February 2010

Jessa Crispin


An Interview with Iain McGilchrist

It may surprise you -- or maybe not, depending how long you stand in front of your closet deciding what you're going to wear that day -- that you have two people inside of you. One is logical, mathematical, focused. The other is poetic, attentive, intuitive. These are personalities represented by the left hemisphere of your brain and the right hemisphere, respectively. While they were once believed to work in harmony with one another, dividing up tasks like language (left) and music (right), instead neuroimaging has allowed us to see that one hemisphere can dominate and essentially shut out the other. And in our contemporary Western culture, that hemisphere is predominantly the left.

Iain McGilchrist is a worried about this left hemisphere preference, and he sees the effects in our society's materialism, our disregard for the environment, our art world's tendency towards the shocking and the abstract, our predatory capitalist system, and the rise of super rationality in religion (the new atheist movement), science, and discourse. Not that he's arguing against logic or competition or abstraction -- but without the balance of the contributions of the right hemisphere, with its appreciation for nature and beauty, for its sense of community and empathy, and its wide-angle view, the effects can be disastrous. Now, that might sound like hippy dippy bullshit to you, but that's probably just your left brain talking.

In The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist uses the Nietzsche story of the same name to illustrate his position. The Master, a wise man who is beloved by his subjects and rules with wisdom and caring, uses an emissary to conduct his business. The emissary begins to believe he is doing all of the important work, and usurps the throne. Only he is so concerned with material goods and ruling with an iron fist, things deteriorate. McGilchrist believes that we are seeing an unprecedented overthrowing of the Master (right brain) by the Emissary (left), and in his book he examines why this matters, how it influences philosophy, art, mental illness, and business, and how this balance of power has changed and shifted through the ages. (Read my review of The Master and His Emissary here.)

McGilchrist talked to Bookslut via e-mail about his sweeping and fascinating The Master and His Emissary, why he had to encompass centuries of history in his book, your right brain's clothing preferences, and why he's Against Criticism.

I am so accustomed to reading these niche-y nonfiction books, the detailed examination of the cultural history of the button or what have you. The Master and His Emissary does not lack in ambition or scope, and that was refreshing. Did you ever think you must be mad, though, to try to fit evolution with creativity with Heidegger with anatomy with Athens with schizophrenia? Was that your intention, to sit down and find a connection between the hemispheres of the brain and just about everything in the world?

No! But, although some people (unlike you) might think the book’s scope is a sign of me "taking things too far," and have said as much in some of the reviews, such a position is illogical. If, as I believe, the ways in which we can see the world are constrained by the choices offered us by the two brain hemispheres (though not in an all-or-nothing fashion), then that would have to be imaged in the history of both philosophy and culture. Philosophy is a series of attempts to understand the world, and reconcile the paradoxes we encounter in doing so; cultures represent different bodies of beliefs, values and responses to the world, emphasising different aspects of it. How, then, could a clearer understanding of the differences between the two versions of the world offered by our two hemispheres fail to be central to the understanding of either? That’s why the neuroanatomy and neuropsychology, along with the mental illnesses that result from hemispheric imbalance, find themselves brought into discussions of creativity, Heidegger and ancient Greece.

Incidentally I am a great fan of the "history of the button." There is a place for that, too. But there is a problem with the way knowledge has become more and more specialised and purely technical. It gets harder and harder not to lose sight of the bigger picture, the context in which all the little bits make sense. In that way this book can itself be seen as an image of how I believe the brain must work: taking the detailed view of the left hemisphere (eg, the mass of specific neuropsychological data I deal with in Part I) back to enrich the comprehensive view offered by the right (the evolution of the Western mind in Part II).

You swing between optimism and pessimism (or, call it "realism" if you prefer) about our ability to break the dominance of the left hemisphere over our lives and culture. Is there something individuals can do, rather than just read the articles about "blah blah blah money doesn't bring happiness, it's been scientifically proven"? Because it seems there is this rise of the positive psychology movement, saying that what really brings happiness is this right brain stuff: community, fraternity, beauty, nature. But their methods for achieving these things seem to amount to cognitive behavioral therapy, which seems left-brainy to me. "Here is my check list to achieving happiness."

I think you have spotted me trying, perhaps too hard, to counter my natural pessimism. I do find it very hard to be optimistic at present, because, as I say in the book, the left hemisphere’s view pretends to have it all sown up, and people are taken in by that, especially when it appears to come from the mouth of ‘science’ (usually biologists -- the discoveries of physicists forced them long ago to abandon the Victorian mechanistic model, but the life sciences are slow in catching up). Not that the current arts scene is much better -- post-modernism is no challenge to the left hemisphere’s view, but, as I suggest, an expression of it.

I firmly believe that the first step towards change is to become aware of what is happening now, in our own ‘take’ on the world and that of our culture. It may be a bit of a cop-out for me to say that, but it was hard enough to clarify the problem, without my claiming to have found the solution. 

At the cultural level, any optimism I have comes from the marvellous unpredictability of the human mind. In the past one would often have been hard pressed to predict significant shifts in our world view that occurred only a matter of a few years later; and, as I suggest, our progress tends, fortunately, to be more circular (as the right hemisphere understands) than rectilinear (as the left hemisphere thinks). I also believe it is good that we are more open to Far Eastern cultures -- though, as you know, I have great admiration for the strengths of Western culture, too. 

At the personal level, I hope the result of reading my book might be to make one more sceptical of some of the natural assumptions of the world we are living in, and perhaps to awaken latent knowledge of one’s own. A surprising number of people who have read the book have told me something to the effect that they seemed to become aware of their own latent understanding of themselves and their brain -- what I call the brain cognising itself -- and that it brought into focus things they had been peripherally aware of, but had somehow blocked out. This had the effect of changing the way they looked at the world. If that happens, I could not ask for much more.

Explicit checklists are a bit limited, I agree, though even they have their uses in pointing one in the right direction. Ultimately, though, I believe the best things in life are by-products -- which makes personal plans for happiness less useful than they look.

You started off studying English, is that correct? And then made the switch some time later to psychiatry. What was the spark that led you to go off in another direction?

It sounds like a big switch, but in a way there was a logical progression. When I arrived in Oxford in the early seventies, I intended to study philosophy and theology, but, as the system was, had to take the entrance exam in something else, which happened to be English literature. My examiner, John Bayley, encouraged me to read English, and after graduating I was elected to a Fellowship of All Souls College where I had time to pursue a number of interests, particularly philosophy and psychology.  

But my experience of teaching English made me think a lot about the ‘mind-body’ relationship. I felt that what I and others were undertaking ran counter to the grain of the matter we were dealing with -- works of art, written by real, living people, who had grappled with their experience of the world, and left something, also living, behind them, for us to enjoy and understand. What engaged me in any great piece of writing was the utter uniqueness of the experience. What it was like to read Hardy’s poems was completely different from what it was like to read anyone else -- at all, ever. Bad writers were quite lumpable together: but the more the writer succeeded in producing something truly living, the more it was completely ‘of itself’. Yet when writing about the work of art the only things we could say seemed to be in terms of generalities, exactly the sort of things that could be found elsewhere (Nietzsche again: words make the uncommon common).  Being true to the experience of the work defied language, which seemed only to return one to central concepts and abstractions, when the thing one admired was wholly individual, quirkily concrete, incarnate, part of the embodied world of experience to which it related. Getting to know it was more like getting to know a person, than trying to understand a bunch of ideas. It defied analysis into parts, since the whole point was its impact as a whole, in the light of which one felt bound to revise the way in which one would, out of context, have evaluated its parts. Its weaknesses on analysis turned out to be its strengths taken in context. 

What has this to do with the mind-body relationship? In the explicit study of literature, we inevitably adopted a cognitive approach to something that became abstract and conceptual, when in fact the whole embodied self, heart and lungs as well as cortex, unconscious as much as conscious, had to be brought into play in relation to a whole other embodied being, the poem or whatever it was that we were experiencing. I found what philosophers had to say about the ‘mind-body’ issue was curiously subject to the same problem: disembodied, theoretical, scuppered by the nature of denotative language and analysis. (If I had not been in Oxford at the time, I might have made the acquaintance of the European phenomenological tradition -- virtually unheard of there -- at an earlier stage, and have saved myself years of laborious work inventing the wheel. On the other hand, there’s nothing like having to get there for yourself.) So after writing a book about the problems of explicitness in the approach to literature, called Against Criticism, I went off to find out about the mind-body problem in a more ‘embodied’ way by training as a doctor. That way, I hoped to discover, as near to first hand as I could, what it was like when afflictions of the brain affected the mind, and when the problems of mind affected the body. Hence neurology and psychiatry.

Did it take 20 years to write because you spent five of those years reading studies about the split brains? Because I feel like I could have done that. After reading about the woman whose right brain wanted to wear something different from the left brain, I had the sudden desire to have my corpus callosum paralyzed for a while, so I could ask my right brain its food preferences and what it wanted to wear.

I agree that the split-brain literature is fascinating. And it is remarkable that, as Sperry suggested, there are different sets of values, and therefore different preferences and even ‘personalities,’ to the hemispheres. In the end, though, most split-brain patients, as you know, carried on, after an initial settling-in period, much as though nothing had happened. What has kept my attention over 20 years of research has been the fact that the literature about normal brains also displays obvious, hugely important differences between the two hemispheres -- but we’ve completely overlooked them. I believe this is because we have been mesmerised by the idea of the brain as a machine. So we ask what ‘functions’ it performs in either half. Initially, around the time of the split-brain operations in the '60s and '70s, everyone got excited because they thought they could answer that question. But since we found out that language, visuospatial functions, reason and emotion, go on in both hemispheres, not just one, and that creativity depends on both hemispheres, everybody just gave up looking. They failed to see, despite the hints that Sperry gave them, that the hemispheres are  more like persons than machines. So -- no, the 20 years were partly about gathering the information from a widely disparate literature, and partly, to be honest, needing time to think. How to put it across? Because here, too, the problem of the hemispheres obtrudes. I found that, in order to explain any one thing, I needed already to have explained everything else. In other words, the parts needed the whole to be understood before they could themselves be understood. Straightening it out into what any book demands, namely a sequential argument, was like trying to straighten out a cat’s cradle without losing the pattern in which, alone, it existed.

You wrote a book called "Against Criticism," and you are currently corresponding with someone who occasionally does work that resembles that of a book critic. Should I be wary of you turning on me?

Never! Everything true partakes of the nature of paradox. My book Against Criticism was itself, knowingly, a book of criticism. I believe criticism is valuable. It just needs to work ‘against itself’ in order to succeed: using language, of course, but to get beyond language; using analysis, too -- like language an invaluable tool -- but to get beyond analysis. Which is why the implicit is so important in art and in the criticism of art. Use your right hemisphere as well as your left! Just don’t use your left hemisphere only, in criticism or anywhere else.

Speaking of criticism, reading the reviews of your book it seemed an awful lot of people missed the part where you stated you don't believe right brain dominance is any better than left brain dominance. Do you sit on your hands to keep from composing emails, "Dear Mr. AC Grayling: Please read the goddamn book"?

It has been a strain. I am grateful to Grayling for the very generous things he said, though obviously he quite misunderstood the point that we need both hemispheres in balance, not either the right alone or the left, which I do keep saying throughout the book. Sitting on my hands slightly failed, as I did write to the Literary Review to make that point (don’t know if they will publish it). But he, too, like the anonymous reviewer for The Economist, seemed to balk at the idea that something that is true about the way in which a single human being sees the world can be true about the way in which an aggregate of human beings who share a world view (namely, a culture) sees the world.   

I had to take a calculated risk, to describe the hemispheres as if they were personalities, with desires and values of their own (no odder that supposing them to be machines, in my view). The left hemisphere evolved to help us manipulate the world. Its disposition is acquisitive, and because it has a simplified model of the world, it thinks it knows it all -- it seems arrogant. Anyone who reads the accounts in my book of experimental research into hemisphere differences would have to acknowledge that. Therefore to liken it to a person who has those qualities is reasonable enough, though of course, like every scientific explanation, it is just another model. I did acknowledge the problems of doing so at some length in my book, and deal with them there, but in the end I have to live with the possible misunderstandings. Inevitably these have turned up. So far I’ve had at least one rather shrill and superficial review, to the effect that I am an emotionalist who merely want us all to go back to singing Kumbaya on the beach. Incidentally that reviewer, had read the book so carefully that he even got the primary metaphor of the book back to front (he’d only have to have made it as far as p. 14 to understand that). As a philosopher friend wrote to me, "Call me old-fashioned, but I do think it helps to read the book before reviewing it." However this sort of thing is to be expected. The left hemisphere sees only a very simple version of reality, is black and white in its view, tends to arrogant certainty, a view that it "knows it all already" and doesn’t have to listen to anything new, and is in denial about its own short-comings. And it has a tendency to paranoia if it feels its position is being threatened. So he really gave me a textbook demonstration of what I was saying.

If people are wary of you attributing personalities to the hemispheres, they seem to have no trouble assigning gender. I read a book not too long ago about the evolution of the left hemisphere and it stated the left hemisphere is a misogynist. It doesn't take much digging to find a lot of scientific research describing the right brain -- the silent, submissive, irrational one -- as "feminine." You touch on this briefly while dismissing it in the book, but I was wondering if in your research you figured out how prevalent this thinking is.

You are skilfully luring me into fields I have tried to steer clear of. To answer your question, though, the research I have done has been in the technical scientific literature, where such ideas as one hemisphere being ‘feminine’ and one ‘masculine,’ let alone, God help us, ‘misogynistic,’ would quite rightly be considered ludicrous. However it is true, and I don’t think at all controversial, at least in scientific circles, that any brain measurements, whether morphological, physiological, neuroendocrine or neuropsychological, yield different results in men and women. That includes issues of hemisphere asymmetry. All I can say is that the research I refer to in my book is broadly true across both men and women. One general conclusion that has quite a lot going for it is that women tend to demonstrate a lesser degree of  hemisphere differentiation than men. You can look on that as a good thing or a bad thing, I imagine, and, depending on the purpose, it might be either. 

Your dig at postmodernism reminded me why I can't read David Foster Wallace and his ilk. It's as if those words are coming from a disembodied head, not a human being, which I find painful for 20 pages let alone 1,000. Although what's interesting is the rise of the so-called neuro-novel, the workings of the brain having an influence on contemporary literature -- from Tom McCarthy to Richard Powers, even going back to Stanislaw Lem, and every Oliver Sacks essay or lecture seems to be the seed of a novel. Perhaps your research will inspire a new part of that wave...

Well, I suppose it might. I’d be delighted if my ideas were taken seriously in the important world of the arts, which is where we learn about ourselves. I have found Stanislaw Lem’s ideas -- at least as filtered, I have to admit, by the genius of Andrei Tarkovsky -- inspiring. I think, though, that what you say makes a valuable wider point. The interest in ‘brain matters’ in the contemporary novel shows that people have come to accept that what we know about the brain is an interesting route to understanding who we, as human beings, are -- perhaps the route, the one with all the charisma -- and they don’t want to miss out on that, or be thought to be unaware of the brain debates. But they are so mesmerised by the white coats that they don’t seem to see that it is a two-way street. What we know about human beings from philosophy and the arts is equally essential to understanding what the brain is. There is no fixed, unimpeachable place to start one’s exploration. I’m afraid that far too many scientists are philosophically naïve: they believe it is transparent that if you can make the machine model fit what you are looking at, it is a machine. What they fail to see is that we can understand anything only ‘as a something else: and depending on what that something else is, we see only the bits that fit that model. So choosing the right model is of critical importance. Until the Enlightenment, the natural model for understanding anything was itself that of a living being, a body, a tree, or a community: now we are so impressed by our ability to make machines, that even living beings, bodies, trees, and communities are modelled as machines -- and as a result reveal only their mechanical aspects.

Speaking of the mind/body divide, to me it's missing a spirit or soul category. We're at a place where you can't even bring divinity into the conversation without making it the only conversation. You briefly, briefly mention Jung and metaphysics, and then you back off very quickly. How much more quickly would the knives have come out if you had brought religious belief into the conversation, do you think? Is this divide more left hemisphere dominance stuff?

Ah, yes. What an interesting topic. I agree with you about the missing realm of experience. As you will have noticed, I left the issue open, whenever I mentioned it. I didn’t want to lose some potential readers over something that, while in itself undoubtedly important, is not necessary to the argument of my book. And Jung is a particularly divisive figure; otherwise reasonable psychiatrists will dig up paving-stones and hurl them at you, if you so much as mention his name. I couldn’t give an adequate judgment of him overall, since there is so much to get to grips with, and I don’t know him well enough: some of it seems to me wise and full of insight, some of it -- as with anyone so creative and so productive -- rather rash and questionable. 

In respect of hemispheres, the situation is complicated. I refer to the book by the neuropsychiatrist Michael Trimble called The Soul in the Brain, which came out last year. His analysis of the literature is appropriately cautious, but he concludes that the posterior right hemisphere is the area most closely linked with spiritual experience, though, as I say in my book, the other main area that comes up is the left frontal area (probably because of its inhibitory influence on the posterior regions of the left hemisphere). But the mechanical model beloved of the left hemisphere -- and that is not just a form of words, the left hemisphere really does code preferentially for machines and man-made tools -- has no room for the category of spirit.

The broader issue is fascinating, and I hope to address it in a future book.

Since you left yourself open for this, what are you working on next? Where does one go after writing a book about everything?

I think I’d like to write a shorter book -- good start, you may say -- looking at contemporary culture in a bit more detail from the standpoint of a psychiatrist.  Some, but not all, of that would be to do with the hemispheres. I’ve been studying the artworks of people with psychotic illnesses for many years, too, and I think there is a study there that would be of fairly broad interest. For one thing, the paintings themselves are absolutely wonderful. There was going to be a bit about that in The Master and his Emissary, but it just got unmanageable, and had to go. And eventually I want to write a short book about spiritual experience, but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.