The Matter with Things: Chapter Five Summary: Apprehension

Index and table of contents

This is my take on the fifth chapter of The Matter with Things. I suggest reviewing the previous chapters before you delve into this one, but I won’t stop you from jumping queue.

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Chapter five of The Matter with Things is titled Apprehension, following the previous chapters, Attention, Perception, and Judgment. From the start, let’s clarify that apprehension is not meant in the manner of being nervous or apprehensive. It’s meant to pair with comprehension. More on this presently.

Whilst the previous chapters have been heavily focused on the importance of the right hemisphere, this chapter is focused on the left, which may be given the chance to redeem itself. Not surprisingly perhaps, given the relative function of the right hemisphere versus the left, this chapter is much shorter than prior chapters.


This chapter opens by asking what happens to a person who experiences left hemisphere damage. But let’s return to the chapter title. Apprehension is retaken etymologically and means to hold onto or to grasp. This is the function of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere is about comprehension. The root ‘prehension’ is Latin for hold; the added ap prefix suggests holding on, whilst the com prefix suggests holding together.

Whilst conceptualising and abstract language is a right hemisphere function, spoken words are a left-brain function. It turns out that so is pointing and other gesticulation, reminding me of some ethnic stereotypes of people who speak with their hands. We need to keep in mind that the right hemisphere controls the left part of the body whilst the left hemisphere controls the right. What this means is that the right hand, being guided by the left hemisphere is marching to a different drummer.

Also, keep in mind from the previous chapters that the right hemisphere is holistic whilst the left is atomistic. Where right hemisphere damage is evident, a person has difficulty viewing the parts of a whole, whilst if the damage is on the left, a person has difficulty constructing a whole from its constituent parts. Namely, it may recognise that a body is constructed from an inventory of pieces—head and shoulders, knees, and toes—, but it can’t seem to grasp the cohesive orchestrated picture.

Apart from body continuity, when the left hemisphere is damaged, it might know all of the steps of a given process—McGilchrist shares the example of a person trying to light a smoking pipe—, but there may be difficulty in some of the instrumentation along the way. He cites an example by Czech neurologist, Arnold Pick, which I share here intact:

The patient is given a pipe and brings it correctly to his mouth, then expertly reaches for the tobacco pouch and takes a match from the box but when asked to light it, sticks the head of the match into the mouthpiece and puts the other end in his mouth as if to smoke it. Then he takes it out of his mouth, draws it out of the mouthpiece and sticks the other end of the match in the mouthpiece of the pipe, pulls it out again, holds it for a while in his hand apparently thinking, and then puts it away.

a person when encountering a pencil would feel compelled to grab it and start writing nothing in particular

To underscore the apprehension, where there is damage evident in the right hemisphere, the right hand (under control of the left hemisphere) may just grasp at things for no reason, perhaps reaching arbitrarily out to doorknobs. In one case, a person when encountering a pencil would feel compelled to grab it and start writing nothing in particular. In each case, the right hemisphere was not available to contextualise the experience. This right hemisphere is opening and exploratory whilst the left is closing and instrumental. It seems one might tend to meander without the left to provide a certain will and direction.

McGilchrist makes some correlations between humans and other great apes, but I’ll just mention this in passing.

I am going to pause to editorialise on McGilchrist’s next claim. He argues that Saussure’s claim that language signs are arbitrary is false and gives some examples—sun, bread, and spaghetti—but I am not ready to accept this stance. For now, I am remaining in the camp with Saussure and Wittgenstein that language is both arbitrary and self-referential.  Getting down off my soapbox.  

Recall again that whilst the right hemisphere takes the world as presented, the left hemisphere can only re-present. This is why language symbols are handled by the left hemisphere. Coming back to Saussure, the right-brain experiences a ‘cat’ whilst the left-brain names that object a ‘cat’ and classifies it as a mammal, feline, quadruped, and whatever else.

The right hemisphere is about metaphor, prosody, and pragmatics whilst the left hemisphere, though not exclusively, is about syntax and semantics.

The right hemisphere is about metaphor, prosody, and pragmatics whilst the left hemisphere, though not exclusively, is about syntax and semantics.  The left hemisphere is about symbols. As such, lipreading and interpreting sign language are both left-brain activities.

An interesting conveyance is a case study of a person with left hemisphere damage reading a book who recites the elephant in place of the written word India, so making an association by not recognising the word itself. And there may be a naming problem, so if there was a problem related to an ankle, they would point to an ankle but substitute the name of the part.

Finally, to reiterate the holistic versus atomistic divide, some people with left hemisphere damage can articulate the parts of the body or a bicycle, but when queried can’t relate that the mouth is beneath the nose or some such.


To summarise, McGilchrist leaves with a comment, “The fabric of reality typically goes for the most part unaltered when the left hemisphere is suppressed.”

As I’ve been editorialising a bit throughout, I don’t have much to add at this point. Aside from my Saussure nit, I am still very interested in the concept that the right hemisphere constructs reality. I feel that I interpret this construction differently to Iain.

I believe that we agree that there is a world out there, and we interpret this world by interacting with it. Where I feel we differ is that he feels there is a world of objects that we interact with and perceive whilst I believe that we construct this world of objects by means of constructing the underlying material, from particles to fields. I think he’ll discuss this more in later chapters and I could be off base. Time will tell.

Having put Apprehension to bed, next up is a chapter on Emotional Support and Intelligence. I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Were there any surprises? Anything of particular interest?

Leave comments below or on the blog.


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