- The ‘platforms’ aren’t the problem. We are. | American Enterprise Institute – AEI
- Iain McGilchrist on the Divided Brain and the Master and His Emissary – Econlib
- The Master and His Emissary : The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World – Walmart.com
- A brilliant video on the divided brain
- Iain McGilchrist – The Divided Brain & The Making of the Western World – FULL LECTURE TEXT
The ‘platforms’ aren’t the problem. We are. | American Enterprise Institute – AEI
The release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s reports on Russian exploitation of social media platforms to try to influence the 2016 presidential election have prompted a familiar response. To prevent misinformation campaigns, we need to regulate social media.
I will leave aside the question of whether we should be letting the Russians off the hook and, simultaneously, excusing the active encouragement of Russian interference by the Trump campaign.
Instead, I’ll borrow from “Julius Caesar” to make my main point: The problem is not in the platforms, dear friends, but in ourselves and the ways the human mind interacts with the world around it.
Charles Murray, Iain McGilchrist, John Cleese, and Brent Orrell discuss “The Divided Brain” at AEI,
We explored this concern last month when Dr. Iain McGilchrist (“The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,” Yale Press, 2009) and actor John Cleese visited AEI for a screening of a new documentary Dr. McGilchrist’s book.
As a thumbnail of Dr. McGilchrist’s theory, he argues that the two brain hemispheres pay attention to the world in different ways.
The left hemisphere, a smart computer, analyzes what it sees as a mass of detail without understanding the real world situation from which the information comes.
The right is panoramic, scanning the horizon for the novel, seeking patterns and meaning in the constantly changing flow of perceptual inputs that make up our conscious experience, one that draws tentative conclusions broad patterns. Both are needed and important.
Evolution selected this divided structure because it permits humans and other animals to focus on narrow tasks, looking for food, while keeping an eye out for predators who might try to make us their own lunch.
This structure also supports group bonding and reproduction because the right brain is mainly “outward” looking and is responsible for guiding social interaction, activities the left brain is “blind” to.
(For those who don’t have time or inclination to read a 600 page book that spans everything from brain science to the history of the Reformation, I highly recommend this Russ Roberts EconTalk podcast to get a general understanding of McGilchrist’s theory, or this even shorter explainer video.)
The problem, McGilchrist argues, is that the hemispheres are balance, with the narrower, more analytic, and, frankly, dogmatic left hemisphere overwhelming the broader, more relationally-minded, more insightful, right hemisphere.
This imbalance is driven by long-term (over centuries) developments in cognition strategies that depend excessively on left-hemisphere processes.
people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, we are having difficulty seeing beyond our pet issues to understand the viewpoints and concerns of others or even to grasp the big picture rather than the data points.
It’s also worth noting that the left hemisphere is in its own way emotional, and the emotion that lateralizes to the left most strongly is anger. “Myopic anger” might be a good summary of the political problems social media creates.
In my view, the kicker in this downward spiral is that social media technologies , Instagram, , and others tend, in the way they fragment and distort information and virtualize interpersonal exchange, to strengthen the already-too-strong grip of left-brain cognitive processes.
Life in a democratic society requires empathy, compassion, and compromise that the left side of the brain cannot, on its own, generate. The Russians — knowingly or not — figured out a way of using social media to exploit the hemispheric imbalance and the negative, self-reinforcing patterns of human thought that are on ready display in just about any contentious or exchange.
Neither Vladimir Putin nor Donald Trump created this problem, but they are exploiting it, and us, to their considerable advantage.
As is typical in many public policy issues, rather than understanding and grappling with the underlying challenges — say, the overvaluing of narrow technical knowledge and skills and the diminishing of noncognitive development — we instead reach for a legislative or regulatory fix.
With weak internal controls, we end up trying to impose external constraints.
Hauling tech CEOs in for hearings may be a good way to build a political career but it leaves out the far larger and more important question of how we, as individuals, families, and communities, are failing to thoughtfully integrate digital technology into our lives.
A bit more introspection on our personal use of these tools — starting with the president and working all the way down — will be far better protection against election meddling than any congressional inquiry or new law.
Iain McGilchrist on the Divided Brain and the Master and His Emissary – Econlib
Russ Roberts: Well, I always want to mention a couple of things that this reminds me of, that have come up in the past for listeners who want to make these connections. I think about translation. You know, people say, 'Well, just give me the literal translation.' As if that was a thing.
Right? The whole nature of language is ambiguity. And, again, just use your language, left side, the left side of my brain says, 'I don't ambiguity. Just tell me what it means. When you say your wife is everything, or the world to you–let's see, world, I can look that up. Well, that doesn't make sense. That's a meaningless statement, obviously.
' But, of course, it's not. My right side of the brain is moved by that avowal. So, translation, which I think is–I think it's very difficult for us–many people, and me, every human being has a bit of this: That has that left side, just says, 'Tell me what it means. I want to understand it.
' You give me a poem and I don't understand that can be a feature, not a bug. But there's a piece of me that says, 'No, no, no! What did he mean by that? What did Gerard Manley Hopkins mean by dapple-dawn, minion–I can't remember it by heart. But, so that's one thing that I think about a lot, is translation. The other is metaphor.
We used recently with an episode with Mike Munger; we'll put a link to it, where I've used this before to think about how we should behave. And I've used the metaphor of a dance floor. The metaphor of the dance floor is that–there is a piece of me, when I go out on the dance floor, I want to be seen as the best dancer.
So, I want to say, 'My goal as a maximizer is to get the most I can this 20 minutes on the dance floor. And I want to show off. And I want to look great. Everyone's going to say, “He's a great dancer.”' But, of course, that's a really bad dancer.
A really great dancer says, 'I want to go out there and I want to make sure that neither I nor my partner step on anybody's toes. I'm going to make my partner look graceful and elegant. I am going to, with the other people on the dance floor, create something I couldn't create if I were alone.
Even with a partner–that there's something magnificent about the swirling, unpredictable, spontaneous movement there. And a great dance that is exhilarating in a way that a planned, 'I'm going to win this competition,' can't be.
And the other distinction I want to make, which I heard recently from Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, which I think is a fantastic distinction, is between contract and covenant. A contract is about: What do I get this? And, I think: 'What's in it for me?' And, 'I've got to protect myself.
' And, I've got to have these clauses to make sure I don't get taken advantage of or exploited. A covenant is a promise. A covenant says: We're together. So, a marriage, where I go into a marriage and say, 'I hope I'm a hit today.
I hope I get more it today than I lost,' or 'I hope I got more–gee, didn't my wife, hasn't she failed to do this the last three times? It's her turn'? So, if you keep score, you have a lousy marriage. And the way to have a good marriage is to base it on love. And to say, 'Let's see what happens.
' That emergent, attentive, enjoying whatever it is at this moment. And that's very hard for us. Especially that left side of us doesn't want that. It wants to say, 'I could get more this. I'm dissatisfied. I need a better x,y,z–whatever it is–whether it's a marriage or a job or a relationship with a parent, or a friend.
' And I think that whole maximizing mindset, which economists adopt, has some real drawbacks in thinking about how you should live your life. We often rationalize it by saying, 'Well, but you've got to look out for yourself, don't you?' We often rationalize it by saying, 'Well, people don't–they're not literally this, but they act as if they are.' And your point, I think correctly, is that: Well, if you keep thinking as if they act that way, maybe you start to think they do. And you start to think it's rational for you to act that way. Which is, I think, extremely destructive.
Iain McGilchrist: Yes. Well, it's not even rational. Because it won't be for your own fulfillment, or anyone's.
Russ Roberts: Right. It's not meta-rational.
Iain McGilchrist: There are all these–I mean, of course, you've got to look out for yourself. But, I mean, a point that I think is a very interesting one that I came across recently in the writings of two process[?] biologists.
They made the point which I have always believed, that is absolutely, that is absolutely true: that nature involves competition, quite clearly. But that's only half a story. It at least is importantly involves collaboration. Your body contains 37.
2 trillion cells, that at some point in history decided to pool resources and cooperate with one another, in order to make something better. And all living things do this. Time and time again. And, in fact, the story of how things progress in nature and how creatures, evolve, is partly to do, surely, with competition. But at least as much with cooperation.
And the combination is collaboration. And that gets us back, in a way, to this idea–it's not quite covenant versus contract. But a distinction, by the way, which I think is a very important one. So I agree with Sacks about that.
But, you know, when you were talking about the dance floor, I always think of a couple of things that have been for me almost as pleasurable as anything I can think of in life. And, one is taking part very badly in–a kind of dancing that doesn't much happen these days. Where a community gets together, and there is a kind of flow into which you get taken or not.
And, somehow you find yourself able to do the things without in any way thinking about them. And the sensation of belonging to this thing–you are taken time, and somehow you are enriched. And the same thing used to happen to me–when I lived in London, on a Tuesday night I used to go and sing in a choir that sang Renaissance Polyphony.
On Wednesday night I'd go and dance–I was having dance classes in rock-and-roll. Which I love. But, anyway, to go back to the Renaissance Polyphony: One of the things we would do, I think: we thought we knew a piece really well.
So there's just two or three people in each voice; and I was singing different lines against one another, would be to put the music down and walk around the room, as if in a dance. But sort of no particular reason for going any one place. And just listen, as you get close to someone else, to how their voice and yours interact. And so on. This is completely an amazing thing.
If you play music together with people, it really means–it brings to life what I'm saying, about how the important things emanate from this. As they do, if you've ever worked alongside people on a common project, under difficult circumstances.
One of the things about medical training, which in my day was particularly rigorous–I was, at one stage working 120 hours a week–and I can tell you that none of those involved sitting down. So, I was working incredibly hard. But the sense of–it wouldn't be the same, actually, now, because it's all much more managerialized. But in those days, there was a genuine professional culture in which we didn't count the hours. We didn't think, 'Gosh, it's time for me to go to bed.' We didn't think, you know, 'I'm getting paid £5 an hour' which is half what the cleaner is getting paid. You just did it. And you were part of the team. And the satisfaction you got doing it. I mean, I'm not saying there weren't times when you thought, 'This is crap.'
Russ Roberts: No, of course. There are a lot of times that.
Iain McGilchrist: There's always that.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. But, afterwards–
Iain McGilchrist: There's always that mix in life. Yeah, yeah. And even at the time, actually. I mean, a lot of it is, you do get this extraordinary feeling it. So, yeah, no, definitely. This idea of the dance is good. But you also mention, and I can't let that go before, because it's so apposite: translation.
I started off my academic life with literary criticism. And I wrote a book called Against Criticism. And that wasn't because I hadn't enjoyed and learnt an enormous amount from what I'd studied. But, it was because it seemed to me something wrong with what we were doing to it in the seminar room.
Because, if I can express it as succinctly as possible: Someone, a real living human being in the past, had to an extent suffered to produce something very special and beautiful. Which was entirely unique. You know, if you have a favorite poet–one of mine is Hardy.
If Hardy hadn't written poems that, or Hopkins, who you mentioned, a very good example. If Hopkins hadn't written, you could never have thought of his poetry. Because it's entirely his. There would be a Hopkins-shaped hole in the universe if it hadn't happened. So, there was something unique.
And there was something embodied. It didn't just consist of a few ideas: 'Okay, I got it.' a computer would. It actually affected my breathing. It affected, subtly, the tensions in my body musculature. It affected my blood pressure, my pulse, my heart rate–my hair stand on end. These things are implicit.
And much of the meaning is implicit. You know, William Empson, very famous English critic, wrote a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity–one of the most famous books of criticism–that writing is all about the richness of ambiguity. So, it was unique. It was implicit. And it was embodied.
And we came along, and we got it something that was general and abstract. And completely explicit. So, it just worked in exactly the opposite direction from the way in which it worked. So, if Hardy says, for example,
Here's the ancient floor,Footworn and hollowed and thinHere was the former door
Where the dead feet walked in.
Now, that's the opening of a poem in which he is saying how much he misses his wife. And he remembers this room, a time when they were happy together. To say that, is not to convey anything of the poem. Which is why it's so difficult to translate poetry at all.
And I think it's a bit sad that, that when children no doubt study Shakespeare at school a bit, that they often are encouraged to go and read No Fear Shakespeare, because it will tell them what it means. In a way I understand that.
But, it doesn't really tell them what it means, because it's in the words themselves. You know? Even Shakespeare said something–which is really a banality–you[he?] said, 'There is no art to read the mind's instruction in the face.' You know, I think, 'Wow.
' But, what does it mean? It means you can't tell what people are thinking by looking at them. Kind of the thing you could hear in the pub. But somehow it's different, you know?
The Master and His Emissary : The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World – Walmart.com
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A new edition of the bestselling classic – published with a special introduction to mark its 10th anniversary This pioneering account sets out to understand the structure of the human brain – the place where mind meets matter. Until recently, the left hemisphere of our brain has been seen as the 'rational' side, the superior partner to the right. But is this distinction true? Drawing on a vast body of experimental research, Iain McGilchrist argues while our left brain makes for a wonderful servant, it is a very poor master. As he shows, it is the right side which is the more reliable and insightful. Without it, our world would be mechanistic – stripped of depth, colour and value.
“A veritable tour de force, gradually and skilfully revealed. I know of no better exposition of the current state of functional brain neuroscience.”–W. F. Bynum, TLS
“A profound examination.”–Philip Pullman
“Persuasively argues that our society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative 'master' the right. Brilliant and disturbing.”–Salley Vickers, a Guardian Best Book of the Year
“Clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating. . . . I couldn't put it down.”–Mary Midgley, The Guardian
A new edition of the bestselling classic – published with a special introduction to mark its 10th anniversary This pioneering account sets out to understand the structure of the human brain – the place where mind meets matter. Until recently, the left hemisphere of our brain has been seen as the ‘rational’ side, the superior partner to the right. But is this distinction true? Drawing on a vast body of experimental research, Iain McGilchrist argues while our left brain makes for a wonderful servant, it is a very poor master. As he shows, it is the right side which is the more reliable and insightful. Without it, our world would be mechanistic – stripped of depth, colour and value.
“A veritable tour de force, gradually and skilfully revealed. I know of no better exposition of the current state of functional brain neuroscience.”—W. F. Bynum, TLS
“A profound examination.”—Philip Pullman
“Persuasively argues that our society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative ‘master’ the right. Brilliant and disturbing.”—Salley Vickers, a Guardian Best Book of the Year
“Clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating. . . . I couldn’t put it down.”—Mary Midgley, The Guardian
|Publisher||Yale University Press|
|Number of Pages||616|
|Publication Date||March, 2019|
|Assembled Product Dimensions (L x W x H)||8.25 x 5.50 x 1.50 Inches|
This work is not for everyone, but I give my highest recommendation. If you have ever had an interest in the brain, consciousness, or how we all perceive and engage the world, this might your cup of tea. Iain McGilchrist does an incredible job with developing our current understanding of the brain from a hemispheric point of view.
The work completely altered my understanding of the right and left hemispheres. The way the right and left sides work are not what you may think. The book then takes you on a trip through time and suggests how our hemispheric balance as a civilization may have have changed over history.
He also looks at current cultures and suggests different balances due cultural behaviors, etc. He also gives ideas on how our current hemispheric unbalance might be brought into a more fruitful alignment. So much food for thought here. It took me a while to work my way through and there is some technical jargon, but so well worth it.
One of the most significant non-fiction books I've ever read.
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A psychiatrist explains how our cognitive preferences determined the way our cultures evolved. Classic!
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A brilliant video on the divided brain
Here is a brilliant video that explains the divided brain. Check it out and let me know what you think.
For those who can’t watch the video right now, here it is in text:
Iain McGilchrist says that mainstream neuroscience has largely stopped talking about the differences between the left brain and right brain since that theory was debunked.
But, contrary to what most neuroscientists believe, Iain McGilchrist says that the brain is still profoundly divided. What’s more, over the course of human evolution, it’s become even more divided.
The ratio of the corpus callosum to the volume of the hemisphere has got smaller over evolution. And the plot thickens when you realize that the main function of the corpus callosum is in fact to inhibit the other hemisphere. There’s something very important about keeping things apart from one another.
Not only that, but the brain is profoundly asymmetric.
It’s broader at the back on the left and broader on the right of the front of the side.
What’s going on here?
It’s not just humans that have divided brains. Birds and and animals have them as well. Birds and animals quite reliably use their left hemisphere for this narrow focused attention and they keep their right hemisphere vigilant for anything that appears randomly. They also use their right hemisphere for making connections with the world.
When it comes to humans, this kind of attention is one of the big differences.
The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open vigilance, and alertness. Whereas the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to details. People who lose their right hemisphere have a pathological narrowing of the window of attention.
He says the big things about humans is their frontal lobes. And the purpose of that part is to inhibit the rest of the brain, which enables to do what humans do best: outwitting the other part and being machievellian.
It’s about interacting with the world and using it to our advantage.
For example, we mainly use the left hemisphere to use our hands to make tools and food. We also use that part for language to grasp things we say and pin them down.
It’s where we already know what’s important and what to be precise about. And we need that to have a simplified version of reality. It’s difficult if all this information is in front of you and you can’t nail down to the specifics and what really matters. It’s not real reality but it works better.
The right hemisphere, however, is always on the look out for things that might be different from our expectations. It sees things in context. It understands implicit meaning, metaphor, body language, emotional expressions etc. In deals with an embodied world, in which we stand embodied in relation to a world that is concrete. It understands individuals, not just categories.
However, this understanding has nothing to do with the old concept of the left brain/right differences. For imagination, you need both hemispheres. For reason, you need both hemispheres.
Instead, Iain McGilchrist lays down the real difference between the left brain and right brain:
The left hemisphere is dependant on denotative language, abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known and fixed.
The right hemisphere yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, living beings within the context of the lived world. But the nature of things is never fully graspable or perfectly known. This world exists in a certain relationship.
They both cover two versions of the world and we combine them in different ways all the time. We need to rely on certain things to manipulate the world, but for the broad understanding of it, we need to use knowledge that comes from the right hemisphere.
Iain McGilchrist explains that we now live in a world that is paradoxical. We pursue happiness, and it leads to resentment, which leads to unhappiness. We pursue freedom, but we now live in a world which is monitored more and more by CCTV cameras.
Iain McGilchrist says we’re living in a western world that is being controlled by the left hemisphere – where everything is fixed. We need control, which is leading to paranoia. The right hemisphere doesn’t have a voice.
But we need to engage in our right hemisphere for a more broader view of reality, and more balanced society.
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Iain McGilchrist – The Divided Brain & The Making of the Western World – FULL LECTURE TEXT
Iain McGilchrist – Author of The Master and his Emissary
Iain McGilchrist – The Divided Brain & The Making of the Western World – FULL LECTURE TEXT
Renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behavior, culture and society. Watch RSAnimate video or McGilchrist’s Full Lecture here.
Iain McGilchrist Lecture – The Divided Brain & The Making of the Western World
Lecture Transcript by Thorsten Pattberg © Iain McGilchrist
THE DIVISION of the brain is something neuroscientists don’t to talk about anymore. It enjoyed sort of popularity in the 60s and 70s after the first split-brain operations and it let to sort of popularization which has since proofed to be entirely false.
It is not true that one part of the brain does reason and the other does emotion; both are profoundly involved in both. It is not true that language resides only in the left hemisphere – it doesn’t; important aspects of it are in the right.
It is not true that visual imagery is only in the right hemisphere; lots of it is in the left.
And so in a fit of despair people haven given up talking about it; but the problem really won’t go away. Because this organ which is all about making connection is profoundly divided.
It’s there inside all of us, and it’s got more divided over the course of human evolution; so the ratio of the corpus callosom to the volume of the hemispheres has got smaller over evolution.
And the plot thickens when you realize that one of the main, if not the main function of the corpus callosom is in fact to inhibit the other hemisphere.
So something very important is going on here about keeping things apart from one another; and not only that, the brain is profoundly a-symmetric. It is broader at the back on the left and broader on the right at the front; and slightly jacks forward and backward.
And it is though as somebody got hold of the brain from underneath and had given it a sharp twist clockwise. What is all that about; if one just needed more brain space one would do it symmetrically – the skull is symmetrical; the box in which all this is contained is symmetrical.
Why go to the trouble to expand some bits of one hemisphere and some bits of another, unless they were rather doing different things.
What are they doing? Well, it is not just we who have these divided brains – birds and animals have them as well. I think the simplest way to think of it is to imagine a bird trying to feed on a seed against the background of a grit of pebbles.
It’s got to focus very narrowly and clearly on that little seed and be able to pick it out against that background. But it’s also, if it’s going to stay alive, it’s got to actually keep a quite different kind of attention open; it’s got to be on the lookout for predators or for friends […] and for whatever else is going on.
It seems that birds and animals quite reliably use their left hemisphere for this narrow focuses attention for something it already knows is of importance to it; and they keep their right hemisphere vigilant broadly for whatever what might without any commitment as to what that might be.
And they also use their right hemisphere for making connections with the world: say, they approach their mates and bond with them, it’s more using the right hemisphere.
But then you come to the humans. And it true that actually in humans too this kind of attention is one of the big differences: The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilant, alertness; where the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to detail. And people who lose their right hemisphere have a pathological narrowing of the window of attention.
But humans are different. The big thing about humans is their frontal lobes. And the purpose of that part of the brain: To inhibit; to inhibit the rest of the brain; to stop the immediate happening. So, standing back in time and space from the immediacy of experience.
And that enables us to do two things: It enables us to do what neuroscientists always telling us we’re good at which is outwitting the other party, being Machiavellian; and that is interesting to me because that’s absolutely right: we can read other people’s minds and intentions, and if we so want to we can deceive them.
But the bit that is always curiously missed out here is: it also enables us to emphasize for the first time because there is a necessary distance from the world. If you’re right up against it you just bite.
But if you can stand back and see that the other individual is an individual me who might have interests and values and feelings mine, then you can make a bond. This is sort of necessary distance as is in reading: Too close you can’t see anything; too far you can’t read it.
So the distance from the world that is provided is profoundly creative of all that is human, both the Machiavellian and the Erasmian.
Now, to do the Machiavellian stuff, to manipulate the world which is very important – we need to be able to use, interact with the world and use it for our benefit, food is the starting point; but we also with our left hemispheres grasp, using our right hand for things and make tools; we also use that part of the language to grasp things as we say: it ‘pins’ them down. So when we already know something is important and we want to be precise about it we use our left hemispheres in that way. And to do that we need a simplified version of reality. It is no good if you’re fighting a campaign having all the information on all those plants and species that grow in the terrain of battle. What you need is to know specifics of where certain things are that matter to you and so you have a map and you have little flags. It is not reality but it works better.
The newness of the right hemisphere makes it the devil’s advocate; it is always on the lookout for things that might be different from our expectations; it sees things in context, it understands implicit meaning, metaphor, body language, emotional expression in the face: it deals with an embodied world in which we stand embodied in relation to a world that is concrete. It understands individuals, not just categories; it has a disposition for the living rather than the mechanical. And this is so marked that even in the lefthander who is actually using their right hemisphere in daily life to manipulate tools with their left hand – it is their left hemisphere, not their right hemisphere, in which tools and machines are coded. So, this is very interesting; and it changes the view of the body. The body becomes an assembly of the parts in the left hemisphere.
If I had to sum it all up; I would get away from all those things that we used to say – reason and imagination. Let me make it clear: For imagination you need both hemispheres; let me make it very clear: For reason you need both hemispheres.
So if I had to sum it up I’d say the world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, it yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualized, explicit, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless.
The right hemisphere by contrast yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings in the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, never perfectly known.
And to this the world exists in a certain relationship. That knowledge that is immediate by the left hemisphere is however within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection but the perfection is bought it with the price of emptiness.
There is a problem here about the nature of the two worlds. There’s offered two versions of the world and obviously we combine them in different way all the time.
We need to rely on certain things to manipulate the world; but for a broad understanding of it we need to use knowledge that comes from the right hemisphere.
And it is my suggestion to you that in the history of Western culture things started in the 6th century BC in the Augustan era and in the 15th and 16th century in Europe with a wonderful balancing of these hemispheres; but in each case is drifted further to the left hemisphere’s point of view.
Nowadays we live in a world which is paradoxical. We pursue happiness and it leads to resentment, and it leads to unhappiness, and it leads in fact to an explosion of mental illness.
We pursue freedom but today we live in a world which is more monitored by cctv cameras and in which our daily lives are more subjected to what [Alexis] de Tocqueville called a network of small complicated rules that cover the surface of life and strangle freedom.
More information: we have it in spade; but we get less and less able to use it, to understand it, to be wise.
There is a paradoxical relationship as I know as a psychiatrist between adversity and fulfillment, between restraint and freedom, between the knowledge of the parts and wisdom about the whole. That machine model again that is supposed to answer everything but it doesn’t: think about this, even rationality is grounded in a leap of intuition.
There is no way you can rationally prove that rationality is a good way to look at the world; we intuit that it is very helpful.
And it is not new: At the other end of the process, rationality we know from Gödel’s theorem, we know from what Pascal were saying hundreds of years before Gödel that the end point of rationality is to demonstrate the limits to rationality.
In our modern world we develop something that looks awfully the left hemisphere’s world: we priorities the virtual over the real, the technical becomes important, bureaucracy flourishes – the picture however is fragmented. There is a lot of uniqueness.
The ‘How’s” become consumed in the what, and the need for control leads to a paranoia in society that we need to govern and control and everything. Why this shift? I think there are three reasons: One is the left hemisphere’s talk is very convincing because it shaved everything that doesn’t find fit with its model off, and cut it out.
So this particular model is entirely self-consistent largely because it made itself so.
I also call the left hemisphere the ‘Berlusconi of the brain’ because it controls the media. It is very vocal on its own behalf. The right hemisphere doesn’t have a voice, and it can’t construct these same arguments.
And I also think, rather more importantly, there is a sort of whole of mirrors effect: the more we get trapped into this, the more we undercut and ironize things that might have kept us it, and we just get reflected back into more of what we know about what we know about what we know…
And I just want to make it clear, I am not against whatever the left hemisphere has to offer; nobody could be more passionate in an age in which we neglect reason and we neglect careful use of language – nobody could be more passionate than myself about language and about reason. It’s just I’m even more passionate about the right hemisphere and the need to return what that knows about a broader context.
It turned out that Einstein’s thinking somehow prejudged this thing about the structure of the brain. He said “the intuitive mind is a sacred gift… and the rational mind is a faithful servant.” We have created a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift.
© 2012-2013 Iain McGilchrist This is a transcript from a public lecture here.
About Iain McGilchrist:
McGilchrist, Iain (2010), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World, Yale University Press.
Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and writer who works privately inLondon.
He is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise – the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is molded by, our minds and brains.
McGilchrist was a late entrant to medicine. After a scholarship to Winchester College, he was awarded a scholarship to New College, Oxford, where he read English. He won the Chancellor’s English Essay Prize and the Charles Oldham Shakespeare Prize in 1974 and graduated (with congratulated 1st Class Hons) in 1975 (MA 1979).
He was awarded a Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford in 1975, teaching English literature and pursuing interests in philosophy and psychology between 1975 and 1982.
He then went on to train in medicine, and during this period All Souls generously re-elected him to a further Fellowship (1984-1991), and again in 2002 (to 2004).