“Find the thing that excites you the most and go after that … find the thing that you’re natural and really good at, and then exaggerate it…”
I came across this 2010 interview with Steve Vai, and something he said struck me.
— Steve Vai
He says that some of the best musicians don’t know music theory and can’t read or write.
This is a possible example of where musicality is a right-hemisphere activity whilst the symbolic representation happens on the left. I am simplifying and talking metaphorically as I have not done any brain scans, but it feels apt. Of course, Steve Vai does both—and on steroids, so there’s that.
Most people have heard the term schizophrenia. It’s a mental health pathology wherein people interpret reality abnormally. To oversimplify to make a point, in a ‘normal’ brain, the left and right hemispheres operate together to regulate bodily functions and to interpret the world we live in. In brief, schizophrenia is a condition where the left cerebral hemisphere overly dominates the right. Some might be led to believe that schizophrenics interpret reality irrationally, but the opposite is true. Schizophrenics are hyperrational to a fault.
Schizophrenia has been on the rise this past half century or so, but this might just be a symptom of Modernity, as cultures are also experiencing a leftward shift—a shift toward hyperrationality. Cultures have swung like a pendulum from left-hemisphere-dominance to right dominance and back through the ages, but we may be seeing an uncorrected swing further and further to the left, led by science, followed by commerce and politics, dangerously close to the territory of schizophrenia, if not already occupying this territory. Allow me to briefly summarise how the hemisphere function to help the reader understand what it means to be too far left or right.
Cerebral Bilateral Hemispheres
Most people experience the world—what some otherwise known as reality—with both cerebral hemispheres, and each hemisphere has a function. In a nutshell, the right hemisphere experiences reality holistically, which is to say that it views the world through a Gestalt lens. The right hemisphere is open and divergent. It is creative—generative. It knows no categories or subdivisions. All is one and connected. I like to refer to this as Zen. Many people can relate to this Zen notion. The right hemisphere is a creative and empathetic centre that only knows the world as it is presented—without words or naming. Intuition lives here. It distinguishes differences in the world in a manner similar to that of a preverbal child who can tell mum from a bowl of porridge without knowing the word for either. Children are right hemisphere creatures. As we mature toward adulthood, the function of the left hemisphere increases to offset the dominance of the right.
The left hemisphere is the sphere of intellect. Its function is to categorise, to create symbols—words, names, labels, icons, and so on. It doesn’t know how to create, intuit, or empathise. In fact, it doesn’t even experience the world as presented; it relies on re-presentation. To borrow from a computer analogy, when it experiences something in the world, it caches a symbol. Where the right hemisphere experiences a tree and just appreciates its ‘treeness’, and it doesn’t know that it’s a tree by name. It’s just another thing in the world. The left hemisphere, on the other hand, notices these things with ‘treeness’ and categorises them as trees—or des arbres, árboles, Bäume, 木, درختان , पेड़, or whatever. And it reduces the tree to an icon, so it can file it away for later retrieval to compare with other tree-like inputs.
The left hemisphere is where difference, the sense of self, and ego come from. Where the right hemisphere is open and divergent, the left hemisphere is closed and convergent. It is particularly egotistical, stubborn, and always thinks it’s right if I can anthropomorphise analogically. The left hemisphere knows no nuance, and it doesn’t recognise connotation, metaphor, allegory, or allusion. Everything is literal.
The left hemisphere can use similes and understand that a man is like a tiger, but it takes the right hemisphere to know that a man is a tiger, has metaphorically embodied the tiger and assumed its form, say in the manner of indigenous Americans. Poetically, there is a difference between being a tiger and being like a tiger. The left will have none of this. The response to hearing ‘he was a tiger’ would either result in ‘no he isn’t, he’s a human’ or ‘someone must be talking about a male tiger’. The nuance would be lost.
At the risk of further digression, this is why a poem can’t be dissected for meaning—this despite so many valiant attempts by high school teachers and undergraduate professors. Dissecting a living poem is like dissecting a living animal. You might learn something, but at the risk of devitalisation—you’ve killed the subject. It’s like having to explain a joke. If you have to explain it, it didn’t work. You can’t explain a work of art or a piece of music. The best you can do is to describe it. Although we’re likely familiar with the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, a thousand words is not enough to do more than summarise a picture. This sentiment is captured by Oscar Wilde when he wrote, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” Education is a left-brain function, that can be stuffed like a sausage, but no amount of education can make someone feel a work of art, music, or poetry. This can only be experienced and is apart from language.
A Tree is not a Tree
As already noted, schizophrenics are hyperrational. They are devoid of the empathy and intuition afforded by the right hemisphere. So, they fail to connect the parts to a constructed whole. They presume that a whole is constructed of parts. This is the mistake of Dr Frankenstein, that he could construct a man from parts, but all he could manage is to construct a monster.
In the experienced world, there are only whole objects as experienced by the right hemisphere. As humans, we break them down for easier storage and retrieval, but this is like lossy compression if I can risk losing some in technical lingo.
But a tree is not built from parts. It’s just a tree. We can articulate that a tree has a trunk and roots and branches and leaves and seeds and blooms, but it’s just a tree. The rest we impose on it with artificially constructed symbol language. This is what post-modern painter Rene Magritte was communicating with the “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” inscription in his work The Treachery of Images—This is not a pipe. He was not being cute or edgy or trying to be clever. He was making the point that the symbol is not the object.
In the manner that the image is not the pipe, it’s been said that to document a system is to make an inferior copy. The documented system is less optimal. This may feel counterintuitive. In fact, you may even argue that a documented system allows subsequent process participants to plug into the system to allow it to continue to operate into perpetuity. Whilst this is true, it comes at a cost. I’ll leave this here for you to ponder. The right hemisphere understands the difference. The document is not the process.
Getting Down to Business
If you’ve been following along, you may have already noticed that the left hemisphere looks and sounds a lot like the business world. Everything is systematised, structured, and ordered. We have all sorts of symbols and jargon, processes, and procedures. Everything is literal. There is no room for metaphor. There is no room for empathy. HR instructs that there be empathy, but they might as well instruct everyone to speak Basque or Hopi. In fact, it’s worse because at least Basque and Hopi can be learnt.
Sadly, this leftward shift isn’t limited to the world of commerce. It’s affected science, politics, and entire cultures. It’s caused these entities to abandon all that isn’t rational as irrational. But empathy and intuition are irrational. Science says if you can’t measure it and reproduce it, it’s not worth noting, but science is not the arbiter of the non-scientific realm. Business takes a similar position.
Politics of the Left (Hemisphere)
And politics creates categories: left and right, red and blue, black and white, men and women, gay and straight, and this and that. All of this is all left-hemisphere debate.
Categories and names are exclusive provinces of the left hemisphere. If you are hung up on an ideology, whether Democracy, Republicanism, Marxism, or Anarchism, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you defend your positions with logic and words, you’re stuck in your left hemisphere. If you can’t imagine an alternative, you are really stuck in the left. I’ll stop here.
Science and Scientism
How did we get here and come to this? Science was receptive to right hemisphere influence up until about the 1970s. That’s where Scientism began to take hold. Scientism is when faith in science becomes a religion. I feel that many scientists today are less likely to hold a belief in Scientism as a religious belief. Paradoxically, I think this is more apt to be a faith held by non-scientists. Unfortunately, this faith is exploited by politics as exemplified by the recent trust in science campaign perpetrated by politicians, which is to say non-scientists with their own agenda, whether they practised Scientism or not.
The problem is that the left hemisphere has an outsized ego. It thinks it’s always right. In practice, it’s right about half the time. Because of its reliance on stored data and a ‘belief’ that it doesn’t need to fresh its data until it’s effectively overwhelmed and acquiesced. It fails to give enough weight to the experienced world, so that it shifts belief further and further left, which is to say further from reality as it is.
It trusts the symbol of the tree more than the tree itself. We may all be familiar with stories of cars driving down train tracks and off cliffs because the SAT-NAV user put more faith in their device than the world outside. This is the risk companies face as well, choosing to believe that the documented process is superior to the system in and of itself.
Getting on About?
You may be wondering what inspired me to write this and where I get my information. My realisation started in chapter 9 of The Matter with Things and was reinforced by this video interview by its author, Iain McGilchrist.
Actually, it started even before this with The Corporation, a Canadian documentary and companion book released in 2003. One of the points of The Corporation is to articulate the parallels between corporate behaviour relative to the definition of psychopathy as presented in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, henceforth DSM. Per Wikipedia, the DSM ‘is a publication by the American Psychiatric Association for the classification of mental disorders using a common language and standard criteria and is the main book for the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders in the United States and is considered one of the “Bibles” of psychiatry’. Essentially, corporations ticked all the boxes.
Methodologically, this assertion is a bit weak, but it is at least sometimes entirely valid despite provoking an emotional trigger reaction. Nonetheless, this established corporations as pathological entities. But that is not my focus here. It simply tilled the soil for me to be more receptive to this topic. This topic is less about the legal fiction that is a corporation and more about the people embodied in it. From the height of the C-suite to the workaday staff, floor workers, warehouse workers, and the mailroom. Do they still have mailrooms? I digress.
I can’t claim to know what it is to be schizophrenic or schizoaffective, but I’ve known enough people who have these diagnoses. My brother was one of those. Although I use these and other labels, I am not a fan of labels, generally, especially psychological labels, specifically this label. Autism is another nonsensical label. Both fall into the realm of medical syndromes, which for the uninitiated is the equivalent of your kitchen junk drawer. It’s equivalent to the other choice when all others fail. I don’t want to go off on a tangent from the start, so I’ll leave it that these categories are overly broad and reflect intellectual laziness. There is no single schizophrenia or autism. There are many, but the distinction is lost in the category. The push to create an autism spectrum for DSM obscures the problem, but it helps for insurance purposes. As the saying goes, follow the money and you can gain clues to the driving force behind why this happened. I suppose you can also label me a conspiracy theorist. If I learned one thing in my undergrad Sociology classes, it’s to eschew labels.
Given the length of this segment, I am not going to summarise it here, save to say that this leftward shift in business and culture doesn’t have a good outlook. We are not only being replaced by machines, but we are also forced into becoming machines, and we aren’t even questioning it. All we need to do is to become more analytic, right?
What I suggest is to watch the six-minute video of Dr Iain McGilchrist discussing this topic, and if you really want a deep dive, read The Matter with Things, an almost three-thousand-page tome, to fill in the details.
Here’s a music analogy to help to express why the whole is more important than the sum of the parts. If I want to learn to play a new piece, I will listen to the piece first. Depending on the length and genre, I may have to listen many times. In some cases, once or twice is enough, but let’s say this is at least somewhat complex and not some repetitive three-chord pop song. I’ll probably break the song into pieces or movements—verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever—, and then, I’ll learn each note and each pattern of notes, perhaps as musical phrases. Once I figure out the verse, I might either learn how the next verse differs or move on to the chorus and defer that verse-to-verse step. I’ll rinse and repeat until I’ve got through each of the sections. If I’ve had the luxury of hearing the piece, I’m at an advantage as far as tone, timbre, and dynamics are concerned; otherwise, I’d better hope these are all documented and that I interpret them in the manner they were intended. If the audience is familiar with a tune, they’ll notice the difference.
When I am practising, I need to get the mechanics down pat. All of what I’ve described thus far is left-hemisphere fare. It’s translating the symbolic representation of notes—like letters and words in writing—into an utterance. In this case, it’s a musical utterance. But once I am ready to perform the piece, it needs to be performed through the right hemisphere or it will feel mechanical and stilted.
I used to earn my living as an audio recording engineer and producer. Most of the time I was working with unknown artists recording demo records and trying to get a record deal. For the uninitiated, that usually translated into not having a large recording budget. Occasionally, we want, say string parts—violins, viola, cello, or whatever—but we couldn’t afford union players. We’d hire music students from USC or UCLA. These players would be more than willing to play for cheap in exchange for something to add to their portfolios or experience chops.
Somebody would transcribe the musical notation, and we’d give it to the string player. Of course, it could be a keyboard or wind or reed part, but I’ll stick to strings. Part of music is the vibe. This is something that can’t be captured in symbols. Revisiting Scientism and the left-hemisphere analogy, vibes can’t be real because they can’t be notated.
Almost invariably, if we got someone with Classical training, they could not get the vibe. The music was right in front of them. We’d play it for them on piano, maybe on a synthesiser, but they couldn’t get it—even if they were playing along to a reference track just trying to double the synth part. They would hit every note for the specified duration and dynamic, but it might have as well been the equivalence of a player piano or music box. We could have played it on a synthesiser, but we might be seeking the nuance a real instrument would bring.
We never had the luxury of auditioning players or recording several players and grabbing the best parts. That’s for the bigger-budget artists who go through a half-dozen or more performers to get just the right one. When we got lucky, it was usually because we got someone from the jazz program. These cats seem to have a natural feel for vibe inaccessible to the classical performers.
In business, the classical performer is good enough, but for art, it wasn’t. Business might appreciate the difference if it happens to get it, but it won’t seek it, and it won’t pay for it. A pet peeve of mine is a quip in business I heard often—don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. This is obviously a left-hemisphere sentiment based on Voltaire’s statement. Besides, even from a left hemisphere perspective, reciting, “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good” doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least strive for good enough because I noticed that mark was missed often enough, too.
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.
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”?
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Continuing with a quick post based on observations in The Master and the Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, another example of hemispheral specialisation is illustrated in the image below.
A typical person will envisage this large S composited with smaller Ss (that could be replaced with any symbols, so there is nothing special about the S comprised of Ss) as represented by the centre image of the rendition of the bilateral interpretations.
Where there is left hemisphere damage, the right would envisage something more like the S on the right—seeing the big picture but losing detail. Where there is right hemisphere damage, the left would perceive something more like the S on the left, which is the detail of the composite Ss without recognising that they composed a bigger picture. This is conveyed in the aphorism of losing the woods for the trees whilst the former right hemisphere dominant view might not realise that the forest has trees.
But even this misses the point slightly because if you are viewing this as a typical person, you can assemble the Ss on the left and realise that it makes a larger S whereas a person with right hemisphere damage will just see a mass of Ss and not see the larger S shape. Moreover, it’s not that the right hemisphere wouldn’t ‘see’ the smaller composite Ss, it just wouldn’t put any significance on them, thus ignoring them and considering them to be background noise.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.