As humans, we often leverage systems. They seem to make life easier. Whether a routine or a step-by-step instruction through an unknown process, a system can guide us. Systems are also connected, interactive entities, but that’s not for this segment. I am more interested in the loss of humanity that systematic processes and bureaucracy bring, so I am interested in imposed systems rather than systems we invent to find our keys and wallets.
If we consider systematisation and humanity on a scale, we can see that any move toward systematisation comes at the expense of humanity. It might make logical sense to make this trade-off to some degree or another. The biggest hit to humanity is the one-size-fits-all approach to a problem. It removes autonomy or human agency from the equation. If a system can be that mechanised, then automate it. Don’t assign a human to do it. This is an act of violence.
As I’ve been reading and writing a lot about Iain McGilchrist’s work lately, I feel one can easily map this to left versus right cerebral hemisphere dominance. System-building is inherently human, but it’s in the domain of the left hemisphere. But my imposition of a system on another is violence—one might even argue that it’s immoral.
As with bureaucracy, these imposed systems are Procrustean beds. Everyone will fit, no matter what. And when human beings need to interact with systems, we can not only feel the lack of humanity, but our own humanity suffers at the same time.
A close friend of mine recently checked herself into a mental health facility. After a few days, she called and asked if I could bring her a change of clothes and some toiletries—deodorant, soap, and shampoo. She had some in her house, but the packaging needed to be unopened and factory sealed. I stopped at a shop to buy these items and I brought them to the facility.
At the reception area, I needed to be cross-referenced as an authorised visitor, so I was asked to show proof of my identity as if it mattered who was delivering clothing that was going to be checked anyway. No big deal, they recorded my licence number on a form and ask me to fill it out—name, phone number, and what I was delivering.
The form stated that any open consumable items would not be allowed. I signed the form. An attendant took the bag and told me that I needed to remove the ‘chemicals’, that they would not be delivered. I pointed to the lines on the form that read that this restriction was for open items and reinforced that I had just purchased these and showed her the sales receipt. She told me that the patient would need to obtain a doctor’s permission, and she assured me that the patients all had soap.
I’m sure she thought she was being compassionate and assertive. I experienced it as patronising. Me being me, I chided her lack of compassion and humanity, not a great match for a mental health attendant. In fact, it reminded me of a recent post I wrote on Warmth. In it, I suggested that service staff should at least fake conviviality. I take that back. Faux congeniality is patronising. She mimicked me. “Yes, systems are so inhumane, but here we follow a system.” My first thought was of Adolf Eichmann, who kept the trains on schedule without a care for the cargo. This is the violence inherent in systems.
Systems are not illogical. In fact, they are hyper-logical. And that’s the problem, logic is traded off at the expense of empathy. And one might have a strong argument for some accounting or financial system process, but I’ll retort that this should be automated. A human should not have to endure such pettiness.
I can tell that this will devolve quickly into a rant and so I’ll take my leave and not foist this violence upon you.
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 book arrives as two volumes split into three sections. Part one is the foundation the rest of the book builds on. I’ve recently finished it and summarised each chapter, but I feel a high-level chapter orientation would be in order. Part one contains nine chapters:
As this book is a follow-up to The Master and His Emissary, published in 2008, Iain has already laid much of the foundation for it. Moreover, he doesn’t assume that you’ve already read The Master and His Emissary, and the work leading up to it, so this is what he outlines here as he drops hints of what’s to come in the chapters ahead.
This chapter reminds us that we cannot perceive what we don’t attend to, to pay attention to. The world outside just is, and we can attend to this or to that. From there, our perception will develop, perhaps, in turn, drawing out attention elsewhere.
As is a thread throughout, Iain uses various mental illnesses and split cerebral hemispheres to make his points. In this case, he tells us how neuro-atypical people have attention challenges, whether attending to the ‘wrong’ or otherwise inappropriate things or attending to too many things at once, flittering from this to that to the next thing without pause or resolution.
This chapter articulates how we perceive after attention has been focused. Perception is based on prior experience and knowledge combines with new sensory inputs.
Following the trend of people with hemisphere disturbances, Iain reminds us that people coming from different experiential places will perceive the same scenario differently. And if they are attending to the ‘wrong’ stimulus, their perception may be limited to that context, even if that micro-focused scope is otherwise correct.
For some reason, Iain uses the American English spelling of Judgment, which in this case happens to be my preferred rendition, though my spell-checker disagrees.
In this chapter, we move from attention and perception to now being able to make judgements in this space. Of course, if we’ve attended to the ‘wrong’ thing leading to a variant perception, our judgment may be similarly out of order. Following the American trend, let’s say I am watching a baseball match, and the umpire calls a ball thrown out of the strike zone as a strike. If instead, my attention was distracted to another person in the stands picking his nose, my perception of the strike situation would be peripheral at best, and I would be in no place to make a judgment—about the pitch in any case. I may likely have plenty of judgment about the nose-picker.
In a nutshell, judgment is a left hemisphere function. The right hemisphere simply doesn’t care to judge. It’s a dispassionate observer taking in all without even categorising, let alone judging.
In this chapter, Iain explains that he is employing the term apprehension classically to mean to grasp or hold onto. This is a left hemisphere function as well. The right hemisphere is not grasping. Deficits in the right hemisphere don’t allow one to view the world in context as a whole. The left hemisphere will just see things are disconnected parts, so whilst we might grasp and apprehend, our comprehension is deficient. Without a robust big picture, we may just grasp at things indiscriminately.
Emotional and social intelligence
This chapter and the next are about intelligences. As the name suggests, this chapter is concerned with emotional and social intelligence. For me, I think of the Raymond character in Rain Man, itself the result of a misperception of the name Raymond for the phrase ‘Rain Man”. Raymond is devoid of emotional and social intelligence. He is limited to mechanistic cognitive intelligence and is a fine example of what one looks like without the other.
This chapter reminds us that the right hemisphere not only constructs our sense of self, but it also facilitates the construction of other selves, which allows us to empathise with others. It also allows us to assess intent. It allows us to see the value of the whole of society. Of which we are parts rather than thinking that we are simply parts that make up the whole. This is an important distinction. This is what happens with the ego of the left hemisphere denies the Gestalt of the right.
This second chapter on intelligence focuses on the cognitive variety. It’s what we think of when we consider IQ scores and such. It’s the reasoning part of the brain. It’s about rote learning and reciting trivia and perceived facts as re-presented by the left hemisphere.
In this chapter on creativity, we are told that this is a right hemisphere function. To be creative, the best advice to keep the left hemisphere from engaging and interrupting. Creativity comes to us holistically. It is not the result of a process. It is an absence of process. Thinking and analysis are the antitheses of creativity. This is a case where less definitely is more.
What schizophrenia and autism can tell us
Each of the chapters touches on aspects of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses and situations where the hemispheres get disconnected or out of whack. In this chapter, Iain drives the point home with a focus on these cases and what it can tell us about these neuro-atypical conditions.
People assume that schizophrenics and autism spectrum people are irrational, but this is precisely incorrect. In fact, it’s the opposite. These people are hyper-rational at the expense of empathy and social intelligence. It’s not a surprise that we are seeing more schizophrenics these days. Neither is it a surprise that we see a modern society that more and more resembles schizophrenia. But I digress.
This was only meant to give a high-level vantage to connect the chapters of part one of The Matter with Things. I give more comprehensive summaries on my blog. This will give you more of an idea, but my recommendation is to read the book itself as well as The Master and His Emissary which I recommend reading first. Don’t be like me.
Given the number of posts related to Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things, I created a content index followed by a PDF copy of the table of contents for no reason in particular. I hope this doesn’t infringe on any copyrights.
In the last chapters, the topics were about different intelligences. As we’ll see, intelligence is one of the factors for creativity, but there are more. Let’s crack on.
Creativity is an elusive phenomenon that cannot only not be summoned at will, the very act of trying inhibits it. Unlike left-hemisphere-oriented intelligence, there are no simple tests for creativity because of their very nature. Assessing the left-hemisphere is relatively simple because it is systematic and any tests have definite known solutions—whether calculating some figure, solving a puzzle, choosing analogies, or recounting some trivia. There is no such test for creating something not yet created, but there are some proxies that most people categorically fail.
Psychologist, Colin Martindale, had this to say about the personal characteristics of creativity
“Creativity is a rare trait. This is presumably because it requires the simultaneous presence of a number of traits (e.g., intelligence, perseverance, unconventionality, the ability to think in a particular manner). None of these traits is especially rare. What is quite uncommon is to find them all present in the same person.”
— Colin Martindale
Whereas the left hemisphere is analytical, the right hemisphere (hence creativity) is a Gestalt. When given a difficult time-boxed challenge, the left hemisphere dominant individual who does not arrive at the expected response on time will commit to and defend an incorrect response (think escalating commitment), and the right hemisphere dominant individual will simply not commit to a response under the thought that there were still options to be explored.
Effectively, creativity can be broken down into three phases: preparation, incubation, and illumination.
Preparation is simply the accumulation of a particular domain of knowledge. For an artist, it will be to understand, perhaps, colour, shape, texture, form, shadow, media, or so forth; for a musician, it might be to understand melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, dynamics, and so on; for a mathematician, it might be basic arithmetic, theories, proofs, and on and on. It’s also important to note that accumulated information in multiple domains also forms a foundation leveraged by many polymaths.
Incubation is simply waiting for something to grow in the prepared garden. Incubation is an unconscious activity and cannot be controlled or accessed by the conscious mind. In fact, conscious effort and introspection will serve only to impede cultivation. Digging up planted seeds to see how they are growing will only hinder the process.
Illumination is the final phase. Again, this is unwilled. Prepared and incubated flowers bloom. Of course, this is an imperfect metaphor because the ground must already have been fertile at the start. Tossing seeds on fallow ground still yields no blooms no matter how carefully attended.
In essence, for the creative individual, the best we can do is to leave well enough alone. Anything but space and permission will kill the creative impulse.
McGilchrist discusses generative, permissive, and translational requirements.
“The key element in generation seems to be the ability to think of many diverse ideas quickly, demanding breadth, flexibility and analogical thinking – seeing likeness within apparent dissimilarity.” This can be summed up as divergent thinking. This is the openness afforded by the right hemisphere as opposed to the convergent behaviour of the left. As it happens, this is where artificial intelligence falls flat as it is predicated on convergent activity.
The right hemisphere Gestalten surveys the environment and notes otherwise unperceived parallels. It is not a systematic approach. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
Schopenhauer sums it up nicely, “Talent hits a target no-one else can hit; genius hits a target no-one else can see”.
Citing Isaac Asimov writing about Darwin’s insight, he notes that before Darwin, many people had read Malthus and studied species, but they lacked the creative spark that Darwin had.
Steve Jobs noted that
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things … A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
— Steve Jobs
This is a failing of the business world and of specialisation more generally. McGilchrist writes, “Linear approaches and analytic thinking, characteristic of the left hemisphere, are fine in the right context, and may at a subsequent phase take part in creativity by narrowing things down and eliminating some of them, but on their own will not achieve creativity”.
There is a direct link between intelligence and creativity. Ego crushes creativity.
He again cites Asimov:
“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it …The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.”
— Isaac Asimov
Some people excel at maths, but many are systematic and procedural left-hemisphere types; they apply logic and reason—insert tab A into slot B. The famous mathematicians understand the procedures, but their ideas come from intuition rather than reason. The left hemisphere doesn’t recognise this as a viable vector, and therein lies the rub. “Math is not about following directions; it’s about making new directions,” writes mathematician Paul Lockhart.
This is why we hear so many accounts of aha moments, something coming to one person in a dream or Isaac Newton’s falling apple anecdote.
Einstein told Max Wertheimer, founder of Gestalt psychology, “These thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward”. Words are a left-hemisphere phenomenon.
Many accomplished musicians hear a piece whole. All they need to do is to compose it to staff paper or perform it. We hear this regularly: “I was driving from here to there and it just came to me. All I needed to do is to remember it long enough to get it down.”
I found McGilchrist’s inclusion of hemispheric damage quite interesting. He provides many examples of artists, composers, and poets, but I’ll only summarise them. For musicians and Artists with right hemisphere damage, those who even retained the urge to create did so at a lower quality level. However, those with left hemisphere damage operated at the same level and oftentimes at a higher level, without the inhibition and censorship of the left hemisphere.
It’s important to note that most people rely on both hemispheres. When I write left hemisphere dominant, I mean to say that either the right hemisphere simply underperforms or that the left hemisphere does not cede control back to the right hemisphere. Generally speaking, both hemispheres experience the world, and a strong right hemisphere will act as air traffic controller, or perhaps have the right of first refusal, but this is a loose metaphor because sometimes the left hemisphere just fields an experience and takes its best guess how to handle it even if it should have been fielded by the right hemisphere and even if the left hemisphere provides the wrong answer. The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of the ego and identity, so it is somewhat relentless and defensive even when it is wrong.
As a side note, I trust that political identity and escalating commitment are left-hemisphere activities and why modern Western politics feel so intractable.
After a strong argument for right hemisphere dominance and divergent thinking being hallmarks of creativity, he offers some counter-evidence and counters some of it.
A paper by Arne Dietrich and Riam Kanso co-authored a book citing instances of convergent thought processes that led to something innovative or creative. At the onset, McGilchrist calls them out for conflating problem-solving with creativity. In the end, the left hemisphere does play a role. He calls this the translational phase. Essentially, this is Mozart having heard his symphony and needing to put his thoughts to paper. Or the poet.
He goes off on a bit of a tangent noting how words pale concepts, and divergence and convergence are no exception. This fits in with my own insufficiency of language theory, but McGilchrist and I have different rationales for our arguments, so I’ll not side-track this summary.
He cites some statistics correlating creativity with mental health disorders and incidences of suicide. This will set the reader up perfectly for the next chapter about schizophrenia and autism.
In summary, creativity has got me riled up more than in the previous chapters. This is partially due to how it comports with my own observations. I have always felt that humans are not very creative or innovative despite protests to the contrary. In fact, I’ve often commented when I’ve heard people say something like “artificial intelligence will never create the next…” Fill in the blank: Mozart, Picasso, Michelangelo, Nabokov, Wordsworth. Or Einstein. Of course, neither will a human be the next of these.
All these people are right cerebral hemisphere dominant. AI operates systematically, in the manner of the left hemisphere. None of these people built up systematically. Instead, their ideas were wholly formed, and their creations were reductive rather than additive. Famously, Michelangelo was to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” He sees the solution first and then builds towards it.
In my professional life, I have been a strategist as a management consultant as well as a business analyst. In each case, I could quickly assess a situation and then spend weeks or months defending my intuition with words, diagrams, and numbers.
As a business analyst, I would offer a recommendation, and this would need to come with an estimate to deliver the recommendation. This figure would come to me in a matter of minutes. Then, per protocol, I would need to enter micro-level details into a pricing model so it could calculate from the ground up. First, this was time-consuming. Second, this would be circulated for review where different people would (almost invariably) reduce the number of hours estimated, typically due to pressure to reduce the cost. Ultimately, a number would be output and tendered to the client or the person footing the bill. Again (almost invariably), the number initially intuited was more accurate and reflective of what was ultimately invoiced. Unfortunately, business is a left-hemisphere endeavour, and that will be its Achilles’ heel and denouement.
This wraps up the chapter on Creativity. The next chapter is “what schizophrenia and autism can tell us”, and is the end of part one of The Matter with Things.
What are your thoughts and experiences with creativity now that you’ve heard McGilchrist’s take?
Cubism reminds us that we don’t see the world as it is. We see pieces, and we fill in the gaps. From the front, we can’t see the back. From the top, we can’t see the bottom.
The illusion that, if we can see something clearly, we see it as it really is, is hugely seductive. John Ruskin makes the point that clarity is bought at the price of limitation. He paints a scenario wherein we are asked to imagine viewing an open book and an embroidered handkerchief on a lawn. From a quarter mile away, the two are indistinguishable. Moving closer, we can see which is which, but we can neither read the book nor trace the embroidery. Closer still, we can read the text and trace the embroidery, but we can’t see the fibres of the paper or the threads of the kerchief. And we can’t simultaneously focus on both and see detail in each. Focusing on the book, we can look closer and see the watermark, the hills and dales in the paper’s surface. With a microscope, we can see more still, as infinitum.
But at which point do we see it clearly?
I’ve created a YouTube short. I have to admit that I dislike the format. Sixty seconds isn’t really enough time to convey a concept. There’s too much missing context, and no time to elaborate. Nonetheless, I was reading The Master and His Emissary and wanted to share a point. I don’t feel I succeeded. I posted it anyway, and here it is.
Following Emotional and Social Intelligence and the rest, Chapter 7 of The Matter with Things is Cognitive Intelligence.
In the last chapter, we learned that Emotional and Social Intelligence are the provinces of the right hemisphere. In this chapter, we discover more of the same. Whilst the left hemisphere has its duties and functions, it’s primarily a delegate. Let’s jump right in.
Under the old pseudoscientific mode of thinking, the left hemisphere was the logical side whilst the right hemisphere was creative. It turns out that this is not correct. At its core, intelligence is about understanding. Keep in mind that there are multiple kinds of intelligence—not referring to multiple intelligence theory, per se. Besides the emotional and social sort discussed at length in the last chapter, there is a sort of rote intelligence. This is where the left hemisphere excels. The left hemisphere is symbolic and algorithmic. It has facilitated the making of computers and other instruments that allow us to extend our intelligence, but these are not sources of intelligence. In a conceit to his previous book, The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist notes that the left brain is effectively the emissary, the junior partner in the relationship, and not really even a partner as the right hemisphere seems to call all the shots when it’s intact.
He tells a story about a geneticist who declared to a biologist that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless. The biologist retorted that he (the geneticist) was unintelligent, and the two never spoke again. Clearly, the notion is that whilst it may be ill-defined, it nonetheless contains meaning.
I share the working definition of intelligence that he shared, taken from the journal Intelligence and cited in the Wall Street Journal in 1994.
Intelligence is a very general mental capacity which, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.
As noted, there are several flavours of intelligence, even if they are attempted to be captured as G, general intelligence. This can be separated into crystallised intelligence (Gc) and fluid intelligence (Gf). Crystallised intelligence is more culturally bound than fluid intelligence and is more the domain of the left hemisphere. Generally, this is what IQ tests aim to measure.
Two criticisms of IQ tests are the cultural bias and the rote nature of the tests. As it happens, trends show that IQ is generally on the rise despite a feeling that people are getting dimmer. This may be because this rise represents the shift toward left hemisphere thinking, an alarming topic he’ll cover more in future chapters. We’re witnessing a trade-off between creative thinkers for intelligent rote automatons—the type of people more easily supplanted by computers and automation. Even as IQs are apparently increasing, undergraduate professors are complaining in higher numbers about how unprepared their incoming students are. I can add my experience anecdotally to this list. I recall chatting with a physics professor who complained that he had to devote some 20 per cent of his class time to teach students the same prerequisite maths, which meant that he had to cut this from his intended time to teach physics.
As a student, one of my physics teachers said he wouldn’t demerit much for maths errors because this was, after all, a physics course. Again, this was a reaction to many students not being prepared. They just had different approaches to handling the deficits. And don’t get me started on grade inflation.
The right hemisphere is the realm of fluid intelligence and is activated more in gifted persons. This affords creative problem-solving.
Let me editorialise here in place. Sometimes we hear that this or that person is good at maths, but it turns out that this is not a simple declaration. A person who studies geometry, trigonometry, and calculus and can perform the functions may simply perform all of this rote activity in the left hemisphere. Because someone can do maths a few levels above us may feel like this person is good at maths, but this may not make this person actually good at maths.
A few years ago, I read the introduction to a book whose title I’ve long forgotten. In this introduction, the author had excelled at left hemisphere maths and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. Whilst pondering whether to pursue a PhD, in a moment of self-reflection, he decided not to. He was an A student and the pride of his family, but he had to work hard at maths. Then he considered some of the other classmates who seemed to perform the tasks effortlessly. He could do maths, but they could think maths.
This reminds me of the story of a young Carl Gauss whilst he was still in elementary school. Don’t worry. I’ll get back to the summary presently. Gauss’ teacher was hoping to keep the students occupied, so he assigned them the task of summing the numbers 1 through 100.
Eight-year-old Gauss considered the problem. He noticed a pattern and worked out the answer in his head after a few seconds—5050. Gauss excelled at maths naturally. He noticed that pairing each ascending integer from 0 to 100 created values of 100; 1 and 99; 2 and 98, 3 and 97 … 49 and 51. There are 50 such groupings with a product of 5,000 and 50 left over, so 5,050. Easy Peezy.
And now we return to regularly scheduled programming.
Another interesting characteristic of the hemispheres is that the left hemisphere operates serially whilst the right hemisphere operates in parallel, metaphorically speaking, of course. The right hemisphere is the Gestalt operator, which is a problem as McGilchrist sees it given the leftward shift in the sciences, losing the woods for the trees. Moreover, as we are forced into the constraints of business and bureaucracies, we are forced into a left hemisphere perspective, which may create a vicious epigenetic cycle or a downward spiral.
In summary, the right hemisphere not only contributes to the majority of emotional and social intelligence as discussed in the last chapter, but it is also the workhorse of cognitive power.
Before ending, I want to share one more elucidation. I was reading elsewhere about critical thinking, and an example given was an emergency room nurse triaging patients—prioritising the treatment of patients. I wholly disagree. This is algorithmic thinking, not critical thinking. It could easily be done by a computer. In fact, in the late 1980s, I was working with so-called expert systems, which were the AI hype of the day in wave 3.0. We are now in wave 4.0 and it is still hype. Only nowadays it’s deep learning, machine learning, visual recognition, edge computing, and robotic process automation. The only difference is that technology has driven costs down, so they are more accessible to more people and can be run on more powerful computers. For the uninitiated, there is no intelligence in artificial intelligence. So, it’s less artificial and more non-existent.
Yet again, I am left wondering what this left hemisphere is good for. It seems to do less than 20 per cent of the work and does half of that poorly. Not exactly someone you’d pick for your team. Of course, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my left hemisphere, but still.
That about wraps up the chapter on Cognitive Intelligence. Next up is chapter eight on Creativity. If you think this will focus more on the right hemisphere, I’ll bet you’re right. I hope you’ll join me.
What are your thoughts on intelligence and the hemispheres’ split duties? Did anything surprise you? Was there anything of particular interest?
Chapter 6 of The Matter with Things is titled Emotional and Social Intelligence, following the previous chapters, Attention, Perception, Judgment, and Apprehension. Chapter 7 is about cognitive intelligence.
The gist of chapter 6 is to convey the importance of emotional and social intelligence in forming a full picture of the world. Absent these, reality becomes increasingly tenuous to retain a grip on because the left hemisphere just doesn’t have the emotional awareness to grasp the full picture.
At the start, this chapter reminds us that the right hemisphere not only constructs our sense of self, but it also facilitates the construction of other selves, which allows us to empathise with others. It also allows us to assess intent. And it goes deeper than this.
McGilchrist shares some anecdotes about schizophrenic patients with impaired right hemispheres who believe that nothing is real and that people are play-acting. In hospital, they perceive the ward to be a stage and the medical staff to be actors.
As if by a control knob, changes to the right hemisphere may create a diminished sense of reality as well as an intensified sense—of being hyperaware. This is not dissimilar to certain claims by some with heightened lucidity; however, the data do not permit a clear-cut conclusion. On a related note, the intensified sense may also increase emotional reactions, so one might be more prone to crying—whether tears of joy or sadness.
Abnormal electrical activity in the right hemisphere can heighten a sense of familiarity leading to a sense of déjà vu. A diminished sense has the contrary effect, reducing a sense of familiarity, leading to a sense of jamais vu, ‘never before seen’, Related to déjà vu, there have been cases of déjà vécu, ‘already experienced’ (rather than seen). Together, over 86% of these phenomena are associated with the right hemisphere.
Recall that each hemisphere controls the body contralaterally, so the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body—hands and arms, eyes, and so on. And it’s deeper than this. For example, being the arbiter of empathy, the left hand (being controlled by the right hemisphere) is used for empathetic touch. Beyond humans, bottleneck dolphins tend to stroke other dolphins with their left flippers.
This affects humans and other animals with a sort of left-eye empathy that even affects how babies are held or otherwise attended to, preferring the left side of the body over the right.
Theory of mind (ToM), a topic in its own right, is a right hemisphere-dominant capability that allows us to empathise with another or to put ourselves into another’s shoes. This ability extends to other species like elephants, apes and dogs, whales and dolphins, crows and magpies, and goats and seals.
The left hemisphere is good at understanding the what of actions, say picking up a cup or flicking a switch; it’s not so great at discerning the why. Recall in a previous chapter the case of the person with right hemisphere damage automatically picking up a pen or pencil but then not having anything particular in mind to write. The left hemisphere noticed the pen as a writing instrument and picked it up. Without the right hemisphere to provide the why, this person just kept accumulating writing implements.
This can be seen in children with autism. They recognise well enough that a person is doing something—performing some action—, but they just can’t understand why.
He tells us that “a huge body of evidence confirms that the right hemisphere is much superior to the left in receiving, interpreting, recalling or understanding anything that involves emotion.”
I’ll just share one example, and McGilchrist provides common responses from persons with both hemispheres intact as well as responses with right hemisphere deficits. For image b, a ‘normal’ response is for the respondent to fill in the boy’s talk bubble with ‘Boy, she’s cute.’ A couple of right hemisphere deficit responses were ‘I wonder how big her allowance is’ and ‘Let’s arm-wrestle’, obviously missing context.
The right hemisphere is responsible for understanding emotion, irony, jokes and humour—and the ability to tell the difference between jokes and lies. When told a joke and given an opportunity to fill in the punchline, the language of right hemisphere deficit patients ‘is often excessive and rambling; their comments are often off-colour and their humour is frequently inappropriate; they tend to focus on insignificant details or make tangential remarks’. Moreover, when asked to reconvey a story, the right hemisphere deficit people produced an ‘abundance of embellishments’ to it.
Other right hemisphere functions are the ability to grasp the semantic nuance and intonation of a speaker. One subject with right hemisphere resection asked, ‘How do you feel?’ He responded, ‘With my hands,’ but he wasn’t joking.
People who have undergone a right hemispherectomy demonstrate a ‘shallow affect, rigidity, [and] lack of imagination’. The left hemisphere seems to prefer denotative speech whilst the right prefers connotative, hence a broader set of possible meanings. Interestingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly, clichés are the domain of the left hemisphere. Poetry and music reside on the right.
Wrapping up this chapter, the right hemisphere tends to serve as the emotional centre, save for anger, which is a left hemisphere activity.
In summary, the left brain is very focused. Damage to the right hemisphere mimics the responses of autistic and schizophrenic individuals who interpret inputs differently and without nuance. This nuance often contains emotional or empathetic content that is lost on this cohort.
I am left wondering if schizophrenia and autism are right hemisphere problems, as it were, or if I would be reading into things to arrive at this conclusion.
Having completed Emotional and Social Intelligence next up is a chapter on Cognitive Intelligence. I hope you’ll join me.
What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Were there any surprises? Anything of particular interest?
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.
First, accept my heartfelt apology in advance for employing the word preciseness over precision. I was seeking a term closer to lightness, a conceit to the Unbearable Lightness of Being.
It appears that I am at odds with Iain McGilchrist if I am interpreting The Master and His Emissary correctly, His position is that verbal and written language is too precise for accurate communication. Gestures and facial queues are necessary to convey the entire payload; otherwise, it is easy to miss nuances in empathy and metaphor. Missing most are signals conveyed by the eyes, which are interpreted by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere is more concerned with the mouth.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, the position I’ve asserted for years is that of the insufficiency of language. As diametric as this might seem at face value, I feel that it’s both, and it depends on the words and the contexts, though it feels that we are in disagreement here as well.
It’s long been said that the eyes are the window to the soul, and these people were onto something. The eyes convey emotional content to be interpreted by the right hemisphere. This hemisphere is all about seeing the big picture as well as metaphor.
The left hemisphere is more concerned with maps and symbols, so it is looking at the mouth and lips for minute details.
People with right hemisphere deficits can’t decode meta information conveyed by the eyes. Practically, this means that they can’t interpret metaphor, innuendo, sarcasm or humour. This is also the case for schizophrenics and people further right on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s syndrome. I don’t know if the connexion between these psychological conditions and right hemisphere effects is due to a deficient right hemisphere or something related to the communication channel between the hemispheres. This has not yet been mentioned.
I also find it interesting that this deficit creates a situation where a sufferer can’t discern a joke from a lie, which is telling. In a manner of thinking, a joke is a bit of an untruth or stretching a fact or omitting some details to make a point, so without the larger context that this is the purpose of the joke, it might easily be interpreted as a lie.
All of this is interesting, but these are not the insufficiencies I am concerned with. In these cases, these deficits inhibit the receipt of relevant information. My contention involves the majority of people—the ones we term as ‘normal’.
One of my pet peeves is weasel words. Justice is a big one among these. I wonder if he feels that the Gestalt of the right hemisphere is what I am missing. This is the pornography the US Supreme Court judge, Potter Stewart, who says he can’t define it, but he’ll know it when he sees it. I say that this imprecision is meant to allow for arbitrary and capricious application on a whim or to meat some ulterior motive. This is decidedly not a problem of over-precision, and this is where I hold issue. Can it be too precise, too sharp to a point it needs the edges rounded? Yes. I can see that as well.
I feel that missing non-verbal cues is a massive challenge for videoconference calls—even when the audience is one-to-one. First, the resolution needs to be high enough to see the eyes and face, so the person needs to be in frame and not one of several people barely discernible, presume, of course, that they are showing themselves on camera at the start.
Assuming that the resolution and lighting are appropriate and the person’s face is framed in a manner to reveal their eyes and mouth, gesticulation and body language are likely missing, so we are missing more non-verbal cues. I’ll also assume that we can discern aspects of prosody which as timbre, pitch, and intonation.
Add to this a videoconference with multiple participants. Sure, you might be able to see all of the faces, but there is still something missing from these thumbnail views. In some cases, I’ve seen long shots, say, in a conference room, but the detail is notably lacking. No nuance here.
Can we adapt to this situation? Yes, Of course. Should you meet in person where it’s possible and importance is of the utmost? Of course. You’d be a tone-deaf fool not to.
The last point I’d like to make about language being too precise is that for an erudite person like McGilchrist, it just might be, but most people don’t have large vocabularies and have barely adequate grammatical skills. They are hardly at risk of precision. An apt analogy might be to liken them to three-year-olds with crayons—no offence to three-year-olds with crayons. Plenty of people are a step or two above functional illiteracy, but that’s not saying much. To these people, language is less of a sword than it is a blunt instrument, a proverbial bag of bowling balls.
Voltaire once quipped that he’d have written a shorter letter if he had the time, noting the effort necessary for concision. The problem with trying to encode a message not conveyable by body language into a document is that its word count might need to double or treble, which I argue would at the same time reduce interest and comprehension, opening room to misinterpret the intent—all because missing non-verbal queues were lost.
In the end, I am doubling down on my position. Language is insufficient for all but the simplest and basic communication, and it is not too precise. The word McGilchrist is looking for is blunt.