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.
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.
One key aspect of left and right hemisphere differences is the notion of identification versus naming and categorisation. I tend to view the right hemisphere as rather Zen. It just sees things as they are without particular care, judgment, or attachment.
I composited a quick illustration to convey the difference. Starting with the right hemisphere, the object is recognised in a global context. Whilst it can be distinguished from a blue thing or a square thing, this is done by holistically surveying the world. The difference is perceived but rather without reflection on memory.
Generally speaking, both hemispheres ‘see’ the object, but where the right hemisphere is interested in the object as presented, the left hemisphere is interested in re-presentation. Where the right hemisphere is about being open to the experience itself, the left closes.
From an evolutionary vantage, the right hemisphere is interested in surveying the world at large and being alert to potential danger or survival queues, perhaps a food source. If the right hemisphere is triggered, the left hemisphere jumps in. This said, the left hemisphere is tightly focused, so if something does alert it—remembering that it is not switched off awaiting the right brain to activate it—, it will respond more quickly than the right hemisphere, though as I’ve noted previously, accuracy is not it’s forte, as the right hemisphere may have to convey that the snake that startled you was, in fact, a garden hose.
The left hemisphere is where categorisation and naming take place. Moreover, it stores the object for later retrieval, creating a map. If a subsequent observation is made, it is compared and contrasted relative to the map. After enough observations are made, the left brain isn’t so interested in observing the external world. It perceives a circle-y shape or perhaps an orangy colour and is convinced (metaphorically) that its cached version is satisfactory.
There is a book named Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. I don’t want to comment on the book in depth, save to say that the author’s premise is that the so-called left-hemisphere person will look at the face of a subject and draw a generic oval shape. The eyes will be general eye shapes, following the same pattern for the nose and mouth. In the end, they will have rendered a portrait on the level of a child.
The artist who inhabits the left brain will instead note the contours, shadows, and colours of the face in front of them. One exercise that I had learned in some art class years before I read this was to draw from an inverted portrait. Not being so common as upright faces, the left brain has no representations modelled and so defers to the right hemisphere that is now looking at the object—the terrain—rather than the model.
I find the divided hemisphere activity in animals without stereoscopic vision to be fascinating. Perhaps, I’ll comment on this next.
* I am not claiming that the right hemisphere sees the world as fuzzy or hazy. Rather, this was me taking artistic licence to not ascribe strict boundaries to the objects in the world, especially as constrained by language.
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.
Apologies in advance for sharing PR hype from Meta (formerly known as Facebook),but I want to comment on the essence of the idea, which is using AI to decode speech from brain activity. It seems to imply that one would apply supervised machine learning to train a system to map speech to brain activity as illustrated by the image below.
The dataset would require the captured patterns of a large enough sample size. In this case, it appears to have been some 417 volunteers.
This feels like it could have many commercial, consumer, and industrial uses including removing other human-computer interface devices, notably keyboards, but perhaps even mouses. Yes, I said mouses. Sue me.
Given hypotheses related to language and cognition, I am wondering what can be gleaned by mapping different multiple native language speakers to cognitive processes in order to remap them to speech output if it would be able to arrive at some common grammar that could then output a given thought stream into any known (and mapped) language, allowing for instantaneous “translation”.
Of course, a longer-term goal would be to skip the external devices and interface brain to brain. This sounds rogue science fiction scary, as one might imagine an external device trained on a brain to read its contents. One of the last things this world needs is to have to worry about neuro-rights and about being monitored for thought crimes. Come to think of it, isn’t there already a book on this? Nevermind. Probably not.
Technology is generally not inherently harmful or helpful, as that is determined by use. Humans do seem to tend toward the nefarious. Where do you think this will go? Leave a comment.
I’ve decided after all to share my thoughts as I journey through Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. Come join me.
Intro and Biographical
I’ve decided, perhaps against my better judgement, to have a run at Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. At almost 3,000 pages this seems a bit daunting at the start. I debate whether I wish to pursue this course because it slows my pace significantly—perhaps allowing me to progress at a rate 15 to 20 per cent of what I might have otherwise been able to maintain. However, creating content affords me at least two offsetting benefits. Firstly, I get to share my experience with a wider audience and do so in the moment. Secondly, it allows me to better absorb and comprehend the material. As a former professor of economics myself, I internalised the aphorism “to teach is to learn twice.” Of course, this is not teaching so much as regurgitating and providing my own reactions and perspectives in places. It may be akin to learning some one-point-some-odd times. Let’s round up to two.
Biographically, McGilchrist was a lecturer of Literature at Oxford before refocusing on Medicine and then Psychiatry with an interest in Neuroscience. Interestingly, he was particularly interested in hemisphere differences in the brain and was advised strongly not to pursue this academically, as it was a certain career-killer. Besides the domain was already over-studied and summarily disproven. Iain persisted.
As it happens, the older notions of hemispheric differences were facile nonsense, but there was evidence of brain asymmetry—which will become readily apparent in the opening chapters—, and this has been his passion project ever since.
The Matter with Things is a two-volume set presented in three parts, the first two contained in the first volume. Neuropsychology—both neurological and neuropsychological—is the theme of the first part, which is comprised of nine chapters. The second part consists of 10 chapters with a focus on epistemology. The second volume, being the third part, is about metaphysics.
The first chapter is aptly named, Some Preliminaries and How We Got Here. Per the author, this is the most technical chapter with the added encouragement: “If you survive this, you’re good to go.”
This chapter provides some basic history of the evolution of the brain. He establishes that 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.”
This is a gross oversimplification, but details will follow. Essentially, the right hemisphere experiences the external world rather holistically as presented whilst the left hemisphere interprets, codifies, and maps this world for later access. He doesn’t mention it in this chapter, but since I’ve read a bit ahead already—so we’ll return to it presently—the left hemisphere does not, loosely speaking, interact with the external world. It creates map based on what the right hemisphere conveys of the terrain, as I like to call it, and refers only to the map from then on. This sets us up for some peculiar behaviours, but we’ll get to that in upcoming chapters.
I don’t have much to say about this first chapter as it is pretty much scientific facts, and I don’t have any unique perspective to offer. As I expect to reserve the tail of these segments for perspective, I’ll use this allotted space for some general thoughts going in.
I am not sure where McGilchrist falls on the Realism versus Idealism front. As I understand from other sources, he believes there is an out there out there, and without our brains, perception couldn’t happen. I also understand that he’s a Panpsychist, which is to say that he believes that everything has consciousness, so it will be interesting how that all comes together. Unfortunately, I feel this is second-volume fare.
As I am an Analytic Idealist, I believe that there is an out there out there as well. But I don’t believe we have any access to its veridical nature. What we experience is a Bayesian approximation, the best guess necessary for us to survive and evolve. I mention this as I believe it is a difference of opinion I have up front, so I am offering full disclosure of a potential bias. Also, I get the feeling that he conflates this paradigm with those espousing views that we live in a Matrix-style simulation, or everything is a hologram or holograph, and one day I’ll understand the difference between the two.
If you know the difference between a hologram and a holograph, let me know in the comments or on the blog.
Have you read this book already? Are you interested in reading it? If so, stick around and perhaps you’ll gather enough information here to catch your attention.
I’ve only read the first four chapters of Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. My intent is to build up to how his ideas intersect with my workaday life in a future segment, but for now, I’ll summarise some main themes.
The chapters I’ve read are
Some preliminaries: How we got here
The next chapter is Apprehension.
Philosophically, or rather I have an interest in McGilchrist’s ontological model, but that appears not to arrive until the second volume, perhaps in chapters 24 or 25, respectively Space and Matter and Matter and Consciousness. Being that this underlaid my reluctance to engage with this book, I did take liberties and skimmed these chapters quickly in an attempt to discern whether he is a Realist or an Idealist.
Until recently, I’ve been a Realist with reservations, but now I consider myself instead to be an Idealist with reservations—though I may have fewer reservations, so perhaps I am moving in the right direction.
As a Realist with reservations, I felt that there was some underlying reality, but sense-perception and cognitive limitations limited access to it, so correspondence to it was necessarily limited.
As an Idealist with reservations, I feel that there is some underlying reality, and sense-perception and cognitive limitations limit access to it, so correspondence to it is still necessarily limited, so we generate an approximation.
I agree with Donald Hoffman’s assertion of Fitness Before Truth, in summary, that it is faster and more efficient to assess environmental fitness and take penalties where the assessment may have been a false positive. If one recoils in error from a coiled garden hose initially perceiving it to be a snake, the penalty is low. If a delay is incurred to assess some ‘snakeness’ truth value, we may have already been bitten. If we see something charging at us, better to avert and assess than to take time to discern. It’s of little consolation to consider, “Ah. I’m being mauled by a cheetah.” Better to have ducked and covered.
My chapter skimming was not enough to ascertain McGilchrist’s position. I’ll wait until I arrive there in due time. No need to spoil the ending. Given the book’s title, I am leaning toward Idealist, but I may be mistaken.
Moving on, these chapters build on each other. Not so much with narrative content as to represent the necessary chain of perceptual events: attention, perception, and judgment—in this order.
We cannot judge what we can’t perceive, and we can’t perceive what doesn’t come into the sense-perception space. McGilchrist reminds the reader that just because something is in a space where it can be perceived does not mean it can or will be perceived. He cites the example of the invisible gorilla in a basketball game study, which I’ll link to separately.
What we attend to is a matter of the situation and experience. Once we bring our attention to it, we can attempt to perceive it. Is it a snake or just a garden hose? Finally, we can make a judgment—it was just a garden hose. Silly old bear. Or, I sure am thankful my reflexes are lightning quick.
McGilchrist provides a plethora of examples, though most are tied to split-brain scenarios, which brings me to my last point. One of his theses is that left-right brain hemisphere differences are real and significant. Some had argued that the left-right representation is false, and he wants to take it back and regain that space by asserting arguments to the contrary.
I expect to discuss this more in an upcoming segment and apply my preliminary thoughts to my comprehension.
The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a work of non-fiction by horror author Thomas Ligotti. There is an audio podcast version and a YouTube video version. Feel free to leave comments in the space below or on YouTube.
In this segment, I’ll be reviewing a book by Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, A Contrivance of Horror.
I haven’t done any book reviews, but since I tend to read a lot of books, I figure why not share my take and see how it’s received? If you like these reviews, click the like button and I’ll consider creating more.
Let’s get started.
First, I’ll be providing a little background, and then I’ll summarise some of the content and main themes. I’ll close with my review and perspective.
The author is Thomas Ligotti. He is a published writer in the horror genre in the vein of Lovecraft’s atmospheric horror. I’ve not read any of his work and haven’t read much fiction in ages.
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is Ligotti’s first work of non-fiction. The book was originally published in 2010. I read the 2018 paperback version published by Penguin Books.
Conspiracy Against the Human Race falls into the category of Ethics and Moral Philosophy in a subcategory of pessimism. The main thesis of this book is that humans ought never to have been born. Following in the footsteps of anti-natalist David Benatar, who published Better Never to Have Been Born in 2007, Ligotti doubles down on Benatar’s position on the harm of coming into existence and argues that humans should just become extinct. Moreover, we should take out life in general.
In the book, Ligotti posits that consciousness was a blunder of nature and is the root of all suffering. He argues the derived Buddhist position of dukkha, which translates as Life is suffering. He establishes that most people are aware of this fact, but that we are nonetheless wired to be biased toward optimism through delusion and what a psychoanalyst might call repressed memories. Moreover, pessimists are a cohort not tolerated by society, who don’t want their delusions shattered.
Philosophically, Ligotti is a determinist. I’ve created content on this topic, but in a nutshell, determinism is the belief that all events are caused by antecedent events, leading to a chain of causes and effects stretching back to the beginning of time and bringing us to where we are now. If we were able to rewind time and restart the process, we would necessarily end up in the same place, and all future processes will unfold in a like manner.
Ligotti likes the metaphor of puppets. He employs puppets in two manners. Firstly, being the determinist he is, he reminds us that we are meat puppets with no free will. Our strings are controlled by something that is not us. This something ends up being Schopenhauer’s Will, reminding us that one can want what we will, but we can’t will what we will. This Will is the puppeteer. Secondly, puppets are soulless, lifeless homunculi that are employed in the horror genre to create unease by means of an uncanny association. He cites the work and philosophy of Norwegian author Peter Zapffe, who also elucidates human existence as a tragedy. Humans are born with one and only one right—the right to die. And death is the only certainty. The knowledge of this causes unnecessary suffering.
“Stringently considered, then, our only natural birthright is a right to die. No other right has ever been allocated to anyone except as a fabrication, whether in modern times or days past. The divine right of kings may now be acknowledged as a fabrication, a falsified permit for prideful dementia and impulsive mayhem. The inalienable rights of certain people, on the other hand, seemingly remain current: somehow we believe they are not fabrications because hallowed documents declare they are real.”
Ligotti reminds us that consciousness is a mystery. We don’t really know what it is or what causes it other than it exists and we seem to have it, to be cursed with it. He adopts Zapffe’s position that consciousness is also responsible for the false notion of the self.
As all life is, humans are the result of an evolutionary process. Consciousness was just the result of an evolutionary blunder. He cites Zapffe and conveys that “mutations must be considered blind. They work, are thrown forth, without any contact of interest with their environment.”
Whilst pessimists view consciousness as a curse, optimists such as Nicholas Humphry think of it as a marvellous endowment.
He summarises the reason humans have it worse than the rest of nature:
“For the rest of the earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. Their lives are about three things: survival, reproduction, death—and nothing else. But we know too much to content ourselves with surviving, reproducing, dying—and nothing else. We know we are alive and know we will die. We also know we will suffer during our lives before suffering—slowly or quickly—as we draw near to death. This is the knowledge we “enjoy” as the most intelligent organisms to gush from the womb of nature. And being so, we feel shortchanged if there is nothing else for us than to survive, reproduce, and die. We want there to be more to it than that, or to think there is. This is the tragedy: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious of what we are—hunks of spoiling flesh on disintegrating bones.”
I’ll repeat that: Consciousness has forced us into the paradoxical position of striving to be unself-conscious.
He cites Zapffe’s four principal strategies to minimise our consciousness, isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation
Isolation is compartmentalising the dire facts of being alive. So, he argues, that a coping mechanism is to push our suffering out of sight, out of mind, shoved back into the unconscious so we don’t have to deal with it.
Anchoring is a stabilisation strategy by adopting fictions as truth. We conspire to anchor our lives in metaphysical and institutional “verities”—God, Morality, Natural Law, Country, Family—that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds.
Distraction falls into the realm of manufactured consent. People lose themselves in their television sets, their government’s foreign policy, their science projects, their careers, their place in society or the universe, et cetera. Anything not to think about the human condition.
Sublimation. This reminds me of Camus’ take on the Absurd. Just accept it. Embrace it and incorporate it into your routine. Pour it into your art or music. Ligotti invokes Camus’ directive that we must imagine Sisyphus happy, but he dismisses the quip as folly.
Ligotti underscores his thesis by referencing the works of other authors from David Benatar to William James.
Interestingly, he suggests that people who experience depression are actually in touch with reality and that psychology intervenes to mask it again with the preferred veil of delusion and delf-deception. Society can’t operate if people aren’t in tune with the masquerade. Citing David Livingstone Smith in his 2007 publication, Why We Lie: The Evolution of Deception and the Unconscious Mind, Ligotti writes: “Psychiatry even works on the assumption that the “healthy” and viable is at one with the highest in personal terms. Depression, “fear of life,” refusal of nourishment and so on are invariably taken as signs of a pathological state and treated thereafter.”
Ligotti returns to the constructed notion of the self and presents examples of how a lack of self is an effective horror trope, citing John Carpenter’s The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
He spends a good amount of time on ego-death and the illusion of self, a topic I’ve covered previously. He mentions Thomas Metzinger and his writings in several places including his Being No One, published in 2004, ostensibly reinforcing a position described as naïve realism, that things not being knowable as they really are in themselves, something every scientist and philosopher knows.
He delves into Buddhism as a gateway to near-death experiences, where people have dissociated their sense of self, illustrating the enlightenment by accident of U. G. Krishnamurti, who after some calamity “was no longer the person he once was, for now he was someone whose ego had been erased. In this state, he had all the self-awareness of a tree frog. To his good fortune, he had no problem with his new way of functioning. He did not need to accept it, since by his report he had lost all sense of having an ego that needed to accept or reject anything.” Krishnamurti had become a veritable zombie. He also cited the examples of Tem Horwitz, John Wren-Lewis, and Suzanne Segal, but I won’t elaborate here.
Russian Romantic author, Leo Tolstoy, famous for War and Peace and Anna Karenina, was another pessimist. He noticed a coping approach his associates had employed to deal with their morality.
Ignorance is the first. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss. For whatever reason, these people are simply blind to the inevitability of their mortal lives. As Tolstoy said these people just did not know or understand that “life is an evil and an absurdity”.
Epicureanism comes next. The tactic here is to understand that we are all in here and no one gets out alive, so we might as well make the best of it and adopt a hedonistic lifestyle.
Following Camus’ cue, or rather Camus following Tolstoy and Schopenhauer, he suggests the approach of strength and energy, by which he means the strength and energy to suicide.
Finally, one can adopt the path of weakness. This is the category Tolstoy finds himself in, writing “People of this kind know that death is better than life, but not having the strength to act rationally—to end the deception quickly and kill themselves—they seem to wait for something.”
The last section of the book feels a bit orthogonal to the rest. I won’t bother with details, but essentially he provides the reader with examples of how horror works by exploring some passages, notably Radcliffe’s, The Mysteries of Udolpho; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher; Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulhu; and contrasting Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet.
This has been a summary of Thomas Logotti’s Conspiracy against the human race. Here’s my take. But first some background, as it might be important to understand where I am coming from.
I am a Nihilist. I feel that life has no inherent meaning, but people employ existentialist strategies to create a semblance of meaning, much akin to Zapffe’s distraction theme or perhaps anchoring. This said I feel that, similar to anarchism, people don’t understand nihilism. Technically, it’s considered to be a pessimistic philosophy because they are acculturated to expect meaning, but I find it liberating. People feel that without some constraints of meaning, that chaos will ensue as everyone will adopt Tolstoy’s Epicureanism or to fall into despair and suicide. What they don’t know is they’ve already fabricated some narrative and have adopted one of Zappfe’s first three offerings: isolation, which is to say repression); anchoring on God or country; or distracting themselves with work, sports, politics, social media, or reading horror stories.
Because of my background, I identify with Ligotti’s position. I do feel the suffering and anguish that he mentions, and perhaps I am weak and rationalising, but I don’t feel that things are so bad. I may be more sympathetic to Benatar’s anti-natalism than to advocate for a mass extinction event, though I feel that humans are already heading down that path. Perhaps this could be psychoanalysed as collective guilt, but I won’t go there.
I recommend reading this. I knocked it out in a few hours, and you could shorten this by skipping the last section altogether. If you are on the fence, I’d suggest reading David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been. Perhaps I’ll review that if there seems to be interest. If you’ve got the time, read both.
So there you have it. That’s my summary and review of Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race.
Before I end this, I’ll share a personal story about an ex-girlfriend of mine. Although she experienced some moments of happiness and joy, she saw life as a burden. Because she had been raised Catholic and embodied the teachings, she was afraid that committing suicide would relegate her to hell. In fact, on one occasion, she and her mum had been robbed at gunpoint, and her mum stepped between my girlfriend and the gun. They gave the gunmen what they wanted, so the situation came to an end.
My girlfriend laid into her mother that if she ever did something like that again and took a bullet that was her ticket out, she would never forgive her. As it turned out, my girlfriend died as collateral damage during the Covid debacle. She became ill, but because she was living with her elderly mum, she didn’t want to go to hospital and bring something back. One early morning, she was writhing in pain and her mum called the ambulance. She died later that morning in hospital, having waited too long.
For me, I saw the mercy in it all. She got her ticket out and didn’t have to face the hell eventuality. Not that I believe in any of that, but she was able to exit in peace. Were it not for the poison of religion, she could have exited sooner. She was not, in Tolstoy’s words, weak, so much as she had been a victim of indoctrination. I feel this indoctrination borders on child abuse, but I’ll spare you the elaboration. So, what are your thoughts on this book? Is there a conspiracy against humanity? Are optimists ruining it for the pessimists? What do you think about anti-natalism or even extinction of all conscious beings or the extreme case of all life on earth? Is Ligotti on to something or just on something?