What is a Human Brain? Part II

The Human BrainI just got Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary, The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2010), from the library. Four hundred and sixty paper-back pages, followed by another fifty pages of extensive foot notes!!, so that I could better understand his 2015 Keynote Address to the 10th Annual Jungian Odyssey Conference and Retreat at Emmerton, in Switzerland, which I attended. But before I share my notes and subsequent learnings, I believe  it is important to start with this story from Nietzsche, with which he ended  his Introduction, to explain how that story relates to the title he chose for the book and, therefore, its contents:

There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts.  It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw , he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he trusted most to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.

The meaning of this story is as old as humanity, and ….I believe, in fact, that it helps us understand something that is taking place within ourselves, inside our very brains , and played out in the cultural history of the West, particularly over the last five hundred years or so…. I hold that, like the master and his emissary in the story, though the cerebral hemispheres should co-operate, they have for some time been in a state of conflict.

His lecture was  entitled Unknown Unknowns: The Brain and Culture and part of his presentation revolved around the notion that the left hemisphere likes Certainty, among other things, and therefore tends to close things down, whereas the right is more interested in Possibility, and hence is more tentative and likes to open things up. The latter, he suggested, is also more in touch with the body than the former. So he then listed this set of contrasts between the left and right hemispheres:

1. Fixity v. flow
2. Parts  v. whole.
3. Explicit v. implicit.
4. Abstracted v. contextual
5. Disembodied v. embodied.
6. General v. unique
8. Quantification v. qualification.
9. Optimistic v. realistic

and added that while the left hemisphere wants to make things happen, and likes tools and machines, the right hemisphere is comfortable with all modalities. And the problem for the left hemisphere, as he sees it, is that that hemisphere does not understand  that the map is not the territory. He also noted that right hemisphere strokes are far more significant for humans than the left ones because “Reality then disappears.”  He also emphasized, for reasons that were not clear to me at the time, that both hemispheres have to categorize things. And mentioned one little aside that got my attention: “You can’t take music apart to see what it is because if you do that you won’t find anything there!”

My sense of the essence of his presentation was that there must be a balance between rationality and intuition. And one thing is certain, as his book clearly reveals, and that is that he really does not like Certainty: Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong.

But if I wanted to convey to you the precise nature of his current concerns, they will not be in my notes, but in his book which I have now gone through. (Reading every single line was a task that I was just not up to). So, to set the stage as it were, here are two quotations from the Introduction:
It seems that they  …[the two hemispheres] … coexist on a daily basis, but have fundamentally different sets of values, and therefore priorities, which means that over the long term, they are likely to come into conflict. Although each is crucially important, and delivers valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each seems to need the other for different purposes, they seem destined to pull apart.

And, on the next page:

In brief, I believe … the development of writing and currency in Ancient Greece, and the extraordinary flowering of both science and the arts, especially theatre … is related to the development, through enhanced frontal lobe function, of what might be called “necessary distance” from the world, which , in turn, demanded increased independence of the hemispheres, allowing each hemisphere to make characteristic advances in function, and for a while to do so in harmony with its fellow. I believe that over time there has been a relentless growth in self-consciousness, leading to increasing difficulties in cooperation. The resultant instability is evidenced by alternations between more extreme positions; and although there have been swings in the pendulum, the balance of power has shifted where it cannot afford to go ~ further and further toward the part-world created by the …unopposed actions of a dysfunctional left hemisphere….
Later, he makes the point that Ultimately if the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of ‘what’, the right hemisphere, with its preoccupation with context, the relational aspects of experience, emotion and the nuances of expression, could be said to be the hemisphere of ‘how.’

And continues:

I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relationship. It is deeply attracted to, and given life, by the relationship, the betweenness, that exists with this Other. By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent, but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful, but ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself. However, as I also emphasized at the outset, both hemispheres take party in virtually all ‘functions’ to some extent, and in reality both are always engaged….

We need the ability to make fine discriminations, and to use reason appropriately. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring. Alone they are destructive. And right now they may be bringing us close to forfeiting the civilization they helped to create. As he wrote in the introduction,  At present the domain – our civilization – finds itself in the hands of the vizier, who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious bureaucrat with his own interests at heart.

Said differently, bureaucrats are interested in rationality not spirituality, which is of no concern to them in organizing things. Moreover, since the latter has no factual basis it is not even worthy of any consideration.
Eighty pages later, following an examination of Language, Truth and Music in Chapter 3, he will conclude Chapter 4, entitled The Nature of the Two Worlds, with this intriguing conclusion:

Can all of this tell us something about the nature of the brain? I think so. The answer is implicit in all that has gone before. There is no such thing as the brain, only the brain according to the right hemisphere and the brain according to the left hemisphere: the two hemispheres that bring everything into being also, inevitably, bring themselves.

Hence, he suggests, that those people who see the world through the former will be confident that they know precisely what sort of thing the brain is, while others … [seeing from the right hemisphere] … may know ‘precious little’ about that.

But long before I got to that remarkable statement about there being no such thing as the brain as a single entity, I had jumped ahead to the last Chapter entitled Conclusion, The Master Betrayed, and read this:

It appears essential for the creation of full human consciousness and imagination that the right hemisphere places itself in a position of vulnerability to the left. The right hemisphere, the one that believes but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows but does not believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to be delimited ~ needs stasis, certainty, fixity ~ in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, he knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are both invincible; but if it abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master. 

And so, of course, as he pointed out at the beginning of the book, does our Western civilization, which is becoming more chaotic, and hence more problematic, with every passing day. So little wonder that the excellent organizers of the Jungian conference, the theme of which was On The Brink, Stepping into the Unforeseen, chose Iain McGilchrist, M.D., and a practicing psychiatrist in England, to be their keynote speaker.

And, thanks to him, I can let that great physicist Max Planck, among the many eminent scientists and philosophers he quoted, have the last words:

Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind knows that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written these words: Ye must have faith. it is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with. To which he added: Science cannot solve the mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.

To which any good mystic would retort: Life is not a problem to be solved … [by left hemisphere thoughts] … but a mystery to be lived … [by right hemisphere beliefs].