Essential! The Divided Brain, The Search for Meaning, The Porcupine is a Monkey

In the second part of my YouTube talk “The World of Work has Changed Forever – Factoryisation Proceeds Apace” I talk about the mechanistic, bureaucratic, controlling, reductionist, “specialist”, disenchanted direction society is heading and mention that Max Weber predicted this over a hundred years ago. Underlying all this must be a dynamic in the psyche, in the brain. What that is and how we can find (our own) meaning and start reboot society is very much what this article is about.

One of the 21stC characteristics is fragmentation – no longer do we have a common body of knowledge – other than vacuous “celebs” that the old media is so obsessed with. Thus one can come across folks who have never even heard about, say, Eckhart Tolle.  A less Oprah-ed alt-celeb (?) name is Iain McGilchrist. If I could only recommended one living person whose work was a must-know-about it would be this chap.


I was reminded of him in a very recent and excellent ConsciousTV interview (more on that below).  I certainly hadn’t previously got the fact that although he is a bona fide academically based rational guy that he really cares about not just the “intellectual correctness” of his work but more the impact of his work in changing people (the psychiatrist and alround nice guy in him).

As per our various levels of knowing about various stuffs some of you out there may have not heard of him. Some of you may have. Some of you may have read his first book. Few might know of his second book and I am sure next to none of you know about his forthcoming third book.

So let’s try and keep you all happy 🙂 … these notes are from the April 2014 CTV and I will split them into his three books.  Page down if you have already memorised the first book 🙂

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

As I wrote in The Internet and Candyfloss Addiction many folks are sucked into using the interweb in a superficial way – constantly hopping around like a ADHD frog.  Anyway I am sure you aren’t one of those 😉 and if you can devote 11 mins 47 seconds of your life to expanding your mind and knowledge of life, society and existence then check out this concise summary of IMG’s drift from 2011 (I keep referencing key works recently then being amazed to find they are often written since 2010):

For those of who don’t have the time right now, and indeed to incorporate some material not in the RSA, my notes from the CTV interview are…

  • IMG never bought into the reductionist view of the world. At school Plato was held out as saying that the world was a pale shadow of the real realm of ideas. Aristotle said almost the opposite that we abstract ideas from our lived experience.
  • IMG started by studying literature at Oxford but didn’t dig the way poems were analysed and broken down into devices and pieces etc which end up not being the thing which he fell in love with in the first place. They weren’t studied in an embodied way. Philosophy wasn’t studied in an embodied way (and life is nothing if not embodied – we feel things in our body). Later he moved to study medicine, neurology [“there are more potential connection pathways in the brain than there are particles in the known universe” (get your head around that :-O )] and became a psychiatrist.
  • There is no “consciousness problem” (we know we are conscious so no problem!) – rather he sees it as a “matter problem” (“what is this hard thing that resists my consciousness). He (as per many oriental philosophies) sees matter as a phase of consciousness (cf steam, water, ice).
  • The frontal cortex gives “distance to life” – we can decide not to eat/mate/run away from something (as opposed to not having one when one just acts as per instinctual reactions). A Dog has 7% of the brain as frontal cortex, monkeys 17% and the great apes (inc. us) 35%.
  • In the 60s/70s (and often in modern loose parlance) it became popular to talk about left-brained and right-brained people [which is nonsense – no-one goes in an MRI and finds one side more lit up than the other!] and functions – reason, language, creativity – etc etc, being deemed to reside on one side.  This is completely false – all functions use both sides of the brain.
  • As a result the whole field fell into disrepute and no work was done – vice versa everyone “knew” that there was nothing to it.
  • However biologists never got sucked into this and actually did “science” rather than “belief” (a rare thing as we increasingly know lol). Especially as “lateralisation pays” – nature doesn’t go to huge efforts without a benefit. Furthermore damage to one hemisphere results in predictable and very different consequences. Abnormal lateralisation is strongly associated with things like schizophrenia.
  • The hemispheres have a different shape, weight, surface patters, cell architecture, respond differently to neuroendocrine hormones, have different grey:white matter ratios and even use preponderantly different neurotransmitters.
  • They found that the left hemisphere is responsible for local, precise awareness. Eg a bird picking out a seed from gravel.
  • This alone would not work in evolution as while you are eating something you didn’t notice might eat you 🙂 So the right hemisphere is responsible for a more global attention and for knowing what is not in the perception of the left hemisphere’s model
  • In all creatures: the left is about detail, precision, pieces, an infinite sum of points in a digitialised way [POST REF] takes 1000s of points to a conclusion, Newtonian, atomistic, only sees what it expects to see, is not in touch with reality but only with its representation of reality which turns out to be remarkably self-enclosed.
  • The right is about context, whole, flow, modern quantum, in principle uncertain, impossible to entirely isolate components from each other, things change according to context and the way they are observed, sustaining an idea over time, uniqueness, human beings (ever flowing, ever-changing), ambiguity, indirect, implicit – non-verbal, metaphors, tone of voice.
  • The left is “certain” the right indulges in shades of meaning.
  • If you become a “literalist” you become autistic essentially.
  • THE WHOLE ESSENCE OF BEING HUMAN IS DEPARTING FROM A PURELY MECHANICAL WAY OF RESPONDING.  So simply put neurologically this depends on the frontal cortex and the right hemisphere [MB: the talk doesn’t discuss “heart” or other such matters]. Importantly in terms of where our society is going (the real significance of the book) it is going increasingly into becoming a paranoid, controlling, machine – which is very much a left-hemisphere world.  But the left sees least and is most convinced all it sees is all there is.
  • [MB: this is so reflective of religion and science. And even at a detailed level the almost never mentioned huge schism in Buddhism (there are two incompatible views about awarness) – this is a ttem forum thread in re. On the one-hand the micro-concentration folks insist that they are correct and liberation comes by perceiving this digital view. On the other the more laid back spacious folks (who generally are cuddlier, warmer, less fundamentalist, less doctrinal, easier to realte to other spritual/religious worldviews ;-)) say it’s broad and expansive and ever-present.  Personally I have always taken the former conclusion to be most likely to be an artefact of a certain investigative method and worldview]
  • Perception is not neutral – your model affects how you perceive – ie what factors you are looking for and hence what you perceive. So you can get stuck in seeing things one way only.
  • These two world-views, modes of perceiving are incompatible. Eg the left precisely categorises whereas the right can only roughly categorise.  There is no possibility of “compromise” or “combining” the two views. [The “Master” and “Emissary” of the title showing IMG’s clear view of which view must be in charge (cf Einstein’s comment ““The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” )
  • They are not just world-views but pre-reflective ways of constructing perception.  An experienced meditator to whom I spoke about IMG said “well we can always fall back on experience” (a sentiment I agree with at heart). However as I pointed out experience is itself a construction.
  • The brain overall does a good job of juggling, covering up (until the left brain wins in many people (not least of which trained by all this precision and “Right-Answer-ism” at school) … one meaning of awakening perhaps is to re-notice the more global cognitive style). They need to co-operate – eg in learning a piece of music we break it down into local parts, individual notes, accents etc. But when playing we must put all that to one side and play the piece as a whole performance.
  • Culturally the left-hemisphere cognitive style is a bureaucrats dream – you should control things (that’s its evolutionary function), certainty, fixed awareness, lots of little entities that fall nicely into categories and can be systematically manipulated for the good of all, life (economies, societies) are like a complicated machine.
  • Culturally the right-hemisphere cognitive style is about uniqueness, part of complex while, words, images are used in very imprecise ways.


The Divided Brain and The Search for Meaning E-Book

The Magnus Opus above is 400,000 words. Wow.  This e-book is 10,000 – a bit more digestible 🙂 [and only 61 pence online :-)].  From the introduction:

“How is it that the more able man becomes to manipulate the world to his advantage, the less he can perceive any meaning in it? This is a paradox that has often been noted, and has sometimes been attributed to a fundamental perversity, a sort of ‘pure cussedness’, in human nature.”

IMG point is to awaken people to different ways of thinking. One of the nicest and most unexpected things for him is that he has had feedback from folks around the world whose lives have been changed by his reading his works.

Modern life is all about viewing things from a utilitarian perspective. Competition not co-operation. Meaning comes from the whole, from the broader picture.

“Betweeness” is important not the things themselves.

With some things the act of focusing on them and going for it (in a left-hemisphere way) precludes the very chance of getting them! Happiness. Going to sleep. Being modest. Being wise.

You can’t stand outside some things and understand the meaning of them [certainly true of Zhan Zhuang – people tend to think “stand still is doing nothing and so you won’t get anything” … ha!]. You can only understand their meaning when you are engaged with them. Spiritual things notably (eg ritual).  You need to have the disposition of openness to receive spiritual truth – you can’t go directly to find it.


The Porcupine is a Monkey

[MB. Most folks by now can see that the way that the world and society is going is mad.]

“We are living in a society where our models have become more important than reality and no amount of contrary evidence will sway us”.

We need to get people back in touch with what doesn’t fit into their map – into the real terrain in which they are.  As a psychiatrist he knows if he tells people to do something they won’t 😀  But if he leads them to the place where the think “ok what I have been doing all along is unhelpful … but ah! if I did that…”

In his forthcoming book IMG’s focus is on what we can do (ourselves, government, education) to take this, what he sees as, essential, step to awaken folks to what does not fit in with their worldview – and hence get them back into the right hemisphere view.

He talks about an experiment with being asked whether a certain syllogism is true. Eg “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Socrates is mortal”. The syllogism from which he gets the title is:

All monkeys climb trees.

The porcupine is a monkey.

The porcupine climbs trees.

Of course asked in a normal state folks say that this is false.  Asked with the left hemisphere suppressed they say its false.  Asked with the right hemisphere suppressed and they say its true :-O  Asked why they say it is true they point to the second sentence as evidence – “because it says so here”.

Now this might sound a bit abstract. However I would like to finish by presenting IMG talking about a shocking story – literally of life and death – which sums this (and our modern culture) up.  This is a short clip from the ConsciousTV interview [which I recommend in its entirely – these fragmentary notes will only let your left brain get a local, atomised view ;-)]. It’s just over one minute long so don’t panic Candyflossers 😀 [mind you none of them will have got this far lol] … if the link doesn’t work correctly start at 51:20

One thought on “Essential! The Divided Brain, The Search for Meaning, The Porcupine is a Monkey

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *