The Matter with Things TOC

Given the number of posts related to Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things, I created a content index followed by a PDF copy of the table of contents for no reason in particular. I hope this doesn’t infringe on any copyrights.

Introduction

Part I

  1. Some preliminaries: how we got here
  2. Attention
  3. Perception
  4. Judgment
  5. Apprehension
  6. Emotional and social intelligence
  7. Cognitive intelligence
  8. Creativity
  9. What schizophrenia and autism can tell us

Other

I may move this to a page rather than a post. Time will tell.

Time

Yes. Time. That Time.

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I was browsing YouTube, and I got captivated by reaction videos, where a younger audience listens to music some of us grew up with and reacts to it. Time is a song I grew up on. Pink Floyd were a major influence on my music and my worldview. I have to admit that I am partial to the David Gilmour years and stopped caring about anything released after Roger Waters left. I have spent hours listening to their back catalogue with Syd Barrett and early David Gilmour, but Meddle, released in 1971, is about as far back as I prefer to go—even that old gem, Seamus.

Roger Waters penned the deepest lyrics for Pink Floyd, and this was one of his best. He wrote this in his late twenties, though it feels like he would have been older and wiser. I suppose he’s an old soul. Here’s the first verse:

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

This speaks to how we tend to take time for granted. Sometimes, we just want the time to pass. We’re bored, and we want to get on to something meaningful, eventful, or perhaps exciting. We might be sat in work or school just waiting for quitting time. We aren’t living in the moment or enjoying the moment. And we might just be kicking around on a piece of ground in our hometowns rather aimlessly. And whilst I am aware that many people are looking for someone to guide them to the next level, whether a religion, a vocation, a guru, or a hero, that bit’s never really resonated with me. I suppose I’ve always been naturally insouciant and Zen. Some have said to a fault.

you missed the starting gun

Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain 
You are young and life is long, and there is time to kill today 
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you 
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun 

The second verse picks up where the first one left off. Let’s not forget that this is Britain—London—plenty of rain. But some people do get tired of lying in the sunshine living their routine workaday lives. When we are younger, the days feel longer. Time is stretched. Einsteinian relativity. Again, we’ve got time to pad out and fill. Something’s happening at the weekend. Let’s just fast-forward, but we can’t, so let’s fill the time with mindless prattle and television or somesuch. Once you were 18 and now you’re 28. What happened? Tens years gone. Where’d the time go?

The last line in the second verse is telling. For me, it’s more an indictment of quote-modern-unquote society. It only applies to those who buy into this worldview. I never bought in. It’s’ always been a sham. But for some, they reach 28 and realise they’ve made the wrong decisions for their lives to end up the way they may have envisaged. I’ve never had this grand vision.

one day closer to death

And you run, and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking 
Racing around to come up behind you again 
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older 
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death 

Resistance is futile. You can’t escape the movement of time as represented by the quotidian sun. It will always lap you. The sun ages on a different time scale to you. The sun doesn’t appear to age. It was here when we arrived. It will be here when we leave. It was here before any of us were born. It will be here after we’ve all left. Yet with every lap of the sun, we are each another day closer to death. That day may be tomorrow, next week, or in a hundred years, but as Twelve-Step programmes remind us, we live one day at a time. Perhaps even this is too large of a time slice, as we can only live moment to moment. Anything else is but a construction. Nothing else is real. Memento Mori.

thought I’d something more to say

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time 
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines 
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way 
The time is gone, the song is over, thought I'd something more to say 

Again, time is relative. When we are young, we yearn for things: perhaps to graduate high school; get a driver’s license; graduate college; get the job we wanted; get some promotion or recognition; get signed to a big label; get a big break; the list goes on.

For those who are planners, the best-laid plans go awry. We dream of whatever and even journal these thoughts, but in the words of another song, “you can’t always get what you want”.

We want to do this or that, but life gets in the way. We can’t do everything. Economists capture this by the notion of opportunity costs. We can do this but not that. It doesn’t matter if we are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, or whomever. Time is the ultimate leveller.

We can just keep a stiff upper lip and persevere. Just occupy some place on this third rock, Next thing you know, the time is gone. I recall my ninety-odd-year-old father-in-law after his wife of seventy-five years died. He just wanted to die. He was done. He was ready to quit, but the music was still playing. Any semblance of hope was exchanged for the hope to reach the ending peacefully.

home again

Home, home again 
I like to be here when I can 
And when I come home cold and tired 
It's good to warm my bones beside the fire 

In this verse, Roger becomes reflective. He’s nostalgic for home. Anyone with a home has a place to return to after work, after school, or a childhood memory, but to touring performers, home is an even more special place. It’s a place to return to after life on the road, perhaps for months or years. Consider Odysseus and the travellers of old. This home.

He wants to be in this comfortable, familiar place. And after a long day or excursion, it’s a place to rejuvenate and rekindle by the warmth of the fire.

softly spoken magic spells

Far away across the field 
The tolling of the iron bell 
Calls the faithful to their knees 
To hear the softly spoken magic spells 

The final verse is even more metaphorical than the others. There’s an allusion. Religious allegory. In the distance, we hear the peal of the church bell beckoning the parishioners to hear the palliative words of the vicars and priests and whatnot. Or perhaps these softly spoken magic spells are simply the prayers of the individuals.

In deference to Barthes, the author is dead. But it doesn’t matter this is my interpretation—my meaning. Even more so, in deference to chapter eight of the Matter with Things, poetry and music are meant to be appreciated as a whole, not dissected. We can reflect on the words and phrases—even the melodies and rhythms—but the words are less than they sum to. Still, this piece moves me. It always has.

What does this mean to you?

The Matter with Things: Chapter Eight Summary: Creativity

Index and table of contents

Intro

Creativity is the eighth chapter of Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things.

In the last chapters, the topics were about different intelligences. As we’ll see, intelligence is one of the factors for creativity, but there are more. Let’s crack on.

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Content

Creativity is an elusive phenomenon that cannot only not be summoned at will, the very act of trying inhibits it. Unlike left-hemisphere-oriented intelligence, there are no simple tests for creativity because of their very nature. Assessing the left-hemisphere is relatively simple because it is systematic and any tests have definite known solutions—whether calculating some figure, solving a puzzle, choosing analogies, or recounting some trivia. There is no such test for creating something not yet created, but there are some proxies that most people categorically fail.

Psychologist, Colin Martindale, had this to say about the personal characteristics of creativity

Creativity is a rare trait. This is presumably because it requires the simultaneous presence of a number of traits (e.g., intelligence, perseverance, unconventionality, the ability to think in a particular manner). None of these traits is especially rare. What is quite uncommon is to find them all present in the same person.”

— Colin Martindale

Whereas the left hemisphere is analytical, the right hemisphere (hence creativity) is a Gestalt. When given a difficult time-boxed challenge, the left hemisphere dominant individual who does not arrive at the expected response on time will commit to and defend an incorrect response (think escalating commitment), and the right hemisphere dominant individual will simply not commit to a response under the thought that there were still options to be explored.

Effectively, creativity can be broken down into three phases: preparation, incubation, and illumination.

In essence, for the creative individual, the best we can do is to leave well enough alone. Anything but space and permission will kill the creative impulse.

Preparation is simply the accumulation of a particular domain of knowledge. For an artist, it will be to understand, perhaps, colour, shape, texture, form, shadow, media, or so forth; for a musician, it might be to understand melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, dynamics, and so on; for a mathematician, it might be basic arithmetic, theories, proofs, and on and on. It’s also important to note that accumulated information in multiple domains also forms a foundation leveraged by many polymaths.

Incubation is simply waiting for something to grow in the prepared garden. Incubation is an unconscious activity and cannot be controlled or accessed by the conscious mind. In fact, conscious effort and introspection will serve only to impede cultivation. Digging up planted seeds to see how they are growing will only hinder the process.

Illumination is the final phase. Again, this is unwilled. Prepared and incubated flowers bloom. Of course, this is an imperfect metaphor because the ground must already have been fertile at the start. Tossing seeds on fallow ground still yields no blooms no matter how carefully attended.

In essence, for the creative individual, the best we can do is to leave well enough alone. Anything but space and permission will kill the creative impulse.

McGilchrist discusses generative, permissive, and translational requirements.

“The key element in generation seems to be the ability to think of many diverse ideas quickly, demanding breadth, flexibility and analogical thinking – seeing likeness within apparent dissimilarity.” This can be summed up as divergent thinking. This is the openness afforded by the right hemisphere as opposed to the convergent behaviour of the left. As it happens, this is where artificial intelligence falls flat as it is predicated on convergent activity.

The right hemisphere Gestalten surveys the environment and notes otherwise unperceived parallels. It is not a systematic approach. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

“Talent hits a target no-one else can hit;
genius hits a target no-one else can see”.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer sums it up nicely, “Talent hits a target no-one else can hit; genius hits a target no-one else can see”.

Citing Isaac Asimov writing about Darwin’s insight, he notes that before Darwin, many people had read Malthus and studied species, but they lacked the creative spark that Darwin had.

Steve Jobs noted that

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things … A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

— Steve Jobs

This is a failing of the business world and of specialisation more generally. McGilchrist writes, “Linear approaches and analytic thinking, characteristic of the left hemisphere, are fine in the right context, and may at a subsequent phase take part in creativity by narrowing things down and eliminating some of them, but on their own will not achieve creativity”.

There is a direct link between intelligence and creativity. Ego crushes creativity.

There is a direct link between intelligence and creativity. Ego crushes creativity.

He again cites Asimov:

“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it …The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.”

— Isaac Asimov

Some people excel at maths, but many are systematic and procedural left-hemisphere types; they apply logic and reason—insert tab A into slot B. The famous mathematicians understand the procedures, but their ideas come from intuition rather than reason. The left hemisphere doesn’t recognise this as a viable vector, and therein lies the rub. “Math is not about following directions; it’s about making new directions,” writes mathematician Paul Lockhart.

This is why we hear so many accounts of aha moments, something coming to one person in a dream or Isaac Newton’s falling apple anecdote.

“These thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I very rarely think in words at all.
A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward”

Albert Einstein

Einstein told Max Wertheimer, founder of Gestalt psychology, “These thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward”. Words are a left-hemisphere phenomenon.

Many accomplished musicians hear a piece whole. All they need to do is to compose it to staff paper or perform it. We hear this regularly: “I was driving from here to there and it just came to me. All I needed to do is to remember it long enough to get it down.”

I found McGilchrist’s inclusion of hemispheric damage quite interesting. He provides many examples of artists, composers, and poets, but I’ll only summarise them. For musicians and Artists with right hemisphere damage, those who even retained the urge to create did so at a lower quality level. However, those with left hemisphere damage operated at the same level and oftentimes at a higher level, without the inhibition and censorship of the left hemisphere.

It’s important to note that most people rely on both hemispheres. When I write left hemisphere dominant, I mean to say that either the right hemisphere simply underperforms or that the left hemisphere does not cede control back to the right hemisphere. Generally speaking, both hemispheres experience the world, and a strong right hemisphere will act as air traffic controller, or perhaps have the right of first refusal, but this is a loose metaphor because sometimes the left hemisphere just fields an experience and takes its best guess how to handle it even if it should have been fielded by the right hemisphere and even if the left hemisphere provides the wrong answer. The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of the ego and identity, so it is somewhat relentless and defensive even when it is wrong.

As a side note, I trust that political identity and escalating commitment are left-hemisphere activities and why modern Western politics feel so intractable.

After a strong argument for right hemisphere dominance and divergent thinking being hallmarks of creativity, he offers some counter-evidence and counters some of it.

A paper by Arne Dietrich and Riam Kanso co-authored a book citing instances of convergent thought processes that led to something innovative or creative. At the onset, McGilchrist calls them out for conflating problem-solving with creativity. In the end, the left hemisphere does play a role. He calls this the translational phase. Essentially, this is Mozart having heard his symphony and needing to put his thoughts to paper. Or the poet.

He goes off on a bit of a tangent noting how words pale concepts, and divergence and convergence are no exception. This fits in with my own insufficiency of language theory, but McGilchrist and I have different rationales for our arguments, so I’ll not side-track this summary.

He cites some statistics correlating creativity with mental health disorders and incidences of suicide. This will set the reader up perfectly for the next chapter about schizophrenia and autism.

Perspective

In summary, creativity has got me riled up more than in the previous chapters. This is partially due to how it comports with my own observations. I have always felt that humans are not very creative or innovative despite protests to the contrary. In fact, I’ve often commented when I’ve heard people say something like “artificial intelligence will never create the next…” Fill in the blank: Mozart, Picasso, Michelangelo, Nabokov, Wordsworth. Or Einstein. Of course, neither will a human be the next of these.

All these people are right cerebral hemisphere dominant. AI operates systematically, in the manner of the left hemisphere. None of these people built up systematically. Instead, their ideas were wholly formed, and their creations were reductive rather than additive. Famously, Michelangelo was to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” He sees the solution first and then builds towards it.

In my professional life, I have been a strategist as a management consultant as well as a business analyst. In each case, I could quickly assess a situation and then spend weeks or months defending my intuition with words, diagrams, and numbers.

As a business analyst, I would offer a recommendation, and this would need to come with an estimate to deliver the recommendation. This figure would come to me in a matter of minutes. Then, per protocol, I would need to enter micro-level details into a pricing model so it could calculate from the ground up. First, this was time-consuming. Second, this would be circulated for review where different people would (almost invariably) reduce the number of hours estimated, typically due to pressure to reduce the cost. Ultimately, a number would be output and tendered to the client or the person footing the bill. Again (almost invariably), the number initially intuited was more accurate and reflective of what was ultimately invoiced. Unfortunately, business is a left-hemisphere endeavour, and that will be its Achilles’ heel and denouement.

This wraps up the chapter on Creativity. The next chapter is “what schizophrenia and autism can tell us”, and is the end of part one of The Matter with Things.

What are your thoughts and experiences with creativity now that you’ve heard McGilchrist’s take?

Leave comments below.

To Be or Not to Be (Free)

I recently posted a YouTube Short video titled You Have No Free Will, but this is still debatable.

Video: You Have No Free Will

The premise of the belief in free-will is that human decisions are made approximately half a second before we are conscious of them, and then the conscious brain convinces itself that it just made a choice. This sounds pretty damning, but let’s step back for a moment.

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If you’ve been following this blog these past few months, you’ll be aware that I feel the question of free will is a pseudo-question hinging primarily on semantics. As well, there’s the causa sui argument that I’d like to ignore for the purpose of this post.

There remains a semantic issue. The free will argument is centred around the notion that a person or agent has control or agency over their choices. This means that how we define the agent matters.

In the study this references, the authors define the agent as having conscious awareness. Since this occurs after the decision is made, then the person must have had no agency. But I think an argument can be made that the earlier decision gateway is formed through prior experience. Applying computer metaphors, we can say that this pre-consciousness is like embedded hardware or read-only logic. It’s like autopilot.

In business, there are various decision management schemes. In particular, the conscious but slow version is for a person to be notified to approve or deny a request. But some decisions are automatic. If a purchase is over, say 50,000 then a manager needs to sign off on the request. But if the purchase is under 50,000, then the request is made automatically and then the manager is notified for later review if so desired.

I am not saying that I buy into this definition, but I think the argument could be made.

You might not know it by the number of posts discussing it, but I am not really concerned about whether or not free will really exists. I don’t lose any sleep over it. At the same time, I tend to react to it. Since I feel it’s a pseudo-problem where tweaking the definition slightly can flip the answer on its head, it’s just not worth the effort. On to better things.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Seven Summary: Cognitive Intelligence

Index and table of contents

Following Emotional and Social Intelligence and the rest, Chapter 7 of The Matter with Things is Cognitive Intelligence.

In the last chapter, we learned that Emotional and Social Intelligence are the provinces of the right hemisphere. In this chapter, we discover more of the same. Whilst the left hemisphere has its duties and functions, it’s primarily a delegate. Let’s jump right in.

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Under the old pseudoscientific mode of thinking, the left hemisphere was the logical side whilst the right hemisphere was creative. It turns out that this is not correct.  At its core, intelligence is about understanding. Keep in mind that there are multiple kinds of intelligence—not referring to multiple intelligence theory, per se. Besides the emotional and social sort discussed at length in the last chapter, there is a sort of rote intelligence. This is where the left hemisphere excels. The left hemisphere is symbolic and algorithmic. It has facilitated the making of computers and other instruments that allow us to extend our intelligence, but these are not sources of intelligence. In a conceit to his previous book, The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist notes that the left brain is effectively the emissary, the junior partner in the relationship, and not really even a partner as the right hemisphere seems to call all the shots when it’s intact.

He tells a story about a geneticist who declared to a biologist that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless. The biologist retorted that he (the geneticist) was unintelligent, and the two never spoke again. Clearly, the notion is that whilst it may be ill-defined, it nonetheless contains meaning.

I share the working definition of intelligence that he shared, taken from the journal Intelligence and cited in the Wall Street Journal in 1994.

Intelligence is a very general mental capacity which, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.

As noted, there are several flavours of intelligence, even if they are attempted to be captured as G, general intelligence. This can be separated into crystallised intelligence (Gc) and fluid intelligence (Gf). Crystallised intelligence is more culturally bound than fluid intelligence and is more the domain of the left hemisphere. Generally, this is what IQ tests aim to measure.

Two criticisms of IQ tests are the cultural bias and the rote nature of the tests. As it happens, trends show that IQ is generally on the rise despite a feeling that people are getting dimmer. This may be because this rise represents the shift toward left hemisphere thinking, an alarming topic he’ll cover more in future chapters. We’re witnessing a trade-off between creative thinkers for intelligent rote automatons—the type of people more easily supplanted by computers and automation. Even as IQs are apparently increasing, undergraduate professors are complaining in higher numbers about how unprepared their incoming students are. I can add my experience anecdotally to this list. I recall chatting with a physics professor who complained that he had to devote some 20 per cent of his class time to teach students the same prerequisite maths, which meant that he had to cut this from his intended time to teach physics.

As a student, one of my physics teachers said he wouldn’t demerit much for maths errors because this was, after all, a physics course. Again, this was a reaction to many students not being prepared. They just had different approaches to handling the deficits. And don’t get me started on grade inflation.

The right hemisphere is the realm of fluid intelligence and is activated more in gifted persons. This affords creative problem-solving.

The right hemisphere is the realm of fluid intelligence and is activated more in gifted persons. This affords creative problem-solving.

Let me editorialise here in place. Sometimes we hear that this or that person is good at maths, but it turns out that this is not a simple declaration. A person who studies geometry, trigonometry, and calculus and can perform the functions may simply perform all of this rote activity in the left hemisphere. Because someone can do maths a few levels above us may feel like this person is good at maths, but this may not make this person actually good at maths.

A few years ago, I read the introduction to a book whose title I’ve long forgotten. In this introduction, the author had excelled at left hemisphere maths and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. Whilst pondering whether to pursue a PhD, in a moment of self-reflection, he decided not to. He was an A student and the pride of his family, but he had to work hard at maths. Then he considered some of the other classmates who seemed to perform the tasks effortlessly. He could do maths, but they could think maths.

This reminds me of the story of a young Carl Gauss whilst he was still in elementary school. Don’t worry. I’ll get back to the summary presently. Gauss’ teacher was hoping to keep the students occupied, so he assigned them the task of summing the numbers 1 through 100.

Eight-year-old Gauss considered the problem. He noticed a pattern and worked out the answer in his head after a few seconds—5050. Gauss excelled at maths naturally. He noticed that pairing each ascending integer from 0 to 100 created values of 100; 1 and 99; 2 and 98, 3 and 97 … 49 and 51. There are 50 such groupings with a product of 5,000 and 50 left over, so 5,050. Easy Peezy.

And now we return to regularly scheduled programming.

Another interesting characteristic of the hemispheres is that the left hemisphere operates serially whilst the right hemisphere operates in parallel, metaphorically speaking, of course. The right hemisphere is the Gestalt operator, which is a problem as McGilchrist sees it given the leftward shift in the sciences, losing the woods for the trees. Moreover, as we are forced into the constraints of business and bureaucracies, we are forced into a left hemisphere perspective, which may create a vicious epigenetic cycle or a downward spiral.

Perspective

In summary, the right hemisphere not only contributes to the majority of emotional and social intelligence as discussed in the last chapter, but it is also the workhorse of cognitive power.

Before ending, I want to share one more elucidation. I was reading elsewhere about critical thinking, and an example given was an emergency room nurse triaging patients—prioritising the treatment of patients. I wholly disagree. This is algorithmic thinking, not critical thinking. It could easily be done by a computer. In fact, in the late 1980s, I was working with so-called expert systems, which were the AI hype of the day in wave 3.0. We are now in wave 4.0 and it is still hype. Only nowadays it’s deep learning, machine learning, visual recognition, edge computing, and robotic process automation. The only difference is that technology has driven costs down, so they are more accessible to more people and can be run on more powerful computers. For the uninitiated, there is no intelligence in artificial intelligence. So, it’s less artificial and more non-existent.

Yet again, I am left wondering what this left hemisphere is good for.  It seems to do less than 20 per cent of the work and does half of that poorly. Not exactly someone you’d pick for your team. Of course, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my left hemisphere, but still.

That about wraps up the chapter on Cognitive Intelligence. Next up is chapter eight on Creativity. If you think this will focus more on the right hemisphere, I’ll bet you’re right. I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts on intelligence and the hemispheres’ split duties? Did anything surprise you? Was there anything of particular interest?

Leave comments below.

Limits of Reason and Critical Thinking

Hear me out. The Age of Enlightenment and after is based on the notion that ordinary people are rational, capable of reason, and critical thinking. I may not get out much, but I don’t notice a lot of evidence of this. In fact, I feel that the original proponents of this didn’t get out much either. And when they did, they congregated together.

I’m not talking about rote learning and being functionally literate. I’m talking about being able to suss out solutions to novel challenges. Call me an elitist, but I noticed this in my classmates at both university and grad school. I could count on one hand the number of people I would consider to be more than rote learners. I can report similar results when I taught undergrad economics. And to be honest, even rote learning seemed to be a challenge beyond reach for many.

Some may accuse me of being an elitist or a misanthrope, and I understand the motivation, but I could also be critiqued for claiming elephants to be large land mammals or ice to be cold. To be fair, notions of intelligence are sketchy enough without trying to measure reason and rationality, so I am speaking generically and metaphorically as I have no good measure either. I’m operating on intuitions.

The right hemisphere is about creative problem-solving.

In reading Iain McGilchrist’s books, he might argue that these people are just left-hemisphere dominant. That’s all rote activity. The right hemisphere is about creative problem-solving. I may be wrong, but I think it’s more than that.

As a metaphor, pick your favourite high-performing athlete. I’m not into sports, so I’ll toss out some names. Perhaps you’ve heard of some: Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé, Leo Messi, Virat Kohli, Micheal Jordan, LeBron James, or whomever. Who’s your favourite athlete? Leave a comment.

I might have practised some 10,000* hours a year for decades and I wouldn’t have been able to elevate my skills to the level of any of these. Moreover, even if I were to target someone in the lowest centile of all professional athletes in any given sport, I wouldn’t likely reach that level. I was holding out for curling, but alas, I still don’t think so. If you happen to be a professional athlete, then switch metaphors to music or art and ask if you could then reach the pinnacles of these disciplines.

The point I am trying to make is that when it comes to reason, most people aren’t even rank amateurs. They are more like pigeons playing chess. And let’s be serious, whether these pigeons are playing chess, checkers, go, or croquet, they aren’t going to fare any better.

Phenotypes such as brown eyes or red hair are determined. Aspects such as height and intelligence have propensities.

When a person is born into this world, some aspects are determined outright, whilst others have propensities. Phenotypes such as brown eyes or red hair are determined. Aspects such as height and intelligence have propensities.

At birth, a person’s height is limited by some upper limit under optimal conditions. If I encounter nutritional deficits or some other stressors, this theoretic height may never be reached. I feel the same is true for intelligence and how well we can reason. I don’t particularly agree that IQ scores are a great measure, but I’ll use the notion conceptually since most people likely know of them and generally how they work. In a nutshell, a score of 100 is considered average, give or take a standard deviation in either direction, so roughly speaking about 68.26 per cent of people in a population fall between 85 and 115. This leaves about 16 per cent above and below average. By extension, about 85 per cent of people are average and below.

I’d like to assert is that the majority if not the entirety of this cohort cannot reliably reason or think rationally or critically.

What I’d like to assert is that the majority if not the entirety of this cohort cannot reliably reason or think rationally or critically. They can memorise that 1 + 1 = 2 and Paris is the capital of France, but novelty and synthesis are pretty much out of scope. And they can reason about small things in small doses.

Practically, this means a couple of things. Firstly, on the positive side, they can be trained to be drones. Wage slaves. Most jobs in the world are rote. Insert tab A into slot B. Follow an algorithm or procedure. This is not limited to so-called unskilled labour. This goes all the way up the food chain to doctors and lawyers, two rote professions if there are any.

Secondly, on the negative side, they cannot be trained to participate in democratic processes. This is a failure of insight of the Fathers of the Enlightenment. Is that a thing? Moving on. To be fair, they did notice. Plato noticed, too. This is why, among other reasons, they sought a republic over a pure democracy. The problem, besides bad incentives and ulterior motives, is that many of these people aren’t any, or materially better, thinkers. Recall my previous reference to lawyers. How many politicians are lawyers? Q.E.D. OK, so I’m being irascible, but still.

The problem is that the masses have been taught that participative democracy is both good and a right to be cherished. And it would be if the population were up to par. In the United States, they’ve had challenges in the past with literacy tests to limit access to the polls, but one, this wasn’t testing the right thing, and two, as I said at the start there isn’t really a test for this particular capacity.

Let’s imagine that there was a test. And let’s further imagine that it was somewhat aligned to IQ score. Let’s say that the threshold kicks in just over 115. This would mean that only 15.9 per cent of the adult population would be able to vote. Even if the threshold was met at 100, that would still eliminate 50 per cent of eligible voters. That would not go over very well. Remember these people are rote learners, and they learned that (1) rights are inalienable and sacred and (2) voting is a right. Justified or otherwise, you could expect a revolt, even in America where people are afraid of their own shadows. They aren’t the French showing their numbers in yellow vests. They are much more docile when it comes to things like this. Gun-related violence is another story, but unless they are shooting each other this is where fending for their rights end.

perhaps we could start allowing chimps to participate in the process

And maybe I am wrong, perhaps we could start allowing chimps to participate in the process. I’ve heard a lot of good things about dolphins and octopuses. I look around me, and I see a lot of nice people. People who enjoy life and are nice to talk with, maybe even about the weather. But being affable doesn’t make one a critical thinker. It doesn’t make a great foundation for government or even the selection of government.

Voting Chimps

The 64,000 question is what to do. The problem, as with any challenge involving people, is that it involves people. We could construct a test, and the affluent would find a way to bribe to get a favourable result or pay for the rote information and strategy to pass the test. They already use both of these approaches for college admissions, so I wouldn’t expect anything different here.

On a final note, some including Kant and Chomsky have argued that there are limits to human reason on a global level. I am just applying this to the local level, and there are many more local limits that never come close to encountering this higher global limit. That’s a challenge in and of itself.

In the end, you can rest assured. No one is going to voluntarily give up their voting rights any time soon. No meaningful test is on the horizon. The system will likely implode on itself first. In some places sooner than others.


* Yes, I know there are only 8,760 hours in an earth year. I was hoping you didn’t notice.

Not Only the Queen Is Dead

“The Queen is dead. Long live the King,” I believe it goes. There is propaganda through symbolism and spectacle. And there is detachment. Witness in this photograph of Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral procession, a sea of mobile devices—black mirrors.

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Are these people living in the moment? I can’t say for sure, but I am thinking they are more interested in laying claim to bragging rights that they were present (in body)—pictures or it didn’t happen, eh?—, but at the same time, they were missing the moment. Perhaps it would have been overwhelming otherwise.

I recall a Buddhist meme where a traveller was more (or as) interested in taking photographs than experiencing the moments—well before the Social Media Age. And what are photographs, except attachments to the past? As if the memory is not enough in and of itself.

I am neither a Royalist nor a Statist, yet I understand that many people are and they have emotional connexions to transitions of this nature. Some ask if the system will persist whilst others wonder if there might be changes conforming to their worldviews. Time will tell.

As for me, I am flexible. Were I Charles, I’d likely abdicate the throne and pass the sceptre to William, whom I would hope would usher the monarchy out of existence in favour of something more modern—and by modern, I mean something in the order of an anachronistic constitutional republic such as (poorly) employed by the United States of America.

Obviously, my preference would be for some autonomous syndicalist structure, but I am not holding my breath, nor do I feel that would fare much better anyway. I feel that’s just another pipe dream anyway as it involves people.

Would you look at the time? I’m off wittering again. Cheers.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Six Summary: Emotional and Social Intelligence

Index and table of contents

Intro

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. 

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Content

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

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.

One subject with right hemisphere resection asked, ‘how do you feel?’ responded ‘With my hands’

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.

Perspective

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?

Leave comments below.

Cerebral Hemisphere Differences: Woods and Trees

Iain McGilchrist feels that the world is moving too much toward a left hemisphere-dominated world. This has happened before, ebbing and flowing, and perhaps it will change direction again at some point. Although this compartmentalised thinking has its roots at the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment, it has accelerated in the past century as specialisation has too many of us losing the woods for the trees.

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Humans have “a sufficiently strong propensity not only to make divisions in knowledge where there are none in nature, and then to impose the divisions on nature, making the reality thus conformable to the idea, but to go further, and to convert the generalisations made from observation into positive entities, permitting for the future these artificial creations to tyrannise over the understanding.”

— Henry Maudsley, The Physiology and Pathology of the Mind,1867

I hope McGilchrist explores extreme right hemisphere dominance more in The Master and His Emissary, whether relatively due to a deficient left hemisphere or because of the right hemisphere running amok.

McGilchrist warns the reader time and again that both hemispheres are involved in many activities, and it is what they are doing or how they are processing the events that differ. But when we generalise some primary competencies—a decidedly left hemisphere activity—, we notice that the left hemisphere is about constrained thinking with a focus on elements rather than the whole as illustrated previously and creating a map to re-present those data.

A Woman’s Face in the Trees: Gestalt in Action

Conversely, the right hemisphere is about openness and experiencing the world as it is presented rather than a re-presentation. I likened this to a Zen approach. It would probably not be unfair to relate this to the Buddhist notion of oneness and selflessness.

Given Iain’s assessment, perhaps right hemisphere dominance is not our biggest concern at the moment. However, I perceive a potential problem. Given the right hemisphere’s proclivity toward Gestalt, I am concerned that it also overgeneralises things into a whole where they shouldn’t be connected, as such. Gestalt is what fills in spaces in perception to make it appear as a whole. I’ll consider this to be an interpolation. But if it interpolates wrong, we may incur fitness penalties. Aside from this, I consider extrapolation—or perhaps misidentified boundary states, which is to say we include aspects outside of the ‘real’ domain boundary and glom it onto the model because, cognitively speaking, we don’t know what to do with it or how to interpret it. Once it gets passed to the left hemisphere, it (incorrectly) codifies it, from that point onward being mis-re-presented.

So where the left hemisphere loses the woods for the trees, the right hemisphere annexes the neighbours’ woods.

The Unbearable Preciseness of Language

First, accept my heartfelt apology in advance for employing the word preciseness over precision. I was seeking a term closer to lightness, a conceit to the Unbearable Lightness of Being.

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It appears that I am at odds with Iain McGilchrist if I am interpreting The Master and His Emissary correctly, His position is that verbal and written language is too precise for accurate communication. Gestures and facial queues are necessary to convey the entire payload; otherwise, it is easy to miss nuances in empathy and metaphor. Missing most are signals conveyed by the eyes, which are interpreted by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is more concerned with the mouth.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, the position I’ve asserted for years is that of the insufficiency of language. As diametric as this might seem at face value, I feel that it’s both, and it depends on the words and the contexts, though it feels that we are in disagreement here as well.

It’s long been said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and these people were onto something. The eyes convey emotional content to be interpreted by the right hemisphere. This hemisphere is all about seeing the big picture as well as metaphor.

The left hemisphere is more concerned with maps and symbols, so it is looking at the mouth and lips for minute details.

People with right hemisphere deficits can’t decode meta information conveyed by the eyes. Practically, this means that they can’t interpret metaphor, innuendo, sarcasm or humour. This is also the case for schizophrenics and people further right on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s syndrome. I don’t know if the connexion between these psychological conditions and right hemisphere effects is due to a deficient right hemisphere or something related to the communication channel between the hemispheres. This has not yet been mentioned.

I also find it interesting that this deficit creates a situation where a sufferer can’t discern a joke from a lie, which is telling. In a manner of thinking, a joke is a bit of an untruth or stretching a fact or omitting some details to make a point, so without the larger context that this is the purpose of the joke, it might easily be interpreted as a lie.

All of this is interesting, but these are not the insufficiencies I am concerned with. In these cases, these deficits inhibit the receipt of relevant information. My contention involves the majority of people—the ones we term as ‘normal’.

One of my pet peeves is weasel words. Justice is a big one among these. I wonder if he feels that the Gestalt of the right hemisphere is what I am missing. This is the pornography the US Supreme Court judge, Potter Stewart, who says he can’t define it, but he’ll know it when he sees it. I say that this imprecision is meant to allow for arbitrary and capricious application on a whim or to meat some ulterior motive. This is decidedly not a problem of over-precision, and this is where I hold issue. Can it be too precise, too sharp to a point it needs the edges rounded? Yes. I can see that as well.

Intermission

I feel that missing non-verbal cues is a massive challenge for videoconference calls—even when the audience is one-to-one. First, the resolution needs to be high enough to see the eyes and face, so the person needs to be in frame and not one of several people barely discernible, presume, of course, that they are showing themselves on camera at the start.

Assuming that the resolution and lighting are appropriate and the person’s face is framed in a manner to reveal their eyes and mouth, gesticulation and body language are likely missing, so we are missing more non-verbal cues. I’ll also assume that we can discern aspects of prosody which as timbre, pitch, and intonation.

Add to this a videoconference with multiple participants. Sure, you might be able to see all of the faces, but there is still something missing from these thumbnail views. In some cases, I’ve seen long shots, say, in a conference room, but the detail is notably lacking. No nuance here.

Can we adapt to this situation? Yes, Of course. Should you meet in person where it’s possible and importance is of the utmost? Of course. You’d be a tone-deaf fool not to.

Epilogue

The last point I’d like to make about language being too precise is that for an erudite person like McGilchrist, it just might be, but most people don’t have large vocabularies and have barely adequate grammatical skills. They are hardly at risk of precision. An apt analogy might be to liken them to three-year-olds with crayons—no offence to three-year-olds with crayons. Plenty of people are a step or two above functional illiteracy, but that’s not saying much. To these people, language is less of a sword than it is a blunt instrument, a proverbial bag of bowling balls.

Voltaire once quipped that he’d have written a shorter letter if he had the time, noting the effort necessary for concision. The problem with trying to encode a message not conveyable by body language into a document is that its word count might need to double or treble, which I argue would at the same time reduce interest and comprehension, opening room to misinterpret the intent—all because missing non-verbal queues were lost.

In the end, I am doubling down on my position. Language is insufficient for all but the simplest and basic communication, and it is not too precise. The word McGilchrist is looking for is blunt.