Some time ago I watched the video ‘The divided brain and the making of the western world’ from Iain McGilchrist.
The talk was really very interesting, so I started reading his book, ‘The Master and his Emissary’ that does a very good job in looking at research on the difference between the left and right hemispheres of our brains.
But the book has many pages and in the meantime I was still fascinated by the writings of David Bohm, so I did not finish it yet. Now a few days ago on Googleplus, I saw a quote that made me watch that video again.
At the end of his talk McGilchrist mentioned this quote by Einstein and said that he came across it when he finished his book. Now reading that quote and watching the video again, made me realise how close this research from the book came to the thoughts of Bohm.
Iain McGilchrist’s view on the left and right hemisphere of the brain is very close to David Bohm’s view of wholeness and fragmentation. Very close to many of Bohm’s thoughts about perception, coherence, wholeness, communication and so on.
Anyway the quote was the following:
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.
And the video was this one:
(Animated version of the video)
Instead of transcribing the whole video, I want to highlight those parts that seem similar to the thoughts of David Bohm.
Two models of life
He starts the talk by saying that in our time, there are generally two models of life.
One which lingers in biology is a sort of scientific materialist one which views knowledge as making certain one fact and then adding to that, one builds up a picture of an external world which is independent of our knowledge and which is our duty to become aware. Almost as if were machines that were passively receiving information.
The other view is the opposite that says that reality is just in our heads and we make it all up.
Now the view of McGilchrist is somewhere inbetween.
Attention and Context
He says that reality changes with the nature of attention that we pay to it.
Things come into being through a kind of interactive process, the intention we pay to the world changes what we find there, and what we find there changes the attention we pay. Similarly we can’t understand something by knowing one little thing out of context and adding another little thing out of context.
There needs to be a kind of sense of what it is we dealing with because we need to apply a certain model. We only understand things by comparing them by something else we think we know even better.
Like David Bohm, Iain McGilchrist says context is everything in understanding. We have to understand it implicit, and when we make it explicit, we change their nature.
The difference between right and left
The general view is that the two brainparts have different tasks, like one does emotions and the other reason. But as it turns out, both are very much involved in both. But still there is this division in the brain, and it is very asymmetric.
The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilance, alertness
where the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to detail.
People who lose their right hemisphere have a pathological narrow attention.
Deceiving and empathy
Then he goes on about the human’s frontal lobes. The purpose of that part of the brain is that it inhibits the rest of the brain. It stops the immediate happening, standing back from immediate experience.
That way we can read other people’s mind and intentions. That way we can deceive them. Or we can have empathy.
Both, deceiving and empathy, are only possible because there is a sort of necessary distance. If you stay to close, you would just bite. But if you stand back you see another individual with feelings, values and interests, that you can bond with.
We use our left hemisphere (our right hand) to make things and use language to grasp things. It provides a simplified version of reality. Not the territory but the map.
Right is more integrated with our bodies.
The right hemisphere has this broad open attention. It is more integrated with our bodies. It has the direct experience (I think David Bohm would call that perception) where the left hemisphere takes that information and uses it in a cleaver way by symplifying it. It re-presents it.
Words for realities.
The newness of the right hemisphere makes it a 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 work, in which we stand embodied in relation to a world that is concrete. It understands individuals, not just categories. It actually has a disposition for the living rather than the mechanical.
Left vs Right
So the left hemisphere:
is dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are: known, fixed, static, isolated, de-contextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature but ultimately lifeless.
And the right hemisphere:
yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnect, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world. And the things never fully graspable. Never perfectly known as we think. And this world exists in a certain relationship, rather than just an objective starts.
Left is a closed system
There is something of a closed system, a selfreferring loop, that is not capable of looking at a bigger whole.
The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is however within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but the perfection is bought ultimately the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of the things it already knows.
So both hemispheres offer two versions of the world.
Our western world and the left hemisphere
In our modern world we developed something that looks very much like the worlds left hemisphere world.
We prioritise the virtual over the real. The technical becomes important. Bureaucracy flourishes. The picture however is fragmented. There is a loss of uniqueness. The how is subsumed in what. And the need for control leads to paranoia in society and we need to govern and control everything. Everything that should be implicit becomes explicit. And the life is drained.
What is the reason of that dominance? McGilchrist thinks there are three reasons for that.
One is the left hemisphere’s talk is very convincing because it shaved everything that it doesn’t find fit for this model off and cut it out. So this particular model is entirely self-consistent, largely because it made itself so and is therefore very compelling.
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 hall of mirrors effect. The more we get trapped into this, the more we undercut and ironise things that might have lead us out of it. And we just get reflected back into more about what we know, about what we know, about what we know.
He ends by saying that all this does not mean that the left hemisphere is not important.
Nobody can be more passionate in an age where we neglect reason, and we neglect careful use of language, nobody can be more passionate than myself about language and about reason. It is just that I am even more passionate about the right hemisphere and the need to return what that knows to a broader context.
So the essence seems to be that the right hemisphere is the master. According to the Einstein quote it is what is called intuition. Or what Bohm says wholeness.
The left hemisphere is the emissary. Or what Bohm calls fragmentation.
This left hemisphere (or fragmentation or emissary) is very important. It provides a focus of attention. Or what we did for the last century, getting to know more and more of one subject. Very narrow focus. Specialisation. Which is very important.
But now we need to get in touch with the right hemisphere of our brain. Use our intuition. See the wholeness. Connect the dots. See the bigger picture. Get an overview. Get back to the surface and look at each other’s findings.
And stop confusing the map with the territory.