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  • Writer's pictureCrone


Iain McGilchrist is a fascinating thinker. I got into his work some years ago, but then came to doubt whether the distinctions he makes between right and left hemisphere thinking stand up to examination. I think they do enough for the subject to be worth pursuing. Michael Gazzaniga, who has done work on split-brain patients, seems to suggest that there are degrees of difference. The subject is fascinating - and, to be honest, whether or not one can make any bold claims for the conclusions, I do think that it acts as a springboard for thinking about certain topics.

To sketch McGilchrist's position, the right hemisphere is more closely involved in 'seeing the bigger picture', holistic appreciation of a situation, creativity, emotions, patterns, the smallness of the self in the wide scheme of things - and it is focused on novelty. The left hemisphere is linguistic, literal, logical, precise; it likes lines and it likes to make sense of things. It would be more mathematical, more focused on direct cause and effect. It also likes the familiar - and will try to make a novel concept fit into an existing schema or framework.

So, take the famous syllogism - all humans are mortal, I am a human, therefore I am mortal. This is entirely satisfactory to the left hemisphere. It can take in that information. But the right hemisphere, like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy's novella, will consider the emotional consequences of that, the disparity between the feeling of aliveness and the usual sense of aliveness as a constant and permanent condition, and will find it unsettling, anxiety producing.

It is perhaps not surprising that Richard Davidson's work on well-being shows that depression is correlated with right brain function. The unsettlingness of what is novel, the emotional salience of logically accepted information, the smallness of the self in the wide world. Indeed, one might suggest that in a modern world with the plethora of information, the right brain could be seen to be overwhelmed. This is pure, and creative, supposition with absolutely no basis in fact. I am riffing on a theme.

But let's riff on.

For the world of the 'technocrats' and the institutions is a world that one could describe as left brain dominant. How much space is there for creativity, ambiguity, novelty that can't be forced into a linear process? This is part of McGilchrist's thesis, in fact and he makes a strong case for reasserting some 'right brain' thinking. I'm inclined to have sympathy with this view, because the narrowness, the coldness and the linearity of the privileged way of understanding the world and society a) doesn't seem to have been entirely perfect (though it has clearly brought great scientific benefits and political reforms) and b) doesn't allow space for much of what it is to be fully human.

Of course, this is related to that tendency to polarise reason and emotion, which I have mentioned before.

But this brings me on to harmony. At one stage, I began to wonder if depression was the way we deal with assimilating information about the world or the self that is new and frightening. The death of a loved one; the loss of a capacity; the realisation of being less effective or less powerful or less loved than we might have wanted. That unwanted information is battling to become part of a self or 'vision of reality' that does not want it. While there is only this right brain thinking, perhaps we might have an inability to create a healing framework; perhaps we might be lost in the feelings of loss.

A different type of person might institute conflict as a reaction. Fight against it, deny it, suppress it. Their process might be one of anger - because, in a more left brain way, either that is true (that I feel sad because this person is dead) or this, which I want to believe, is true (that the world is just fine). One view has to win - so they might say, well, that person is in heaven and so not really lost to me and so I can believe the world is fine; or they might say, I am independent and self-reliant and the death of others does not make my world any worse than it was before, so the world is fine. Denial or a refusal to accept the inherent dependency and neediness of being human. They might also immediately construct a story like, all people die and that is a fact of life which I get on with. This seems to leave out the important emotional (and ethical) awareness of the intrinsic value of the other and of the relationship.

By assimilation, instead, perhaps the story would be: that person was valuable and worth loving and there is a loss and a sadness now because they are dead, and yet there is still much that is of value in this world in its own right. Thus, sadness can exist alongside a continuing worth in life and alongside other sources of happiness. This person sees that she has real bonds to others, she allows for her dependency on them, but sees that she can create a place for loss within a meaningful life.

The position of assimilation is very different to the place of chaotic incomprehension or the conflict that has to find one truth (with two positions battling it out), rather than a developed truth in embracing two seemingly opposed ideas.

This idea somewhat relates to a particular take on absence. Think of a rose. The absence of a rose could be that the rose has yet to bloom; that it has been cut and is in a vase not on the bush; that it has died; that there are no roses on this bush; that this is a cow, not a rosebush. In fact, there's an Indian school that posits seven different senses of absence. In Zen paintings, space is not nothing – it’s what’s in between things. It’s a shimmering potentiality, an aliveness before being, between being, around being. The unformed form. The unthought idea. As white light contains all colour but seems to be no colour, so absence has the same profound fullness in emptiness.

Jean-Paul Sartre made an interesting observation on absence: if I go into a bar looking for my friend Linda and she is not there, it is her absence that I see. It’s not that I run through a list of all the things that are there and notice that she is not on the list and thus infer her absence. No, her absence is immediately present to me. I think this is part of the epiphany that Sarah had when thinking about the boulder that had been moved from the desert.

Sartre’s phenomenology, in this context, adds great insights. Firstly, he says that consciousness is nothingness. I’ve brought this up a few times when considering meditation: consciousness is not there among the objects of consciousness. It cannot be an object in consciousness, it is not a ‘thing’, it is always behind our awareness. Yet it is intentional – it is always ‘about’ something: we are conscious of a memory, a thought, a sound, a feeling. And that suggests it’s not a realm – things are not ‘in’ consciousness – but an activity – a bringing-to-awareness of things.

Moreover, it is not just passive and receptive – it shapes what we are conscious of, for what we are conscious of is what matters to us. We hear our name spoken in the babble of a restaurant. And we are conscious of things not as-themselves but according to how they fit into our needs, plans, desires. A slice of polenta cake is deliciously desirable. The cat’s vomit is what-I-do-not-want-to-touch-but-must-clean-up. The world is dynamically, magically transformed by our beliefs and feelings. The world contains our expectations. We see a coffee mug. We cannot see the back or the underside of it. Cannot feel its weight nor hear the ‘ping’ as a spoon makes the rim ring. But were any of those aspects missing, we’d be shocked. They are immanent, as it were, in what we can see. No wonder we are so often disappointed by others, who we shape with our expectations but who behave according to their own desires.

We are in a hall of mirrors, as the world reflects back our needs and preoccupations.

And one of the things it reflects back is absence. The absence of what? This is the seed of desire. That which is missing. That which must be sought. Much of the time, we cannot, it seems, rest with the shimmering potentiality of absence.

Nonetheless, in a way, everything is much more and much less than we take it for.

The world outside is partly itself, partly us (in that it is manifested according to our beliefs) and so there is this middle-way of things. While we seek to assert a single truth, it’s not that simple. Baggini says that East Asian philosophy accepts this. It is agnostic about metaphysics.* It accepts the ‘emptiness’ because it concedes that there is no eternal, unchanging essence of things. For that reason, the relationship between things (the background, the context, the right-brain view) is often more relevant to this philosophy than the things in themselves.

Not that this implies any undervaluing of the world. Indeed, quite the reverse: instead of seeking to define by vivisection, the observer can be absorbed by an attentive experience of the world, a state in which the distinction between subject and object disappears. Yes, Iris Murdoch was aware of Zen!

They are also cautious about language, which, like abstract conceptualising, distances subject from object, setting veils between them.

I say, ‘That is the moon!’ What does ‘moon’ say? Does it encompass all there is to that particular view of the moon, low on the horizon, visible between the dark framework of trees, painted tiger-eye yellow by whatever angle of sun and earth has led to such a golden refracting of light? The label ‘moon’ is much less than this-sight-emotional-experience-in-this-very-moment-at-this-very-place, and it is also to add something to the scene that I do not intend and that is not there – the history of moon landings, say, and moons depicted on Russian paintings and in poetic metaphors and myths of Diana and Artemis. Language is not enough, the concepts it carries with it are too much.

I was listening to the neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland today and she was rather scathing about all efforts to discuss or frame consciousness that are not based on 'the data'. Look, I remain agnostic over whether scientists will ever explain consciousness exactly. Perhaps they'll be able to map the neural correlates of a 'conscious' experience so that they can tell for sure if such and such a creature is conscious. Perhaps they'll be able to say, 'Ah! That is consciousness of a colour!' Perhaps even, 'That is consciousness of Mahler's Second Symphony - specifically the fifth movement.' But, so what? Maybe they'll even be able to map that pattern of firing from one brain to another so that all the 'same' neurons in the second brain are activated in the same sequence. But were they to do that, how on earth would they ever know if the experience was the same? Brains are plastic. My oboe sound might be somewhere other than where yours is. I might recall the time that I went to a classical concert with a date, an awful day, though the music was OK. I might just have a little emotional aroma of that floating somewhere when the strings first come in. What would that mean to an fMRI scanner or another brain? Geez, I can't tell you what it feels like even though I am feeling it, so how in hell would someone with different genes and memories and a brain that has grown uniquely according to their life?

The hubris of it.

We try to wrestle our lives into this or that. To make sense of things with our story telling minds. Unless we’ve defined it, pinned it down like a butterfly, we feel that it lacks… something. But maybe that lack is what makes it so numinous.

Sometimes, we have to rest with the experience of the thing. Accept that it is not right or wrong. It does not have to be part of the story or the argument. It may be a launchpad. It may not. It may just be itself.


*Interestingly, Spinoza, who does apply a very detailed metaphysical view of the world, comes to a vaguely similar though substantively different conclusion. In Chinese thought there is a distinction between li, which might be considered the guiding principles of things, and qi, the flow of energy. Spinoza separates into substance, what everything is made of - and that is not just matter but I guess a kind of being, and modes, the forms of things. He also concluded that all things have a mental and a physical aspect to them, but that these are in a way incommensurable. So, one could define a picture by individual pixels of different colours (the material) or as an image of an elderly woman in a black dress (the mental or meaning). You can only use one definition or the other and yet they are identical in that they refer to the same thing. For him, mind and body are different ways of describing the same thing. Freedom comes by understanding how your thoughts are caused - I feel angry because I think that he did something that was offensive - and then instead of being buffeted by outside causes (his actions) you can use reason to decide what to do about it and in that sense you are asserting your power to cause your own behaviour. In a sense, then, we achieve harmony by understanding that we are mental and material at once. Harmony of mind arises through a process of understanding, rather than by default. For the Chinese view, the harmony comes through practice rather than pure understanding.

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