The Matter with Things: Part 1 Chapter Orientation

I can’t recommend Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Matter with Things, highly enough. I recommend reading The Master and His Emissary first. I didn’t figure this out until I started reading The Matter with Things, so I am reading them in parallel.

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:

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

Here’s the breakdown:

Some preliminaries: How we got here

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.

Attention

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.

Perception

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.

Judgment

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.

Apprehension

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.

Cognitive intelligence

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.

Creativity

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.

Summary

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. 

The Matter with Things: Chapter Eight Summary: Creativity

Index and table of contents

Intro

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

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

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Content

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

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

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

— Colin Martindale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McGilchrist discusses generative, permissive, and translational requirements.

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

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

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

Arthur Schopenhauer

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

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

Steve Jobs noted that

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

— Steve Jobs

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

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

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

He again cites Asimov:

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

— Isaac Asimov

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

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

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

Albert Einstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave comments below.

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

Index and table of contents

Intro

Chapter 6 of The Matter with Things is titled Emotional and Social Intelligence, following the previous chapters, Attention, Perception, Judgment, and Apprehension. Chapter 7 is about cognitive intelligence.

The gist of chapter 6 is to convey the importance of emotional and social intelligence in forming a full picture of the world. Absent these, reality becomes increasingly tenuous to retain a grip on because the left hemisphere just doesn’t have the emotional awareness to grasp the full picture. 

Audio: Podcast version of this page content

Content

At the start, this chapter reminds us that the right hemisphere not only constructs our sense of self, but it also facilitates the construction of other selves, which allows us to empathise with others. It also allows us to assess intent. And it goes deeper than this.

McGilchrist shares some anecdotes about schizophrenic patients with impaired right hemispheres who believe that nothing is real and that people are play-acting. In hospital, they perceive the ward to be a stage and the medical staff to be actors.

As if by a control knob, changes to the right hemisphere may create a diminished sense of reality as well as an intensified sense—of being hyperaware. This is not dissimilar to certain claims by some with heightened lucidity; however, the data do not permit a clear-cut conclusion. On a related note, the intensified sense may also increase emotional reactions, so one might be more prone to crying—whether tears of joy or sadness.  

Abnormal electrical activity in the right hemisphere can heighten a sense of familiarity leading to a sense of déjà vu. A diminished sense has the contrary effect, reducing a sense of familiarity, leading to a sense of jamais vu, ‘never before seen’, Related to déjà vu, there have been cases of déjà vécu, ‘already experienced’ (rather than seen). Together, over 86% of these phenomena are associated with the right hemisphere.

Recall that each hemisphere controls the body contralaterally, so the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body—hands and arms, eyes, and so on. And it’s deeper than this. For example, being the arbiter of empathy, the left hand (being controlled by the right hemisphere) is used for empathetic touch. Beyond humans, bottleneck dolphins tend to stroke other dolphins with their left flippers.

This affects humans and other animals with a sort of left-eye empathy that even affects how babies are held or otherwise attended to, preferring the left side of the body over the right.

Theory of mind (ToM), a topic in its own right, is a right hemisphere-dominant capability that allows us to empathise with another or to put ourselves into another’s shoes. This ability extends to other species like elephants, apes and dogs, whales and dolphins, crows and magpies, and goats and seals.

The left hemisphere is good at understanding the what of actions

The left hemisphere is good at understanding the what of actions, say picking up a cup or flicking a switch; it’s not so great at discerning the why. Recall in a previous chapter the case of the person with right hemisphere damage automatically picking up a pen or pencil but then not having anything particular in mind to write. The left hemisphere noticed the pen as a writing instrument and picked it up. Without the right hemisphere to provide the why, this person just kept accumulating writing implements.

This can be seen in children with autism. They recognise well enough that a person is doing something—performing some action—, but they just can’t understand why.

He tells us that “a huge body of evidence confirms that the right hemisphere is much superior to the left in receiving, interpreting, recalling or understanding anything that involves emotion.”

I’ll just share one example, and McGilchrist provides common responses from persons with both hemispheres intact as well as responses with right hemisphere deficits. For image b, a ‘normal’ response is for the respondent to fill in the boy’s talk bubble with ‘Boy, she’s cute.’ A couple of right hemisphere deficit responses were ‘I wonder how big her allowance is’ and ‘Let’s arm-wrestle’, obviously missing context.

The right hemisphere is responsible for understanding emotion, irony, jokes and humour—and the ability to tell the difference between jokes and lies. When told a joke and given an opportunity to fill in the punchline, the language of right hemisphere deficit patients ‘is often excessive and rambling; their comments are often off-colour and their humour is frequently inappropriate; they tend to focus on insignificant details or make tangential remarks’. Moreover, when asked to reconvey a story, the right hemisphere deficit people produced an ‘abundance of embellishments’ to it.

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

Other right hemisphere functions are the ability to grasp the semantic nuance and intonation of a speaker. One subject with right hemisphere resection asked, ‘How do you feel?’ He responded, ‘With my hands,’ but he wasn’t joking.

People who have undergone a right hemispherectomy demonstrate a ‘shallow affect, rigidity, [and] lack of imagination’. The left hemisphere seems to prefer denotative speech whilst the right prefers connotative, hence a broader set of possible meanings. Interestingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly, clichés are the domain of the left hemisphere. Poetry and music reside on the right.

Wrapping up this chapter, the right hemisphere tends to serve as the emotional centre, save for anger, which is a left hemisphere activity.

Perspective

In summary, the left brain is very focused. Damage to the right hemisphere mimics the responses of autistic and schizophrenic individuals who interpret inputs differently and without nuance. This nuance often contains emotional or empathetic content that is lost on this cohort.

I am left wondering if schizophrenia and autism are right hemisphere problems, as it were, or if I would be reading into things to arrive at this conclusion.  

Having completed Emotional and Social Intelligence next up is a chapter on Cognitive Intelligence. I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Were there any surprises? Anything of particular interest?

Leave comments below.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Five Summary: Apprehension

Index and table of contents

This is my take on the fifth chapter of The Matter with Things. I suggest reviewing the previous chapters before you delve into this one, but I won’t stop you from jumping queue.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Intro

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.

Content

This chapter opens by asking what happens to a person who experiences left hemisphere damage. But let’s return to the chapter title. Apprehension is retaken etymologically and means to hold onto or to grasp. This is the function of the left hemisphere. The right hemisphere is about comprehension. The root ‘prehension’ is Latin for hold; the added ap prefix suggests holding on, whilst the com prefix suggests holding together.

Whilst conceptualising and abstract language is a right hemisphere function, spoken words are a left-brain function. It turns out that so is pointing and other gesticulation, reminding me of some ethnic stereotypes of people who speak with their hands. We need to keep in mind that the right hemisphere controls the left part of the body whilst the left hemisphere controls the right. What this means is that the right hand, being guided by the left hemisphere is marching to a different drummer.

Also, keep in mind from the previous chapters that the right hemisphere is holistic whilst the left is atomistic. Where right hemisphere damage is evident, a person has difficulty viewing the parts of a whole, whilst if the damage is on the left, a person has difficulty constructing a whole from its constituent parts. Namely, it may recognise that a body is constructed from an inventory of pieces—head and shoulders, knees, and toes—, but it can’t seem to grasp the cohesive orchestrated picture.

Apart from body continuity, when the left hemisphere is damaged, it might know all of the steps of a given process—McGilchrist shares the example of a person trying to light a smoking pipe—, but there may be difficulty in some of the instrumentation along the way. He cites an example by Czech neurologist, Arnold Pick, which I share here intact:

The patient is given a pipe and brings it correctly to his mouth, then expertly reaches for the tobacco pouch and takes a match from the box but when asked to light it, sticks the head of the match into the mouthpiece and puts the other end in his mouth as if to smoke it. Then he takes it out of his mouth, draws it out of the mouthpiece and sticks the other end of the match in the mouthpiece of the pipe, pulls it out again, holds it for a while in his hand apparently thinking, and then puts it away.

a person when encountering a pencil would feel compelled to grab it and start writing nothing in particular

To underscore the apprehension, where there is damage evident in the right hemisphere, the right hand (under control of the left hemisphere) may just grasp at things for no reason, perhaps reaching arbitrarily out to doorknobs. In one case, a person when encountering a pencil would feel compelled to grab it and start writing nothing in particular. In each case, the right hemisphere was not available to contextualise the experience. This right hemisphere is opening and exploratory whilst the left is closing and instrumental. It seems one might tend to meander without the left to provide a certain will and direction.

McGilchrist makes some correlations between humans and other great apes, but I’ll just mention this in passing.

I am going to pause to editorialise on McGilchrist’s next claim. He argues that Saussure’s claim that language signs are arbitrary is false and gives some examples—sun, bread, and spaghetti—but I am not ready to accept this stance. For now, I am remaining in the camp with Saussure and Wittgenstein that language is both arbitrary and self-referential.  Getting down off my soapbox.  

Recall again that whilst the right hemisphere takes the world as presented, the left hemisphere can only re-present. This is why language symbols are handled by the left hemisphere. Coming back to Saussure, the right-brain experiences a ‘cat’ whilst the left-brain names that object a ‘cat’ and classifies it as a mammal, feline, quadruped, and whatever else.

The right hemisphere is about metaphor, prosody, and pragmatics whilst the left hemisphere, though not exclusively, is about syntax and semantics.

The right hemisphere is about metaphor, prosody, and pragmatics whilst the left hemisphere, though not exclusively, is about syntax and semantics.  The left hemisphere is about symbols. As such, lipreading and interpreting sign language are both left-brain activities.

An interesting conveyance is a case study of a person with left hemisphere damage reading a book who recites the elephant in place of the written word India, so making an association by not recognising the word itself. And there may be a naming problem, so if there was a problem related to an ankle, they would point to an ankle but substitute the name of the part.

Finally, to reiterate the holistic versus atomistic divide, some people with left hemisphere damage can articulate the parts of the body or a bicycle, but when queried can’t relate that the mouth is beneath the nose or some such.

Perspective

To summarise, McGilchrist leaves with a comment, “The fabric of reality typically goes for the most part unaltered when the left hemisphere is suppressed.”

As I’ve been editorialising a bit throughout, I don’t have much to add at this point. Aside from my Saussure nit, I am still very interested in the concept that the right hemisphere constructs reality. I feel that I interpret this construction differently to Iain.

I believe that we agree that there is a world out there, and we interpret this world by interacting with it. Where I feel we differ is that he feels there is a world of objects that we interact with and perceive whilst I believe that we construct this world of objects by means of constructing the underlying material, from particles to fields. I think he’ll discuss this more in later chapters and I could be off base. Time will tell.

Having put Apprehension to bed, next up is a chapter on Emotional Support and Intelligence. I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Were there any surprises? Anything of particular interest?

Leave comments below or on the blog.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Four Summary: Judgment

Index and table of contents

This is my take on the fourth chapter of The Matter with Things. Chapters one and two have been posted previously.

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Intro

Chapter four of The Matter with Things is titled Judgment. Following the previous chapters, Attention and Perception, it’s about how we reach conclusions based on what we perceive.

Trust in left versus right hemisphere processing. The right hemisphere is responsible for anchoring us into reality, so if there are cognitive deficits on the right, the left has a tendency toward delusion.  

Content

This chapter opens with a quotation by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Perception is a judgment, but one that is unaware of its reasons, which is as much as to say that the object perceived gives itself as a whole and as a unity before we have grasped its intelligible principle.”

Nearly all delusions are due to right hemisphere damage or dysfunction. Distinguishing delusions, which are distorted reality judgments, from hallucinations, which are distorted perceptions, is to some degree arbitrary, since misperceptions can give rise to misbeliefs, and misbeliefs give rise to misperceptions.

Reinforcing previous chapter content, the right hemisphere is holistic whilst the left is narrowly focused. To borrow the metaphor of McGilchrist’s previous book, the right hemisphere is the master whilst the left is the emissary. The right serves as an anchor to the flighty left.

I’ll share the quote he cites by Orrin Devinsky: The unchecked left hemisphere unleashes a creative narrator from the monitoring of self, memory, and reality by the frontal and right hemisphere areas, leading to excessive and false explanations. Further, the left hemisphere’s cognitive style of categorization, often into dual categories, leads it to invent a duplicate or impostor to resolve conflicting information. Delusions result from right hemisphere lesions. But it is the left hemisphere that is deluded.

This serves as an apt summary. The left jumps to conclusions and seems to need closure, so its first answer is its final answer, no matter how implausible. He cites that this need for closure is also a feature of modernity that seems to insist on closure. This need is evidently amplified in schizophrenics.

Here is where I will take liberties and skip the examples of prosopagnosia, delusional misidentification, paranoia, and the rest, save to inform the reader that clinically speaking paranoia has a broader meaning than used idiomatically. It’s not simply the feeling that someone is watching us or out to get us. It also extends to any number of mistaken references to oneself and includes grandiose and religiose delusions.

Another condition that I’ll pause to mention is that of mirror agnosia, where a subject cannot recognise itself in a mirror, and Cotard’s syndrome where a person believes themselves to be dead.

The right hemisphere supports the body’s schema. Rather contrary to previous mentions that the left hemisphere is the map maker, the right hemisphere seems to contain the blueprint for the assembled body. In fact, children born without limbs may still experience phantom limb sensation due to this mapping.

He writes about the connexion between depression and insight, noting “that depression has repeatedly been shown to be associated with greater realism.” And “the evidence is that this is not because insight makes you depressed, but because, up to a point, being depressed gives you insight.” Moreover, depression is linked to the perception of time.

Next, he touches on false memories and confabulation. Quoting Michael Gazzaniga, he writes, “the left hemisphere generates many false reports. But the right brain does not; it provides a much more veridical account.

Next, he writes about the phenomenon of magical thinking, which is “defined as ‘belief in forms of causation that by convention are invalid’.” The jury is still out on which hemisphere this is more dominant. He tells us that, quote, “Magical thinking may not be pathological at all, except in extreme cases.” And citing Peter Brugger writes that “to be ‘totally “unmagical” is very unhealthy’, and reduces one’s capacity to appreciate value and to take enjoyment in life.” Take this as you may.

In describing the role of reasoning in forming judgments, he clarifies that “reasoning is classically associated with the left hemisphere, but in reality, most studies show that both hemispheres contribute to reasoning; and the part played by the right hemisphere is significant.” Interestingly, if not paradoxically, citing Sass and Pienkos, we learn that ‘The most deluded patients with schizophrenia tend to be those whose thinking is more logical.’ And “Eugène Minkowski’s insight that the problem in psychosis is not loss of reason, but its hypertrophy: ‘The mad person is much less frequently “irrational” than is believed: perhaps, indeed, he is never irrational at all.’”

Discussing inductive and deductive reasoning, the left hemisphere is the whipping boy again. Inductive reasoning needs stasis and normalcy—the domain of the left hemisphere—, so much so that it keeps trying to convince us that everything is normal, so when things like the 2008 financial collapse or Covid-19 come along, the left brain defends ‘Who could have predicted that?” whilst the right hemisphere rolls its proverbial eyes. The right brain is the Sherlock Holmes of deductive reasoning.

Humorously, McGilchrist’s conveys in his words, and I quote, “To put it crudely, the right hemisphere is our bullshit detector” whilst the left hemisphere is a pigeon that is easily duped.

Perspective

To summarise, it’s difficult for me to get past my own conviction that the left hemisphere is an abject wanker. This is the part of the brain always looking for order and reason and constructing patterns where they don’t exist. He doesn’t mention pareidolia or apophenia, but I’m willing to wager that the left hemisphere is responsible for this. I’d also be willing to bet that it is responsible for creating nonsensical categories such as race and gender. It just seems like a half-arsed busybody.

The right hemisphere is responsible for constructing a self or a contiguous self and other assemblages, but I don’t want to lose sight of the implication that these are nonetheless constructions. I don’t prefer the term ‘illusion’, as I am more partial to the notion of ‘fiction’. Our sense of self is a fiction, a confluence of senses. And like the notion of money and so many other fictions, whether countries, nationalities, economies, and so on, this fiction can be useful. But it leaves me wondering what the non-fiction version looks like. I am not saying that the delusional state is perhaps driven by some left hemisphere dominance. This is just a different, perhaps less useful fiction. It seems that some self-less model or slices of selves would be a more truthful rendition, if not notably less practical. I suppose the question might be, “What would life be like in a world where there were no constructed selves?”

Of particular interest to me is the prevalence of so-called mental illnesses and the Age of Enlightenment and the sciences, notably mechanistic thinking.

Now that we’ve covered attention, perception and now judgment, we’ll be covering apprehension in the next chapter.  And heads up, by apprehension he doesn’t mean foreboding, so don’t be apprehensive. I hope you’ll join me.

What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Were there any surprises? Anything of particular interest?

Leave comments below or on the blog.

The Matter with Things: Chapter Three Summary: Perception

Index and table of contents

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

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Intro

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”.  

Content

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

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

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

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

Visual Perception

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

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

Nailed It!

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

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

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

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

Auditory Perception.

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

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

Olfactory Perception

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

Gustatory Perception

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

Tactile Perception

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

Local versus Global Perception

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

Pathologies of Perception

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective

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

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

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

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

The Matter with Things: Chapter Two Summary: Attention

Index and table of contents

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

Podcast: Audio rendition of this page content

Intro

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

Content

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

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

Selective Attention: Invisible Gorilla Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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