Saturday, 13 June 2015

THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY

THE DIVIDED BRAIN AND THE MAKING OF THE WESTERN WORLD 


There are those who have read Iain McGilchrist's book from cover to cover - despite its being over 500 pages long and often both technical and scientific - and at least two of them hope to be with us at Wychwood Library on July 5th. Fortunately for the rest of us there are others who have been kind enough to produce summaries and excerpts which will at least give us a flavour. 


First of all the basics, with thanks to Jonathan Sacks:
“… since Pierre Paul Broca discovered the location of language-processing skills in the left side of the brain, neuroscientists have come to understand the marked difference between the brain’s two hemispheres and how they process information. The left hemisphere tends to be linear, analytical, atomistic and mechanical. It breaks things down into their component parts and deals with them in a linear, sequential way. The right brain tends to be integrative and holistic. …The right hemisphere is strong on empathy and emotion.  It reads situations, atmospheres and moods.  It is the locus of our social intelligence.  It understands subtlety, nuance, ambiguity, irony and metaphor.” 

Then the philosopher Mary Midgley in her review:
It is always Right's business to envisage what is going on as a whole, while Left provides precision on particular issues.  Moreover, it is Right that is responsible for surveying the whole scene and channelling incoming data, so it is more directly in touch with the world. This means that Right usually know what Left is doing, but Left may know nothing about concerns outside its own enclave and may even refuse to admit their existence. 
Thus patients with right-brain strokes - but not with left-brain ones - tend to deny flatly that there is anything wrong with them.  And even over language, which is Left's speciality, Right is not helpless.  It usually has quite adequate understanding of what is said, but Left (on its own) misses many crucial aspects of linguistic meaning.  It cannot, for instance, graps metaphors, jokes or unspoken implications, all of which are Right's business.  In fact, in today's parlance, Left is decidedly autistic.  And, since Left's characteristics are increasingly encouraged in our culture, this (he suggests) is something that really calls for our attention. 

Next, McGilchrist's own words, in 3 excerpts from his Introduction, including a paragraph ("Things change...") which begins to get to the heart of the implications for our modern 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 cooperate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture. 
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. But it’s 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 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). … In fact I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it into being. …
Ultimately I believe that … there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable…
How do we understand the world, if there are different version 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? What do these models tell us about the words that relate us to the world at large … that both describe and, if we are not careful, prescribe the relationship we have with it? …
[You can read the full introduction and see the chapter headings as a PDF.  The publisher also provides some selected pages here.
Finally you can listen to a condensed version of a talk by the man himself (11 mins 48 secs!) as a TED talk here - as we intend to do at our discussion in July. 

McGilchrist's thesis is not uncontroversial and some (who may or may not be present on July 5th) will be in a position to pick holes in either his evidence or his analysis.  Others may simply wish to discuss the implications for Western civilisation in the 21st century of what may be at least in part true. One such discussion in a blog by the RSA's Jonathan Rowson can be found here. It would be good to collect more critical views and reviews on this site ahead of, or following, our Wychwood Circle discussion. 

See under 'The Divided Brain' for details of the July 5th event at Wychwood Library.

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