The divided brain — interview with Iain McGilchrist

The divided brain — interview with Iain McGilchrist

Iain: There is an enormous number of aspects of modernist culture, the culture of the last hundred years or so, which simulates schizophrenia. Brent: Well, it's my pleasure to welcome Dr. Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” here to AEI. Dr. McGilchrist holds multiple fellowships at Oxford University, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the Royal Society of Arts. So, welcome, Iain. It's good to have you. Iain: Thank you very much, Brent. Brent: So, I hear from others that one question authors don't usually get asked when they come on to a program like this is, what's your book about? So, why don't you start there and give us a little bit of what your book is about? Iain: Well, it's about the vexed topic of the difference between the brain hemispheres, a topic that has become rather a toxic topic because of its exploitation by media people and pop psychology. And it started with things that we learnt…well, it took off, let me say, because we learned differences about the brain hemispheres in the 19th century, but it really took off after the first split-brain operations in Caltech in the 1960s where the brain was divided, this was for treatment of intractable epilepsy, and it gave people an insight into what the two halves of the brain might do that was different.

And, out of that came a number of ideas that eventually were proved to be wrong. They were, for example, that the left hemisphere does language and reason and the right hemisphere does emotion and pictures. And, with further research, it was found that, in fact, both hemispheres were involved with everything, but that was the bit that we didn't notice, was that they were involved consistently in two entirely different ways. And, the subject had fallen into disrepute because we were only asking the machine question, what does it do? And finding that they're both involved in doing everything. But, the question…the more human question, and, after all, the brain is part of a person, “In what way do they do?” Was not being asked, but if you ask that question, you get a fascinating series of answers. And, my book is really expounding what those differences are between the two brain hemispheres, and what inference that might have on the history of culture, including, and specifically, our own culture now.

Brent: You talk about the right hemisphere of the brain as being the master… Iain: Yes. Brent: …and you talk about the left hemisphere as being the emissary. Iain: Yes. Brent: Tell us what you mean by that. Iain: Well, the image comes from a story of a wise spiritual master who looked after a community so well that it flourished and grew, and after a while he discovered that he not only couldn't look after everything that was needed by these people, this community but that importantly he couldn't be involved in certain things if he was to maintain his overview. So, he delegated that job of going about and doing certain quite specific detailed, administrative tasks to his brightest and best servant. The trouble with this guy was that he was bright, but not bright enough to know what it was he didn't know, and so he thought, “I know everything. What does the master know? He doesn't know anything. He's sitting back there smiling seraphically back at base. He doesn't know anything. I'm the one that does all the heavy lifting.

I really understand.” The trouble is he didn't know what it was he didn't know. He didn't know what it was the master knew. The master knew he needed the emissary. The emissary didn't know he needed the master. And this led to the collapse of the community, and this is a parable. The parable, I think, applies to the relationship between the two neuronal systems, the two hemispheres. One has a broad view, which includes the need for a detailed view. It has a global view that sees the need for certain quite specific facts and data. The other hemisphere and this is the left hemisphere, sees only the details, but has no concept that it's missing the big picture. It thinks that maybe you can put all these details together and they'll compose the big picture, but actually, it's not like that. We think, and the left hemisphere can't see that it could be otherwise, that a whole is simply made by putting together the parts.

But, actually, the whole of many things, as we appreciate in living, is not the same as what you get when you take it apart into a handful of pieces. Brent: And so, you've used some interesting examples in the past about this from the animal kingdom… Iain: Yes. Brent: …and how you sort of…how the penny dropped as it were when you started studying animal behavior. Could you talk a little bit about that, because that helps to explain this left-right hemisphere distinction? Iain: Yes. Well, it's not just human beings that have lateralized brains, in other words, that have two halves of the brain that are not symmetrical. By the way, they're not symmetrical in anything you can measure, anatomically or physiologically. So, functionally, structurally, they are different, reliably so. But this is not just about humans. This is not even about apes. It's not even about mammals, or reptiles, or amphibians, or fish, or insects, or nematode worms. Every existing living thing that we know that has any kind of neuronal structure at all has an asymmetrical one, and that leads to the question, “Why?” And there is an answer to this, which gradually dawned on me, which is that it has an important evolutionary significance, that is that it solves a conundrum, how to eat and stay alive, and that doesn't sound like a conundrum to us now, but for most animals, it's a dangerous business being focused on one thing because you're obviously not looking at everything else.

So, while you're focusing on catching that rabbit, picking out that seed against the background of grit, you know, picking up a twig to build the nest, you've got to have very sharply focused attention, just very narrow view attention to detail. But if that's the only attention you're paying, you'll soon become somebody else's lunch while you're getting your own, because you need to have a sustained vigilance for predators, for conspecifics, for others that are around, and for everything else basically that is going on in the world.

And, when you observe animals and bird, what you find is that the left hemisphere serves the predator instinct in which you go for some detail, and therefore is good for manipulating the world. But it's not terribly clever, it doesn't really see the whole picture, it doesn't understand what it's doing, but it's a servant, it's a very good servant. The right hemisphere, meanwhile, is understanding the whole thing and saying, “I see where this thing of getting my lunch and getting that twig for the…how that fits into the whole.” And, what I am suggesting is that in the way in which we now think, we've got locked on to a rather unintelligent way of thinking that enables you to be very efficient at grasping, but not very efficient at understanding. And you think about it, the left hemisphere is the part of your brain that controls your right hand, which is the one with which you do all the grasping, and it's the one that controls the bits of language, not all of the language, but the bits that enable you to say, “Oh, I've grasped it.” In other words, you've got some little certain factoid, but the problem is you try to live a wise life on the basis of putting a lot of these together, and you simply can't.

Brent: You've covered pretty well for us the scientific side of this, but that's only half of your book. The second half of your book is really devoted to an analysis, a cultural analysis, historical analysis, and I'd like you to unpack that a little bit, you know, in terms of what you think your research tells us about the development of the West, Western civilization. Iain: The trigger for this came from a book by a distinguished colleague called Louis Sass who wrote a book called “Madness and Modernism,” and effectively what that book demonstrated was that there are an enormous number of aspects of modernist culture, the culture of the last hundred years or so, which simulates schizophrenia. In other words, people who suffer from schizophrenia describe experiences, depict phenomena that are extraordinary like those that are in the mainstream of modernism. Now, that was a…and, over 500 pages, he shows this time and time again in great detail. It's very convincing. For example, many of the movements in the visual arts in the last hundred years exemplify various phenomena of distorted vision which are found in people with right hemisphere damage. So, some of the actual movements that became popular exemplified phenomena that until now have been quite peculiar to people with schizophrenia.

And, you see it also in, for example, the literature where a deliberate effect of sense of alienation that perhaps other people are machines are not really living, but they're almost like sort of terrifying zombies, or the sense that you yourself are cut off and unable to feel for anything, and the distortion of perspective, the deliberate disruption of narrative which has been part of the way in which novels have been written at periods during the last hundred years, and the willingness to strip things away from context and deliberately make them seem strange or odd creates an effect which is awfully like the experiences that people with schizophrenia describe. They seem to be experiencing something that modernist artists, writers, and even philosophers seem to be tackling, which is this kind of devitalization, this alienation, this disembodiment, this mechanization, and so forth, which comes out in the art and culture.

So, question is, “Why?” And this struck me like a thunderbolt because I've been researching at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore on asymmetries in the brain of people with schizophrenia, and what I had learned, amongst many other things, apart from the fact that their brains are not asymmetrical in the way that ours are, is that people with schizophrenia are awfully like people with right-hemisphere brain damage. People with right-hemisphere strokes, or tumors, or injuries experience things, describe things, depict things in the way that people with schizophrenia do, broadly. I mean, there are differences, but that's very substantial similarity. And so, what I took from this was that it wasn't that we were all becoming schizophrenic, but that maybe we were not utilizing what our right hemispheres tell us. We were listening only to what our left hemispheres tell us. And, I looked at that for quite a long time and saw masses of evidence that this seemed to hold up, and I then thought, well, if that's the case, and in the past, we've had, you know, different kinds of culture, I mean, many movements in the history of ideas in the West, they presumably weren't at all so skewed in this way.

And I looked at the ancient Greek civilization, at the Roman civilization, and our own modern civilization, starting with the Renaissance and moving forwards through big movements like the Reformation, the Enlightenment, romanticism, modernism, and post-modernism, and to abbreviate a much longer story, effectively what I saw there was the same shape repeated. And that shape goes like this, at the beginning of a civilization, it seems suddenly to erupt with a great efflorescence of ideas, thoughts, creative material in poetry, in drama, in history-making, in the writing of myths, in the exploration of the seas, the stars, the use of mathematics, even the beginnings of engineering, and these things then, over time, which are so effective and so flourishing, quite soon, over a period of usually about 400 or 500 years, deteriorate in a recognizable way. The society becomes more rigid, it becomes more steeply hierarchical, it becomes more bureaucratic, it becomes more interested in control and power than it is in actual imagination, which requires that you make yourself vulnerable in certain ways, and it simply can't afford to do this.

And the Greeks overreached themselves with their civilization, the Romans did the same, and they collapsed. Now, in our own case, I believe that we're following the same path, that we were very rich in creativity for a few hundred years, and that in the last…certainly, particularly the last 150 years, there has been an overemphasis on domination, getting empire, first, notably the British and then more in a commercial sense, the Americans, and cultural domination, in which I think a very diminished sort of bureaucratic…necessarily so because when you've got an empire, you know, what are you gonna do? You're going to be emphasizing the military, and the bureaucracy, and the administration… Brent: It has to be managed. Iain: It has to be managed. And so, management think, which to me is the death of imagination, becomes, if you like, the way in which everything is interpreted. It's interpreted as essentially knowable, quantitative, objective, and essentially dead, whereas, in fact, everything we experience is changing, animate, and multiply connected to everything else we know. So, one living animate, changing…

Pleasantly, constantly leading one beyond the horizons of what one knows now, that kind of a world gets eliminated in favor of a dead, static, contained, knowable nothing. That's where we're at. Brent: Well, that's a little daunting. So, tell me how you see…just to build on that a bit, for the average person who's thinking about what you're saying, what would you point to as evidence of this overworking, I guess, of the left hemisphere in our society around us? How does it manifest itself? Iain: Well, I don't know what it's like in America, but if you try dealing with any administrative body, even with your bank or the telephone company, you find yourself pushed down an algorithm that doesn't have anything to do with your circumstances.

And it's over-control, people who are not, as it were, trained or educated to the point where they can think for themselves are dealing with this as a new situation. Instead, they have a repertoire of stale abstractive situations which they are told to handle in certain predicted ways. And, unfortunately, life is never like that, and almost never can be solved in that way. I mean, its problems can't be solved in that way. So, this is something that I imagine we all have experience of. Also, our educational system has in my life gone from being something which encouraged free-thinking…in fact, the purpose of it was to encourage people to think differently, to question…whatever the received thinking of the age, also to learn hard a lot of the things about the past, which would help you to interpret the present and give a context to it. Nowadays people are not interested in and don't learn about the past. They're over-technically educated and under-humanistically educated. They don't actually know much about history, which is, after all, the sum of human experience so far. They're not encouraged to examine imaginatively literature which enables you to get into other worlds than the one we now live in.

I mean, the whole point of education is not to be relevant. The worst possible thing is to say it must be relevant. What that means is it's got to replicate whatever it is we're stuck in now. But the point of education is to break out of what we're stuck in now. And so, that's the error. And, if you now…I mean, I used to teach literature, and one of the marvelous things about it…it was great literature, absolutely unique, impossible to rephrase as a bunch of ideas.

It just has a powerful effect on you as an embodied being, you know. And then, now, I mean, I have a daughter who studied English, and, I mean, what she studied was, first of all, very little of what I would call the canon, which is now considered to be somehow irrelevant, but actually, without it you can't understand where we are now. If you don't understand history, you don't understand where you are, like trying to abstract yourself from space and say, “Where am I?” And you delete all the places around, you don't know where you are or what you're doing. So, that happened, and then, of course, the attitude is to be superior to the work, because you now have information at a point of view that this poor sucker who wrote this play or novel in the past didn't have. So, we now tick him off, “Oh, he was a racist, and a sexist, and a…whatever,” and we never actually make contact with the thing as a living thing that is speaking to us imaginatively.

I mean, this is terrible. Brent: So, I mean, I think all of us have been…all of us have, you know, deep concerns about the nature of public discourse today, you know, the lack of empathy, the lack of imagination, and creativity, and problem-solving, and things like that. Do you think that's a function of this phenomenon? Iain: Well, I think, with the phenomenon, if I'm right, we are trained to disattend to things that are not explicit and that are not in the foreground, and actually all the interest is going on in the background, the context, the implicit. If I'm right, and we're mainly focused on grabbing the obvious, then we would be living in a materialist society that didn't value spiritual things which simply can't be measured and can't be proved.

It would tend to prefer technical matters that can be measured to those that are creative. It would tend to stultify the insulate. And I think that is what is happening, and people aren't trained to think critically about their own opinions, so you get… You know, when I was at school I was taught the purpose of an education is to be able to give graded consent or graded descent to any proposition, and I believe there is nothing so good that more and more, and more of it is just better, and there is nothing so bad the little bit of it might not do some good. And, if you accept that, and I think it's hard not to, then the discussion has to be about where we should position ourselves on this continue. That is not had as a discussion because people are polarized. The left hemisphere tends to be extremely crude, and black and white and sets up oppositions. The right hemisphere is better at seeing that things that look like opposites may cohere. They may actually need one another and coexist. But I'd like to say that one of the most important things in which our younger people can see the fruits of this way of thinking are all around us in what we know about the destruction of the natural world, the destruction of species, the poisoning of the seas, the deforestation of the earth, in the tendency to grab resources at the expense of, say, whole indigenous peoples that get wiped out, and the over-control of all lives through monitoring of every kind: DNA databases, CCTV cameras, monitoring your online movements, and so forth.

And this has become a totalitarian nightmare already in China, and I worry about this being exported here. There is already science that it is actually happening here. Brent: It is happening here, but it's interesting because it's coming through the private sector rather than the government. Iain: Yeah. No. That's right. Completely, yeah. Can I talk about Predictim? Brent: Yes, please. Go right ahead. Iain: Do you know about Predictim? Brent: No, please. Tell us about it. Iain: Okay. Well, you know, in China they have this Social Credit System whereby everything you do is monitored and evaluated, and if you talk to the wrong person, or voice the wrong opinion, or buy the wrong thing at a store, this counts against you.

And if you get enough black points…bad points, you can't actually get a job, or take a loan, or even move from your town because you can't buy a train ticket. Well, believe it or not, in America there is a private company called Predictim that has developed an algorithm, and these things always start as for your own protection, you know, how everything sinister gets in, to make things safer. And this one is about, how can you get safer than this babysitting? Oh, that really speaks to the core because everybody wants to protect their child. So, there is an algorithm, it will tell you whether a babysitter is reliable. And, how does it do that? It monitors your Facebook page, and your Instagram posts, and everything that they can find out about the websites that you visit, and it looks at your face and your facial expressions and movements, and records your opinions, and it can tell the difference between a funny remark, a sarcastic remark, or a mark out of context, or anything else, and it creates a score, a mindless score that even the people who created it don't know where it gets the data from, and you, the victim of this, don't know why you're getting a bad score.

And, that would perhaps not matter very much if it only happened if you were babysitting, but now companies are using Predictim data to hire people. So, if you've got like you voiced an opinion that was controversial, you're marked down as a troublemaker. But society needs people who are going to be a little bit rebellious. Brent: Right. Wow. Okay. So, let's wrap up on this question. If, as you say, this problem of left hemisphere dominance has occurred in the past, why should we worry about it? You know, won't it just correct itself over time the way it has in the past? Iain: Well, the last time civilization collapsed in the West, it took a thousand years for one to re-emerge, so that would be concerning, but not very. But, the thing is that in the late Roman Empire, they were able to commit suicide as a civilization, but they weren't able to actually physically destroy the means of life. But, we now have accelerating power, logarithmically accelerating power, and technology is a wonderful thing if you're wise enough to know how to use it.

But every technology can be used for good or ill, and it's only a matter of time before that immense power falls into the hands of people whose desires are not good, not ones we would appreciate. And so, at the same time that society faces the possibility of a totalitarian regime, quite quickly amassing an enormous amount of data such that, you know, it just dwarfs anything the Soviet system ever thought of, that can happen. It can happen in the West. People say it couldn't happen here. That's nonsense. Democracy is a fragile flower, and it can easily be trampled on. And, you know, we saw totalitarian regimes arise in places like Germany and Italy in the last century, places with a long civilized history.

So, that can happen. And, the other thing that I'm talking about, which seems to be the most serious thing of all, is that I think there is good evidence that climate change has now got to the point where it is irreversible, and the consequences of this mean that there will be changes in the way in which people can inhabit certain parts of the world. In other words, there'll be mass migrations of populations away from areas of drought and famine, and these will be so large that they can't be policed or resisted, and there will be a breakdown in civil order. Now, if that happens, this civilization will end. And it may be not just a matter of a thousand years, but if the planet is properly despoiled, it may be much, much longer. The planet will survive. People say, “Let's save the planet.” I would say the planet is amazingly resilient.

The planet has been through many, many things. It's human beings that are fragile, and the planet will survive, but we won't be there to see it. And I happen to think that's a great shame. Brent: Dr. McGilchrist, it's been a pleasure having you with us today. Iain: Thank you very much. Thank you for asking me. Brent: Hi, everyone. That's the end of our discussion with Iain McGilchrist.

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