Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

My friend Susie in Australia forwarded me this interesting interview by Natasha Mitchell with psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. You can read the transcript at the "All in the Mind" website, or listen to it by visiting the link, but here are some excerpts I found thought-provoking. I have edited for brevity.

Natasha Mitchell: You suggest that we, and these are your words, 'occupy an increasingly fragmented, decontextualised world marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with the feeling of emptiness.' This is a dark conception of the world -- what prompted you to turn to the brain for an explanation when others might instead turn to social and economic shifts?

Iain McGilchrist: It's more trying to suggest that there are two broad takes on the world if you like, and that in what I learned about differences between the hemispheres suggests that these actually underwrite two competing ways of being in the world and thinking about the world, only one of which we seem capable of entertaining these days.

Natasha Mitchell: And that's the left hemisphere view. But for you the brain has very much played a role in creating the world we occupy. It doesn't just experience the world, it generates it.

Iain McGilchrist: That's right, that my idea is that the world is something that isn't exactly given before we experience it but also isn't just something our brains or minds make up. It's a coming together of whatever it is outside of us with our minds. And that in the process of the two meetings there is a sort of what I call between-ness which brings things into being. And depending on which mode of attention we bring to bear on the world, a different sort of world will come into being.

The right hemisphere sees a great deal but in order to refine it and to make sense of it in certain ways to be able to use what it understands of the world and to be able to manipulate the world, it needs to delegate the job of simplifying it and turning it into a usable form to another part of the brain. And if that brain, if that part of the brain was actually attending to it in the same way as the other part, they wouldn't be able to achieve this double act, if you like.

The way that metaphor (of the master and emissary) works in the modern world is that the right hemisphere, from all that we know of neuroscience, conceives the world in a certain sort of way which is primary and we mustn't lose sight of it. But the left hemisphere has a narrow, decontextualised and theoretically based model of the world which is self consistent and is therefore quite powerful. And it becomes more important in the modern world, it seems to have taken over, there seems to be a process whereby its vision has become the only vision and the vision that would be possible through the right hemisphere has been undercut and excluded.

There are a number of reasons why that might happen. The first is, as I say in the book, I call the left hemisphere the Berlusconi of the brain because it controls the media, it's the one with which we do all our talking and arguing. But also it's fascinating in looking at the way in which the two hemispheres mutually inhibit one another across the corpus callosum, the band of tissue at the base of the brain through which they're connected. And the function of the corpus callosum is to convey information but very largely to inhibit the other hemisphere from acting when one of them is active. So there's a constant reciprocal interaction between them. But the fascinating thing is that the left hemisphere is better able to inhibit the right than the right is to inhibit the left.

Natasha Mitchell: Right, so it is in a sense dominant.

Iain McGilchrist: It's dominant in that way, even though in terms of the importance of what it can tell us it's secondary. The other thing is the left hemisphere is a system, as I say, is self consistent in a simplified way. So it can delude itself that it knows everything, whereas I see the right hemisphere as seeing things that lie beyond what we ourselves can see. So it is all the time as it were grasping or trying to grasp, reaching out towards something that is beyond us.

Natasha Mitchell: Let's come to the contemporary world, because you think it's come about through what you describe as the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere, that in effect we've entered a phase in cultural history where the left hemisphere has all the cards and looks set to win the game. Is that more than a metaphor in your mind?

Iain McGilchrist: Yes, I think it is more than a metaphor in that it's at least my very real conception and concern about the way our culture in the west is heading and I think it's shared by a lot of people; which is that it is a rationalistic rather than reasoned or reasonable and mechanistic model of who we are and of the world that we inhabit, which is based on a relationship of exploitation (the left hemisphere is there to help us use and manipulate the world) and has come to displace a sense of ourselves as in connection with the world and playing an important reciprocal role with one another and with the planet on which we live. So I think it has a very real meaning for where we are heading now, both in terms of the increasing abstraction bureaucratisation and technicalising of our lives and the sort of paranoia in which we can't trust one another anymore and have to monitor absolutely everything, versus you know a richer and more inter-connected sort of vision of the world.

And one of the fascinating things is that if you look at what happens to people when they have a stroke in the right hemisphere, a very, very usual phenomenon is that people underestimate or even deny the extent of their disability. As I say in the book the left hemisphere is an eternal optimist, it constantly believes in itself to a degree which is unsound, and that means in terms of the patient that they may deny that they've got a paralysis altogether. There's a nice little bit of research looking at people who -- again you can isolate the right or left hemisphere experimentally and ask questions -- and when people estimate themselves with their right hemisphere they are more realistic about themselves. When they estimate themselves with the left hemisphere they give an unrealistically optimistic assessment of their own skills and abilities compared with what other people would say of them.

Natasha Mitchell: If we think about the two hemispheres of the brain, I mean they've been heavily popularised: left brain/right brain. You suggest that they've been hijacked by management, trainers and advertising copy writers and I would add probably new age aficionados as well.

Iain McGilchirst: Indeed, the idea was that the brain was like a machine that carried out certain functions, and because there were two hemispheres there was twice as much computing power as it were, but we would compartmentalise things. So there was a story that language was in the left hemisphere, reason was in the left hemisphere and something like creativity and emotion were in the right hemisphere. That's a complete and utter....misconception of things. Every single brain function is carried out by both hemispheres. Reason and emotion and imagination depend on the coming together of what both hemispheres contribute.

I think attention is a very interesting thing, it just sounds like another function of the brain. But in fact attention is a remarkable thing, it's the nature of attention determines what it is we find, and equally what we find determines the appropriate kind of attention to pay to it so it's a reciprocal process.

Natasha Mitchell: Your case here is that the left and right hemisphere attend to the world very differently so ultimately they construct a different world.

Iain McGilchrist: Yes, well we do know from lesion studies from every kind of neuropsychological information that the left hemisphere tends to adopt a narrowly focused attention which does bring into focus a very, very small part of the world. And we need that in order to be able to grasp things, the left hemisphere is not for no reason the hemisphere that controls for most of us the right hand with which we grasp things and the bits of language which make things precise -- whereby we say we grasp something.

So it's about that precision. And in birds and in animals the left hemisphere focuses on prey or on something that is there to be eaten, and the right hemisphere at the same time is keeping a sort of broad open attention for predators. And we know also that animals and birds use their right hemisphere for social interaction, not just of course with foes but also with kin, with con-specifics. So one of them is a sort of uncommitted and relational mode in which one is looking at the world in a broad sense for whatever it may contain.

Natasha Mitchell: You saw the romantic era as a great blossoming of the right hemisphere, but the Industrial Revolution to the present day for you represents a major shift leftward in the brain, and of course we're not saying politically here, we're saying hemispherically in the brain.

Iain McGilchrist: Yes, that's right. I mean one of the striking things about the Industrial Revolution is that for the first time we were able to put into the outside world artefacts which conform very much to the way the left hemisphere sees the world -- simple solids that are regular, repeated, not individual in the way that things that are made by hand are. And to transform the environment it was a sudden and obvious move forward in our ability to control our environment and to project outwards onto it the world as conceived inwardly by the left hemisphere. That's gone on into the 20th century but the interesting thing is that one might think of the Industrial Revolution and scientific materialism which emerged in the 19th century and is still with us at least in the biological sciences although I would say that physics has long moved on from that vision of the world to one that's closer to what both hemispheres see. But that movement is often seen as in opposition to modernist and postmodernist culture. I argue in the book that in fact that's not the case and that modernism and postmodernism are in fact also symptomatic of a shift towards the left hemisphere's conception of the world.

Natasha Mitchell: Which is interesting because I guess the postmodernist view would be that everything exists within a context and that perhaps there is no absolute truth and in a sense I would have thought that contextual framing of the world is more right hemisphere if your argument is to hold?

Iain McGilchrist: Well of course I agree that things are contextual and there's no absolute truth but unfortunately in postmodernism this often comes to mean there is no truth at all. There is nothing out there actually beyond the sort of paintings on the wall of the inside of our mind. And that seems to be very much more like what the left hemisphere sees, and in fact the products of the art of modernism and postmodernism bear striking resemblances to what the world looks like to people whose right hemisphere is not working very well. That was something that was first pointed out indirectly by a marvellous book by Louis Sass, an American psychologist who wrote a book called Madness and Modernism in which he draws extensive parallels between the phenomena of modernism and postmodernism and of schizophrenia. Deficits of the right hemisphere present a world in which the literal triumphs over the metaphorical, things taken out of context triumph over their meaning in a context, particularly a social context, and the sense of connectedness to others -- empathy and so forth is lacking and the world appears to be a heap of fragments and one can see that in the sometimes wonderful but bizarre and exotic artistic productions of people with schizophrenia.

Natasha Mitchell: You, Iain, do lament the loss of our relationship to beauty, to body, to spirit and art. Is that to blame on the left hemisphere as well?

Iain McGilchrist: Well again because its approach is largely reductionist, I think yes, it doesn't really have the capacity to understand what it's not able to see.

Natasha Mitchell: Clearly beauty, the body, the spirit, art, emotion aren't purely the domains of the right hemisphere?

Iain McGilchrist: They certainly aren't and both are contributed to by both hemispheres absolutely. But at the moment what I think is that a rather reductionist version of what they might be is evident not just in science but in our popular culture and indeed is expressed in the kind of art that is created nowadays too. So I think a lot of the power of art to alert us to things beyond ourselves, yes, what is known as the transcendent I think that has been lost. There's a sort of ironising undercutting of the power of beauty, the power of art, the power of the spirit; don't want to sound evangelical here, but these things are important and need to be mentioned. You know a lot of very great scientists have always said that these things are an important part of what science acknowledges and pays tribute to. So, you know, I'm hopeful that the synthesis that I consider would be fruitful can be re-established. At the moment things seem to be very skewed.

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