Chapter eleven is the first of three chapters discussing truth from the perspective of science. These chapters are followed by truth as seen from other perspectives, namely, reason and intuition.
Check out the table of contents for this series of summaries. I continue to render interstitial commentaries in grey boxes with red text, so the reader can skip over and just focus on the chapter summary.
The author posits that in the West, most of us trust science to deliver the truth of the matter, as “science alone holds out the promise of stable knowledge on which we can rely to build our picture of the world“. He admits that it does have value, but it has inherent limitations and yet draws us in like moths to a flame. Here, he distinguishes between the discipline and practice of science and Scientism as it is practised by laypeople. Science understands its place and domain boundaries. Scientism is omnipotent with delusions of grandeur that will never be realised.
Some philosophically naïve individuals become very exercised if they sense that the status of science as sole purveyor of truth is challenged
— Iain McGilchrist, The Matter with Things, chapter 10
Politicians who promote science as a bully pulpit prey on the public in a manner similar to bludgeoning them with religious notions.
Science is heavily dependent on the exercise of what the left hemisphere offers.
The point the book makes is that like the turtles that go all the way down, science doesn’t have a grasp on what’s beyond the last turtle. Like trying to answer the toddler who can ask an infinite number of ‘why‘ questions, the scientist gets to a point of replying ‘that’s just the way things are’, or the equivalent of ‘it’s bedtime’.
Scientific models are simply extended metaphors. A challenge arises when a model seems to be a good fit and we forget about alternative possibilities getting locked into Maslow’s law of the instrument problem, where ‘to a man with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail’. Moreover, the left hemisphere is fixated on instrumentation, so it’s always trying to presume a purpose behind everything. Nothing can just be.
This is likely where Scientism begins to trump science.
Dogmatism inevitably obscures the nature of truth.
— Alfred Whitehead
McGilchrist points out that a goal or promise of science is to be objective and take the subject out of the picture. Unfortunately, this is not possible as the necessity for metaphor ensures we cannot be extricated. Objectivity is legerdemain. We create a scenario and claim it to be objective, but there is always some subject even if unstated. He goes into length illuminating with historical characters.
The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models … The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.
— John von Neumann
In fact, science itself is predicated on assumptions that have not and can not be validated through science.
In conclusion, McGilchrists wants to emphasise ‘that just because what we rightly take to be scientific truths are not ‘objective’ in the sense that nothing human, contingent and fallible enters into them, this does not mean they have no legitimate claim to be called true.’ ‘The scientific process cannot be free from assumptions, or values.’
Following this chapter are several pages containing dozens of plates of images.
In this first chapter of the second section of The Matter with Things, Iain McGilchrist asks, What is Truth? Section two has a different focus than the first, which was focused on foundation building. From here on in, he wants to build on this foundation.
Check out the table of contents for this series of summaries. Note that I have rendered my interstitial commentaries in grey boxes with red text, so the reader can skip over and just focus on the chapter summary.
At first, he establishes that each hemisphere ‘thinks’ it knows the true truth and has the best vantage on reality. He makes it clear that a short chapter will not do the topic of truth the justice he feels it deserves and notes that others have written books on the matter. He just wants to make a few points and clarify his position.
As we discovered in the first section, the left and right hemispheres perceive the world differently. The right hemisphere experiences the world as it is presented in a Gestalt manner. This is contrasted by the left hemisphere which views the world as a symbolic re-presentation. It’s not unfair to say that the right hemisphere experiences the world directly whilst the left hemisphere views a cache of the world.
In this chapter, McGilchrist (Iain) attempts to convince the reader that one side is more correct or correct more often than the other and so is more veridical. As he says, the left hemisphere ‘is a good servant but a poor master’. Of course, if we had a third hemisphere [sic], we might think it could mediate the other two, but then we’d need a fourth and a fifth, ad infinitum to act as the new arbiter.
Spoiler Alert: The right hemisphere wins the battle on truth pretty much hands down.
He wants to make it clear to the reader that he is no strict idealist. There is a reality ‘out there’ apart from mental processes that objectively exists even in the absence of a subject. Reality is not exclusively a projection of the brain.
His choice rather relies on the correspondence theory of truth, which is to say that the hemisphere that conveys perceptions more correspondent to our perceived reality would be more veridical.
Here, I challenge his reasoning on two accounts. In the first place,each hemisphere may operate better in one context versus another. In the second case, there may be a consequential factor, which again distils down to context. In risk management, there are notions of probability of failure and consequence of failure. For example, a failure to recognise the truth of a matter (we’ll use truth as a proxy for ‘fact’), may be inconsequential. If I am assessing the probability of a pipe bursting in a nuclear facility and the pipe is connected to a sink to deliver tap water, the consequence of this failure is practically insignificant. But if I am assessing the probability of a pipe containing radioactive materials, even if the probability of failure is low, the consequence of failure may be catastrophic.
Evolutionarily speaking, if you mistake a garden hose for a venomous snake, the consequence of failure is trivial. Turn the tables, and mistake a snake for a garden hose, the consequence may be fatal. I am not attempting to claim that one hemisphere interprets the low consequence scenario and the other interprets the high. I simply want to raise this nuance.
He makes the point that if we compare some known authentic object to a recollection, we want to retain the one that is more accurate.
I see a similar challenge. Hypothetically, let’s say I present a red disc and manipulate the hemispheres to activate only one at a time, asking to recall the object. If the left says it’s red and the right says it’s a disc, which is more correct? Again, I am not claiming that this is a real scenario, but if one side possesses facts unavailable to the other side, we’ve got a problem in making a truth claim.
To reiterate, the left hemisphere is more analogous to a photograph or a video account whereas the right hemisphere is to be in the place that is being photographed. The right hemisphere is duratively presenced whilst the left is re-presented. We move from a nominative form to a verbial form of representing reality. This leads him to ask if ‘truth’ is a thing or a process.
He shifts to a linguistic argument. When people view ‘truth’ as a noun, as a thing, the expectation is that it is static. Moreover, the descriptors of truth are rendered mainly in the past tense—representation, fact, perfect, precise, certain, and concluded. He provides definitions. When viewed duratively, ‘truth’ becomes a process. It is an active relationship. It flows. It’s an intercourse.
We may not ever get to an agreed truth, but neither is every position valid. Interpreting a text, for example, may have several conflicting meanings, but the possible meanings are relatively finite.
Take a simple sentence such as, “The dog bit the hand that feeds him.” This could be meant literally or figuratively. We might imagine different dogs, hands and person to whom the hand is attached. Perhaps the hand is attached to a bonobo. Perhaps, it’s a robotic hand. These are among various possible interpretations, and we may not ever agree on the truth of the matter. However, we can rule out that a giraffe or a watermelon were central to this narrative for what it’s worth.
The bookgoes on to discuss the etymology of the word ‘truth’ and of its relationship to the word ‘true’ (faithful) which is further related to ‘trust’. I won’t exhaust his explanation.
He does discuss correspondence and coherence theories of truth and discounts others such as consensus theory and social constructivism. He cautions not to equate truth with correctness. This is a left hemisphere game insisting on dichotomising things.
The book declares the despite a general agreement on the source or nature of truth, there is something there, so don’t give up un it. In the end, he seems to settle for a Pragmatistic version à la William James.
Personally, I feel he and others are over-invested in the nature of truth. And inflate its meaning over ‘fact’. To me, Capital-T Truth is an archetype, but it doesn’t otherwise exist. We have facts, and truth is sort of a perfect version of a fact. Love is in the same category, though I know Iain would disagree with this assertion. Of course, James dismissed semantic argument as petty and insisted that people simply know the truth of something. I’ve always found this take to be dismissive. I also feel that Pragmatism is too steeped in Empiricism and loses hold of the notion that what happened yesterday may not in fact manifest today or not in the same way.
I’ll also argue as others have before me that (besides being archetypal) the term is a redundant filler word. On a minuscule level, if I say ‘The cup is red’, saying ,’It’s true that the cup is red adds nothing’. The equation was already asserted. This leaves one to wonder what the purpose of it is.
Returnng to the asymmetry of the hemispheres he cautions up not to take a position that one of the other side is correct. Rather, even though there is an asymmetry in value, there is still a synthesis.
Iain uses the example of Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. At one point, they are practically synonymous and interchangeable. Only as we reach the speed of light does Newtonian physic exceed the bounds of its scope. He also educated the reader on the difference between precision and accuracy.
I like to view this in a musical context. If I play two notes together, say a B over an E, neither is more correct than the other. Notionally, I am playing an E5/B. This is neither an E or a B. The chord is the result of the two playing simultaneously. In this case E and B are both true and not true because the E5 is a synthesis. If I add a G# I get an E-major chord, subsequently adding a D renders an E7. In each of these cases, the truth of the notes, B, D, E, and G# remain true to their identity, but the fact is that the individuality is subsumed by the collective. This is the prevailing truth even though a person with perfect pitch can still individually identify the constituents of the chord. I don’t know if this is more confusion than necessary, but it helps me.
I’ve always like this illustration with target grouping, but this was not referenced by the book.
Interestingly, he cites Jay Zwicky’s definition: “Truth is the asymptotic limit of sensitive attempts to be responsible to our actual experience of the world … ‘sensitive attempts to be responsible’ means truth is the result of attention. (As opposed to inspection.) Of looking informed by love. Of really looking.” He accedes that there are degrees of truth.
As the chapter comes to a close, he leaves us with a twisted categorical syllogism,
[p1] All monkeys climb trees
[p2] The porcupine in a monkey
[ c ] The porcupine climes trees
This structure presents a valid argument. However, it is not sound. It follows the Socratic logical syntax:
[p1] M a P
[p2] S a M
[ c [ S a P
Because of our exposure to and experience with the external world, we can assess this argument to be unsound, which is to say untrue by observation. Without this context, we could not render this assessment. He discusses the way right- and left-hemisphere occluded subjects respond to this discrepancy. In summary, an isolated left hemisphere with defend the logical syntax over the lived experience.
In conclusion, the hemispheres take different paths to assess truth and often end up at different destinations. The left hemisphere sees truth as a thing whilst the right views it as a process.
I have a confession to make. I finished reading the first volume of The Matter with Things about a month ago, and I took a break from reading more of it. I finally got around to continuing, and I read chapter twenty. When I got to the end and turned to the next chapter—chapter twenty-one—, it dawned on me that volume I ended at chapter nine. I had inadvertently skipped volume II and began volume III. Oopsie. I’m lucky it wasn’t a novel, having skipped ten chapters.
Since I’ve read it, I might as well summarise it, Spoiler alert: there are no spoilers to alert. As this chapter is more about exposition and colour, this summary will be much shorter than the summaries of the first volume. I don’t know if this will be a continuing trend. We’ll find out together.
This chapter is labelled the coincidentia oppositorum, the coincidence of opposites. Effectively, the chapter wants to impart three main points.
Firstly, asymmetry is the norm. Symmetry is the exception. We perceive things in opposites. This brings attention to bear. Line straight lines, symmetry does not exist in nature. It is something the left hemisphere perspective approximates. No face is symmetrical; planets are not symmetrical. In fact, if one manipulates an image of a face and mirrors one side as both to appear as a face, it becomes obvious that something is amiss.
The Ancient Greeks had a penchant for moderation. Buddhists have the Middle Path. Everything is poisonous in large enough quantities. Even poisons can be therapeutic at low doses. The point is to retain this perspective.
To be or not to be…or both
This is not about Schrodinger’s cat. We need to break ourselves of the habit of thinking in opposites. Not everything is a dichotomy—black and white. Some things are black and white—and not just a draughts board. McGilchrist opens the chapter with a nice Iriqois about two brothers who were seeming opposites but were nonetheless necessary. In a manner, this is the good versus evil story. Opposition strengthens us. Trees raised in a windless environment don’t have the strength of natural-grown trees.
This story is encapsulated in a story told by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
A faithful man finds in the scriptures that Rabbi X said that a certain thing was true. Later he finds that Rabbi Y said that the very same thing was false. He prays for guidance: ‘Who is right?’ God answers: ‘Both of them are right.’ Perplexed, the man replies: ‘But what do you mean? Surely they can’t both be right?’ To which God replies: ‘All three of you are right.’
In the chapter summary, McGlichrists ends with this:
Just as there is an asymmetry in the relationship of the hemispheres, there is an asymmetry in the coincidentia oppositorum. We need not just difference and union but the union of the two; we need, as I have urged, not just non-duality, but the non-duality of duality with non-duality; and we need not just asymmetry alone, or symmetry alone, but the asymmetry that is symmetry-and-asymmetry taken together.
As I mentioned at the start, this is a short summary. I really enjoyed this chapter and its lessons. It’s nice to be reminded of such things. This extends to the asymmetry of the hemispheres of the brain. As much as I don’t appreciate the imbalance of the left hemisphere in Modernity, I need to be reminded that we just need to tweak the dial a tab to the right. We don’t need the right hemisphere operating at eleven, to share a reference to Spinal Tap.
By fall, I don’t mean autumn except perhaps metaphorically speaking. The accompanying image illustrates a progression from the pre-Enlightenment reformation and the factors leading to the Modern Condition and increases in schizophrenia in people, societies, and enterprises.
This image is essentially composited from a later chapter in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. In it, he outlines a path that commences at the Reformation that led to Lutheranism and Protestantism and further to Calvinism (not separately depicted). Max Weber argued that Capitalism is inextricably linked to Calvinism and the workmanship ideal tradition.
McGilchrists argument is founded on the notion that Catholocism is a communally oriented belief system whilst Protestantism is focused on the individual and salvation through personal work. The essence of capitalism is the same.
Of course, history isn’t strictly linear. In fact, there are more elements than one could realistically account for, so we rely on a reduction. In concert with the Reformation but on a slight delay is the so-called Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, which led not only to faith in science but then to the pathology of Scientism.
This Protestant-Scientismic nexus brought us to Capitalism and into the Industrial Revolution, where humans were devivified or devitalised, trading their souls to be pawns to earn a few shekels to survive. Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution led to Marxism, through Marx’s critique of Capitalism, but Marxism has the same fatal flaw as Capitalism inasmuch as it doesn’t view people as humans. It does afford them a slightly higher function as workers, but this still leaves humanity as a second-tier aspect and even historicity is elevated above as a sort of meta-trend or undercurrent.
From there, we transition to Modernity, which yields the modern condition and schizophrenics in one fell swoop. This is no coincidence.
Although I end this journey at Modernism, McGilchrist is also leery of the effects of post-modernism as well as philosophy itself as overly reductionist in its attempts to categorise and systematise, valuing signs and symbols over lived experience. His main complaint with postmodernism is that it moves from the objective perspective of Modernity to the subjective perspective, and so there remains no base foundation, which is the shared experience. I’m not sure I agree with his critique, but I’m not going to contemplate it here and now.
In the end, this journey and illustration are gross simplifications, but I still feel it provides valuable perspective. The challenge is that one can’t readily put the genie back into the bottle, and the question is where do we go from here, if not Modernism or Postmodernism. I shouldn’t even mention Metamodernism because that seems like an unlikely synthesis, as well-intentioned as it might be. McGilchrist gives examples of reversals in the trend toward left-hemisphere bias, notably the Romantic period, but that too was reversed, recommencing the current trajectory. My feeling is that if we continue down this dark path, we’ll reach a point of no return.
It seems to be that it’s growing at an increasing rate, like a snowball careening down a slope. It not only drives the left-dominant types further left because an analytical person would reinforce the belief that if only s/he and the world were more analytical things would be so much better—even in a world where net happiness is trending downward—, but it also forces this worldview on other cultures, effectively destroying them and assimilating them into the dark side, if I can borrow a Star Wars reference.
I wasn’t planning to share this story—at least not now. In another forum, I responded to a statement, and I was admonished by Professor Stephen Hicks, author of the book of dubious scholarship, Explaining Postmodernism.
I responded to this query:
If you’re a single mother and have a son I’d suggest putting him in a sport or martial arts to add some masculine energy to his life. It’s not a replacement for the actual father but it can help instil structure and discipline into the core of his being.
— Julian Arsenio
“Perhaps this world needs less discipline and structure, not more,” was my response, to which Hicks replied.
The quotation is not about “the world.” It is about boys without fathers. Evaluate the quotation in its context.
— Stephen Hicks
“Disciplined boys create a disciplined world. Not a world I’d prefer to create or live in. We need more right-hemisphere people. Instead, we are being overwhelmed by left hemisphere types, leading to Capitalism and the denouement of humanity as it encroaches like cancer, devouring or corrupting all it touches.
“In the end, it is about the world, which from a left hemisphere perspective is a sum of its parts. Right-hemisphere thinkers know otherwise,” was my reply. He responded,
You seem to have difficulty focusing. From a quotation about fatherless boys you free associate to [sic] weird psychology and global apocalptic [sic] pessimism. Pointless.
— Stephen Hicks
“I’ll suggest that the opposite is true, and perhaps you need to focus less and appreciate the Gestalt. This was not free association. Rather, it is a logical connexion between the disposition of the people in the world and lived reality.
“Clearly, you are a left-hemisphere structured thinker. The world is literally littered with this cohort.
“I suggest broadening your worldview so as not to lose the woods for the trees. I recommend Dr Iain McGilchrist as an apt guide. Perhaps reading The Master and His Emissary and/or The Matter with Things would give you another perspective. #JustSaying”
His final repartee is,
And still, rather than addressing the issue of fatherless boys, you go off on tangents, this time psychologizing about people you’ve zero first-hand knowledge of.
— Stephen Hicks
Feel free to interpret this as you will. For me, his attempt to limit discussion to some notion he had in his head and his failure to see the woods for the trees, as I write, suggests that he is a left-brain thinker. Having watched some of his videos, whether lectures or interviews, this was already evident to me. This exchange is just another proof point.
I considered offering the perspective of Bruno Bettleheim’s importance of unstructured play, but as is evidenced above, he is not open to dialogue. His preference appears to be a monologue. This is the left hemisphere in action. This is an example of how insidious this convergent thinking is, and it makes me worry about what’s ahead in a world of people demanding more structure and discipline. Foucault’s Discipline and Surveillance comes to the forefront.
Creativity is chapter nine of Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things. It also marks the end of part one of three in this two-volume set.
The main thrust is to provide a lot of cases of schizophrenia to elaborate on how the deficits impact perception—and of course, attention and judgment.
This chapter starts off by noting that mental illnesses are not a matter of the brain being broken like a machine. McGilchrist doesn’t much like the analogies to machines or computers, to begin with. Instead, they affect how their world is experienced. They attend to different things, which creates a different perception because we perceive what we attend to.
It is effectively a left-hemisphere challenge, but he is careful to say that we don’t have enough evidence to call it a right-hemisphere deficit. His rationale is that it could be one of these three leading scenarios:
The right hemisphere has deficits.
The left hemisphere is not performing its function to work with the right hemisphere, which is otherwise intact.
The frontal lobe which is supposed to moderate the hemispheres is not performing its function.
Schizophrenia and autism are distinct conditions, but there are some overlaps. He clarifies that schizophrenia and autism are too broad of categories (a situation made worse in the case of autism by the creation of the autism spectrum). There are types of schizophrenias and autisms that would otherwise be unrelated except for psychology’s kitchen junk drawer approach to categorisation, I suppose, following the lead of syndromes in the medical profession. I digress.
These conditions exemplify what it’s like to experience the world with an overreliance on the left hemisphere. A point he wants to make is that he feels society at large is shifting in this direction to the detriment of all concerned, that the world of business, science, politics, and bureaucracy more generally is migrating to a hyper-rational position at the expense of experiential reality.
He praises Louis Sass’s 1992 book Madness and Modernism as “one of the most fascinating, and compelling, books I have ever read”, primarily because it notes the relationship between schizophrenia and Modernism and a modern world that is experiencing an increase in the phenomena of schizophrenia.
McGilchrist goes into detail about how right hemisphere deficits affect perception in schizophrenic patients. I won’t share that level of detail here. Effectively, they miss the forest for the woods and make contextual miscues, lacking in empathy and intuition. Missing this context, they jump to conclusions—invalid conclusions. He goes on to explain this from the perspective of brain construction and physiology whilst extending the conversation to include the autism spectrum, noting a general overlap between these diagnoses.
He invokes the work of Eugène Minkowski—reflecting on the foundational work of Henri Bergson—, which resonated with me, wherein Minkowski tries to simplify and characterise the hemisphere as the left representing intellect and the right being intuition. This feels about right. He shares a list of terms generally representing qualities in schizophrenics that detail what is atrophied in the intuition of the right hemisphere and what is hypertrophied (or exaggerated) in the left hemisphere. I’ll not share this list here, but I like it. He promises to elaborate on this in chapter 22.
Essentially what’s missing is a sense of coherence with experience leading to a detachment from reality as we normally experience it—and a loss of vitality and a sense of self. These people live as outsiders looking in rather than simply feeling a part of the whole. Man becomes a machine built of parts and separate to nature. Everything becomes literal. There is no room for connotation in a denotative world. But this world is disconnected from the presented reality, instead relying on a re-presented version. The world loses depth and becomes a two-dimensional caricature.
My summary of this chapter left many details unsaid, probably more so than the preceding chapters, so a lot of context and nuance is missing. My biggest takeaway is really the scary connexion between schizophrenia and Modernity. It is far from comforting. Add to this the positive feedback loop otherwise known as a vicious cycle as societies more and more adopt a left hemisphere perspective, that of a schizophrenic, and it becomes scarier still. To make matters worse, this is not metaphorical. It’s analogical. I’m not sure how to reverse this tide.
This wraps up the chapter on schizophrenia, autism and the rest. As I mentioned at the start, this also marks the end of part one of the book. The next chapter is “What is Truth?” This will allow the reader to delve more deeply into various aspects of truth, from science to reason to intuition and imagination. This second part of the books takes us to the end of the first volume, traversing us through chapters ten to nineteen.
What are your thoughts on mental illnesses like schizophrenia and autism, especially around how they may shed light on neurotypical persons and the relationship between these and modern society?
The book arrives as two volumes split into three sections. Part one is the foundation the rest of the book builds on. I’ve recently finished it and summarised each chapter, but I feel a high-level chapter orientation would be in order. Part one contains nine chapters:
As this book is a follow-up to The Master and His Emissary, published in 2008, Iain has already laid much of the foundation for it. Moreover, he doesn’t assume that you’ve already read The Master and His Emissary, and the work leading up to it, so this is what he outlines here as he drops hints of what’s to come in the chapters ahead.
This chapter reminds us that we cannot perceive what we don’t attend to, to pay attention to. The world outside just is, and we can attend to this or to that. From there, our perception will develop, perhaps, in turn, drawing out attention elsewhere.
As is a thread throughout, Iain uses various mental illnesses and split cerebral hemispheres to make his points. In this case, he tells us how neuro-atypical people have attention challenges, whether attending to the ‘wrong’ or otherwise inappropriate things or attending to too many things at once, flittering from this to that to the next thing without pause or resolution.
This chapter articulates how we perceive after attention has been focused. Perception is based on prior experience and knowledge combines with new sensory inputs.
Following the trend of people with hemisphere disturbances, Iain reminds us that people coming from different experiential places will perceive the same scenario differently. And if they are attending to the ‘wrong’ stimulus, their perception may be limited to that context, even if that micro-focused scope is otherwise correct.
For some reason, Iain uses the American English spelling of Judgment, which in this case happens to be my preferred rendition, though my spell-checker disagrees.
In this chapter, we move from attention and perception to now being able to make judgements in this space. Of course, if we’ve attended to the ‘wrong’ thing leading to a variant perception, our judgment may be similarly out of order. Following the American trend, let’s say I am watching a baseball match, and the umpire calls a ball thrown out of the strike zone as a strike. If instead, my attention was distracted to another person in the stands picking his nose, my perception of the strike situation would be peripheral at best, and I would be in no place to make a judgment—about the pitch in any case. I may likely have plenty of judgment about the nose-picker.
In a nutshell, judgment is a left hemisphere function. The right hemisphere simply doesn’t care to judge. It’s a dispassionate observer taking in all without even categorising, let alone judging.
In this chapter, Iain explains that he is employing the term apprehension classically to mean to grasp or hold onto. This is a left hemisphere function as well. The right hemisphere is not grasping. Deficits in the right hemisphere don’t allow one to view the world in context as a whole. The left hemisphere will just see things are disconnected parts, so whilst we might grasp and apprehend, our comprehension is deficient. Without a robust big picture, we may just grasp at things indiscriminately.
Emotional and social intelligence
This chapter and the next are about intelligences. As the name suggests, this chapter is concerned with emotional and social intelligence. For me, I think of the Raymond character in Rain Man, itself the result of a misperception of the name Raymond for the phrase ‘Rain Man”. Raymond is devoid of emotional and social intelligence. He is limited to mechanistic cognitive intelligence and is a fine example of what one looks like without the other.
This chapter reminds us that the right hemisphere not only constructs our sense of self, but it also facilitates the construction of other selves, which allows us to empathise with others. It also allows us to assess intent. It allows us to see the value of the whole of society. Of which we are parts rather than thinking that we are simply parts that make up the whole. This is an important distinction. This is what happens with the ego of the left hemisphere denies the Gestalt of the right.
This second chapter on intelligence focuses on the cognitive variety. It’s what we think of when we consider IQ scores and such. It’s the reasoning part of the brain. It’s about rote learning and reciting trivia and perceived facts as re-presented by the left hemisphere.
In this chapter on creativity, we are told that this is a right hemisphere function. To be creative, the best advice to keep the left hemisphere from engaging and interrupting. Creativity comes to us holistically. It is not the result of a process. It is an absence of process. Thinking and analysis are the antitheses of creativity. This is a case where less definitely is more.
What schizophrenia and autism can tell us
Each of the chapters touches on aspects of schizophrenia and other mental illnesses and situations where the hemispheres get disconnected or out of whack. In this chapter, Iain drives the point home with a focus on these cases and what it can tell us about these neuro-atypical conditions.
People assume that schizophrenics and autism spectrum people are irrational, but this is precisely incorrect. In fact, it’s the opposite. These people are hyper-rational at the expense of empathy and social intelligence. It’s not a surprise that we are seeing more schizophrenics these days. Neither is it a surprise that we see a modern society that more and more resembles schizophrenia. But I digress.
This was only meant to give a high-level vantage to connect the chapters of part one of The Matter with Things. I give more comprehensive summaries on my blog. This will give you more of an idea, but my recommendation is to read the book itself as well as The Master and His Emissary which I recommend reading first. Don’t be like me.
Given the number of posts related to Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things, I created a content index followed by a PDF copy of the table of contents for no reason in particular. I hope this doesn’t infringe on any copyrights.
In the last chapters, the topics were about different intelligences. As we’ll see, intelligence is one of the factors for creativity, but there are more. Let’s crack on.
Creativity is an elusive phenomenon that cannot only not be summoned at will, the very act of trying inhibits it. Unlike left-hemisphere-oriented intelligence, there are no simple tests for creativity because of their very nature. Assessing the left-hemisphere is relatively simple because it is systematic and any tests have definite known solutions—whether calculating some figure, solving a puzzle, choosing analogies, or recounting some trivia. There is no such test for creating something not yet created, but there are some proxies that most people categorically fail.
Psychologist, Colin Martindale, had this to say about the personal characteristics of creativity
“Creativity is a rare trait. This is presumably because it requires the simultaneous presence of a number of traits (e.g., intelligence, perseverance, unconventionality, the ability to think in a particular manner). None of these traits is especially rare. What is quite uncommon is to find them all present in the same person.”
— Colin Martindale
Whereas the left hemisphere is analytical, the right hemisphere (hence creativity) is a Gestalt. When given a difficult time-boxed challenge, the left hemisphere dominant individual who does not arrive at the expected response on time will commit to and defend an incorrect response (think escalating commitment), and the right hemisphere dominant individual will simply not commit to a response under the thought that there were still options to be explored.
Effectively, creativity can be broken down into three phases: preparation, incubation, and illumination.
Preparation is simply the accumulation of a particular domain of knowledge. For an artist, it will be to understand, perhaps, colour, shape, texture, form, shadow, media, or so forth; for a musician, it might be to understand melody, harmony, tempo, timbre, dynamics, and so on; for a mathematician, it might be basic arithmetic, theories, proofs, and on and on. It’s also important to note that accumulated information in multiple domains also forms a foundation leveraged by many polymaths.
Incubation is simply waiting for something to grow in the prepared garden. Incubation is an unconscious activity and cannot be controlled or accessed by the conscious mind. In fact, conscious effort and introspection will serve only to impede cultivation. Digging up planted seeds to see how they are growing will only hinder the process.
Illumination is the final phase. Again, this is unwilled. Prepared and incubated flowers bloom. Of course, this is an imperfect metaphor because the ground must already have been fertile at the start. Tossing seeds on fallow ground still yields no blooms no matter how carefully attended.
In essence, for the creative individual, the best we can do is to leave well enough alone. Anything but space and permission will kill the creative impulse.
McGilchrist discusses generative, permissive, and translational requirements.
“The key element in generation seems to be the ability to think of many diverse ideas quickly, demanding breadth, flexibility and analogical thinking – seeing likeness within apparent dissimilarity.” This can be summed up as divergent thinking. This is the openness afforded by the right hemisphere as opposed to the convergent behaviour of the left. As it happens, this is where artificial intelligence falls flat as it is predicated on convergent activity.
The right hemisphere Gestalten surveys the environment and notes otherwise unperceived parallels. It is not a systematic approach. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”
Schopenhauer sums it up nicely, “Talent hits a target no-one else can hit; genius hits a target no-one else can see”.
Citing Isaac Asimov writing about Darwin’s insight, he notes that before Darwin, many people had read Malthus and studied species, but they lacked the creative spark that Darwin had.
Steve Jobs noted that
“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things … A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So, they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”
— Steve Jobs
This is a failing of the business world and of specialisation more generally. McGilchrist writes, “Linear approaches and analytic thinking, characteristic of the left hemisphere, are fine in the right context, and may at a subsequent phase take part in creativity by narrowing things down and eliminating some of them, but on their own will not achieve creativity”.
There is a direct link between intelligence and creativity. Ego crushes creativity.
He again cites Asimov:
“My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it …The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.”
— Isaac Asimov
Some people excel at maths, but many are systematic and procedural left-hemisphere types; they apply logic and reason—insert tab A into slot B. The famous mathematicians understand the procedures, but their ideas come from intuition rather than reason. The left hemisphere doesn’t recognise this as a viable vector, and therein lies the rub. “Math is not about following directions; it’s about making new directions,” writes mathematician Paul Lockhart.
This is why we hear so many accounts of aha moments, something coming to one person in a dream or Isaac Newton’s falling apple anecdote.
Einstein told Max Wertheimer, founder of Gestalt psychology, “These thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward”. Words are a left-hemisphere phenomenon.
Many accomplished musicians hear a piece whole. All they need to do is to compose it to staff paper or perform it. We hear this regularly: “I was driving from here to there and it just came to me. All I needed to do is to remember it long enough to get it down.”
I found McGilchrist’s inclusion of hemispheric damage quite interesting. He provides many examples of artists, composers, and poets, but I’ll only summarise them. For musicians and Artists with right hemisphere damage, those who even retained the urge to create did so at a lower quality level. However, those with left hemisphere damage operated at the same level and oftentimes at a higher level, without the inhibition and censorship of the left hemisphere.
It’s important to note that most people rely on both hemispheres. When I write left hemisphere dominant, I mean to say that either the right hemisphere simply underperforms or that the left hemisphere does not cede control back to the right hemisphere. Generally speaking, both hemispheres experience the world, and a strong right hemisphere will act as air traffic controller, or perhaps have the right of first refusal, but this is a loose metaphor because sometimes the left hemisphere just fields an experience and takes its best guess how to handle it even if it should have been fielded by the right hemisphere and even if the left hemisphere provides the wrong answer. The left hemisphere is the hemisphere of the ego and identity, so it is somewhat relentless and defensive even when it is wrong.
As a side note, I trust that political identity and escalating commitment are left-hemisphere activities and why modern Western politics feel so intractable.
After a strong argument for right hemisphere dominance and divergent thinking being hallmarks of creativity, he offers some counter-evidence and counters some of it.
A paper by Arne Dietrich and Riam Kanso co-authored a book citing instances of convergent thought processes that led to something innovative or creative. At the onset, McGilchrist calls them out for conflating problem-solving with creativity. In the end, the left hemisphere does play a role. He calls this the translational phase. Essentially, this is Mozart having heard his symphony and needing to put his thoughts to paper. Or the poet.
He goes off on a bit of a tangent noting how words pale concepts, and divergence and convergence are no exception. This fits in with my own insufficiency of language theory, but McGilchrist and I have different rationales for our arguments, so I’ll not side-track this summary.
He cites some statistics correlating creativity with mental health disorders and incidences of suicide. This will set the reader up perfectly for the next chapter about schizophrenia and autism.
In summary, creativity has got me riled up more than in the previous chapters. This is partially due to how it comports with my own observations. I have always felt that humans are not very creative or innovative despite protests to the contrary. In fact, I’ve often commented when I’ve heard people say something like “artificial intelligence will never create the next…” Fill in the blank: Mozart, Picasso, Michelangelo, Nabokov, Wordsworth. Or Einstein. Of course, neither will a human be the next of these.
All these people are right cerebral hemisphere dominant. AI operates systematically, in the manner of the left hemisphere. None of these people built up systematically. Instead, their ideas were wholly formed, and their creations were reductive rather than additive. Famously, Michelangelo was to have said, “The sculpture is already complete within the marble block before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” He sees the solution first and then builds towards it.
In my professional life, I have been a strategist as a management consultant as well as a business analyst. In each case, I could quickly assess a situation and then spend weeks or months defending my intuition with words, diagrams, and numbers.
As a business analyst, I would offer a recommendation, and this would need to come with an estimate to deliver the recommendation. This figure would come to me in a matter of minutes. Then, per protocol, I would need to enter micro-level details into a pricing model so it could calculate from the ground up. First, this was time-consuming. Second, this would be circulated for review where different people would (almost invariably) reduce the number of hours estimated, typically due to pressure to reduce the cost. Ultimately, a number would be output and tendered to the client or the person footing the bill. Again (almost invariably), the number initially intuited was more accurate and reflective of what was ultimately invoiced. Unfortunately, business is a left-hemisphere endeavour, and that will be its Achilles’ heel and denouement.
This wraps up the chapter on Creativity. The next chapter is “what schizophrenia and autism can tell us”, and is the end of part one of The Matter with Things.
What are your thoughts and experiences with creativity now that you’ve heard McGilchrist’s take?
Following Emotional and Social Intelligence and the rest, Chapter 7 of The Matter with Things is Cognitive Intelligence.
In the last chapter, we learned that Emotional and Social Intelligence are the provinces of the right hemisphere. In this chapter, we discover more of the same. Whilst the left hemisphere has its duties and functions, it’s primarily a delegate. Let’s jump right in.
Under the old pseudoscientific mode of thinking, the left hemisphere was the logical side whilst the right hemisphere was creative. It turns out that this is not correct. At its core, intelligence is about understanding. Keep in mind that there are multiple kinds of intelligence—not referring to multiple intelligence theory, per se. Besides the emotional and social sort discussed at length in the last chapter, there is a sort of rote intelligence. This is where the left hemisphere excels. The left hemisphere is symbolic and algorithmic. It has facilitated the making of computers and other instruments that allow us to extend our intelligence, but these are not sources of intelligence. In a conceit to his previous book, The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist notes that the left brain is effectively the emissary, the junior partner in the relationship, and not really even a partner as the right hemisphere seems to call all the shots when it’s intact.
He tells a story about a geneticist who declared to a biologist that the notion of intelligence was quite meaningless. The biologist retorted that he (the geneticist) was unintelligent, and the two never spoke again. Clearly, the notion is that whilst it may be ill-defined, it nonetheless contains meaning.
I share the working definition of intelligence that he shared, taken from the journal Intelligence and cited in the Wall Street Journal in 1994.
Intelligence is a very general mental capacity which, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings – ‘catching on’, ‘making sense’ of things, or ‘figuring out’ what to do.
As noted, there are several flavours of intelligence, even if they are attempted to be captured as G, general intelligence. This can be separated into crystallised intelligence (Gc) and fluid intelligence (Gf). Crystallised intelligence is more culturally bound than fluid intelligence and is more the domain of the left hemisphere. Generally, this is what IQ tests aim to measure.
Two criticisms of IQ tests are the cultural bias and the rote nature of the tests. As it happens, trends show that IQ is generally on the rise despite a feeling that people are getting dimmer. This may be because this rise represents the shift toward left hemisphere thinking, an alarming topic he’ll cover more in future chapters. We’re witnessing a trade-off between creative thinkers for intelligent rote automatons—the type of people more easily supplanted by computers and automation. Even as IQs are apparently increasing, undergraduate professors are complaining in higher numbers about how unprepared their incoming students are. I can add my experience anecdotally to this list. I recall chatting with a physics professor who complained that he had to devote some 20 per cent of his class time to teach students the same prerequisite maths, which meant that he had to cut this from his intended time to teach physics.
As a student, one of my physics teachers said he wouldn’t demerit much for maths errors because this was, after all, a physics course. Again, this was a reaction to many students not being prepared. They just had different approaches to handling the deficits. And don’t get me started on grade inflation.
The right hemisphere is the realm of fluid intelligence and is activated more in gifted persons. This affords creative problem-solving.
Let me editorialise here in place. Sometimes we hear that this or that person is good at maths, but it turns out that this is not a simple declaration. A person who studies geometry, trigonometry, and calculus and can perform the functions may simply perform all of this rote activity in the left hemisphere. Because someone can do maths a few levels above us may feel like this person is good at maths, but this may not make this person actually good at maths.
A few years ago, I read the introduction to a book whose title I’ve long forgotten. In this introduction, the author had excelled at left hemisphere maths and got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics. Whilst pondering whether to pursue a PhD, in a moment of self-reflection, he decided not to. He was an A student and the pride of his family, but he had to work hard at maths. Then he considered some of the other classmates who seemed to perform the tasks effortlessly. He could do maths, but they could think maths.
This reminds me of the story of a young Carl Gauss whilst he was still in elementary school. Don’t worry. I’ll get back to the summary presently. Gauss’ teacher was hoping to keep the students occupied, so he assigned them the task of summing the numbers 1 through 100.
Eight-year-old Gauss considered the problem. He noticed a pattern and worked out the answer in his head after a few seconds—5050. Gauss excelled at maths naturally. He noticed that pairing each ascending integer from 0 to 100 created values of 100; 1 and 99; 2 and 98, 3 and 97 … 49 and 51. There are 50 such groupings with a product of 5,000 and 50 left over, so 5,050. Easy Peezy.
And now we return to regularly scheduled programming.
Another interesting characteristic of the hemispheres is that the left hemisphere operates serially whilst the right hemisphere operates in parallel, metaphorically speaking, of course. The right hemisphere is the Gestalt operator, which is a problem as McGilchrist sees it given the leftward shift in the sciences, losing the woods for the trees. Moreover, as we are forced into the constraints of business and bureaucracies, we are forced into a left hemisphere perspective, which may create a vicious epigenetic cycle or a downward spiral.
In summary, the right hemisphere not only contributes to the majority of emotional and social intelligence as discussed in the last chapter, but it is also the workhorse of cognitive power.
Before ending, I want to share one more elucidation. I was reading elsewhere about critical thinking, and an example given was an emergency room nurse triaging patients—prioritising the treatment of patients. I wholly disagree. This is algorithmic thinking, not critical thinking. It could easily be done by a computer. In fact, in the late 1980s, I was working with so-called expert systems, which were the AI hype of the day in wave 3.0. We are now in wave 4.0 and it is still hype. Only nowadays it’s deep learning, machine learning, visual recognition, edge computing, and robotic process automation. The only difference is that technology has driven costs down, so they are more accessible to more people and can be run on more powerful computers. For the uninitiated, there is no intelligence in artificial intelligence. So, it’s less artificial and more non-existent.
Yet again, I am left wondering what this left hemisphere is good for. It seems to do less than 20 per cent of the work and does half of that poorly. Not exactly someone you’d pick for your team. Of course, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my left hemisphere, but still.
That about wraps up the chapter on Cognitive Intelligence. Next up is chapter eight on Creativity. If you think this will focus more on the right hemisphere, I’ll bet you’re right. I hope you’ll join me.
What are your thoughts on intelligence and the hemispheres’ split duties? Did anything surprise you? Was there anything of particular interest?
Chapter 6 of The Matter with Things is titled Emotional and Social Intelligence, following the previous chapters, Attention, Perception, Judgment, and Apprehension. Chapter 7 is about cognitive intelligence.
The gist of chapter 6 is to convey the importance of emotional and social intelligence in forming a full picture of the world. Absent these, reality becomes increasingly tenuous to retain a grip on because the left hemisphere just doesn’t have the emotional awareness to grasp the full picture.
At the start, this chapter reminds us that the right hemisphere not only constructs our sense of self, but it also facilitates the construction of other selves, which allows us to empathise with others. It also allows us to assess intent. And it goes deeper than this.
McGilchrist shares some anecdotes about schizophrenic patients with impaired right hemispheres who believe that nothing is real and that people are play-acting. In hospital, they perceive the ward to be a stage and the medical staff to be actors.
As if by a control knob, changes to the right hemisphere may create a diminished sense of reality as well as an intensified sense—of being hyperaware. This is not dissimilar to certain claims by some with heightened lucidity; however, the data do not permit a clear-cut conclusion. On a related note, the intensified sense may also increase emotional reactions, so one might be more prone to crying—whether tears of joy or sadness.
Abnormal electrical activity in the right hemisphere can heighten a sense of familiarity leading to a sense of déjà vu. A diminished sense has the contrary effect, reducing a sense of familiarity, leading to a sense of jamais vu, ‘never before seen’, Related to déjà vu, there have been cases of déjà vécu, ‘already experienced’ (rather than seen). Together, over 86% of these phenomena are associated with the right hemisphere.
Recall that each hemisphere controls the body contralaterally, so the right hemisphere controls the left side of the body—hands and arms, eyes, and so on. And it’s deeper than this. For example, being the arbiter of empathy, the left hand (being controlled by the right hemisphere) is used for empathetic touch. Beyond humans, bottleneck dolphins tend to stroke other dolphins with their left flippers.
This affects humans and other animals with a sort of left-eye empathy that even affects how babies are held or otherwise attended to, preferring the left side of the body over the right.
Theory of mind (ToM), a topic in its own right, is a right hemisphere-dominant capability that allows us to empathise with another or to put ourselves into another’s shoes. This ability extends to other species like elephants, apes and dogs, whales and dolphins, crows and magpies, and goats and seals.
The left hemisphere is good at understanding the what of actions, say picking up a cup or flicking a switch; it’s not so great at discerning the why. Recall in a previous chapter the case of the person with right hemisphere damage automatically picking up a pen or pencil but then not having anything particular in mind to write. The left hemisphere noticed the pen as a writing instrument and picked it up. Without the right hemisphere to provide the why, this person just kept accumulating writing implements.
This can be seen in children with autism. They recognise well enough that a person is doing something—performing some action—, but they just can’t understand why.
He tells us that “a huge body of evidence confirms that the right hemisphere is much superior to the left in receiving, interpreting, recalling or understanding anything that involves emotion.”
I’ll just share one example, and McGilchrist provides common responses from persons with both hemispheres intact as well as responses with right hemisphere deficits. For image b, a ‘normal’ response is for the respondent to fill in the boy’s talk bubble with ‘Boy, she’s cute.’ A couple of right hemisphere deficit responses were ‘I wonder how big her allowance is’ and ‘Let’s arm-wrestle’, obviously missing context.
The right hemisphere is responsible for understanding emotion, irony, jokes and humour—and the ability to tell the difference between jokes and lies. When told a joke and given an opportunity to fill in the punchline, the language of right hemisphere deficit patients ‘is often excessive and rambling; their comments are often off-colour and their humour is frequently inappropriate; they tend to focus on insignificant details or make tangential remarks’. Moreover, when asked to reconvey a story, the right hemisphere deficit people produced an ‘abundance of embellishments’ to it.
Other right hemisphere functions are the ability to grasp the semantic nuance and intonation of a speaker. One subject with right hemisphere resection asked, ‘How do you feel?’ He responded, ‘With my hands,’ but he wasn’t joking.
People who have undergone a right hemispherectomy demonstrate a ‘shallow affect, rigidity, [and] lack of imagination’. The left hemisphere seems to prefer denotative speech whilst the right prefers connotative, hence a broader set of possible meanings. Interestingly, yet perhaps not surprisingly, clichés are the domain of the left hemisphere. Poetry and music reside on the right.
Wrapping up this chapter, the right hemisphere tends to serve as the emotional centre, save for anger, which is a left hemisphere activity.
In summary, the left brain is very focused. Damage to the right hemisphere mimics the responses of autistic and schizophrenic individuals who interpret inputs differently and without nuance. This nuance often contains emotional or empathetic content that is lost on this cohort.
I am left wondering if schizophrenia and autism are right hemisphere problems, as it were, or if I would be reading into things to arrive at this conclusion.
Having completed Emotional and Social Intelligence next up is a chapter on Cognitive Intelligence. I hope you’ll join me.
What are your thoughts? What did you think of this chapter? Were there any surprises? Anything of particular interest?