Right Creativity

The struggle is real. Last night, rather about 3 AM, I awakened with a thousand thoughts. This happens often enough. Some were creative ideas. Some were ideas for topics to write about here. Not just topics, but content as well. Then came the internal debate—whether to wake up and capture these ideas or to hope they’d remain in cache until the morning. All I can say it at least this one did. Well, the topic, at least.

The struggle is whether to lose sleep and risk not falling back to sleep to be able to awaken at a decent hour and not be dragging around the next day from lack of sleep. Or perhaps, at next notice, it would just be time to get up. All these scenarios have occurred at one time or another.

I tend to write a lot, whether for here, for work, for pleasure—whatever. I used to create visual art and certainly wrote a lot of songs or at least musical ideas that I hoped would develop into songs. The struggle was the same. The outcomes were as well.

Having read as much as I have of McGilchrist, it starts to make sense. The right cerebral hemisphere is the font of creativity. It’s also the place for intuition and empathy. The left hemisphere is for symbols and categories. It’s the quarter for intellect. It’s also a bad roommate.

Whether or not one is creative does depend on the right hemisphere. Whether one can create depends on the left. Allow me to explain after laying out a relationship and three possibilities. For my purpose here, I can reduce the brain to three principal actors—the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere, and the frontal lobe.

As mentioned already, the right hemisphere generates creativity; the left hemisphere allows these ideas to be articulated symbolically, as in written and spoken words or art or music notation and so on; the frontal lobe acts as a mediator. Without getting too deep into neurology, a primary function of the frontal lobe is restrictive, which is to say it tells one or the other hemisphere to shut up and mind its business. Unfortunately, the hemispheres have this veto power of their own, so it’s difficult to fully understand the dynamics. This being said, let’s have a look at four scenarios that may illustrate why someone may or may not be able to create—in some cases even if they are otherwise creative.

I’ll start with the situation where the right hemisphere generates the creative ideas, and the other actors perform as expected. This is the brain of the creative person.

In the second scenario, the right hemisphere is simply weak. The person was just born with the bad luck of having a hemisphere that isn’t creative. In this case, there is nothing the left hemisphere or frontal lobe can do to compensate for this deficit. I’d like to think—like, perhaps being the wrong word—that this is where most non-creative people reside. They just don’t have that metaphorical creative gene.

In the third scenario, the right hemisphere generates plenty of creative thoughts, but the left hemisphere won’t “shut up”. If you’ve even had to think in a place with a lot of noise or distraction, you’ll get the gist. This is an imperfect analogy because creativity is precisely about not concentrating. Concentration is the enemy of creativity. So, in the case that the left hemisphere is interfering, it’s because it insists on concentrating, and that interrupts the creative process. In fact, it’s a misnomer to call something s creative process because creativity is precisely a lack of process. Like concentration, process kills creativity.

The right hemisphere is open and divergent.
The left hemisphere is closed and convergent.

In the fourth and last scenario, the right and left hemispheres are each playing their parts swimmingly, but the frontal lobe as moderator is deficient. In this case, the left is being itself and disrupting. Like the parable of the scorpion and the frog, it can’t help itself, but the frontal lobe isn’t telling it to be quiet and wait its turn. That’s the job of the frontal lobe. If you’ve ever witnessed a debate or mediated discussion where the moderator just lets the participants run rampant, you’ll know what I mean. Or perhaps you’ve been in a classroom or a meeting where the teacher or leader has no control of the class or the audience. It’s difficult to get anything accomplished.

Moving on. So, the actors each have their roles, but timing matters. The right hemisphere not only needs to generate thoughts or ideas, but it also needs time for them to incubate. Once they are ripe, only then is it ready to encounter the scrutiny of the left hemisphere and seek moderation for the frontal lobe.

If during the incubation process, the left hemisphere is continually asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” it’s unlikely one will ever get there.

If you are wondering how this works in the world of business and commerce—or better yet, you have already put together that this can’t possibly work in the realm of business and commerce—, I talk about that next. And I’ve got another segment on cerebral challenges in business in the works.

Creativity cannot be time-boxed. It can’t be summoned on demand. As already mentioned, it is not a process, and it can’t be tamed. Aside from the fickle public, have you ever wondered why so many musical artists are one-hit-wonders—if they have even been that lucky? These people had one idea—that happened to be an idea that would resonate in that moment—, but being told by the label to go generate some more hits is asking for creativity on demand.

Depending on your age and generation, some of you might be asking yourselves, “What about Taylor Swift or Ed Sheeran or the Beatles or Beethoven?” These people are clearly the exceptions. We could as well look at the Vincent van Gough of the world who didn’t experience acceptance until after his death. Clearly, his creativity was unrecognised by his contemporaries. Even in some of these exceptional cases, these people have found a voice and are applying a pattern. An example I like is that of Stephen King, who in an interview admitted that he has only had one good idea in his entire life, and he’s exploited it into a large number of books. So, he’s kept reskinning the same skeleton but with different dressings.

And as far as commerce goes, yes, these people are commercially successful. Some would argue about the actual talent. I’ve seen philosophy classes compare the ‘high art’ of Shakespeare with the ‘low art’ of Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. Certainly, The Simpsons are culturally creative and commercially successful, but how creative is it really? How does one actually measure degrees of creativity?

My point is that these exceptional people are generating output once a year or every few years. In business, so-called creatives may be asked to generate new ‘creative’ content daily, weekly, or perhaps monthly. Creativity doesn’t work like this. Even if you asked Mozart to generate a new piece each week, this mechanical process might yield paydirt, but most would just be a formulaic rehash. In fact, if you talk to any top artist, they’ll tell you that what you see or hear is less than one per cent of their ideas. Most are either partially formed or, upon reflection, just bad. They felt good at the time, but they couldn’t develop into something better, or they turned out to be derivative, which is hardly creative.

So business is a death sentence for creativity. The creative people I know, don’t get their creative jollies from their day jobs. They get it from their side projects, from their passion projects, and whether or not these projects are commercially viable.

In fact, I can also look at someone like Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain who was creative at the start—when they were under the radar—, but once they rose into view, he lost it, and then we lost him.

I hope this gives you a better feeling of how creativity works from the perspective of the brain and why we see so little creativity in the real world and even less in the business world. Do you find this surprising, or are you thinking, “man, this bloke must be dense if he’s just catching on to this now”?

Let me know in the comments.

Bird Brain

In English, bird brain is a pejorative. The top Google search result yields a definition of ‘an annoyingly stupid and shallow person.’ Nonetheless, bird brains and human brains have many similarities. They have structurally divided, bi-hemispheric brains and lateralisation of functions, just like us and most other vertebrates, but how they differ is more interesting.

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I’ve extracted the majority of information on this page from Iain McGilchrist’s publication The Master and His Emissary with a focus on birds.

Firstly, except for birds of prey—because they have forward-facing eyes—, birds don’t have stereoscopic vision. If you’ve ever noticed a pigeon or a chicken strutting about, they jerk their heads around. This is to render a better perspective of their immediate surroundings.

Recall that the left hemisphere is about contraction and closure. The right hemisphere is open and expansive.

For birds, there is a need to focus attention narrowly and with precision, for example, on a grain of corn. At the same time, there is a need for open attention to guard against a possible predator. But apart from the optical mechanisms involved, there is the cognitive need to focus attention, but it is an impossibility to focus on both simultaneously. There is a trade-off between close focus and wide focus. To do both is to do both poorly. The trade-off is to eat or be eaten, so this is a nontrivial conundrum.

Midjourney render of a pigeon portrait headshot

You can simulate this yourself. Out of doors or in a large-enough indoor space, hold a page at arms’ length and try to read the words on the page and keep the background in focus.

Returning to the birds and remembering that, like us, the left eye is controlled by the right hemisphere and the right eye is controlled by the left. You should suss out by now that this translates into the right eye for getting and feeding and the left eye for environmental vigilance.

Although they are better at detecting predators with the left eye, many types of birds show more alarm behaviour when viewing them with this eye. If they detect a predator with their right eye, they will also choose to re-examine it with their left eye to the extent that they will turn their head to make the visual connexion.

Like humans, chicks preferentially use the left eye (right hemisphere) for gathering social information.

Like humans, chicks preferentially use the left eye (right hemisphere) for gathering social information. They use this eye to differentiate familiar members of the species from one another and from those who are not familiar. Some species seem to operate opposite to this, but they are the exception.

One interesting bird of note is the wry-billed plover of New Zealand. With a beak that curves to the right, it favours the left hemisphere for focusing on feeding.

Wry Bill Plover

McGilchrist notes that “there is a strong right eye (left hemisphere) bias for tool manufacture in crows, even where using the right eye makes the task more difficult”.

Another feature in common between humans and birds is speech vocalisation as it were. In both cases, speech articulation is the domain of the left hemisphere.

The right hemisphere in birds, as in humans, is associated with detailed discrimination and with topography; while the left hemisphere of many vertebrate animals, again as in humans, is specialised in categorisation of stimuli and fine control of motor response.”

The right hemisphere yields broad, vigilant attention, and it is involved in bonding in social animals.

In general terms, the left hemisphere yields narrow, focused attention, mainly for the purpose of getting and feeding. The right hemisphere yields broad, vigilant attention, and it is involved in bonding in social animals.

The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focussed attention. This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a ‘whole’: something very different.

Dall-e-2 render of an Impressionist oil painting of a pigeon eating corn

Left-Brain, Right-Brain

The hemispheres of the brain have functional differences. I created a short-form video on YouTube, so it’s less than 60 seconds.


If you see a face in this image (in the accompanying video), you can thank the right hemisphere of your brain. The right hemisphere is about unity and the whole—a Gestalt. It fills in missing pieces to construct a whole. And it’s usually pretty good at it.

Think of the right hemisphere as Zen. It’s about experiencing the world as presented. It experiences the world without judgment, without attachment, without naming. It’s about openness and options.
The left hemisphere is about division and parts. Where the right hemisphere wants to open up, the left wants to close down. And it’s about creating maps and symbols, then re-presenting these.
Where the left hemisphere of the brain is focused on the trees, the right hemisphere sees the forest or the woods.

The left hemisphere is what creates our sense of self and individuality whilst it would probably not be unfair to characterise the right hemisphere as the Buddhist notion of selflessness and an undivided universe, where ‘self’ is an illusion.
The left hemisphere is literal whilst the right is metaphoric. It is also the realm of poetry and empathy.

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 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.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Three Summary: Perception

Index and table of contents

In this segment, I continue the journey through Iain McGilchrist’s masterwork, The Matter with Things by summarising chapter three, Perception, a followup to the previous chapters, respectively titled Some Preliminaries and Attention. I strongly recommend that you listen to these in turn, but feel free to play the rebel and cut queue. No one will even notice but you, and if you don’t tell, neither shall I. Come join me.

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Chapter two of The Matter with Things is titled Perception. Following the previous chapter, Attention, it’s about how we perceive what we attend to. Without attention, there is no perception, but perception is not always correspondent with the so-called reality “out there”.  


From the start, McGilchrist wants to assess which hemisphere is more veridical. Spoiler Alert: It’s the right half. But you already knew that because you’ve been keeping pace. And you also know that I feel he is leaving an option on the table, that neither is veridical to the actual terrain; rather, one just better maps the map. But the question essentially resolves to the same place, not as much verity as trust.

Sensory perception occurs in both hemispheres, but it is better in the right hemisphere than the left, as the left has been somewhat relegated to re-presentation over time—the same hemisphere that is better suited for codifying and mapping using symbolic language—something reserved for the brains of primates—which gives us a virtually inexhaustible way of mapping the world.

Perception is holistic, something better handled by the right hemisphere, being as the left hemisphere is more about focus and specificity. On balance, the right hemisphere is the arbiter of performance delegation, whether to perform a task or delegate it to the left hemisphere. About three-quarters of perception functions are right hemisphere processes.

McGilchrist is partial to the position advanced by Merleau-Ponty, that is “perception as a reciprocal encounter.” Perception is not a passive act. It is an interactive intercourse with the environment. What and how we perceive is affected by our experience and the situation.

Visual Perception

Perception involves all the available senses—and by definition none of those otherwise unavailable. He starts with vision. The right hemisphere does a lot of heavy lifting here. It handles size, shape and pattern recognition, contour, shadows, distance and depth, for example, three-dimensional space, and motion and time as well as the ability to recognise objects from unusual angles or from incomplete information, which I tend to think of as playing some Gestalt role. The right also handles colour perception, though the left maintains the colour name mapping.

The left hemisphere is slightly faster at detection, but if what is detected has any signal degradation, the right hemisphere tends to be more accurate. And since the left hemisphere is, what I’ll call lazy, it may tire quickly and space out, so the right hemisphere may have to intervene, if even a bit more slowly. Paradoxically, if the left hemisphere is given more time, its recognition error rate increases. Incidentally, one reason the right hemisphere may respond more slowly is that it is deliberating to attempt to deliver the correct response whilst the left tosses out its first best guess and declares victory. Nailed it!

Nailed It!

Recall from the last chapter that the left hemisphere is also a master of denial, so it is unapologetic when it guesses wrong. I imagine it signalling ‘that’s not a bus’ just as it hits you and then insists that it never was a bus; that injury must have been caused by something else. Perhaps it was an untoward wrecking ball. 

Without delving into details here, McGilchrist points out that much early research might be invalid because it employed cathode ray tubes—CRTs—whose mechanisms present biased information to the visual field, thereby invalidating conclusions.

the left hemisphere is better at recognising tools—hammers and spanners—, but not musical instruments, which it perceives more as living entities

An interesting area for me is that the left hemisphere is better at recognising tools—hammers and spanners—, but not musical instruments, which it perceives more as living entities. And this is an apt segue to auditory perception.   

Auditory Perception.

Whereas the left hemisphere is better at symbolic language processing and “the processing of meaningless noises, such as clicks”, the right hemisphere pretty much handles the rest, from pitch, inflexion, tone, phrasing, metre and complex rhythm, and melody. The left keeps tabs on basic rhythmic patterns. It is assumed that rhyming relies on both hemispheres working in concert.

For most people, music processing is a right hemisphere event, but this is not true for professional musicians, who utilise both hemispheres, likely owing to the musical language translation processing unnecessary for the casual listener.

Olfactory Perception

Interestingly, the acuity of the nose is orders of magnitude superior to that of the eyes and ears. Olfactory recognition and discrimination have a right hemisphere preference, but emotional reactions to scent may be stronger in the left hemisphere.

Gustatory Perception

“Apart from five very basic tastes – salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami – which come from the tongue, all flavours come from the olfactory sense.” In general, gustatory perception is a right hemisphere function. However, there is an exception for professional wine tasters, who like professional musicians need to map experiences to words associated to rating and naming.

Tactile Perception

Remembering that the right hemisphere controls the left half of the body, whilst the left hemisphere controls the right, the sense of touch is superior in the left hand. Feelings of warmth, and temperature discriminations in general, are associated with right hemisphere activation. Interoception, the ability to perceive the internal workings of the body, is another right hemisphere process.

Local versus Global Perception

Recall that the right hemisphere captures the world holistically whilst the left hemisphere has a laser focus. This equates respectively to global and local perception. As it happens, the right can do both, but the left is limited to local. This means that if the left hemisphere is damaged, the right can pick up the slack, but if the right hemisphere is damaged, the left cannot compensate for the lost holistic perspective. In practice, the right runs the show and delegates to the left when it deems it to be appropriate for the circumstance. For some reason, normal adolescents have a bias toward local perception over global.

Pathologies of Perception

This leads us to abnormalities, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Deterioration of right hemisphere function leads to a sense of disorganisation and loss of sensation. This hemisphere is also responsible for constructing a sense of self and self-awareness. McGilchrist calls out that the term self has multiple meanings. Much of the notion of self is associated with the medial prefrontal cortex in both hemispheres, but the objectified self and the self as an expression of will (in the respect Schopenhauer spoke of) are left brain aspects.

Perception of a contiguous self over time is a right hemisphere function, the loss of which is not uncommon in cases of schizophrenia.

In discussing visual hallucinations and distortions, almost ninety per cent of these have been attributable to right hemisphere anomalies. McGilchrist shares examples over several pages, but I’ll summarise by description alone of what can be categorised under the umbrella term of metamorphopsia. These might lead to object impermanence, or viewing things as too large or too small, too close or too distant, skewed, or the wrong shape altogether. In some cases, only half of an object, including self-perception, was outsized. This might occur on a macro level or a micro level, which is to say that it may be entire objects or bodies or just faces, or just familiar faces or just eyes or just one eye.  This might occur on a macro level or a micro level, which is to say that it may be entire objects or bodies or just faces, or just familiar faces or just eyes or just one eye.

Some of these cases involved motion, for example, the sense that some object is receding away from the observer as the observer draws nearer to it.

After a journey through Charles Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, and Alice in Wonderland, provides a plethora of examples in prose of some of these visual effects.

From visual hallucinations, we wonder through hallucinations of the other senses, though the data points on these are much sparser, but the left hemisphere does seem to be the culprit of most auditory hallucinations.


To summarise, I am again left to feel that the left hemisphere is a deadbeat hanger-on. It’s there in a pinch, but it’s an unreliable narrator and worker that falls asleep at the wheel. Psychology does have a position on what a normal person should see and hear and taste and touch, but normal doesn’t mean real. 

I was hoping to see some information and perspective on synaesthesia, a condition where people perceive experiences through sense-perception organs different to normal. These people see music and hear smells or taste colours and so on. We consider this to be anomalous, but does it provide a fitness benefit, and are these people ahead of “normal” people or are they carrying excess baggage that creates a burden, even if the condition is otherwise benign.

Now that we’ve covered attention and perception, we’ll be covering judgment in the next chapter.  I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Have you experienced or know of anyone who has experienced any of these so-called anomalies. Are you familiar with any of the effects mentioned in Alice in Wonderland? Leave comments below.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Two Summary: Attention

Index and table of contents

This is my take on the second chapter of The Matter with Things. Chapter one has been posted previously.

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Chapter two is titled Attention. It’s about how what we attend to tends to shape our sense of reality. This is a story of the functional speciality of the hemispheres and their mediating components. Each hemisphere has its own protocols and modus operandi, each with distinct task specialisation. Important to note coming in is that about thirty per cent of all neuronal activity is inhibitory in nature. In fact, the frontal lobe is what inhibits the reflexive animal-reptilian responses allowing for some—I mean, let’s be honest here—human civil capacity. These mediating elements are designed—idiomatically, not literally—to orchestrate hemispheric activities so that each side can do what it’s best suited for.


Both hemispheres attend to their environments, but they have different foci. One way to distinguish which hemisphere is focused on what, McGilchrist regards research oriented toward people with damage to one or the other part, whether by a stroke or accident. In some cases, this separation is accomplished clinically. There is a difference between right- and left-handedness, but I am not going to elaborate here.

Persons with left hemisphere damage noted difficulty writing and spelling whilst right hemisphere damaged people experienced a loss of empathy as well as a range of cognitive and emotional impairments.

Selective Attention: Invisible Gorilla Test

In general, the right hemisphere attends to the broader environment with a trade-off on specificity whilst the left hemisphere is laser-focused at the expense of the wider perspective and ability to maintain attention. Evidently, and I quote, “the left hemisphere has a tendency to ‘space out’ for seconds (sometimes 15 or more) at a time”. McGilchrist cites the invisible gorilla study where viewers are asked to watch a video clip of two teams of basketball players dribbling and passing a ball to count the number of times one team passes the ball. As this is happening, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walks into frame and makes gestures to bring attention to itself and then walks out of frame.

Focusing on the ball passing is a left-brain function that predominates right-brain activity. As it is laser-focused on the task at hand, it is oblivious to the gorilla in the midst. When re-viewing the clip without the focus activity, the gorilla is quite obviously present. He cites another substitution study that again illustrates what happens when the right brain does not have an audience.

Again, whilst “the right hemisphere is sensitive to the whole picture in space and time, background and periphery, the left hemisphere is focussed on what is central in the field of vision and lies in the foreground.” This becomes evident with hemispheric damage. When the left hemisphere is damaged, people can still perceive the full view-frame because the right hemisphere remains intact, but when the right hemisphere is damaged, less than half of the world remains. In the book, some examples follow.

The left hemisphere suffers from a stickiness problem. Without a participating right hemisphere, a person can have their attention fixated on some objects in the environment. And he points out that this is not a problem with visual perception, because tests demonstrate that subjects can be made to fixate on imaginary objects in a dark room. In schizophrenics, this fixation always occurred on the right side of the field of vision. This fixation ties into staring, which he describes as “a special kind of vision, in itself predatory: left hemisphere attention gets locked onto its target.” I’ll guess that many of us have been fixated on some activity and an unexpected interloper startles us when they become apparent. He mentions the discredited Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in passing. I won’t bother.

McGilchrist foreshadows chapter four a bit by informing the reader that the left hemisphere is grasping and apprehending whilst the right hemisphere excels at comprehending. More on this in future segments.

Another feature of the left hemisphere is that it not only ignores the majority of the environment it finds itself in, but it is also a master of denial.

Another feature of the left hemisphere is that it not only ignores the majority of the environment it finds itself in, but it is also a master of denial. For example, a person with right-hemispheric damage was paralysed on the left side of his body, yet he was not only unaware of the paralysis. He denied that he was paralysed.

In a second case, another person with right-hemisphere damage and left-side paralysis, when asked to perform tasks would comply with the requests directed toward the right side of the body but ignore or claim not to understand the directions when directed toward the left side.

What this represents is that the left hemisphere had established a map of the body that was unable to be updated because of the damage to the right hemisphere that would have provided an update. One might consider this in the manner of an old SAT-NAV when map updates needed to be manually applied. If you happen to be travelling in a new development on an obsolete map, the map will not correspond to the terrain.

As mentioned previously, the right hemisphere can be thought to present whilst the left hemisphere can be thought to re-present, having codified and archived the contents for later retrieval. The book has more types of examples including people experiencing reality through a set of freeze-frames and time elapses, but the takeaway is that the hemispheres also differ in how they interpret space, time, and motion. In fact, the right hemisphere is instrumental in perceiving three-dimensional space.

I won’t exhaust the many remaining examples in the book, though I may reference some in summary when I share my reaction and perspective. The final topic I’ll mention is that human infants are right-hemisphere dominant. They are practically all about gathering inputs without being concerned with how they map the terrain for later retrieval. They simply experience the world without the analysis and judgment the left brain later brings to bear.


At the end of the chapter, McGilchrist provides a summary. The right hemisphere is always vigilant to what might be out there. For the left hemisphere, if it hasn’t been brought to attention, it doesn’t exist. Consider the invisible gorilla. The left hemisphere’s attention is sharply restricted in space and time. It favours precision over accuracy and at the expense of depth. It is not concerned with the “expansive, always moving, always changing, endlessly interconnected nature of reality.” The left is all about atomisation and stasis.

Unfortunately, despite all these limitations, the left still thinks it’s right. Revisiting the SAT-NAV scenario, the left brain is akin to a person staring at the screen that declares the destination has been reached. The right brain looks out the window and informs that they are decidedly not in the right place. Does one trust the instrumentation or the environment?

One undercurrent I feel is that McGilchrist wants to play the left and right hemispheres against each other to assess which is more veridical. This is where I think we differ, but the jury is still out. In his case, he wants to compare the way that each hemisphere maps to our experience of the real world. In his view, and I don’t think I am putting words into his mouth, our experience is the world because we experience it as it appears to us. In my view, experiences are simply a representative map as limited by our sense-perceptions and cognitive abilities. So, when he assesses the right hemisphere as a better reflection of reality, I say it just better captures the map.

For him, it’s either left or right. But for me, it’s right, left, or none of the above. I believe our disagreement is that I subscribe to a fitness before truth paradigm whilst McGilchrist doesn’t. I feel that fitness is the evolutionary litmus, and evolution doesn’t care about truth. In fact, assessing truth comes at the expense of energy and attention, the subject of this topic. The reason the case studies cited in this chapter are interesting is not that they illustrate some truth deficit that would render them easy prey in a Darwinian world, it’s because their perception leaves them with a fitness penalty. There is no reason to invoke some spectre of truth.

This was an interesting chapter with over a dozen clinical anecdotes. It does well to articulate the differences in hemisphere function and lends credence to left and right brain asymmetry. I feel it’s worth cracking on to the next chapter, Perception.

Before I bring this commentary to a close, I want to make an orthogonal comment. McGilchrist mentioned case studies where people reported freeze-framing. It is understood that certain birds have a faster frame rate than humans, so if they were viewing a movie running at 60 frames per second, they would not see the same continuous motion picture as a typical person; rather, they would perceive it as how we might perceive a slide show or a slow flip book. Of course, this is unrelated to the brain conversation, but the topic reminded me of the difference. For anyone who feels they need to educate me about the fact that the ocular systems don’t operate in frames per second, allow me instead to direct you to the domain of metaphor and analogy.

What are your thoughts on the split function of brain hemispheres? If you’ve read the book or at least this chapter, what was your favourite story? Did I omit your favourite? Leave comments below or on the blog.

The Matter with Project Managers

Index and table of contents

Several of my esteemed colleagues prompted me to become familiar with Iain McGilchrist. I had viewed hours upon hours of his lectures before I decided to commit to his latest book and likely magnum opus, though I don’t want to sell him short. The Matter with Things is an approximately 3,000-page, two-volume tome. To be fair, it’s about 1,600 pages of narrative content with the remainder being appendices, a bibliography, an index, and other such back matter.

Podcast: Audio rendition of the content on this page.

I’ve mentioned much of this before, but I am writing this post with a particular LinkedIn audience in mind, whom I don’t expect to be familiar with my prior commentary, though they are invited to explore more. McGilchrist’s thesis is that the human brain operates with asymmetrical hemispherical differences. These differences are not the facile “left-brain analytical, right-brain creative” distinction of yore, rather the differences are more nuanced. If you are interested in the minutiae of this, stick around and read past and future posts when they arrive, as I’ll be documenting my journey through these volumes presently.

So, what’s the matter with project managers? And why bring up project managers? In my workaday life, I’ve often been asked to perform project management functions, something decidedly not my forte. I could be reading into and am guilty of reductionism, but in reading The Matter with Things, I may have stumbled onto something with explanatory power. So let’s pause for a quick reflection.

Pistachio in hand

In a very small nutshell. I’m talking, perhaps, pistachio-sized here. The right brain hemisphere is the part that experiences the world as it is. The right brain is not about making judgments and categorising. Rather, it’s about just absorbing without interpreting, per se. On the other hand, the left brain hemisphere interprets, codifies, and maps this world for later access. Again, forgive the over-simplification, but this is the information pertinent to the matter at hand—a very left-hemisphere control function, I might add.

It turns out that the left brain is not so much concerned with the outside world at large. Once it has its map, it is rather content to reference it from there on in unless the right brain nudges it to pass along more information. Whereas the right hemisphere opens possibilities, the left hemisphere shuts them down. If you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s work, Thinking Fast and Slow, you may notice certain parallels. I’d be interested to know if McGilchrist comments on this. Perhaps a later topic.

Borrowing from some aspects of Design Thinking, there is a double diamond design process model. I purloined one from the internet that will work for my purposes.

Double Diamond Design Process Model

I feel that I can simplify and assume that the diverging activity represents a right hemisphere strength whilst the converging is more apt to be a left hemisphere activity.

The right brain is not only always open to seeing options and opportunities, it actively seeks them. The left brain just wants to close any discussion and settle on a decision or an answer.

From an evolutionary perspective, the “raison d’être [of the right hemisphere] is to enable us to be on the lookout for potential predators, to form bonds with mates, and to understand, and interpret the living world around us” whilst the left hemisphere’s purpose “is to enable us to be effective predators.”

A right-hemisphere dominant person will likely continue to play what-if until the cows come home. A left-brain dominant person will take the first semi-viable solution and want to run on it. No need for deliberation. In a balanced scenario, the left and right hemispheres will battle for dominance, but they will arrive at a good-enough solution.

And this is where project managers enter the picture, and where I exit. I am decidedly over-indexed on the right brain. Among other things, I see options and possibilities. And, sure, I have enough balance to resolve to take action, but I don’t lose track of the possibilities and I am always ready to change course at a moment’s notice—what we call pivot in the business—or perish as the case might be.

The project manager, on the other hand, sees the map. This represents practically inviolable marching orders.

Disney Sorceror’s Apprentice Brooms-Flood Scene

One aspect of a good project manager is the ability to filter out the noise. Rather, this is what a right-brain person would surmise. Instead, the left-brain person doesn’t even register the noise. Where a right-brain person has to expend energy continually filtering out options and possibilities, the left-brain person never registers these options from the start. So, where I as a right-brain person may find it exhausting to actively and continuously limit this noise, this threshold is never triggered for the left-brainer.

In closing, I want to remind you again and again and again, that this is a gross oversimplification and rather metaphorical in nature. Nonetheless, I feel the that it is germane and offers insights into why some people are more apt at certain tasks than others.

I want to emphasise that one side is not better than the other. A right-dominant person is not superior to e left-dominant person, and vice versa. As with the brain itself, these can be complementary. Some people are very capable of tasking whichever hemisphere is necessary, but this is rarer than one might at first assume. McGilchrist provides many examples, so you can read them for yourself firsthand, or you can follow along as I call out key highlights in The Matter with Things.

If you have any comments or suggestions, feel free to leave them in the space provided.

Video: Blame and Causa Sui

In this segment, I ponder the interplay between blame and Causa Sui. I’ll discuss the implications for moral responsibility as well as legal responsibility, which are not as in sync as one might imagine they might be.

Video: Blame & Causa Sui

To the uninitiated, Western legal systems have no pretensions about being about morality or justice. Legal systems are designed to maintain power structures and the status quo. They are deontological machines, making them prime targets for automation by the machine learning associated with artificial intelligence. This would also diminish the power of rhetoric over facts to some extent. But, I am no legal scholar, and all of this will have to wait for another segment.

I recently shared a video on causa sui and the basics of blame and blameworthiness, so I want to intersect those topics here.

Peter Strawson suggested that for humans, blame is a reactive response. It’s reflexive like having your knee jerk when tapped. Essentially, his position is that if blame didn’t naturally exist, we’d have to invent it, mirroring Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him’. Of course, this is because they serve the same power control purpose.

If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him


To be fair, blame is closer to real than God, but the point remains. Strawson’s point is also that humans are saddled with blame and it’s not going anywhere no matter how nebulous it becomes in execution. It’s natural.

To me, this starts to sound suspiciously like a naturalistic fallacy. Humans seem to selectively cherry-pick which so-called natural tendencies they choose to defend. One might use nature to argue that female sexual availability begins at menstruation, and yet we have decided to ignore this and defer this on the grounds of civility. It’s obvious that we could consider blame to be an animal instinct we want to domesticate away, but because it serves other purposes, per Strawson’s perspective, it’s a useful tool.
But what’s the causa sui challenge. Let’s quickly recapitulate.

Causa sui argues that one cannot be the cause of oneself, ex nihilo. Being full products of nature and nurture to adopt the lay parlance, any blameworthiness lies with the sources or creators. Since we are concerned with moral responsibility, we can eliminate nature forthrightly. Nature may be responsible—by many estimations approximately 40 per cent responsible—, it possesses no moral agency. And if the individual is not responsible, then we are left with the environment and society, including the social environment. Of course, the environment gets off the hook in the same manner as the genetic and hereditary factors of nature.

Before we consider society, let’s regard the individual.

Albeit the brain-as-computer is a bit facile, it’s still good enough for illustrative purposes. When you are born, your cognitive hardware is installed, as are your edge peripherals and update protocols. Any of these can become damaged through some degenerative processes, or external environmental factors, but since my interest is in optimistic rather than pessimistic scenarios, I’ll ignore these instances. Given that blameworthiness is directly related to presumed cognitive processing, factors that diminish these faculties, mitigate blameworthiness and factors than increase it, ameliorate it.

As a—quote—’normal’ child becomes an adolescent and then an adult, the probability it will become blameworthy, increases with age, ceteris paribus. A person with cognitive deficits or conditions such as aphasia or dementia decreases the probability of blame assignment. Even temporary impairment mitigates judgment—oh, she was drunk.

So, following the brain-as-computer analogy, your brain is a CPU with a self-updating cognitive operating system and instruction set. Essentially, there is also short and long-term memory.
In the case of cognitive deficits, one of these components might be effectively broken. The CPU might process too slowly; it might misinterpret what it receives; there may be issues with the sense organs or the nerves that transport signals.

I’ve got a mate who, due to medical malpractice at birth, experienced nerve damage. Although his eyes and brain are normal, his optic nerve cannot carry signals very well, effectively leaving him blind. Neither can he taste nor smell. So there’s that.

But assuming that this processing and storage hardware are intact, the causa sui constraint still applies, but let’s spend some time evaluating societal interactions.

All inputs come from society—cultures and subcultures. Apart from misinterpreted processing scenarios, if a person doesn’t receive a particular moral instruction set, that person should surely be considered to be exempt from moral blame. It may be difficult to assess whether an instruction has been input. This is a reason why children are categorically exempted: they may not have received all of the expected moral codes, they may not have been stored or effectively indexed, and their processing hardware is still in development—alpha code if you will. Brain plasticity is another attribute I won’t spend much time on, but the current state of science says that the brain is still not fully developed even by age 30, so this is certainly a mitigating factor, even if we allow leeway for the causa sui argument.

I mention subculture explicitly because the predominant culture is not the only signal source. A child raised by, I don’t know, say pirates, would have an amended moral code. I am sure we can all think of different subcultures that might undermine or come at cross odds with the dominant culture, whether hippies, religious cultists, militia groups, racial purist groups, and so on.

So, a commonly held moral in the subdominant group may counter that of the prevailing one. An example that comes to mind is some religious organisations that do not agree with human medical intervention. There have been cases where parents have allowed a child to die from an otherwise curable condition. Although in the United States, there is a claim of freedom of religion—a claim that is spotty at best—, parents or guardians in situations like these have been convicted and sentenced for following their own moral codes. But as with all people, these people are as susceptible to the limitations of causa sui as the rest of us. They are not responsible for creating themselves, but moral responsibility was asserted based on the beliefs of the prevailing culture. Even besides the legal context, persons in the larger society would likely blame the parents for their neglect—though they may be praised for being resolute in their righteousness by their in-group. This just underscores that morality is a collection of socially constructed conventions rather than something more objective.

Returning to causa sui, let’s say a person commits an act that society would typically assign blame. Rather than exercise some act of retributive justice—a concept with no foundation in a causa sui universe—the course of action was remediation. In this case, the desired moral instruction would be delivered thereby seemingly making the moral offender blameworthy. But would they be?

Presumably, (for what it’s worth) psychologists would evaluate the subject for competency in maintaining the programming. In the case of the aforementioned religious parents, they may be threatened with retribution for not abiding by the superseding rules of the prevailing power structure.

Although I might personally allow some leeway even with the causa sui in full force and effect, but I can’t say that I have much faith in the ability of humans to make a correct assessment. My impression is that any assessment would be one of convenience than something sounder.

Perhaps I’ll produce a more robust segment on retributive justice, but my feeling is that retributive justice is an area that legal systems should avoid altogether. If necessary, focus on restorative justice, rehabilitation (or ‘habilitation’ as the case might be) and quarantine models to ensure any bad actors are contained away from society. Again, this puts individuals at the mercy of cultures they find themselves a part of. I am not going to delve into this any further save to remind the listener of gang initiation schemes where a person needs to kill a member of a rival gang to become a trusted member. This is their moral code—quite at odds with the mainstream.

So there you have it. Owing to causa sui constraints, a person cannot be ultimately responsible for their actions. My primary thesis is—apart from metaphorical equipment failures—that any moral responsibility falls wholly on the society or culture. Full stop. And this isn’t as foreign as one might first feel. Although for most people blame is natural, in an individualistic society, people are interested in finding the culprit. In collectivist cultures, any culprit might do. Perhaps I’ll share some stories in a future segment.
Meantime, what are your thoughts on moral responsibility? Can someone be ultimately responsible? Some have said the ‘ultimate responsibility’ is a philosophical red herring and that we can still hold someone responsible, even if not in the ultimate sense, which causa sui disallows. Are you more in this camp? Is this enough to mete out so-called retributive justice? For me, retributive justice is a euphemism for vengeance, and justice is a weasel word. But that’s just me, and perhaps a topic for another segment.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover? Leave a comment below.