Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist says most neuroscientists have downplayed the differences between the left and right sides of the brain. He says he thinks the left hemisphere has become so dominant in Western culture that we're losing the sense of what makes us human.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Steve Paulson: Tell me about the title of your book. Who are the master and the emissary?
Iain McGilchrist: Well this is a story that is loosely based on Nietzsche, a fable in Nietzsche. Essentially the master in this story is the right hemisphere of the brain which surprises some people because they assume that the dominant one is the left. But in this story, in my understanding of things, the master is in fact the right hemisphere and his emissary is the left.
SP: So you’re saying that the emissary has taken over from the master?
IM: Well, yes. The way I look at it is, is the two hemispheres give us each a possible take on the world. They deliver a version, if you like, of the world for us, and these two takes are different in their preoccupations, values, and the sort of world that they bring into being for us. In brief, I think that the right hemisphere of the brain understands and knows certain things that are not compatible really with doing the sort of things that it needs done on its behalf some of the time which is to present the world in a very simplified and very clear-cut way which enables us to interact with it. So it has delegated, if you like, that’s to anthropomorphize the hemispheres but I understand this is a Darwinian process that the need for two types of attention has driven this and that in the terms of the fable the master, the right hemisphere delegates a certain kind of work looking at the world in very close detail and highly focused narrow attention to the left hemisphere.
SP: Now it strikes me that what you’re doing is almost a taboo subject in neuroscience that the brain has these two fundamentally different hemispheres because a lot of brain scientists remember all that talk about 30 or 40 years ago about people that were supposed left-brain or right-brain. Left-brain people are logical an analytical. Right-brain people are creative and intuitive and scientists basically said that “That’s nonsense” and here you are going back to talking about distinctive traits, and maybe traits isn’t the right word, but functions within the left hemisphere and right hemispheres of the brain?
IM: That’s right, and the first hurdle that I have to get over is most people think they know what this is about and they think that it’s all rubbish and it’s all been exploited. So the first people is just to get people to read what I’ve got to say and as you know this is a long, carefully-argued and extremely well-researched book with an enormous amount of details to and fully-referenced so people can pick me up on the arguments.
But I think the difficulty is that what happened was that science discovered that all the things that people used to say like that the left-hemisphere, some had dead language and the right hemisphere was sort of pink and fluffy and creative in a slightly vague way. Well, they did say emotion and visual-spatial imagery, that sort of thing. I mean, over time we’ve realized that actually both hemispheres contribute to everything, absolutely everything that we do. That has led people to say that there’s nothing there. This is a kind of blindness however because the hemispheres are manifestly different. If one is approaching it in a scientific fashion one has to deal with the fact that the two hemispheres are asymmetrical, they are different weights, sizes and shapes. They have different grail confirmations, patterns on the surface of the brain. They have different cyto-architecture and the pattern of cell structure within the hemispheres. They have different grey to white ratios. They respond differently to the neuron-endocrine environment. They have different preponderances of neurotransmitters and when people have strokes or tumors in one or other hemisphere they affect people in completely different ways depending on which side of the brain you’re looking at.
So, it would be ignorant and it would be simply an act of dogmatic faith to say “Well, there’s nothing there” because there obviously is.
SP: So the fundamental question of course is why is the brain divided into these two very different hemispheres?
IM: Well, this is such a whopping question and people don’t seem to have seen it at all. It reminds me rather of the story of when the first ships arrived in New Zealand and they looked at the shore and they saw the natives looking out and they didn’t seem to notice this big ship at all. But when they put little boats over the side and started to go ashore people suddenly noticed and got very excited. It’s a bit like that. I’ve never heard anybody address the issue of why an organ whose entire purpose is to make connections and simply exists in a massive connection should have a whopping great divide in the middle.
SP: So what’s the answer?
IM: Well, these things have evolutionary reasons and my view is that there is an evolutionary imperative for all birds and animals to pay two kinds of quite different attention to the world. That means two types of consciousness really at once. That’s a very difficult combine if you think of a bird trying to pick out a seed against a background against a grit on gravel on which it might lie, it’s going to have very narrowly focused attention to something it already knows that it wants, but if it’s only thinking about that then it will end up being someone else’s lunch while it’s getting its own because it’s got to have a completely different kind of attention, the precise opposite, a type of utterly, uncommitted, broad, vigilance for everything else that’s going on in the world around. So you have, essentially, two kinds of attention, one that narrows a thing down as much as possible to a certainty so that you can pick it up and get it and sort it out. This is very useful for manipulating the world. It’s not good for understanding the world. For understanding the world you need what I would call a relational attention in which you don’t see yourself as somehow disconnected from everything around but realize how interconnected you are with it and need to be aware of all of it.
SP: So you’re saying this relational understanding, this understanding comes from the right hemisphere or the right brain whereas the manipulative side, the ability to control and master details, that happens on the left?
IM: On the left side. Yes that’s right. And you can see this rather nicely in birds and animals because unlike humans, humans are predators. We have the eyes on the front of the head. Most birds and animals have theirs on the side and you can just see that if that means that each eye cross-wires to the other hemisphere in a very neat way. So when you see themselves using their left eye or right eye and turning themselves especially to engage with the one that’s more appropriate for the task, you (?) of being able to observe this. When you come to humans, you find exactly the same story, that there are broadly five types of attention neurologists describe, but we don’t need to go into all of that. Essentially what it boils down to is that sustained, vigilant awareness of the surrounding and the broadest possible attention is paid also in humans by their right hemispheres. People who have a lesion or damage to the right hemisphere have a pathological narrowing of their window of attention, whereas the left hemisphere has this very highly focused, sharply focused attention.
SP: So you’re saying that a healthy brain needs both of these functions and the ability to switch back and forth. At some point you need-
IM: All the time.
SP: All the time.
IM: Precisely. We’re using both, or should be using both, all the time. AT a purely sort of millisecond to millisecond level there’s neural activity going on all the time, of course, in both hemispheres, but in terms of our consciousness, the attentional world, the phenomenological world if you like, the world we actually experience, it can be more like one or other of these depending on a number of factors, particularly what we think we are engaged in doing. The problem here is while we need both of these attentions the left hemisphere is the one that does the speaking and the organizing of an argument and the right hemisphere doesn’t have access to these benefits. In the book I called the left hemisphere the Berlusconi of the brain because it’s the kind of political heavyweight that controls the media. The evidence, if you like, or the arguments are skewed from the outset. It’s much harder to construct in language, the knowledge that the right hemisphere has, a lot of which is implicit and needs, in fact, to be taken in context and not disengaged from all the other things that it’s connected to. That, of course, is a very difficult thing to convey often in language.
I often came across this when I was studying literature. I don’t know if that would be a relevant thing to mention.
SP: Well actually that’s highly relevant I think. Maybe that explains some of why your theory has met resistance among some neuroscientists. Neuroscience has basically ignored this division in the brain because there’s all this evidence that the two sides of the brain are quite different. It’s baffling, as you say, why neuroscience doesn’t seem to think this is terribly important.
IM: Well, it is. I mean, people have prejudices and they have dogmas, and one of the dogmas is there isn’t any difference, but I believe science is a matter of looking at facts and not just blindly espousing dogmas. I’ve been surprised by how little opposition there’s been actually, and a lot of the very greatest names in neuroscience have been enormously encouraged and interested in my work. People like V.S. Ramachandran and world famous people like that (?) probably the greatest living authority on the neuroscience of affect just to name a couple. So it’s not as it was. Scientists don’t see that there’s something terribly important here. I think an awful lot of them too, and philosophers too have become very interested in it, I’m glad to say.
SP: Now you mentioned your background, that actually you come out of a humanities background. You went off to Oxford to study English and even taught English for a while, and I presume that that has something to do with your rather unorthodox understanding of the brain.
IM: Yes, I actually went up to Oxford to study philosophy and theology, but in those days it wasn’t an honest degree believe it or not. Nowadays you can get a degree in almost just about anything, but then you couldn’t. Since I just happened to choose almost at random English literature as a subject, it was a school subject to sit the exam in. My examiner thought that was good. They encouraged me to do that, so I did, but I was worried about a lot of the process. I love literature very much and I found that a lot of the things that I could see were very valuable were very hard to convey once one started taking the thing apart. A good example might be the poetry of Wordsworth or the poetry of Hardy. When you start looking at the vocabulary some of it’s rather clunky and some of its grasp of meter, certainly in the case of Hardy, is often rather eccentric and imperfect. The sentiments in either poet you could find in lots of other places, but if that’s what you were looking for you could go to philosophers. In other words, you ended up with a handful of dust after you started picking these things apart. It occurred to me there were some interesting philosophical points here.
SP: And it’s worth pointing out that you actually wrote a book called Against Criticism. Wasn’t our basic argument that criticism is inherently abstract and conceptual while the actual experience of reading literature is something quite different?
IM: Yes. That’s right. It seemed to me that people who make works of art, whatever they might be, have gone to great trouble to make something unique which is embodied in the form that it is and not in any other form and that it transmits things that remain implicit. If you explain a joke, you lose a power of it. If you have to explain a poem you’re going to lose a bit of the power of that too. It struck me that there was two or three rather important philosophical points about a work of art, that first of all what it conveyed needed to remain implicit and when you stuck something, yanked it out of context, and stuck it into the middle of the spotlight of attention you actually changed what it was because you hadn’t found out more about what was there in the first place. It needed to be incarnate. I mean, works of art are not just disembodied, entirely abstract, conceptual things. They are embodied in the words they’re in or in paint or in stone or in musical notes or whatever it might be and much of that power and the fact that those things also affect us neurophysicologically. When you read a poem it affects your heart rate, your breathing, you feel things in your bodily frame. So all of this seemed to be ignored and I thought the problem had something to do with a mind-body problem and I went off to see what the philosophers had to say about that and what they had to say was altogether disembodied and very abstract it seemed to me.
SP: So you went, so you basically gave up literature. You went off to study philosophy and neurology.
IM: I went off to study philosophy, but unfortunately in Oxford where people talk only about the Anglo-American tradition and it took me a while to realize that there were extremely profound, I think, writings by European philosophers, Melo Ponte particularly and Heidinger which were far more understanding of the things I was trying to say.
On an interesting side note, I remember when I was writing that book, Against Criticism, I was struggling terribly with the expression of it in the English language. Every time I tried to say something the language would subvert what I was saying and take it back to meaning something that I didn’t mean. I was sitting at lunch with the great Sinologist David Hawkes who is now dead and he said “What are you struggling with?” and I told him and he said “Yes, having trouble with the English language, the Chinese would know exactly what you are saying”. So it might not just be about language. It might be the way a particular language, or our languages in the west tend to bleed our minds.
SP: I mean, this is a philosophical point here. You’re suggesting that language has some inherent limits in terms of capturing what reality is all about. It solidifies, it sort of tries to carve out and describe experience but it loses something in the process.
IM: Well, the trump is that the more it focuses on precision the less content it has. That might sound paradoxical to some people who think it has more content the more precise it gets. In fact, as Heigel and many other people have pointed out, when you start to narrow things down you lose a lot of the meaning because you’re basically shaving off all the connections it has to things that qualify it. In that way, slightly like a particle in physics in which you can specify certain things about it, but if you do you can’t specify others. So, to try and sort of convey what that is about if, for example, you’re trying to convey something beyond daily experience, our language is in daily commerce and it turns things back to the daily, to the cotillion, as Niche said “Language makes the uncommon, common” so the more you struggle to express things that go beyond our everyday concepts, the more the language stops you from doing it. So if you use it in a very precise way, not in a suggestive way that poetry does or in fact some of the great philosophers do this like Heidinger and (?) and others I admire. Unless you do that, you can’t actually break out of this straight jacket of language.
SP: And yet, we are. We humans are the language species. We are the species that has mastered language in a way that no one else has. A lot of people would say if you had to point to one defining characteristic of what makes us human it’s our use of language. You’re saying that there are some inherent limitations in that or where it has led us has perhaps blinded us as well.
IM: I think it has, and in fact, this argument in the book I have a chapter called Language, Truth and Music, in ironic homage to (?), but I think there are arguments to say that in fact we communicated for a long time with what one might call the musical aspects of language and I think that’s an idea that has some mainstream support in anthropology.
SP: And when you say that, are the musical aspects of language; is music more of a right hemisphere function?
IM: In most people it is. Most of the subtlety of music is sub served by the right hemisphere. There are differences in professional musicians which is very interesting the two or three theories as to why that might be, but generally speaking it is, and it’s that which conveys an enormous amount of the meaning that we do convey through tone, through manner, through humor, through implicit meaning, all the ways in which we get beyond the very sort of dead pan denotative language, and these are the things, of course, that are mobilized in poetry, so of course it is possible in poetry.
SP: That’s fascinating. So poetry, you’re saying is more of a right hemisphere function, whereas discursive language, nonfiction, would be more coming out of the left hemisphere of the brain?
IM: Well, both hemispheres, of course, are involved in all language, but what I’m saying is that the denotative qualities of language are better served by the left hemisphere and the quantitative ones by the right hemisphere. We know that metaphors are largely a right hemisphere capacity and metaphor, some people think of metaphor as just a sort of decorative adjunct to language, so a little bit of icing on the cake. But like often Johnson have suggested powerfully in their work, metaphor is at the root of all meaning. If you don’t use metaphor you can’t get out of the self-enclosed, self-referring, essentially empty system of science that language otherwise would be. It’s metaphor that takes us back out of the system of science to primary experience, embodied experience.
SP: Are you saying creativity is basically a right hemisphere function?
IM: No I’m not. I’d like to get that clear. I don’t think creativity is. I don’t think imagination is. I don’t think reason is. I don’t think emotion is. They’re all sub served by both but they contribute in different ways. In order to produce a work of art you need both, you need, in fact, in most aspects of life, perhaps even most aspect of the world have this nature that there are forces that need to open up the possibility and those that need to close down to a certainty. They’re opposing forces if you like. You see this in biology, forces for stasis, solidification, and permanence, and forces for flow, for change, and they need to be in a proper sort of balance, so in order to produce any work of art you need both, a sort of critical, more analytic way of thinking, but you also need to know how to let that go. This is also true of the interpretation of works of art. I think the simplest example would be playing a piece of music. If you play a music instrument at all, I’m sure you know that initially you’re attracted to a piece and you have a feel of it and you start to play it then you realize this passage is a bit difficult and I need to have a look at it in closer detail. So in terms of the dominant and I do it like this and you practice the fingering and so on. You’re taking a bit. But if you’re still thinking like that when you come to perform it you’ll give a lousy performance. All that has to be lost when you then reengage with the work of art. I think everything has this asymmetrical structure in our minds, that the first inklings come from the right hemisphere. They then get, if you like, metaphorically speaking, they get sent to the left hemisphere for the work that that hemisphere can do in unpacking that, making the implicit, explicit, and the work of value in that, it enriches that, but then all that needs to be made implicit again and sent back to the right hemisphere to be seen as a whole.
That actually includes language. There’s some lovely work done by Dave McNeil in Chicago. He spent 20 years videoing people talking to one another and out of this he also had some (?) subject, split-brain subject, and out of this we can deduce that thought begins in a sort of global synthetic way in what is almost certainly the right hemisphere. It then gets put in a serial analytic form in the left hemisphere and it then gets re-appreciated in the right hemisphere. And if you stop before that process you don’t understand communication. So people who have problems with their right hemisphere language can’t understand ordinary human utterance. For example, if I say “It’s hot in here” and any normal person knows what I mean is “Could you please open the window?”, but actually that takes a bit of thinking and knowledge of the real world. My left hemisphere thinks I’m just supplying helpful meteorological data. So it’s as if a computer were trying to understand utterance rather than a human being in the real world were doing this.
SP: It makes me wonder about a disorder like autism where some of the more emotional associations with language tend to get lost. It seems to be a very literal way of looking at the world. Do you see people with autism as being sort of left hemisphere dominant?
IM: First of all, let me say something about lateralization in the brain. I think that autism is one of the conditions and another might be schizophrenia, Asperger Syndrome and possibly dyslexia and even discommendable (?) left-handedness that are associated with abnormal lateralization in the brain. It doesn’t follow necessarily the regular pattern and that might have advantages and disadvantages. In fact, the evidence is that it can be associated; all those conditions can be associated with either quite important deficits or special talents. If you image the brain of people with autism you have to be very careful how you interpret the finding because you might have findings lighting up in say the right or the left hemisphere, but you don’t know that what you’re looking at is a normal left hemisphere or right hemisphere. If you understand my point there, so the best way to look at it is if you wanted to create somebody with autism where would you put the lesions in the brain? And the answer is preponderantly you put them in the right hemisphere. So there’s a loss of the sense of the whole. There’s a loss of understanding of social communication, problems with empathy, problems with intonation, with the understanding of utterance, with bodily coordination and so forth.
SP: Now what’s especially fascinating with your book is once you take some of these findings about brain science, about he two halves of the brain and apply them to larger cultural and social questions the basic argument is that we need both and societies as a whole need both as well, both ways of experiencing the world, but you were saying that western culture in particular has swung very strongly in the last few centuries of overvaluing the left hemisphere of the brain. What’s the argument there?
IM: Well the first thing I might ought to say is it might sound odd to talk about a hemisphere difference in a culture, but we know that there are times when individuals are using more, relying more on the take offered them by one or another hemisphere. Often with attacking a certain kind of problem they’re using strategies and information largely coming from say the left hemisphere or it might be the right hemisphere. So we know that people do this and we know that also there are people, I resist the idea that there are left brain and right brain people but there are people who do have a perceptual bias towards one or other of these constructions. Of course it’s not an either-or or black and white matter. It’s always a matter of shades and degree. But if a culture is an aggregate of individuals it can also have a tendency to view things according to one or other of these ways of looking at the world. They tend to be in conflict at the local level so that it seems like you can’t bring them together and yet we need to bring them together all the time. To do that you need to have some tolerance of ambiguity which the right hemisphere is much better at, by the way, than the left. The left wants to close things down to certainty. It wants to know “Is it this or is it that? Stop being so ambiguous”. However, important times in culture like the sixth century in Athens in perhaps the fifth and forth centuries and the Augustan era in Rome and the Renaissance period, certainly the 15th, 16th and part of the 17th century in Europe were times when people understood these things. They understood the need to bring opposites together. They saw the need to see things as a whole. They saw that certain kinds of knowledge are more appropriate to one era than they are to another, something that Aristotle first alerted us to if you like.
SP: You’re saying these were healthy cultures. They valued the different parts of the brain.
IM: They were healthy cultures. They saw us as embodied beings. They didn’t separate the mind and the body. They understood the culture they were in, in terms of the long trajectory in time. Certainly the Renaissance did that, and they were interested in other times in other places. They were culture in which there was a proper balance between the individual and the collective in which the individual interest in the uniqueness of the individual which is very much served by the right hemisphere was combined with a sense of the importance of community which is also actually a right hemisphere mediated function. Both of these things get changed in the left hemisphere where the individual is seen as a single entity like a billiard balls along with a lot of other billiard balls in competition with them if you like knocking off them and the aggregate, the community, is just seen as an addition, just the sum of all these disaggregate individuals. So in one you’ve got a sort of living, breathing moving culture which is also a spiritual, mental and embodied in which there’s a sense of things as not just pinned down by certain kinds of abstract thinking. That would be the right hemisphere’s take and on the right you’ve got this idea of in order to interact with the world and to manipulate it “We need to have things precise, thank you very much. So let’s have this absolutely clear” and this is a sort of rationalistic way rather than a reasonable way of looking at the world.
SP: And then you say that a certain point in history, and I think you more or less date it with the Industrial Revolution the left hemisphere functions started to dominate so there was more of an emphasis on rationality, logic, precision, linear thinking and the sense of the larger whole of contextual thinking started to decline in importance.
IM: Yes. You know, it’s very difficult to say these things and still make it clear that I am enormously myself reliant on as I hope you will read my book you will see on both factual evidence using argument and the rest of that. I have no argument with reason. I have an argument with the kind of rationalizing the kind of computer would do which is not always appropriate to the human condition.
SP: So part of your argument, I mean, to put it bluntly is that you’re staying we’ve started to thinking of humans like machines, like computers.
IM: We have.
SP: And you’re saying that’s wrong.
IM: Well, it’s clearly wrong. It’s mistaken in the way that schizophrenia is mistaken. Schizophrenia interestingly, schizophrenic subjects often see the world as mechanical, see themselves as mechanical and are not, we used to talk about madness as a lack of reason. In fact, they’re hyper-rational as a number of great areas on this area have pointed out. They’re inappropriate over-rational in a sort of autistic way that shows no understanding of human beings. And I think we have gone into a world in which we overemphasize our ability to predict and understand and control things through this rationalization. And you can see how irrational it is to do that when you see the catastrophic results of it. Some of the more obvious ones might be the financial crash, but in all sorts of areas of life people complain but don’t seem to know what to do about the logical bureaucratization of teaching, of medicine, of the law, of politics, of policing which used to have all sorts of subtle things that are part of reason that are not part of pure rationalism. I want to make that distinction. It’s very important. A lot of the great philosophers of our modern era, and I mean our world since the Renaissance have been very clear about this: Montane, and Didro, and Voltaire and Gerta and things start to go wrong in my view actually slightly earlier than the Industrial Revolution with the Enlightenment.
SP: It’s too much emphasis on rationality, on being able to sort of solve all of our-
IM: Solve everything. See rationality is very important in its place. And that is the point. See, as Einstein said “It’s a faithful servant, but it’s shouldn’t be the master” and that is the trouble, that I have nothing against it. It is, in fact our second greatest glory, is everything the left hemisphere gives to us, but the first glory is everything the right hemisphere gives to us and these need to be held in a sort of fruitful suspension.
What happens at the Enlightenment is Isaiah Berlin, great philosopher, Isaiah Berlin said that “We start to believe in three things: that all questions can be answered and .that if they can’t be answered they’re not a question”. I doubt that many of our listeners will agree with that, that all questions and the answers to them can be made compatible. So all these answers can be compatible with one another, and this knowledge can be transmitted to others directly whereas of course a lot of it has to come through experience because the sort of things we say to people don’t really, they don’t really explain what it is because as I say, that’s the difficulty in language. We don’t insert understanding to people like we insert a widget into a machine. We draw it out, which is actually the metaphor behind the word education. We bring out things that are latent in people, that we seem to have lost that. At least in England where I come from, we used to have a fairly good educational system. I certainly benefited from a lot of extremely inspired and rather eccentric teachers who taught things they were impassioned about which seemed to be part of the point of education really. But now there is a host of well-meaning restrictions and rules and algorithms and procedures and tick boxes and so on which just basically destroy the meaning of education. I mean, my teachers wouldn’t’ have engaged in this because they’ve seen one of the purposes of education to alert you to the crassness of this kind of thinking.
SP: Well it seems to me that these values that you’ve just associated with the Enlightenment describe the way that most people think about science today, and the assumption is that science is the gauge of what is real in the world.
IM: Well, yes. It’s interesting. I need to make a distinction here between physicists and life scientists. Physicists long ago realized, perhaps not even 100 years ago, it became obvious to them that most of the principals that you’re referring to actually don’t stand up in the broader picture at all. But unfortunately life sciences have got left behind in a sort of time warp that they’re still thinking the latest thing is a sort of scientific materialism that was sort of fashionable in the sort of 1850s to 1860s, and it’s not surprising because most of these people are not made to confront anything. They’re working in a very narrow field, often so specialized that even people within what would sound like very similar areas of neuroscience don’t really know about other areas. This leads them to think they do very well in science at school, they go into a science career and they think it’s all very obvious, all this is mechanical. They don’t actually see it in any way that would alert them to the fact that this might be just one model and it will only reveal certain aspects of what you’re looking at. It won’t reveal the whole picture.
SP: So you’re saying that we’ve oversold what scientific materialism can tell us about the world.
IM: Undoubtedly we have. The problem is not with science. The problem is with kind of a shotty version of it which is now peddled by a lot of scientists in which they think they know it all and they think they’ve understood everything and this is a consequence basically of being enslaved in what I am alerting people in my book as the style of thinking of the left hemisphere.
SP: So it was, what are these people missing then?
IM: Well, in order to do its job it needs to simplify because you can’t actually deal with the world if you’re not taking into account all the “yes, buts” and all the otherwise and the impossibly and so on. You have to narrow down to a quick and dirty resolution of things that enables you to interact with the world, and the left hemisphere’s take on this enables us to do it. If one stops to think about life in a more leisure way, philosophies, you start to reengage things in the right hemisphere then you start to understand a broader picture. But it has this simplified map, I call it a map of the world, because that really points out that for certain purposes, finding your way around, less information, a less good picture of reality is better than the whole picture, and if I want to get from here to Detroit I really don’t want to see pictures of the families along the road and all the trees and the kinds of trees they are. I mean, that’s part of the world, that’s really there, it’s much more real than the map, but for my purposes that’s all I need to know. And this kind of thinking gives you a very simplified model of the world that is helpful and it makes you powerful because it enables you to manipulate things, see things, grab them effectively. In the west since the Industrial Revolution we’ve become masters of doing this.
SP: Well, it raises the question of a different kind of science; one that is not so rooted in the materialist mindset would look like.
IM: Well, I think ideas of this come from physics. Often physicists are interested in philosophy and a number of physicists have written to me, particularly interested in intrigued by my won work. I think that there are kinds of science that are practiced, you have to remember that the west is rather peculiar in that it came to science rather late, and science was going on in the Arab world and going on in China to an extraordinary sophisticated level, long before the west caught on really.
So, up until the Middle Ages we were going nowhere in science. But all those cultures realized that the sort of knowledge they got through science was of limited importance. It helped them solve very certain, very practical tasks. It enabled them to do certain things, but it was not a good guide to other areas of life. It was not a good guide to understanding. It was a good guide to using, if you like to put it in that simple way.
SP: It sounds like you’re saying-
IM: Science in those areas was of a different nature.
SP: But it also sounds like that you’re saying basically you just have to understand that science has limits. I mean, it can tell us a great deal about the world, but it also does not tell us about a lot of stuff and the problem with much of western culture is we think that “Oh, if science can’t prove it then it’s not real. It doesn’t matter”.
IM: That is right, but it’s not just science. As I said, I’d like to make a distinction between what is bad science which is the sort of thing that people reflectively talk about, very dogmatically and aggressively. They get very upset when anybody tries to suggest there might be more to this than meets their eye. That’s one thing, but true science is open-minded. It doesn’t close things down to early. It has a good look at what actually is there. This was the great thing in the Renaissance, you see. Until then people thought to find out about the world we go to books. Aristotle had it and so on. Then in the Renaissance people said “No, we’re actually going to look out the window”. But the trouble is the west hemisphere thinks it knows everything within its own closed system. It doesn’t need to look out of the window.
Can I tell you about the porcupine and the monkey?
IM: This is a beautiful piece of research done by a great Anglo-American neuroscientist Marcel Kinsborne with a Russian colleague. What they essentially did was they gave syllogisms to people to look at and said “Are these true?” A syllogism is a logical sequence of statements that leads to a conclusion, and in this sequence one of the statements was false. So, to give an example: all monkeys can climb trees. Fine. The porcupine is monkey. Not so fine. Conclusion, the porcupine climbs trees. Actually, between you and me, there are porcupines that climb trees, but let’s try to put that out of the way because the researchers and their subjects didn’t know that. Now when they asked the subjects whether this was true they said “No, because the porcupine is not a monkey, it’s prickly, it runs on the ground. Then they asked the left hemisphere of the same individual, this is not a different person “Is it true?” she answered “Yes”. And they said “Why, is a porcupine a monkey?” and they said “Well, no. I know that.” They said “Well, is it true?” so sheepishly she said “Well, yes”. They said “Well why”. “Because that’s what’s written on this paper”. Now the right hemisphere of the same person when asked the question indignantly said “Well, a porcupine isn’t a monkey so it’s a non-starter”. And this is really the difference between two kinds of ways of looking at the world. One is truth within a system you’ve already worked out and things that aren’t consistent with it you just deny the truth of.
The other is look out the window and see what’s going on in the real world, or as people say “Wake up and smell the coffee”.
SP: Well, then I have to ask you more specifically about neuroscience because it seems to me the holy grail of people who study the brain now is to try to get it as complete an understanding as possible of the neurochemistry of the brain, how all the neural pathways and synapses interact with each other, and once you figure that out you will understand the fundamental questions of what makes us who we are. Is that mistaken?
IM: Well the first part was absolutely right and the second part is mistaken. In other words, I think such people do wonderful work and I hope they will carry on doing it and I myself have benefited hugely from such work. My book contains references to about 2,500 such pieces of research and that’s how one comes to know things, but it’s a question of what it is you know. It’s a mistake to think that this kind of thing will tell you more about what a human being is. There was a huge amount of excitement a few years ago when somebody found what they called the love circuit, what lights up when you fall in love. Well, did you expect your brain to be a virgin when you fell in love? Of course, something in your brain is going to light up. Something in your brain lights up when you eat a cheese sandwich. This isn’t very interesting. It’s interesting in a way in putting into context what bits of the brain may be doing, but it doesn’t tell you anything about the experience of falling love. Brains don’t tell you about persons, they don’t tell us about consciousness, they don’t tell us about life. It would be a category of errors as philosophers say to suppose they could do that.
SP: But doesn’t consciousness depend on the brain?
IM: Well we don’t know whether it does or not. It may or it may not. Scientifically there is not evidence to prove that one way or another. Clearly when people die they no longer seem to be there, but we don’t know what has happened to their consciousness at all, and we don’t know whether there are forms of consciousness that don’t rely on the brain, but let us assume that it does. I’m perfectly happy with that assumption. It may need a brain to be transmitted to whatever it is that we are. The brain may be the means to our accessing consciousness and in that sense we might depend on it.
SP: So you’re leaving open the possibility that consciousness could exist outside the brain and to put it bluntly perhaps consciousness can survive death.
IM: Well it depends on whether you have a church of science which is just dogmatic and doesn’t look at evidence and says “Well, there can’t be any such thing because we just know it’s not true” which is the sort of thing you hear, or one looks and says we have to be empirical. If we have one empirical one has to leave the question open. I really personally don’t know. I wouldn’t be upset by the idea that as I say consciousness, at least human consciousness as we know it, and that’s all we can talk about, depends on a brain, but the nature of what it is, is another question. That’s a sort of different question, a philosophical question, which science is just the wrong tool to answer if you like. You know, we always talk about the problem of consciousness, but I don’t think there’s so much a problem of consciousness as a problem of matter. We think we understand matter but actually the thing we understand best because we’re in it is consciousness. That makes it difficult to know what to compare it with because when we say we understand something what we mean is we compare it with something else which we think we understand better, but in the case of consciousness and time and emotion there is nothing to compare it with so we can’t actually get a handle of those things in that way. But at least we experience them directly. The one thing that is peculiar here is matter. What the dickens is that solid object that resists consciousness? And that’s a very interesting question and its relationship to consciousness is an important philosophical question, not one again that science can answer.
SP: It’s also a profound question for people interested in spiritual experience and of course there are scientists who are looking to various brain functions and trying to isolate where spiritual experience comes from. Can the brain tell us much about this? The study of the brain?
IM: I don’t think it really can. It follows the same sort of problem that has played out here and there and that’s kind of interesting, but I don’t think it tells us, I don’t think it can tell us what the nature of such experience might be. But there are suggestions about what won’t help. It seems to me that when you’re trying to get beyond things that ordinary, everyday language can express, but that which you nonetheless experience or intuit and they are part therefore of the range of data to one that one should be looking at, if they are things that there aren’t satisfactory terms in language for and they don’t appear easy to pin down to things that we already know then using the kind of schematic categorizing, systematizing way of thinking that he left hemisphere offers will not be a very fruitful way of approaching it.
SP: Can I extrapolate from what you’re saying that mystical experience is basically a right hemisphere function?
IM: Well I don’t know that. I think it might involve both. I think that everything probably involves both. They have different roles in everything that I know about. But the one kind of knowing or the one kind of knowledge needs to be careful about its assumption which is jus an assumption that it understands everything. I’m must asking for a bit of uncertainty and humility here about what it is that we can know. I’m not myself laying down the law here about what is what. I think one would be a fool to do so, but I think one ought to be able to say what is not going to be helpful and what is not going to be right.
SP: I have to say-
IM: In fact, science works like that as well. Sorry, sorry.
SP: Yeah. In your book you drop various sort of fascinating little tidbits about spiritual experience. It’s kind of tantalizing I have to say and it’s left me wanting more. I’m assuming you think that we have, for the most part, neglected our spiritual selves, and I have to ask, do you have a regular spiritual practice yourself?
IM: No I don’t. I see myself as somebody who would be extremely loathed to expose a simple materialism. I think there is very much more to the world than our brains; it would be surprising of course if our brains were equipped to understanding everything in the universe. That would be a very irrational assumption I think. I think there are aspects of our lives, very rich ones, which are not easy to talk about and not easy to fit into these systems. I think that should be respected, and a lot of extremely wise people that I know, and that might be a good litmus test when you see people not being angry, dogmatic and certain about their truth whether that be a religious truth on one hand or a scientific truth on the other. When you see people being thoughtful, reflective and generous in their take on things I think that deserves respect. So, yes, I think our culture has lost touch with a lot of important things, the natural world, the meaning of art. It’s tended to make it too abstract or too reified, too material. I think we’ve lost that metaphoric link, that amphibious thing that goes on in human beings. We are not sort of in the world of the material or in the world of mind and spirit either wholly. These things have to be held together.
SP: Do you think it’s important to bring more of a sense of the sacred into our lives?
IM: I think generally cultures that work well and are balanced do so. I know some that do so at times develop kinds of totally dysfunctional and destructive behaviors but then so do entirely materialist societies. There have been some spectacular examples of those in the 20th century. So, yes, I think on the whole it leads to things that we value, an appreciation of things that are subtle, beautiful, morally preferable. I’m not saying that every person who has a spiritual aspect to their lives or a religious faith or something falls into that category at all. Of course many, many won’t. That’s true, of course, for people of no faith as well, but I think it is a rich part of life. It really just boils down to the fact that for most of these really important things which doe distinguish us from animals which are not actually language and reason, many animals can communicate in all sorts of ways. They have languages of their own and we now know that they’re not just human, not even great apes alone, but other animals like dogs and seals and elephants and crows and so on have greater cognitive powers than we understood before and can reason in their own way. You know, these kind of ways of thinking are one aspect of the world and we share that with animals, but what they don’t have is imagination, artistic creativity, they never write poems, make music, dance, change their minds and do many of the things that are rather rich but make for humanity.
SP: Now one way of reading your book is it’s a rather pessimistic take on where our culture is headed. You’re saying that we’ve kind of lost sight of many of the important functions of the right side of the brain. The left side has taken over, and I guess the question is how do we get back our right hemisphere? What can we do?
IM: Well I think the first thing is to raise awareness and that’s what I’m trying to do here with this book. As a psychiatrist I know it’s no good telling people what to do. You have, in a way to, bring it out of them, rather, as I was saying about teaching, you have to draw it out rather than say “I think it would be left hemispheric of me to say there are 10 bullet point things you need to do to remedy this balance”. So I think its partly raising awareness. There are things we could do. We could look much more critically at what people are saying about it. People everywhere are appalled by the tick-box mentality, by the stranglehold of bureaucracy, by the petty rules that govern everything because nothing can be taken for granted. Nothing can be taken on trust. Nothing any longer can remain implicit and I think we ought to think long and hard about whether they’re going further in that direction rather than it’s just a good thing for humanity. I think we need to look more closely at what we’re doing to the planet and think more conscientiously, not just about here and now and what I need here, but what humanity as a whole needs, what our society as a whole needs, what the future will demand of us, what our ancestors would have hoped of us, and therefore foresee things in a broader context. I think that would lead to a more respectful understanding of the world, the natural world, not to see it just as more resources to be used up and tossed away. I think it would mean that we would think more about engaging fruitful aspects of peoples’ lives that are not at the moment engaged where they’re simply reduced to a cog in a machine where there’s no fulfillment for a human life when we only live once.
SP: What about at a more personal level for those of us that think that “Oh, we have sort of become too analytical, too clock-driven?” We’ve kind of lost sense of just knowing the world at a sort of more intuitive level. What can we do?
IM: Well if you’re asking for something practical that you can do on a daily basis, and I think that may be what you’re getting at, I think you could, for example, engaged in meditation. I think this is helpful, particularly mindfulness. Mindfulness means stopping all that busy mental stuff where you’re already conceiving things and you’ve already got them represented somewhere in a category abstracted in your brain and you’re already actually just attending, non-judgmentally, to what is. That’s about what presence is, the right hemisphere, rather than what gets literally re-presented in the left and much to my delight in the last year research on mindfulness which is recommended now as treatment for a lot of mental conditions is shown that lo and behold it engages largely widely distributed networks in the right hemisphere in the brain, exactly as you expect it to do.
SP: It strikes me that partly what you’re calling for at a cultural level is maybe a return of the Romantic Movement, I mean, going back to the poets like Wordsworth and William Blake, and you were saying that part of the problem was that Enlightenment values took over and of course there was a reaction against that of those people who loved nature, who didn’t think that analysis would solve our problems. Are you a romantic at heart?
IM: I think I am really and its very difficult really because in people’s minds who don’t know much about it they sort of think of Romanticism as a very time-limited culture bound syndrome in the west for 50 years largely marked by lack of rigor of thinking and a sort of emotional over indulgence. It really is nothing like that, and of course some of the most interesting and most sophisticated and intellectually-demanding philosophy actually comes out of this period, the German idealist. It’s actually part of a much wider movement in thinking that people like Gerter began to sort of shift culture in that direction, and parts of it still exist today and part of what I would like to say is if maybe we could get rid of this term, this unfortunate word Romanticism because really what we’re talking about here is ways of perceiving the world, subtle, more complex ways of seeing the world that have been common in the wisdoms of other cultures than our own at other times and still are in other places. I would like to think that we could learn from those cultures but I see a desperate state of affairs in which we are (?) the Orient as fast as we possibly can and they are hastening to greet us in this and soon we won’t know where to go to find the more stable, wise types of thinking and behaving.
SP: Can you give me some examples of that, sort of stable and wise ways of thinking that perhaps are disappearing?
IM: Well I’m thinking of the sort of things that are rich in the old Chinese wisdom of Buddhism, Zen Buddhism particularly, Daoism, and in parts of Hinduism and parts of their spiritual understanding. And here again, of course I need to say, I’m not saying that one should not embrace everything that’s come out of these movements but there is there a strong sense of all sorts of very profound truths that we had in the west actually at one point and in the pre-Socratic era in Greece is evidence that a lot of this wisdom was shared, it got driven out by a shift towards “No, it’s got to be either this or that”. Its this kind of thinking which is nowadays we think is how you get real about things and actually you’re getting further and further away from the complexities of reality.
SP: One final question: it seems that there are people who are trying to bring some of these values back. Some people talk about a sacred science. Some people talk about rejecting the values of materialism. Do you see any kind of a burgeoning movement in this direction?
IM: I don’t much. I’d be cautious about it. It might well be good. It depended entirely on what they meant. If it meant jettisoning the best parts of scientific thinking, intelligent use of reason and importantly reliance on data then I wouldn’t welcome it. If it meant a sophistication of the process so that that was part of how we worked that would be good. I think some great scientists, and Whitehead comes to mind, managed to achieve a very intelligent synthesis of different ways of thinking and if we could build on some of that I think that would be wonderful.