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The Most Interesting Thing I’ve Ever Read.

(So Far)

I’ve just read a book that has potentially changed everything I understood about the world and snapped together all the existential questions I’ve been wrestling with over the last few years. So settle in; this is going to take a little while to explain.

The Master and his Emissary is the product of twenty years of research by polymath psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist. It’s an attempt to explain the differences between the two hemispheres of the brain. It’s summarized well in this short animation, this interview and this excellent piece from Rebel Wisdom. The book is long, complex, repetitive at times and also maybe the most interesting thing I’ve ever read. Like his thesis itself, it marries the intuitive and rational in a completely unique way.

The inevitable caveat is that he’s dealing with the most complex object in the known universe and his conclusions cover almost every facet of our lived reality. It fits into both the “amazing if true” and “possibly total nonsense” categories. He might also be attempting something inherently dangerous, a topic I’ll come onto later.

The question McGilchrist asks and answers is why the ineffably complex human brain is split in two. Why would there be obvious redundancy in a system that has been so uniquely refined by evolution, and why are split-brains ubiquitous in nature?

McGilchrist likes to use the example of a bird. A bird uses its left hemisphere to identify if a grain is food or sand, while simultaneously using its right hemisphere to be on guard for predators. Narrow focus and broad focus, simultaneously and in balance. Without the narrow focus of the left you can’t interact with the world and sort things into categories, without the right you focus too narrowly and get eaten by a cat.

I think of this broader awareness as what allows us to “see out of the corner of our eyes”. We are always scanning for the unusual, and when it gets noticed, we swivel our heads and bring the full focus of left-brained attention onto it.

McGilchrist believes the hemispheres have different characters and capabilities.

Cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman argues that our perception of the world is more akin to a desktop on a computer. An interface that helps us interact with the environment, but with unnecessary complexity hidden away. And that’s fine, as Buckminster Fuller said, ‘since the initial publication of the chart of the electromagnetic spectrum, humans have learned that what they can touch, smell, see, and hear is less than one-millionth of reality.’ So a filter is no bad thing. But the limitations of left-hemisphere thinking mean that the map is not the territory, although it is often drawn to claiming it sees the whole picture. This can lead to unpleasant dissonance.

The right hemisphere has access to the kind of immediate experience that cannot be articulated; the transcendent, the flow of the universe. But the left hemisphere primarily has language, and is dominant in Western society. Why? McGilchrist argues:

The left is rational, certain and persuasive, but inevitably atheistic; it cannot connect with the “Other”. It’s the Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens of brains. It can only see individual parts, not the flow of life that binds it together. They look at the ship of Theseus and can see only the planks. They look at the body and see only the cells. They examine the self and see…. nothing. McGilchrist thinks its because left hemispheric attention is the wrong tool for the job; it’s like trying to find the night using a spotlight. Even worse: this kind of thought can leave us stuck in closed loops without the benefit of intuition. I’m reminded of a quote from G.K. Chesterton: ‘Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.’

McGilchrist clearly agrees when he cites the dangers of consciousness turning in on itself when he quotes Sass: ‘madness … is the end-point of the trajectory [that] consciousness follows when it separates from the body and the passions, and from the social and practical world, and turns in upon itself’. Philosophy and introspection is a dangerous gig. The left hemisphere takes the living world, divides it up so that it can be understood, but in doing so robs it of all its vitality.

You take it apart = you kill it.

Jordan Peterson has a great insight on this.

Of course the irony here is that Peterson is himself a hyper-articulate, hyper-intellectual man, who seems to be obsessed with dissecting myth to find the literal contents within. He also seems to reify the spoken word with his focus on Logos as ultimate truth. If I understand correctly, this seems opposed to McGilchrist’s worldview. But Peterson at least does accept the possibility of the existence of the transcendent. The circumstances of his early life breakdown sound incredibly akin to a hemispheric conflict.

The further you go into left-hemispheric dominance, the further away from the transcendent you stray. It was eating from the tree of knowledge that led to the fall from Eden. This leads to a sense of separation. Separation, in inherently tribal beings, is fatal. We experience this through a profound sense of shame at our very bedrock; something John Steinbeck intuited was at the heart of the very next story in the bible- Cain and Abel. I have written before about Brené Brown’s work on shame. Brown found the key to combating shame was vulnerability. Vulnerability means being your authentic self, shedding your acquired persona, and yet hoping to be loved regardless. She called this being ‘whole-hearted’. Simply put; ‘The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it.’ This makes complete sense in the context of the requirement to embrace the unknowable in order to redress the balance in hemispheric worldviews. Peterson also argues that shame is closely associated with our inability to manifest our potential; by connecting back to universal vitality we might better sync into our place in the universe. As Jesus states in the Gospel of Thomas: ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’

‘Cain’, by Henri Vidal

The right hemisphere communicates with the left by means of myth, poetry and metaphor. It’s such a blindingly obvious point, but it had weirdly never explicitly occurred to me before. Phrases such as “smells like cut grass” or “sounds like running water” create instant sensory associations that can bridge the gap between prose and experience. Our myths and stories oscillate but might slowly triangulate towards a forever-imperfect approximation of metaphysical reality. This was explicitly recognized by the great mythologist Joseph Campbell.

In our left-hemispheric society the term myth has come to reflect fantasy, but from this perspective it’s more powerful than prose, because it helps us comprehend a deeper reality.

The right hemisphere is also linked with embodiment and emotion. I’ve written previously about embodied cognition, and additional evidence for the idea that purely rational thought is much more limited than we have been conditioned to believe. In neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s book Descartes’ Error he tells the story of Elliott, a man who lost the part of the brain that connects the frontal lobes with emotions. ‘Despite remaining in the 97th percentile for IQ, he lacked all motivation and became paralyzed by every decision in life. He lost the coupling of bodily arousal with decisions; and even though he maintained normal intellect he suffered a recurrent failure to learn from negative feedback. He lost his wife, his job and his savings from bad decisions.’ Elliott’s example does make you wonder about causality: do we make decisions primarily emotionally then rationalise after the fact?

I think this goes some way to explaining the staggering popularity of breathwork and cold-exposure-enthusiast Wim Hof. Cold water forces instant embodiment. Perhaps we have more fresh insights in the shower, like Archimedes in his bath, because we are no longer in our closed-loop left hemispheres, but in the embodied right that presents fresh information from the outside. We’re probably only at the very early stages of integrating the neurological input from the heart and microbiome into our head-centric worldview.

“Bodily Maps of Emotions”

This is where I’d like to speculatively suggest a connection between McGilchrist and Campbell. Campbell found a central narrative arc that had a remarkable commonality across times and cultures. He called this the ‘monomyth’ or the ‘Hero’s Journey’. In its simplest form: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

It remains the defining narrative arc even to this day. It’s the origin story of almost every superhero, Neo, Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter.

McGilchrist talks about the need for real world experience to originate in the right hemisphere, to be moved to the left for processing, but then returned to the right for synthesis into its global context. The musician hears a piece of beautiful music, deconstructs it into notes and learns it painstakingly, then eventually perform it intuitively.

Campbell agrees:

My contention is that human development may take a similar course, that is echoed in the Hero’s Journey myth. As children, life starts with us more directly engaged in the world. As our egos and capacity for reason develop we become more individually powerful. But at some point, often in midlife, we realize this power is fundamentally empty without a connection to the transcendent. The prodigal son escapes from the prison of reason. He is metaphorically born again.

The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

But is it possible to do this deliberately and consciously? McGilchrist is aware of the problem of knowledge needing to bootstrap itself out of this mess. He cites Kleist when he says ‘the crippling effects of self-consciousness may be transcended through a form of still further heightened consciousness, by which we might regain a form of innocence.’ This is the “Shoshin” or “beginner’s mind” of Zen Buddhism. Perhaps Zen Koans exhaust the left brain so as to let insights from the right emerge. Indeed, McGilchrist seems to generally see our salvation in the adoption of more Eastern frames of thinking. This involves reestablishing comfort with a basic level of uncertainty, what Charles Eisenstein calls the “the space between stories”. Tolerance of the unknown is a symptom of maturity; indeed it has been the conclusion of many of the greatest scientists of the last few centuries.

I feel this is what society is wrestling with now; the absence of truly objective ‘rational’ truths.

I believe that the current chaos has been precipitated in part by the loss of theology as the source of absolute truth and authority. I often think about this passage from George Steiner’s essay Nostalgia for the Absolute.

Globalization brings foundational cultural stories into conflict with each other at a greater scale than at any other time in human history. The rapid collision of ideas on social media exacerbates the conflict and further erodes certainties. But the solution is not to move leftwards by grasping onto authoritarian truths or try to convince each other of our tribal beliefs, it’s to adopt a more right-hemispheric posture of awe-struck engagement. Tens of millions of dead souls pay silent witness to what can happen when we place humans at the apex of any authoritarian belief system.

“Man’s reach exceeds his grasp.”- The Prestige

The danger here is that the left hemisphere is fundamentally competitive, it refuses to relinquish its power. This is again referred to in Campbell’s metaphor of the dragon the hero encounters.

The rational ego has plans and they may conflict with those of the right. Even a spiritual awakening experience can be co-opted by the ego such that people literally think they are individually Jesus, rather than connected to the totality of existence. The ego is a dragon because it can fight you with your worst fears. And it’s excellent at that because it is ultimately you.

In the book Living at the Edge of Chaos, Helene Shulman writes:

The hero’s call to adventure? The edge of chaos is associated with phase transitions. Perhaps the left hemispheric rational intellect resists the call from the right hemispheric transcendent. Why?

I think one risk is that redressing the hemispheric balance may be an inherently dangerous exercise. As Campbell says, ‘the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.’ Hemispheric imbalances are associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. There’s an interesting theory that bipolar disorder stems from a “sticky switch” between the two hemispheres. Oversimplifying, the left is mania, the right is depression. Researchers have found that putting ice water in the right ear can temporarily alleviate depression and in the left ear it can ease the symptoms of mania. [Not medical advice!].

Caution is strangely absent from McGilchrist’s work. Perhaps because he hasn’t had the direct experience himself.

Supposedly “less developed” cultures often see mental illness as a symptom of spiritual transition. It seems to me that many of these cultures are in different stages of hemispheric flux. While by no means to be romanticized, this allows for a more harmonious relationship with nature and each other than we experience today. Jung describes an encounter with a Native American chief where he describes “the whites” as thinking with their heads, and his people as thinking with their hearts. A felt sense that may indeed be quite literal- and echoes Brown’s concept of ‘whole-hearted’. Shulman controversially contends that schizophrenics in Africa, Latin America or India have chances of healing that are ten to twelve times greater than patients in the US or Europe. McGilchrist notes that schizophrenia is a relatively modern condition, whose rise correlates closely with industrialization. It’s also associated with lateralization in the left hemisphere.

There’s the sad possibility that, if modern society is increasingly left-oriented, finding health or meaning outside of that paradigm is now much harder to achieve. According to Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe, colonists often abandoned settlements to live among the Native Americans, but the reverse almost never occurred. I think it’s worth contemplating a society that learns to reintegrate indigenous wisdom.

“You don’t talk about fight club”

As alluded to above, the other huge concern I have is that making this hemispherical relationship and process explicit somehow moves it into the left hemisphere. As McGilchrist writes:

Again- by attempting to render something explicit we rob it of power. The cosmic joke isn’t funny if it has to be dissected and explained. You don’t talk about Fight Club (a pretty direct metaphor for hemispheric rivalry). No one can be told what the Matrix is. As Lao Tzu wrote ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name.’ McGilchrist has produced a something close to a theory of everything by arguing that nothing can be reduced to a theory of everything.

Why risk the hero’s path? Why risk Promethean torture? McGilchrist thinks everything is now at stake: our society and our selves. He believes that civilization has suffered immensely, and been brought almost to the brink of collapse by a mechanistic left hemisphere perspective that divorces us from nature and transcendence. The brain presented as a computer, the reduction of everything to data, the domination of the natural world. We are already living in a simulation. A simulation where we are fed increasingly addictive digital substitutes for connection to nature, such as porn, video games and social media. The left hemisphere has replicated its sterile world outside of itself: with grid-like cities and industrial dystopias. We have never been materially wealthier or safer, but we are also beset with depression and existential crisis. If you feel alienated from society- it’s not necessarily your fault.

McGilchrist believes Pandora can only be put back in her box by society collectively achieving higher consciousness. I prefer the less hierarchical epithet ‘broader awareness’. The hemispherical distinction shows that awareness is not the same as intelligence. Campbell himself agrees on a personal level- and that the individual purpose is to truly find yourself.

Read in the context of returning to balance with the right-hemispheric transcendent this is an even more eloquent and apt passage.

Peterson talks about finding the meaning that sustains the suffering of existence. That is through balance, presumably reflecting hemispheric stability.

The Yin & Yang of order and chaos in perfect harmony reflects this balance between the hemispheres. In Mitchell Waldrop’s book Complexity he describes this balance within complex adaptive systems.

Too much order and the system becomes inert and dies, too much chaos and the whole thing blows apart.

An excess of rigidity is associated with the closed loops of the left. McGilchrist refers to life stuck in the left hemisphere as a hall of mirrors, that resonates with Campbell’s metaphor of a labyrinth, or Dante’s dark and dangerous wood.

Both Peterson and McGilchrist speculate that the brain somehow mirrors the metaphysical structure of reality itself. So you REALLY need both sides working in harmony.

This is flow. The surfer needs narrow focus to maintain his balance on the board, coupled with broad attention to ride the wave and sense the swell. No wonder it is being heralded as a breakthrough treatment for PTSD sufferers. Yoga also seems like another excellent candidate for embodiment and focus. Jamie Wheal has been at the forefront of emphasizing the importance of the flow state. Embodied concentration. His book Stealing Fire is probably the most comprehensive recent examination of the topic. His basic stance recently is that “spirituality is wildly overrated and our core humanity is wildly underrated”. As I ask myself every time I feel like I’ve had a profound insight; “How does knowing this help me live in the world?”

The closest to a life philosophy I’ve found throughout my own period of existential crisis was to pursue engagement. A balance between both hemispheres, intimately involved in our individual lives and at home in our bodies and in relation to the transcendent. Most of us can’t live on the tightrope, but we can try to find purpose through balance.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

How do we find our flow, our bliss? Using rationality to find the transcendent is probably like trying to cycle to the moon. The right hemisphere might have a better idea of what you really need. It just doesn’t have a clear means of communicating it to you. The rational brain needs to be quieted so as to hear the still small voice of calm.

As I’ve discussed before, Jordan Peterson, via Jung, argues the right hemisphere may try to communicate by directing your attention.

This fits with the “corner of your eye” style of attention. The subtle, bodily cues of right-hemisphere attention as differentiated from the laser-focus of the left. The analogy I like here is of the old “Magic Eye” pictures. You could squint and focus all you liked, to no avail, but if you allowed your eyes to relax suddenly the whole picture comes into focus.

Campbell thinks the path out of the maze is to ‘follow your bliss’; ‘I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.’ Ariadne’s string (attention) allows you to follow where your right hemisphere is leading you. Once again this is consistent with McGilchrist’s theory: ‘It is thus the right hemisphere that has dominance for exploratory attentional movements, while the left hemisphere assists focused grasping of what has already been prioritised. It is the right hemisphere that controls where that attention is to be oriented.’ Once the right has directed your attention, the left takes over for narrow focus.

On a more mechanistic level, ‘Neural Annealing’ may also provide clues on how to redress hemispheric imbalance. In short, annealing describes how

Meditation, music and psychedelics are three potential mechanisms to enter these high-energy states [also not medical advice]. But just because this process describes a process of alleviating neurological rigidity, I don’t think it precludes the ability of that same matter to commune with the ‘other’.

Peterson has also unpacked the myth of Pinocchio as a guide for re-engaging with the transcendent. I wrote a summary of his argument and it’s BY FAR the most widely read thing I’ve ever written (by thousands), so it might be resonating with intuition. Of course I may have de-vivified it by unpacking it and making it explicit. Sorry. I’ve also read Pinocchio is either the second or third most translated book after the Bible so it clearly contains something of intuitive, mythological value. An idea that’s especially valuable is of a life lived as flow itself. You set your narrow focus on a transcendent goal (“wish upon a star”), then make individual discrete decisions within your environment to achieve that goal. The cricket, or your conscience, is the intuition that guides your decisions. As Charles Eistenstein writes in one of the definitive essays on the myths of self-improvement :

Use of attention truly is the meta-skill.

The result is moving from a conditioned puppet to a real boy- the authentic connection to the right hemisphere.

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

The broader implication from all of this, that I have no idea how to assess, is that there’s a superior, or at least different, form of wisdom connected to the right hemisphere. If there’s a collective unconscious, or a morphic field- this might be where it meets us. As Michael Singer writes in the Untethered Soul; ‘Am I better off making up an alternate reality in my mind and then fighting with reality to make it be my way, or am I better off letting go of what I want and serving the same forces of reality that managed to create the entire perfection of the universe around me?’

I’m not sure how that squares with the possibility that it might simply be your role in the universe to be messily devoured by a tiger.

There is also the suggestion that hemispheric balance allows a return to a more natural state of joy. A wonderful article in Nautilus has stayed with me for many years, it describes a woman who suffered an aneurysm in her left hemisphere. ‘My inner monologue, my self-directed speech, had also gone almost completely mute. In its place was the radiant Quiet. The nourishing Quiet. The illuminating Quiet.’ Without an internally-generated narrative her sense of time was disrupted and she could spend many happy hours simply contemplating a tree outside.

Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor also suffered a similar kind of stroke and talks about a transcendent sense of peace. ‘My right mind is thrilled to be alive! I experience a feeling of awe when I am simultaneously capable of being at one with the universe while having an individual identity whereby I move into the world and manifest positive change.’

My personal caveat here is that a purely right hemispheric existence may not be that desirable or realistic. These stroke sufferers had to relearn how to interact with the world! Moreover, I am skeptical that life is meant to be lived without suffering and individual concerns of the ego. Movement requires friction and flow requires challenge.

As a father I think of my son. Yes, I want to love the world and feel the empathy and connection that involves. But I also want to love my wife and son specifically, as individuals. I don’t think pure spirituality necessarily helps you thrive in the world. In my experience it’s considerably easier to tear down an inauthentic life than it is to build an authentic one. “After enlightenment, the laundry”. The alternative ending of The Matrix is that Neo has to go back to his cubicle-monkey job and responsibly raise a family. That balance is part of what Taoism preaches.

And that’s the conclusion: it’s all about balance; as McGilchrist argues, ‘The hemispheres of the human brain, I believe, are an expression of this necessary tension. And the two hemispheres also adopt different stances about their differences: the right hemisphere towards cohesion of their two dispositions, the left hemisphere towards competition between them.’ Although the left can resist, its output needs to be reintegrated into the right, and both need to act in concert together. He also believes that the left is characterized by a kind of excessive self-confidence, and the right by a melancholic, depressive-realism where we see our relative irrelevance to the universe. It seems to me that life requires a combination of the two.

At the end of the day, I have to accept that McGilchrist’s entire theory may be total nonsense. My ideas on all these topics are evolving and changing the more I learn and experience. I shared an early draft of this essay with an internet-famous, polymath psychiatrist. He noted that many of the hemispheric experiments McGilchrist cites simply don’t replicate. And in the concluding passages of the book McGilchrist acknowledges that possibility:

For me, at this point in my life, and with the direct experiences I’ve had, there’s something to this perspective that seems intuitively true. And that’s enough for me right now.

I could probably write a (mediocre) book on this topic, but that is a rough summary of some of the salient ideas. I would love to discuss.

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