Chapter 6 of The Matter with Things is titled Emotional and Social Intelligence, following the previous chapters, Attention, Perception, Judgment, and Apprehension. Chapter 7 is about cognitive intelligence.
The gist of chapter 6 is to convey the importance of emotional and social intelligence in forming a full picture of the world. Absent these, reality becomes increasingly tenuous to retain a grip on because the left hemisphere just doesn’t have the emotional awareness to grasp the full picture.
At the start, this chapter reminds us that the right hemisphere not only constructs our sense of self, but it also facilitates the construction of other selves, which allows us to empathise with others. It also allows us to assess intent. And it goes deeper than this.
McGilchrist shares some anecdotes about schizophrenic patients with impaired right hemispheres who believe that nothing is real and that people are play-acting. In hospital, they perceive the ward to be a stage and the medical staff to be actors.
As if by a control knob, changes to the right hemisphere may create a diminished sense of reality as well as an intensified sense—of being hyperaware. This is not dissimilar to certain claims by some with heightened lucidity; however, the data do not permit a clear-cut conclusion. On a related note, the intensified sense may also increase emotional reactions, so one might be more prone to crying—whether tears of joy or sadness.
Abnormal electrical activity in the right hemisphere can heighten a sense of familiarity leading to a sense of déjà vu. A diminished sense has the contrary effect, reducing a sense of familiarity, leading to a sense of jamais vu, ‘never before seen’, Related to déjà vu, there have been cases of déjà vécu, ‘already experienced’ (rather than seen). Together, over 86% of these phenomena are associated with the right hemisphere.
Recall that each hemisphere controls the body contralaterally, so the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body—hands and arms, eyes, and so on. And it’s deeper than this. For example, being the arbiter of empathy, the left hand (being controlled by the right hemisphere) is used for empathetic touch. Beyond humans, bottleneck dolphins tend to stroke other dolphins with their left flippers.
This affects humans and other animals with a sort of left-eye empathy that even affects how babies are held or otherwise attended to, preferring the left side of the body over the right.
Theory of mind (ToM), a topic in its own right, is a right hemisphere-dominant capability that allows us to empathise with another or to put ourselves into another’s shoes. This ability extends to other species like elephants, apes and dogs, whales and dolphins, crows and magpies, and goats and seals.
The left hemisphere is good at understanding the what of actions, say picking up a cup or flicking a switch; it’s not so great at discerning the why. Recall in a previous chapter the case of the person with right hemisphere damage automatically picking up a pen or pencil but then not having anything particular in mind to write. The left hemisphere noticed the pen as a writing instrument and picked it up. Without the right hemisphere to provide the why, this person just kept accumulating writing implements.
This can be seen in children with autism. They recognise well enough that a person is doing something—performing some action—, but they just can’t understand why.
He tells us that “a huge body of evidence confirms that the right hemisphere is much superior to the left in receiving, interpreting, recalling or understanding anything that involves emotion.”
I’ll just share one example, and McGilchrist provides common responses from persons with both hemispheres intact as well as responses with right hemisphere deficits. For image b, a ‘normal’ response is for the respondent to fill in the boy’s talk bubble with ‘Boy, she’s cute.’ A couple of right hemisphere deficit responses were ‘I wonder how big her allowance is’ and ‘Let’s arm-wrestle’, obviously missing context.
The right hemisphere is responsible for understanding emotion, irony, jokes and humour—and the ability to tell the difference between jokes and lies. When told a joke and given an opportunity to fill in the punchline, the language of right hemisphere deficit patients ‘is often excessive and rambling; their comments are often off-colour and their humour is frequently inappropriate; they tend to focus on insignificant details or make tangential remarks’. Moreover, when asked to reconvey a story, the right hemisphere deficit people produced an ‘abundance of embellishments’ to it.
Other right hemisphere functions are the ability to grasp the semantic nuance and intonation of a speaker. One subject with right hemisphere resection asked, ‘How do you feel?’ He responded, ‘With my hands,’ but he wasn’t joking.
People who have undergone a right hemispherectomy demonstrate a ‘shallow affect, rigidity, [and] lack of imagination’. The left hemisphere seems to prefer denotative speech whilst the right prefers connotative, hence a broader set of possible meanings. Interestingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly, clichés are the domain of the left hemisphere. Poetry and music reside on the right.
Wrapping up this chapter, the right hemisphere tends to serve as the emotional centre, save for anger, which is a left hemisphere activity.
In summary, the left brain is very focused. Damage to the right hemisphere mimics the responses of autistic and schizophrenic individuals who interpret inputs differently and without nuance. This nuance often contains emotional or empathetic content that is lost on this cohort.
I am left wondering if schizophrenia and autism are right hemisphere problems, as it were, or if I would be reading into things to arrive at this conclusion.
Having completed Emotional and Social Intelligence next up is a chapter on Cognitive 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?
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