATION AND THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURE
But [in the East] there is nothing like the extraordinary divarication of culture that seems to have characterised the history of the West – no equivalent of the Enlightenment, with its insistence on just one, rectilinear, way of conceiving the world, and (because there was no need for it) no Romanticism that aimed to redress it. As Max Weber demonstrated in his histories of Chinese and Indian culture, and of Judaism, it was only in the West that unchecked, acquisitive rationalism in science, capitalism and bureaucracy took hold.3
WHY HAVE THE SHIFTS OF BALANCE OCCURRED?
A #cri-de-couer from McGilchrist
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. I have referred to the fact that a number of influential figures in the history of ideas, among them Nietzsche, Freud and Heidegger, have noted a gradual encroachment over time of rationality on the natural territory of intuition or instinct.
Chapter VIII: – The Ancient World
The direction of Writing
“Writing is basically a technology,” wrote the great French historian, Fernand Braudel,
a way of committing things to memory and communicating them, enabling people to send orders and to carry out administration at a distance. Empires and organised societies extending over space are the children of writing, which appeared everywhere at the same time as these political units, and by a similar process … [Writing] became established as a means of controlling the society … In Sumer, most of the archaic tablets are simply inventories and accounts, lists of food rations distributed, with a note of the recipients. Linear B, the Mycenae-Cretan script which was finally deciphered in 1953, is equally disappointing, since it refers to similar subject matter: so far it has revealed hardly anything but palace accounts. But it was at this basic level that writing first became fixed and showed what it could do, having been invented by zealous servants of state or prince. Other functions and applications would come in due course. Numbers appear in the earliest written languages.101
CHAPTER 12: THE MODERN AND POST-MODERN WORLD
Capitalism and consumerism, ways of conceiving human relationships based on little more than utility, greed, and competition, came to supplant those based on felt connection and cultural continuity.
SELF-REFERENTIALITY AND THE LOSS OF MEANING
There is a close relationship between the mentality that results in bureaucratic organisation and the mentality of capitalism. Socialism and capitalism are both essentially materialist, just different ways of approaching the lifeless world of matter and deciding how to share the spoils.
This point, and IM’s general comment on current economic order is similar to the points i make re two arms of transformation and the primacy of being: both capitalism and socialism are situated in the material (the left hemisphere if you like). True transformation must always come in the realm of being, of the psyche.
The broader quote (worth adding I think):
In Eric Fromm’s study On Disobedience, he describes modern man as homo consumens: concerned with things more than people, property more than life, capital more than work. He sees this man as obsessed with the structures of things, and calls him ‘organisation man’, flourishing, if that is the right word, as much under the bureaucracy of communism as under capitalism. There is a close relationship between the mentality that results in bureaucratic organisation and the mentality of capitalism. Socialism and capitalism are both essentially materialist, just different ways of approaching the lifeless world of matter and deciding how to share the spoils. To that extent one might say that their antipathy represents little more than a farmyard scrap between two dogs over a bone.
RISE IN ILLNESSES CHARACTERISED BY RIGHT-HEMISPHERE DEFICITS
Interesting data on rise of schizophrenia with the industrial revolution and other matters:
What is beyond reasonable doubt, however, since it has been established by repeated research over at least half a century, is that schizophrenia increased pari passu with industrialisation; that the form in which schizophrenia exists is more severe and has a clearly worse outcome in Western countries; and that, as recent research confirms, prevalence by country increases in proportion to the degree that the country is ‘developed’, which in practice means Westernised.59
- Saha, Chant, Welham et al., 2005. Saha, S., Chant, D., Welham, J. et al., ‘A systematic review of the prevalence of schizophrenia’, PLoS Medicine, 2 2005, 2(5), p. e141
Fascinating data point:
After controlling for all confounding factors, mental health is better in rural than non-rural populations and deteriorates in tandem with population density.60
- Weich, Twigg & Lewis, 2006. Weich, S., Twigg, L. & Lewis, G., ‘Rural/non-rural differences in rates of common mental disorders in Britain: prospective multilevel cohort study’, British Journal of Psychiatry, 2006, 188(1), pp. 51–7
The entire section is worth quoting:
After controlling for all confounding factors, mental health is better in rural than non-rural populations and deteriorates in tandem with population density.60 City dwelling is associated with higher rates of depression, certainly, but even more with schizophrenia, in the genesis, or expression, of which it is the most potent environmental factor.61 The relative risk of developing schizophrenia in an urban rather than a rural setting is nearly double, and the evidence suggests that it is more likely that the urban environment causes psychosis than that high-risk individuals migrate to urban areas.62 The concept of ‘social defeat’ has been developed as an explanation of the high levels of schizophrenia in immigrant populations, particularly those from the West Indies into Britain.63 It is acknowledged that urban environments are more competitive. This is in part a reflection of capitalist culture, which is always most strongly expressed in cities for a host of obvious reasons. It is also because the kind of social order that would have valued an individual for anything other than their earning power has been lost. It’s a culture, if that is still the right word for it, of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.
Interesting evidence that anorexia is associated with right hemisphere deficits and left hemisphere dominance.
THE SELF-PERPETUATING NATURE OF THE LEFT HEMISPHERE WORLD
Being begets culture begets being:
Thus a culture with prominent ‘schizoid’ characteristics attracts to positions of influence individuals who will help it ever further down the same path. And the increasing domination of life by both technology and bureaucracy helps to erode the more integrative modes of attention to people and things which might help us to resist the advances of technology and bureaucracy, much as they erode the social and cultural structures that would have facilitated other ways of being, so that in this way they aid their own replication.
THE SUCCESS OF MODERNISM
Beauty, music and universals
Most theories of beauty from Plato to Nietzsche and beyond share the same concept of beauty: an organic whole which shows harmony between the parts. Western and Eastern concepts of beauty, despite their having evolved largely independently, are remarkably consonant.110 This will hardly surprise any Westerner familiar with Oriental art in all, or any, of its forms. Despite individual exceptions there is general agreement across cultures. This is why translations of poetry and fiction sell widely in many languages, why exhibitions of Japanese art, concerts of Indian, Indonesian or Japanese music, and even performances of oriental drama in the West are so successful; and why Western art galleries are popular attractions for large numbers of visitors from the East, and performances of Shakespeare, and concerts of Western music or ballet, are in demand in China and Japan, where some of the best performers of classical European music now originate. Even the completely untutored, indigenous populations of places such as Papua New Guinea, who have had no exposure to classical Western music, appreciate and understand intuitively the emotional import of the music of Mozart. None of this would be possible without the existence of non-socially constructed values that enable the apprehension of beauty and the understanding of its expression through art. There is a developing acceptance by psychology and the social sciences that human universals clearly do exist.111 [111 cites Brown, D. E., Human Universals, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1991]
- World we are getting (in not good sense) looks like what we would have if left hemisphere dominated
COULD THE LEFT HEMISPHERE SUCCEED ACCORDING TO ITS OWN CRITERIA?
Summary: material wealth (left-hemisphere) makes relatively little difference to well-being beyond a certain minimum but social relationships, connectedness etc (right hemisphere) are really important and remain important.
I am aware that, if one adopts the left hemisphere’s view, what I am about to say will be difficult to accept, but the fact remains that increases in material well-being have little or nothing to do with human happiness. Obviously poverty is an ill, and everyone needs their basic material needs to be met, and, for most of us, a little more than that. But, if observation and experience of life are not enough to convince us that, beyond that, there is little, if any, correlation between material well-being and happiness, objective data demonstrate it. Over the last twenty-five years, levels of satisfaction with life have actually declined in the US, a period during which there has been an enormous increase in prosperity; and there may even have been a significant inverse relationship between economic growth and happiness there.6 Since those blessed with employment spend much of their life at work, the quality of that experience matters. According to Putnam, in 1955 in the US, 44 per cent of all workers enjoyed their working hours more than anything else they did; by 1999 only 16 per cent did. Of course that might be because we are now enjoying ourselves more outside of work, but that clearly isn’t the case, since overall levels of satisfaction have declined. In Britain the story is the same. According to Gallup poll data, throughout the 1950s the British were happier than they are today, despite now being three times richer in real terms. In 1957, 52 per cent of the population considered themselves ‘very happy’, compared with 36 per cent today. Most countries studied show either a decrease or at least no change in well-being despite an increase in prosperity; and no relationship can be found between happiness and economic growth.7 The main determinants of happiness, as one might have expected, are not economic in nature. As two researchers in the area remark, with some restraint, given the huge increases in material prosperity over the last half century for which robust data exist, ‘the intriguing lack of an upward trend in happiness data deserves to be confronted by economists.’8
Excellent point following this:
More recent evidence in Europe displays the same effect. The so-called Euro-Barometer surveys of satisfaction with life, covering fifteen European countries during the decade to 2000, shows four clusters, in each of which the consensus trend is horizontal or slightly negative.10 The hedonic treadmill makes sure of that: modern consumers everywhere are in a ‘permanent state of unfulfilled desire’.11 As usual Sam Johnson got there about a couple of centuries before the research: ‘Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.’12
The issue is that material stuff does not matter and that relationships do (and quotes from Putnam):
So what does make a difference to happiness? ‘The single most common finding from a half century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world’, writes Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, ‘is that happiness is best predicted by’ – let’s guess: if not wealth, then health? No, not that either, but – ‘the breadth and depth of one’s social connections’.15
Even now, rates of depression do differ markedly between cultures, probably by as much as 12-fold, and such differences in rates of depression appear to be linked to the degree of stability and interconnectedness within a culture.16 Even being uprooted from your own culture, provided you take with you the way of thinking and being that characterises the more integrated social culture from which you come, is not as disruptive to happiness and well-being as becoming part of a relatively fragmented culture. For example, rates of psychological disturbance in Mexican immigrants to the USA start at a low level, but increase in proportion to the time spent in the US. The lifetime prevalence of any mental disorder in one large study was 18 per cent for Mexican immigrants with less than thirteen years in the US, 32 per cent for those with more than thirteen years, but only for those born in the US did it approximate, at 49 per cent, the national rate for the whole US.17
fn 16 is Weissman, M. M., Bland, R. C., Canino, G. J. et al., ‘Cross-national epidemiology of major depression and bipolar disorder’, Journal of the American Medical Association, 1996, 276(4), pp. 293–9
Over recent years, urbanisation, globalisation and the destruction of local cultures has led to a rise in the prevalence of mental illness in the developing world.18 A massive study involving data regarding nearly 40,000 people across North America, Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Rim found that depression is being experienced more often, and at younger ages, with more severe and more frequent episodes, in younger birth cohorts generation by generation, and in the USA had doubled since the Second World War.19
In a demonstration of the integrity of mind and body, it is not just mental health, but physical health that suffers when we are not socially integrated. ‘Social connectedness’ predicts lower rates of colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts.20 In fact the positive effects of social integration rival the detrimental effects of smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and physical inactivity.21 According to Putnam, ‘statistically speaking, the evidence for the health consequences of social connectedness is as strong today as was the evidence for health consequences of smoking at the time of the first surgeon general’s report on smoking.’22 The protective effect of community is demonstrated by the interesting case of Roseto, a close-knit community of Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, with largely traditional cultural ties – both the formal ones of churches and clubs, and the informal ones that form the fabric of traditional Italian daily life. This community attracted medical attention in the 1940s because of a mysterious anomaly: here was a rate of heart attack less than half the national average, despite having higher than average risk factors. After the relationship with social connectedness was discovered, it was predicted that once the mobile younger generation moved away and ‘began to reject the tight-knit Italian folkways, the heart attack rate would begin to rise’. By the 1980s this prediction had come true.23
Roseto study is: Egolf, B., Lasker, J., Wolf, S. et al., ‘The Roseto effect: a fifty-year comparison of mortality rates’, American Journal of Epidemiology, 1992, 125(6), pp. 1089–92
THE LEFT HEMISPHERE’S ATTEMPTS TO BLOCK OUR EXIT FROM ITS HALL OF MIRRORS
Three areas it is threatened by and three areas of resistance:
- The body – it is not a mechanism but something experienced, not a means but something in itself
- The spirit – the dissolution of religion and awe
- Art – the joke that is postmodern art
The non-art of modern art
Here I must speak for myself, since these matters are nothing if not personal. When I think of such works of art, and compare Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, or even, I am afraid, so much other post-modern art, just as when I think of Bach and compare him with Stockhausen, I feel we have lost not just the plot, but our sense of the absurd.31 We stand or sit there solemnly contemplating the genius of the artwork, like the passive, well-behaved bourgeois that we are, when we should be calling someone’s bluff. My bet is that our age will be viewed in retrospect with amusement, as an age remarkable not only for its cynicism, but for its gullibility. The two conditions are not as far apart as they may seem.
Beauty and the good are real and clear (the left hemisphere’s need for precise definitions is exactly the issue)
It’s odd what’s happened to beauty. Beauty is not just whatever we agree to call it, nor does it go away if we ignore it. We can’t remake our values at will. There may of course be shifts in art theory, but that is distinct from beauty itself, and we cannot rid ourselves of the value of beauty by a decision in theory. In this, beauty is like other transcendental ideals, such as goodness. Societies may dispute what is to be considered good, but they cannot do away with the concept. What is more the concept is remarkably stable over time. Exactly what is to be considered good may shift around the edges, but the core remains unchanged. Similarly, exactly what is to be called beautiful may vary a little over time, but the core concepts of beauty remain, which is why we have no difficulty in appreciating the beauty of mediaeval or ancient art despite the passage of centuries. Art theory can pronounce the death of beauty, but in doing so it revives memories of King Canute.
IS THERE ROOM FOR HOPE?
Linear progression versus circular
Be that as it may, the left hemisphere loves straight lines, not curves or circles. It can approximate a curve, however closely, only by the expedient of laying ever more tangents. No straight lines are to be found in the natural world. Everything that really exists follows a series of curved shapes to which the logical products of the human mind can only ever approach tangentially – flow, once again, reduced to a series of points. Leonard Shlain has pointed out that the only apparently straight line in the natural world is that of the horizon; but of course that too turns out to be a section of a curve.38 Even space, it turns out, is curved. Rectilinearity, as Ruskin had similarly demonstrated of clarity, is illusory, and can only be approximated, like clarity, by narrowing the breadth, and limiting the depth, of the perceptual field. Straight lines are prevalent wherever the left hemisphere predominates, in the late Roman Empire (whose towns and roads are laid out like grids), in Classicism (by contrast with the Baroque, which had everywhere celebrated the curve), in the Industrial Revolution (the Victorian emphasis on ornament and Gothicism being an ultimately futile nostalgic pretence occasioned by the functional brutality and invariance of the rectilinear productions of machines) and in the grid-like environment of the modern city, where that pretence has been dropped.
By contrast the shape that is suggested by the processing of the right hemisphere is that of the circle, and its movement is characteristically ‘in the round’, the phrase we use to describe something that is seen as a whole, and in depth. Circular motion accommodates, as rectilinearity does not, the coming together of opposites. Cognition in the right hemisphere is not a process of something coming into being through adding piece to piece in a sequence, but of something that is out of focus coming into focus, as a whole. Everything is understood within its penumbra of significances, in its context – all that encircles it. There are strong affinities between the idea of wholeness and roundedness. The movement of the right hemisphere is not the unidirectional, instrumental gesture of grasp, but the musical, whole-bodied, socially generative, movement of dance, which is never in a straight line towards something, but always ultimately returns to its origins.
The glint in the maiden’s eye [or reasons for hope]
Similarly in the fruitfulness of opposition, of dialectical growth – what Nietzsche, like Heraclitus, simply calls war – there is hope, since the worse it gets, the better it gets. He quotes, as having long been his motto, Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus: ‘The spirit grows, [and] strength is restored, by wounding.’48 And the obvious inauthenticity of the left-hemisphere world we have come to inhabit may in itself lead us to seek to change it. In the past that would appear to have been the most important factor, and I hope I may be wrong in seeing the present situation as different. In any case, understanding the nature of the problem has to be the first step towards change. Change, however, would require a willingness to accept being seen as naïve for not getting caught up in the dialectic of the clever ironies, on the one hand, or of scientific materialism, on the other.
Now, says Hegel, that ‘the oracles … no longer speak to men’, and ‘the statues have become stone corpses’ (there is much in that phrase alone), the remnants of the past, the glories of its art, history and culture, are like ‘beautiful fruit broken off a tree; a kindly fate has passed those works on to us, much as a girl might offer us such fruit’.49 The tree, and the earth in which it grew, and the climate in which the fruit ripened, are no longer available to us except as a ‘veiled remembrance’, something we represent to ourselves by picturing it. Yet, Hegel says, the knowingness with which we now have to recapture this, is like the ‘glint of self-awareness’ in the eye of the beautiful maiden who offers us the fruit; it is the same Nature that produced those fruit, but ‘at a higher level’, and it can add as well as take away.
The contrast is like that between the country folk at the fair which Wordsworth sees from Helvellyn, and Wordsworth’s poem on the subject, which, though it lacks an unrecapturable quality of the ‘self unseeing’ that is still available to its subject, is itself a great work at a higher level of self-awareness, which the country folk could not achieve. Of what the ancients were happily unconscious, we are necessarily conscious, Hegel seems to say, but we see more: perhaps as the innocence of the adult, where it is achieved, is greater than the innocence of a child, though bought at the cost of much painful awareness.
But such innocence is rare. Age has a chance of bringing it only if we are very lucky or very disciplined. Wordsworth’s achievement, like that of Blake and Keats, is that he retains a degree of innocence despite his experience, an innocence which all three evidence in what one might call their vulnerability. Through it alone they are enabled to achieve an inspired quality which could be mistaken by the foolish, at times, for foolishness. The price of their achievement is that they must make themselves open, even to ridicule, rather than shelter behind a self-protective carapace of ironic knowingness and cynicism.50
Excessive self-consciousness, like the mental world of schizophrenia, is a prison: its inbuilt reflexivity – the hall of mirrors – sends the mind ever back into itself. Breaking out of the prison presents a problem, since self-consciousness cannot be curbed by a conscious act of will, any more than we can succeed in trying not to think of little green apples. The apple of knowledge, once eaten, cannot become once more ‘unbitten in the palm’. Nonetheless conscious reflection, the root of the problem, may itself provide the antidote to its own effects. Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, all of them critics of reflection, embodied in their writing a reflective attempt to surmount reflection. Hölderlin’s lines once again come to mind: ‘Where there is danger, that which will save us also grows’ (see p. 232).
This is because philosophy does not answer our questions but shakes our belief that there are answers to be had; and in doing so it forces us to look beyond its own system to another way of understanding. One of the reasons reading Heidegger is at the same time so riveting and such a painful experience is that he never ceases to struggle to transcend the Cartesian divisions which analytic language entails, in order to demonstrate that there is a path, a way through the forest, the travelling of which is in itself the goal of human thinking. Though we can emerge into a ‘clearing’, we cannot hope to reach the clear light of the Empyrean, which as Hölderlin’s devastating poem Hyperions Schicksalslied makes plain, is reserved only for the gods. Perhaps inevitably Heidegger’s last writings are in the form of poems. Wittgenstein also saw the true process of philosophy as a way of transcending or healing the effects of philosophy in the philosophical mind: philosophy is itself a disease, as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis, for which it purports to be the cure.51 Merleau-Ponty, more explicitly than either, held out the hope that we could learn to see things again by a process of surréflexion, hyper-reflection, which would help to redress the distorting effects of consciousness by making us conscious of them. This idea had already occurred to the Romantics. At the end of his famous essay ‘On the Puppet Theatre’, Kleist offers the possibility that the crippling effects of self-consciousness may be transcended through a form of still further heightened consciousness, by which we might regain a form of innocence.
‘Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god.’
‘Therefore’, I said, somewhat bewildered, ‘we would have to eat again from the Tree of Knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’
‘Quite right’, he answered. ‘And that’s the last chapter in the history of the world.
With that his essay closes. In this last phrase Kleist may be warning us, as Hölderlin does, that what we crave can be had only in another world, where there are gods. But his essay also confirms that we can move only onward, not backward, and that by doing so we might transcend our situation and in this way return to something lost. Perhaps the very emptiness of self-reflection, what Vico called ‘the barbarism of reflection’, may push us towards the necessary leap of faith that alone will allow us to escape. After all, even the emptying out of consciousness achieved by Zen is not a random gift but achieved by years of consciously embraced self-discipline.
What we might learn from Oriental culture
These ideas would be more intuitively understandable within an Oriental culture. Another reason for hope is that we are probably more open to the remaining cultures of the world that have not yet been completely submerged by the West, though for the same reasons we are increasingly prone to influence them to become more like our own. The pattern of psychological differences between Oriental people and Westerners suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the hemispheres. It is striking, for example, that the Japanese language does not have an established method for composing abstract nouns, and has no definite or indefinite articles, considered to be a crucial step in the emergence of abstract nouns in Greek.54 The Japanese have nothing that corresponds to the Platonic Idea, and in fact no abstractions in general: they have never developed the dichotomy between the phenomenological world and the world of ideas.55 Nakamura writes:
The Japanese are willing to accept the phenomenal world as Absolute because of their disposition to lay a greater emphasis upon intuitive sensible concrete events, rather than upon universals. This way of thinking with emphasis upon the fluid, arresting character of observed events regards the phenomenal world itself as Absolute and rejects the recognition of anything existing over [and above] the phenomenal world.56
The sharp dichotomy in our culture between the ways of being of the two hemispheres, which began in Ancient Greece, does not appear to exist, or, at any rate, to exist in the same way, in Oriental culture: their experience of the world is still effectively grounded in that of the right hemisphere.
The Japanese also preserve a healthy scepticism about language, and this goes hand in hand with the rejection of a reality that must, or ever could, be arrived at purely by reason. In Zen Buddhism, according to Soiku Shigematsu, the abbot of Shogenji temple, ‘a word is a finger that points at the moon. The goal of Zen pupils is the moon itself, not the pointing finger. Zen masters, therefore, will never stop cursing words and letters.’57 [cites Shigematsu, S., Zen Forest, Weatherhill, New York, 1981]
A reverent attitude toward shizen [nature], now absent in the West, is characteristic even of the Japanese scientific education system. The term shizen implies that nature is the root of life in a spiritual or religious sense.62 A famous Japanese anthropologist Iwata argues that among the Japanese as well as most southeast Asian people, whether the people are formally Buddhists or Christians, there exists an intuition of animism. Everything surrounding human life, including mountains, hills, rivers, plants, trees, animals, fish and insects, has its own spirit (kami), and these spirits communicate with one another as well as with those who live there. Apparently most Japanese are familiar with such spirits, and experience them: natural things cannot, therefore, be seen by them merely as objects, as in Western science.63
- Section on how western thought prefers immutability and certainty whilst oriental thought is happy with fleetingness, impermanence and change.
Evidence that Oriental Thinking is Different at the Neuro-Psycho Level
If it were true, as one might surmise, that cerebral organisation in Oriental peoples is different from that in Westerners, without the same polarisation of the hemispheres, it might suggest another way in which we could consciously set about influencing the hemispheric balance. What scientific evidence could there be of that?
Hardly surprisingly there is in fact much evidence that East Asians and Westerners perceive the world and think about it in very different ways. In general, East Asians have a more holistic approach. For example, if asked to group objects, East Asians make comparatively little use of categories.66 They are more likely to attend to the broad perceptual and conceptual field, noticing relationships and changes, and grouping objects according to family resemblances, based on an appreciation of the whole, rather than on membership of a category. Westerners are significantly more likely to give one-dimensional, rule-based responses, based on individual components of the stimuli.67 East Asians also rely less on formal logic, instead focussing on relations among objects and the context in which they interact. They use more intuitive modes compared with Americans of European origin.68 They see events as arising from an entire context, and tend to think in a much less linear, and more global way, about causation. By contrast Westerners tend to focus exclusively on the object as cause, and are therefore often mistaken. Westerners are more analytic, and pay attention primarily to isolated objects, and the categories to which they belong. They tend to use rules, including formal logic, to understand their behaviour.69 These effects remain when language is controlled for.70
East Asians use a more ‘dialectical’ mode of reasoning: they are more willing to accept, to entertain, or even seek out contradictory perspectives on the same issue. They see the world in which they live as complex, containing inherently conflicting elements. Where Chinese students try to retain elements of opposing perspectives by seeking to synthesise them, American students try to determine which is correct so that they can reject the other. Presented with evidence for two opposing positions, Easterners are more likely to reach a compromise, whereas the fact of opposition tends to make Westerners adhere to one position more strongly. Westerners adopt a more ‘either/or’ approach. In one experiment, Chinese volunteers particularly liked proverbs, whether Chinese or American, that presented an apparent contradiction, such as the Chinese saying ‘too humble is half proud’. US participants preferred proverbs without contradictions, such as ‘half a loaf is better than no bread’.71
Westerners are inclined to attend to some focal object, analyzing its attributes and categorizing it in an effort to find out what rules govern its behaviour. Their attention is drawn by the constant features of entities in isolation. East Asians attend to the whole context, including background and global aspects of a scene, whereas American students focus on a few discrete objects salient in the foreground. In one study, Japanese volunteers who saw a cartoon of underwater life later remembered it as an integrated scene, such as a pond with a large school of fish and a clump of seaweed, where their US counterparts mostly recalled a few fish that they had seen in the foreground.72
It has often been noted that these cognitive differences are reflected in the differences between Western and Oriental society. Similarly with art: Oriental art emphasises the field, and tends correspondingly to de-emphasize individual objects, including people, by comparison with Western art.73 Further, a study of photographic scenes from small, medium, and large cities in Japan and the United States demonstrated, by both subjective and objective measures, that Japanese scenes were more ambiguous and contained more elements than American scenes. In a further twist, both Japanese and American participants primed with Japanese scenes attended more to contextual information than did those primed with American scenes.74 This last finding, in particular, is fascinating, and tends to confirm my view that the brain creates its own projections in the outer world, which in turn help to influence the workings of the brain in a mutually reinforcing, and self-perpetuating, way. This would suggest that the nature of the modern Western urban environment may be exaggerating the tendencies that the left hemisphere has projected there, as well as suggesting one reason why the natural environment is felt to have such a healing influence.
Eastern cultures, and in particular the Japanese, have been characterised as ‘interdependent’; in other words, individuals are less seen in isolation than they are in the West, instead forming part of an interconnected social web. For them, the sense of the self (as we saw for the right hemisphere) develops through understanding its influence on others. Self-improvement in such cultures has far less to do with getting what one wants, and far more to do with confronting one’s own shortcomings, in the interests of harmony, at home, at work, and amongst friends.75 Westerners perform better on tasks with independent demands than on tasks with interdependent demands.76 East Asians make stronger efforts to justify their choices if they have been made on behalf of a friend, Westerners if made for themselves.77
The Japanese word for self, jibun, implies a share of something which is both separate and not separate, individual and yet still shared. It is a common Western misconception that Japanese culture does not value the individual.78 On the contrary, originality, self-direction, and autonomy are all highly prized.79 In fact, if anything the Japanese have a more highly developed sense of private self-consciousness than their American counterparts, with at least as much concern for hidden thoughts, feelings, and motives.80 But they are also more sensitive to their obligation to belong, rather than seeking only to feel good because of unique qualities that make one stand apart from others.
Emphasis on high self-esteem as a sign of mental health is a relatively recent, Western phenomenon, and is far from being an unmixed good. Having low self-esteem, certainly in the West, is an obvious cause of anxiety and depression; but high self-esteem is positively correlated with a tendency to be unrealistic, to take offence too easily, and to become violent and demanding if one’s needs are not met.81 Whereas in America students seek positive self-regard, the Japanese are more self-critical, an attitude which they sense to have a natural wisdom.82 The need for positive self-regard, as it is currently conceptualized, is not a universal, but rooted in significant aspects of North American culture.83 People in the West characteristically over-estimate their abilities, exaggerate their capacity to control essentially uncontrollable events, and hold over-optimistic views of the future. In fact, so much does our happiness depend on such illusions, that, in the West, lacking them is even correlated with psychiatric problems.84
In the opening pages of this book, I wrote that I believed it to be profoundly true that the inner structure of our intellect reflects the structure of the universe. By ‘profoundly’ I meant not just true by definition, as would be the case for those who believe that the universe is in any case a creation of our brains. I think it goes further than that. I believe our brains not only dictate the shape of the experience we have of the world, but are likely themselves to reflect, in their structure and functioning, the nature of the universe in which they have come about.
What the neuropsychological data I have considered in this book exhibit are some underlying tendencies – tendencies that can, however, be ultimately highly revealing. Overall a picture develops from a mass of small details, not necessarily by summing them all, left-hemisphere fashion, but perhaps by seeing the pattern, as the Dalmatian emerges from the blur of splashes and dots, right-hemisphere fashion.101 If I am wrong, the picture I discern in the dots and splashes will simply not be recognised by others; if there is any truth in it, it may awaken thoughts. As Karl Popper put it, ‘bold ideas, unjustified anticipations and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature: our only organon, our only instrument for grasping her.’102 Or, perhaps, reaching out a hand to her.
I would also like to put in a word for uncertainty. In the field of religion there are dogmatists of no-faith as there are of faith, and both seem to me closer to one another than those who try to keep the door open to the possibility of something beyond the customary ways in which we think, but which we would have to find, painstakingly, for ourselves. Similarly as regards science, there are those who are certain, God knows how, of what it is that patient attention to the world reveals, and those who really do not care, because their minds are already made up that science cannot tell them anything profound. Both seem to me profoundly mistaken. Though we cannot be certain what it is our knowledge reveals, this is in fact a much more fruitful position – in fact the only one that permits the possibility of belief. And what has limited the power of both art and science in our time has been the absence of belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and our selves. Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong. The difference between scientific materialists and the rest is only this: the intuition of the one is that mechanistic application of reason will reveal everything about the world we inhabit, where the intuition of the others leads them to be less sure. Virtually every great physicist of the last century – Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Bohm, amongst many others – has made the same point. A leap of faith is involved, for scientists as much as anyone. According to Max Planck, ‘Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.’ And he continued: ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.’103
In a famous passage Lessing wrote:
The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to what lies behind the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, vain – If God held enclosed in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand the ever-living striving for truth, although with the qualification that I must for ever err, and said to me ‘choose’, I should humbly choose the left hand and say ‘Father, give! pure truth is for thee alone.’104
Key point that is what is offered may be a metaphor (he is not attached to lateralisation)
If it could eventually be shown definitively that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy. Ultimately what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent entity; that there are, not just currents here and there in the history of ideas, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the Western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary, in what they reveal to us; and that the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these.
In summation …
What all these point to is the fundamentally divided nature of mental experience. When one puts that together with the fact that the brain is divided into two relatively independent chunks which just happen broadly to mirror the very dichotomies that are being pointed to – alienation versus engagement, abstraction versus incarnation, the categorical versus the unique, the general versus the particular, the part versus the whole, and so on – it seems like a metaphor that might have some literal truth. But if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.
Connection to Buddhism
There are strong and deep connections between TMAHE and much of Buddhist thinking. However, it is noteworthy that McGilchrist himself seems largely ignorant of these connections i.e. they are rarely if ever mentioned and spelled out which would be surprising if he was aware of them given his general thoroughness. A few exceptions which in their passing nature confirm the overall supposition:
Perhaps the very emptiness of self-reflection, what Vico called ‘the barbarism of reflection’, may push us towards the necessary leap of faith that alone will allow us to escape. After all, even the emptying out of consciousness achieved by Zen is not a random gift but achieved by years of consciously embraced self-discipline.
Or … [note the assignment of a famous saying of Buddha with the comments of a Japanese temple abbot]:
The Japanese also preserve a healthy scepticism about language, and this goes hand in hand with the rejection of a reality that must, or ever could, be arrived at purely by reason. In Zen Buddhism, according to Soiku Shigematsu, the abbot of Shogenji temple, ‘a word is a finger that points at the moon. The goal of Zen pupils is the moon itself, not the pointing finger. Zen masters, therefore, will never stop cursing words and letters.’
Examples of the connection:
- Interest in phenomenology. Phenomenological thinking has much in common with Buddhist thought, esp as presented by IM.
- Discussion of interdependency of the hemispheres, the specifics and the whole, context and causation has direct analogy in much of Buddhist thought. Specific example (from the conclusion):
If one imagines Pavlov’s dog, in a different experiment, having repeated experience of the bell being rung after it has started eating, rather than just before it gets food, one would have to say that, when the dog hears the bell in the absence of food, it experiences an association (a mini-context) in which these two events tend to co-occur. It would have as much reason to start to salivate when it heard the bell, but in doing so it would appear less mechanical, less as though its behaviour were caused by the bell. The dog is reduced to a mechanism by the temporal sequencing, an essential part of the concept of causation, and by the stripping away of the context to focus on a sequence. Imagine the smell of alcohol to an alcoholic. Does the smell cause the alcoholic to take a drink – or set up a set of associations, a surrounding context, in which wanting, and having, a drink are part? The dog, too, is appreciating associations or contexts (a right-hemisphere function), not just acting like a left-hemisphere machine: we know, for example, that the sound of its master’s voice evokes to a dog an image of its master’s face, not because the voice ‘causes’ the face but because they are part of a whole experience.37 Perhaps all cause and effect might be thought of in this way. A bat striking a ball necessitates the ball flying off suddenly at great speed in a certain direction. But equally the ball flying off suddenly at great speed in a certain direction necessitates the bat striking it in a certain way. One could say that the bat and the ball have a sort of stickiness, a tendency for their movements to cohere in a certain kind of context.
That last (bolded) sentence especially is very similar to Buddhist ideas around dependent co-arising.
- Right hemisphere “wholeness”
- Consciousness, experience etc being beyond language – “my teaching is a finger pointing at the moon”
- Inbetweeness. Buddhist sense of non-duality, of self and non-self etc.
- Being taken out of yourself, going beyond, being taken up “aufgehoben”. Connects to Buddhist sense of transcendence of self.
- Preference for community, for the greater whole over the individual and the narrower view. Connects with interbeing, Sangha, lack of separateness of self (non-existence of this self).
Whereas the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It accentuates the tragedy of the individual life, working its inevitable way through the seven ages of man to be ultimately ‘sans everything’, the other characters teasingly aim to help him see beyond this to the bigger picture that suggests that the part, whose trajectory is linear, is taken up into the whole, whose path is in the round.
- Non-duality e.g. form and content, art and reality etc.
Water is distinct from ice, but in the ice cube it is present: not as a fly might be trapped there, but in the very ice. It is the ice. And yet when the ice cube is gone, the water remains. Although we see water in the ice, we do so not because it is there separately, to be seen behind or apart from the cube. Body and soul, metaphor and sense, myth and reality, the work of art and its meaning – in fact the whole phenomenological world, is just what it is and no more, not one thing hiding another; and yet the hard thing is the seemingly easy business, just ‘seeing what it is’ * The world both exists and is created by us. Buddhist dependent coarising. e.g. from the Introduction:
… the world is not independent of our observation of it, attention to it, and interaction with it, …
The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation [of the world]
I emphasize that I think this is an extraordinary book. Its breadth and learning are awe-inspiring, its topic of profound importance, its argument fascinating, thought-provoking and compelling. It defies categorisation: it is a work of reasoned ontology that bridges science and philosophy, history and literary criticism. It talks about the most important questions of how “be in the world”, using reason and language to transcend them, a worthy exemplar of a “finger pointing at the moon”.
These critiques are offered in the spirit of admiration for a masterpiece.
Style and editing
I like McGilchrist’s style but even I found it verbose to the point of turgidity at times. He writes well, the phrases rounded but there is a sense that never will one subclause suffice where two will do too. No statement is left without qualification. One feels a strong editor could have cut a good third of the book simply by pruning verbiage.
I hope it will not be necessary for me to emphasise, too, that I am in no sense opposed to science, which, like its sister arts, is the offspring of both hemispheres – only to a narrow materialism, which is not intrinsic to science at all.
Aggressively pruned this could have been a third of the length but still retained all the sense of the original (though perhaps not the sonority and half-poetry):
I am not opposed to science only to a narrow materialism.
At the very least it could have read (2⁄3 of the length and two sentences):
I am in no sense opposed to science only to a narrow materialism (which is not intrinsic to science at all). After all, science is the offspring of both hemispheres – like its sister arts.
Part II Evidence
There are points where McGilchrist’s epic claims could do with some robuster evidence. This is esp true in the second part of the book with its claims about the impact of the dominance of the hemispheres on culture.
Examples: (Chapter 12)
Devitalisation leads to boredom, and boredom, in turn, to sensationalism. The high stimulus society in which we live is represented through advertising as full of vibrancy and vitality, but, as advertisers know only too well, its condition is one of boredom, and the response to boredom. Since the rise of capitalism in the eighteenth century, when according to Patricia Spacks boredom as such began, an ‘appetite for the new and the different, for fresh experience and novel excitements’ has lain at the heart of successful bourgeois society, with its need above all to be getting and spending money.39 Use of the word ‘boredom’ and reports of the experience have escalated dramatically during the twentieth century.40 It has infested the places of desire and further saps vitality: by 1990, 23 per cent of French men and 31 per cent of French women already reported being bored while making love – ‘l’atrophie du désir.’41
If you check citation for 40 you get: Klapp, 1986, p. 32. See also Healy, 1984.
Looking up Klapp i find: Klapp, O. E., Overload and Boredom: Essays on the Quality of Life in the Information Society, Greenwood, New York, 1986
I can’t access this book (from 1986) but it is a set of sociological essays. i’m dubious that this provides rigorous statistical evidence for the claim in the text. How do we know experience of boredom has escalated? This would be extremely hard to show one way or the other.
And the fact that X% of french men and women report being bored making love in 1990 tells us little about whether this has changed. Maybe it was more in the past, maybe it is more now but that is because people make love more etc.
In general, this paragraph makes a lot of claims that it would be hard to verify. I’ve worked on a farm in the fields. I find it hard to believe that medieval peasants did not get frequently bored performing reptitive manual tasks whether cutting wheat or butter churning. Personally, I’m very sympathetic to Mcgilchrist’s claims here and I do imagine that specialisation in a modern industrial economy has increased as people increasingly do a narrowly defined task repetitively. But more solid evidence for this would be welcome — and interesting.
The mapping of left-hemisphere behaviour onto contemporary life seems rather forced and gives a sense of overreaching.
For me there were several reasons:
- The sense that the description of a “left-hemisphere” world started to feel more like McGilchrist describing the parts of the modern world he doesn’t like and then attributing that to left-hemisphere dominance (rather than the other way round).
- The description of the modern world started to feel a bit caricatured. Whilst caricature may be McGilchrist’s intention here, it felt at moment’s too much. Whilst there is may be a rise in rationality over reasonableness there is also a growth in universalism, in tolerance, in openness to alternative ways of thinking (Buddhist mindfulness etc)
- An over-reliance on left-hemisphere dominance explanations. For example the growth of bureaucratisation has many causes beyond our view of the world e.g. the rowing complexity of the world requires more complex processes of administration (there are, of course, many ways this could have been resolved but increasing bureaucratisation was a natural response).
As always McGilchrist is impressive. I just wonder if he is overdoing it here, caught a little in his own vision. Here’s one specific example:
Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people. [Is this a) accurate (is there an emphasis on uniformity?) b) reflective of left hemisphere biases. For example, trust decline could be related to societal complexity (less repeat interactions with a small community and more contact with strangers]
Such a government would seek total control – it is an essential feature of the left hemisphere’s take on the world that it can grasp it and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed. Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm. [Is there more government surveillance than e.g. in napoleonic wars, and is surveillance related to technological possibility more than left hemisphere possibilities …]
There are also minor over-reaches in empirical fact:
Over the last twenty-five years, levels of satisfaction with life have actually declined in the US, a period during which there has been an enormous increase in prosperity; and there may even have been a significant inverse relationship between economic growth and happiness there.6
I agree with the thesis here but the evidence that life-satisfaction has declined is controversial and there is substantial debate over what is happening here (is there just a normal flattening out of the utility curve etc).
According to Gallup poll data, throughout the 1950s the British were happier than they are today, despite now being three times richer in real terms. In 1957, 52 per cent of the population considered themselves ‘very happy’, compared with 36 per cent today. Most countries studied show either a decrease or at least no change in well-being despite an increase in prosperity; and no relationship can be found between happiness and economic growth.7 The main determinants of happiness, as one might have expected, are not economic in nature. As two researchers in the area remark, with some restraint, given the huge increases in material prosperity over the last half century for which robust data exist, ‘the intriguing lack of an upward trend in happiness data deserves to be confronted by economists.’8
Again here the obvious argument would be that people report happiness based on comparison – post WWII happiness levels were v high as people compared the present with the recent terrible past. Today people are comparing with a good past. Plus people’s estimate of happiness is based on what they perceive/know. We have much more knowledge today of problems etc etc.
The irony here is i generally agree with McGilchrist but I find the evidence presented in this section [one where i know the evidence well] much less robust and convincing than other sections of the book.