Iain McGilchrist’s marvellous book, The Master and His Emissary, takes us on a tour of the brain, with particular emphasis upon the relationship between the two hemispheres – the so-called Left and Right Brains and their functions and interactions.
But McGilchrist’s mission is not that of a technocrat or a scientist per se. We are not getting an anatomy lesson or asked to become experts on the myriad of details, relationships and structures that make up a human brain. Rather, the author wants to advance a philosophical thesis on the state of the world and explain it, at least in part, by the imbalance in Western culture and contemporary society which he attributes to an overreliance of functions that are essentially Left Brain oriented. He contends that the subject has been largely ignored by neuroscientists, probably as a reaction to the simplification of ideas relating to the two hemispheres of the brain which has led to popular misconceptions about the Left being ‘hard-nosed, logical and somehow male’ and the Right being ‘dreamy, sensitive and somehow female’.
McGilchrist infers this neglect has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. He wants to examine the differences in function between each hemisphere while at the same time acknowledging there is interdependence, and noting ‘every identifiable human activity is actually served at some level by both hemispheres’. At the same time, taking on board the conclusions of Joseph Hellige, he declares: ‘There are some very striking differences in the information–processing abilities and propensities of the two hemispheres’.
Flowing from that, McGilchrist believes that differences between the two hemispheres contain meaning – from which we might learn something about ourselves. He explains:
‘Not only is there a coherent pattern to the differences but that coherent pattern helps to explain aspects of human experience and therefore means something in terms of our lives, and even helps explain the trajectory of our common lives in the Western world’. Unless the hemispheres ‘cooperate’ they will continue to be involved in ‘a sort of power struggle’, and that such a struggle ‘explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture’.
In his introduction the author states:
‘This book tells a story about ourselves and the world, and about how we got to be where we are now. While much of it is about the structure of the human brain – the place where mind meets matter – ultimately it is an attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.’
When you read that sentence, it is clear you are about to be taken on a great journey, motivated by McGilchrist’s desire to set the record straight and, by implication, to offer us greater insight into what makes us tick, both individually and collectively.
But before embarking on that journey, we are treated to a succinct definition of the brain itself: ‘the place where mind meets matter’.
Now normally when I’m reading a book which I know will be full of scientific detail and analysis, I tend to gloss over the technical stuff and try to get a sense of what the author is talking about. The story I’ve told myself for years is that I’m no good with scientific thinking and it’s all too hard at my age to try and retrain the brain, for want of a better expression. But I have learned to pay attention to key words and try to winkle out any assumptions or beliefs that underline important statements that an author is making. So I found myself wondering if that was accurate – to describe the human brain as the place where mind meets matter?’ And then flowing on from that internal query, what does McGilchrist mean by ‘mind’?
Flipping to the index, I discovered the only reference containing the word ‘mind’ is one headed ‘mind-brain relationship’. Thinking I might get some insight into what the author means by ‘mind’ I turned to those relevant pages which are found early in the book. McGilchrist quickly makes it clear that the ‘mind–brain question is not the subject of this book’ but he does acknowledge it is legitimate to ask where he stands on the matter. He offers a definition drawn from American psychologist, Robert Ornstein. ‘One could call the mind the brain’s experience of itself.’ In the next breath, however, McGilchrist calls such a formulation problematic ‘since the brain is involved in constituting the world in which, alone, there can be such a thing as experience – it helps to ground experience, for which mind is already needed.’
Already we seem to be getting into murky water. Or, switching metaphors, each time McGilchrist dips his fingers into the honeypot of his subject matter, he encounters sticky cul-de-sacs. While the brain, being made of material ‘stuff’ and observable to the human eye through technology, can be defined in terms that are easily understood, our notions of ‘mind’ are much more elastic and elusive. Rather than acknowledge and comment upon this, the author switches terminology. In the paragraph following his flirtation with ‘the mind being the brain’s experience of itself’, he introduces the word ‘consciousness’. Again, no real attempt to define or contextualise but simply an outlining of his position: ‘The fundamental problem in explaining the experience of consciousness is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with: it is itself the ground of all experience.’
Now when I read that, having been interested in transcendental realms and spiritual investigation for many years, I could identify with his description. And I further appreciated his thinking when he goes on to say: ‘……there is nothing else which has the inwardness that consciousness has. Phenomenologically and ontologically, it is unique. As I will try to show, the analytic process cannot deal with uniqueness: there is an irresistible temptation for it to move from the uniqueness of something to its assumed non-existence, since the reality of the unique would have to be captured by idioms that apply to nothing else.’
I can appreciate McGilchrist’s reluctance to pin himself down to definition. And he makes perfect sense when he describes ‘consciousness’ as having a uniqueness. But unfortunately he continues to dip fingers into that honey jar without perhaps really realising how the stickiness may well obscure his overall thesis. ‘Is consciousness a product of the brain?’ he then asks, before making the point that if anyone thinks they can answer this question with certainty they have to be wrong. His reason for this conclusion is that:
‘We have only our conceptions of consciousness (my italics) and of the brain to go on; and the one thing we do know for certain is that everything we know of the brain is a product of consciousness. That is, scientifically speaking, far more certain than that consciousness itself is a product of the brain. It may be or it may not; but what is an undeniable fact is the idea that there is a universe of things, in which there is one thing called the brain, and another thing called the mind, together with the scientific principles that would allow one to emerge from the other – these are all ideas, products of consciousness and therefore only as good as the particular models used by that consciousness to understand the world. We do not know if mind depends on matter, because everything we know about matter itself is a mental creation.’
Wow! On the face of it this sounds like very persuasive reasoning. But again I find the red flags going up. How do we define ‘things’? The brain, being material, can be in layman’s terms included in the world of things. Less obvious, the notion of ‘mind’. If you ask a dozen people to define that word you may will get a dozen different answers – if you get answers at all. Most people probably haven’t thought about it. They will talk about it as if they ‘have’ a mind – and that mind is personal to them. But if you ask them to define it – to put it into words, some will be struck dumb and others will fumble about or look at you as though you are asking a completely unnecessary and ridiculous question. However, pretty much everyone will agree we are talking about something internal. Some folk might point to their head as if there is an entity living inside – a nebulous ‘thought container’ we could call the mind. In that sense I suppose it could be labelled ‘a thing’. But it is not a thing you can come to grips with any of your senses – you can’t see it, touch it, smell it, taste or even hear it (although that last sensory category may be disputed by those who hear internal voices or even those of us who refer to the chattering of our mind as if it is something we can listen to).
Now McGilchrist first published his book in November 2009. As I often do with academic tomes, I turned to the list of references at the back, in order to see whether I recognise any names and to get a sense of the influences that affect the author or upon which he relies. Immediately I was struck by the absence of folk whose orientation might be found within what we could call the spiritual arena. This may or may not have been deliberate, for I cannot believe McGilchrist is ignorant of spiritual traditions and the deep analyses from the many strands and traditions that examine human consciousness and contain concepts of ‘mind’, and of experience that can be best described as transcendental. Does the author consider this irrelevant to his subject matter or are there other reasons for the conspicuous omission?
Whatever the case, there is – and was at the time of the release of The Master and His Emissary – plenty of contemporaneous material that could be brought to the table. For example, Dan Siegel had published The Mindful Brain in 2007. While that book is aimed at underscoring and expanding upon the idea of ‘mindfulness’ which Siegel states ‘in its most general conception offers a way of being aware that can serve as a gateway toward a more vital mode of being in the world: We become attuned to ourselves.’ Described by Jack Kornfield, himself a Buddhist practitioner and author, as ‘a brilliant and visionary wedding of mindfulness and neurobiology’, Siegel’s book – and others like it – surely must have come to McGilchrist’s attention. Yet they are absent from his commentary.
By the way, Siegel offers a very clear simple definition of mind. He describes it as ‘a process that regulates the flow of energy and information.’ Expanding on that, he describes energy and information flowing within the body (including the brain) and between people – the relational aspect. Rather beautifully, he addresses the reader: ‘Even I as I am imagining who you might be and your possible response, I am changing the flow of energy and information in my brain and body as a whole. As you absorb these words your mind is embodying this flow of energy and information as well.’
This strikes me as a much more helpful way of defining the mind. A process – one that is invisible in the ordinary sense but may well be capable of accurate mapping through a study of the brain. Ordinarily, we do not think of a process as a ‘thing’. Perhaps I’m being bit unkind to McGilchrist. He may well include intangible processes in his basket of things but, if so, I wish he had said as much.
Also absent from discussion in The Master and His Emissary is the work of developmental and integrative theorists such as Ken Wilber. Again I found this surprising, as McGilchrist is something of a polymath – like Wilber he has interests stretching across many disciplines. Certainly there is a focus on philosophy and neuroscience but clearly he has appreciation for other areas of knowledge and a recognition that they impact upon his specific subject matter. And indeed he makes that point in the early pages of his book.
Would some mention of Wilber helped augment the picture? After all, over many decades, Wilber has attempted to draw connections between interior and exterior aspects of human life. His four-quadrant model contains (in the upper quadrants) stage-by-stage correlates between the interior mental processes (mind) and exterior material entities (brain). He does this individually and then, in his lower quadrants, Wilber looks at how there are collective, cultural stages of development. The idea of stages of consciousness is integral to his central thesis and this is shared by the great wisdom traditions which, as Aldous Huxley pointed out in The Perennial Philosophy is shared and has been shared across traditions down the ages.
Wilber is extremely adept in focusing upon the apparent schism between science and religion. He highlights the different epistemologies. Science is primarily grounded in observation and measurement of material objects and conceptualised through logic and reason. The epistemological approach – in other words how knowledge is gained and understood – is through a combination of, in Wilber’s terms, ‘the eye of flesh’ and ‘the eye of mind’. On the other hand, a religious/spiritual explorer will say that he or she can know something which cannot be proved by observing the external world or conceptualising the internal. That knowledge will only arise through some kind of revelation or realisation that may occur unexpectedly and spontaneously, or may result from meditation or other contemplative practices. Thus, there is third string to knowledge, achievable through ‘the eye of contemplation’.
McGilchrist devotes more time to the notion of consciousness than he does to the concept of mind. On page 87 he notes that ‘conscious awareness of the self is a surprisingly late development in evolution.’ As we might expect from a researcher in this area he brings out interesting facts – such as chimpanzees and orangutans are capable of self-recognition while monkeys are not – they fail the mirror test. But whereas spiritual teachers and psychotherapists spend a lot of time explaining and defining what they mean by ‘self’, McGilchrist describes and categorises. There is a self that is ‘intrinsically, empathically inseparable from the world in which it stands and relation to others’. This ‘continuous sense of self’ is more dependent on the right hemisphere. On the other hand ‘the objectified self, and the self as an expression of will, is generally more dependent on the left hemisphere.’
To be fair, McGilchrist acknowledges 'the self' is a complex concept. He lists the various areas which make up a ‘sense of self’ and attributes their origin to either the left or the right hemisphere. For example a personal, interior sense of self is largely dependent on the right hemisphere. Also, aspects of self-awareness – how we are likely to see or come across to others – also depend on the right hemisphere, as do qualities such as empathy and the ability to identify with others.
I have no problem with these findings – in fact I find them interesting. But I wish when McGilchrist articulates that what we call ‘the self’ is a tricky concept, he would attempt to explain why it is complex and may mean different things to different people.
The same goes for 'consciousness'. On page 220, McGilchrist says ‘it seems to me more fruitful to think of consciousness not as something with sharp edges that is suddenly arrived at once one reaches the very top of mental functioning, but as a process that is gradual, rather than all-for-nothing and begins low down on the brain, rising up from below the level of the hemispheres, before it reaches the great divide.’
Again, McGilchrist is doing his best to explain using language, a limitation in human communication that has tested the best of thinkers. Here is where imagery is important – hence the insertion of the word ‘process’ for the word ‘thing’ – and a description tantamount to movement or flowing – a process without ‘sharp edges’ but involving a ‘gradual arising’ from beneath the hemispheres and then reaching ‘the great divide’ – in other words the Left Brain and the Right Brain.
On the next page there is a further flowering of poetic language. McGilchrist endorses Panksepp’s concept of consciousness ‘as something that is not all or nothing, but has a continuous existence, transforming itself as it travels upwards, through the branches, to what he calls, by analogy with the forest canopy, the cerebral canopy, until in the frontal cortex as it becomes high level cognitive awareness’. McGilchrist likes this image because it gets away from the ideas which he says are promoted in the literature that consciousness is something of a bird – hovering, detached and alighting at tree level in the frontal lobes of the brain. Rather it is more of a tree with its roots deep inside us and reinforces ‘the nature of consciousness not as an entity but as a process.’
Nowhere does McGilchrist, as far as I can tell, consider the point of view that consciousness is what mystics might call the ‘Ground of Being’ – that everything arises in what we might call Capital ‘C’ Consciousness - and it is the fundamental, non-material, non-quantifiable, non-observable (at least through the human senses) ‘stuff’ in which the manifest world – and indeed the entire cosmos – appears. Taking this a step further, it could be described as ‘God’. Through the centuries of recorded history, countless sages, mystics, spiritual teachers and many others have articulated experiences that back up this point of view. In fact, it is misleading to call it a ‘point of view ‘– it is better to talk in terms of ‘awakening’, ‘enlightenment’ or ‘realisation’.
None of this, of course, convinces the strict adherents to modern scientific investigation. And although thinkers such as Einstein accept there is an enduring mystery that surrounds human existence and indeed what we might call the cosmos, the bulk of scientific opinion tends to negate any lines of enquiry that present Consciousness – with a capital C – in the terms I have just described. Their difficulty is understandable. It is a problem - a 'hard problem', as David Chalmers articulated in 1995:
'It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.'
Having read and listened to McGilchrist, I have the sense he would like to take a leap out of this abyss but is somehow constrained. He quotes a number of other thinkers when he is writing about the self and consciousness but conspicuously omits, as I have emphasised, those who might be said to be in the spiritual camp.
As I turned the pages of McGilchrist’s book, I began to wonder how these omissions would impact on his overarching thesis. After all, I fully support his contention that the world has become far too Left-Brain oriented. I’ve watched online presentations of him speaking at conferences and other gatherings and applaud his focus and passion for asking folk to wake up to how much we are caught in this trap. Clearly, he sees how detrimental such thinking is to our environment and to our collective future as humans. Clearly, he is also aware of nuances and complexity, and he does not try to propagate magical solutions for the multiplicity of dilemmas facing us. I wonder whether the very thing of which he complains – the enculturation of Left Brain dominance – has had an effect on him of which he is unaware - an effect that leaves him either not open to, or dismissive of, spiritual exploration and metaphysics in general?
If there is to be a conversation about how the Titanic of contemporary Western human thinking can be raised from the murky depths – or, to float another shipping analogy, turn the Queen Mary towards more productive course, I would hope those who think like McGilchrist will invite those who have a transcendental inclination into their tents. I’ve no doubt that would enhance and deepen the conversation.
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