Creativity and Humour

One of my themes in this blog has been the over-dominance of left brain as against right brain in current Western societies. This was the subject of Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary, reviewed here in 2016. So I was delighted to come across this video of McGilchrist in conversation with John Cleese (of Fawlty Towers fame) on the subject of Creativity, Humour and The Meaning of Life, and their essential relationship with the right brain.

To pick just two points that it inspired for me:

  • Comedy is essentially ‘right brain’, and is not ‘politically correct’ or ‘woke’. Comedy depends on irreverence, and being able to laugh at things that are potentially forbidden subjects. Just think of those TV images of masses of men leading the Soviet Politburo or the central committee of the Chinese Communist Party. Not much comedy in those solemn faces.
  • Meaning, imagination and inspiration are very much related to right brain. Have you noticed just how boring politicians are on the media when they are in the process of spouting some ‘party line’ that the left brain is following? The only interesting speakers on programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time are those with the freedom to speak out from their own life experience.

You will have your own takeaways from listening to this fascinating conversation between an outstanding academic/psychiatrist and a top class comedian. The video is in 3 parts of around 20 minutes each. The first part follows, and will naturally lead you on to the others..

What is Philosophy for?

Mary Midgley was 99 when this book was published. This was also the year she died. What was so important as to keep this English philosopher active to such a great age? She had seen generations of academics come and go, and observed the follies of many thinkers in varying disciplines, who even denigrated the purpose of philosophy itself. She’d probably fought many battles. And now she had the clarity to write in a small volume what was the essence of the need for philosophy, in the process pointing out its wide range of applicability and the limitations of its critics. This is a wonderful, clear and refreshing book, remarkable for one of such advanced years.

So what is philosophy for? Midgley has a simple answer, in the spirit of a whole line of philosophers since the time of Socrates: “it is surely the effort to examine our life as a whole, to make sense of it, to locate its big confusions and resolve its big conflicts.” She goes on to ask why people need to study philosophy at all: “because it explains the relations between different ways of thinking”, suggesting that new developments in thought largely come from seeing across the disciplines, rather than from following tracks within them.

Midgley lived through the times when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and academia in the UK was required to become more ‘relevant’. Many traditional philosophy departments were forced to close and what were left focused on the business of ‘research’. Her attitude to such research is well expressed: “…I don’t do any, because I’m certainly not organizing any static mining operation of this kind. I suppose that instead I try to follow the argument (as Plato said) wherever it runs, and I may finally catch it in a territory quite far from the one where it started.”

Why did she write the book?

What makes me write books is usually exasperation, and this time it was a rather general exasperation against the whole reductive, scientistic, mechanistic, fantasy-ridden creed which still constantly distorts the world-view of our age.

This gives a good clue as to the content. I will pick out a few areas where Midgley’s views are far from the mainstream, but largely accord with the ideas you have read in this blog and elsewhere on the needs for a New Renaissance.

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What’s primary?

I was interested in this post from The Two Doctors which brings philosophy into the consideration of wine tasting. He writes of the philosophy of  John Locke (1632-1704):

“Among Locke’s simple ideas is a distinction between those experiences that are primary qualities of objects and others that are secondary qualities. The distinction divides those qualities thought to be essential and inherent to all objects and those that are apparent only on account of the effect that the objects have on our senses. Primary qualities include solidity, shape, motion or rest, and number. Secondary qualities are those such as scent and taste. These are secondary because, according to Locke, they do not inhere/reside in the objects themselves, but are causally produced only in our minds by the effect of an object’s primary qualities upon our senses. Another way of conceiving them is to say primary qualities are objective (really exist) and secondary ones subjective (only exist in the minds of observers).”

This suggests an interesting point in history, where a judgement is applied to the inner/outer or subjective/objective polarity that lies at the heart of existence. In defining the objective (left brain) stuff as primary, and the subjective (right brain) stuff as merely secondary, Locke is applying a judgement that resounds in history, leading to the modern materialistic world and much denial of interiority and spirituality.

Locke could have expressed it the other way round, ie that the subjective is primary (really exists) and the objective merely secondary (only exists as a mental construct). This might have led to a world view where consciousness is seen as primary, rather than the material world. How different history might have been!

Of course, actually there’s no question of primary and secondary, we are speaking of two aspects of a fundamental polarity of existence.

The foraging blackbird

It’s been a hot day, I need exercise in the cool of the evening. I go for a brisk walk. At length, I find myself walking quickly, mind engaged on some problem or other, unaware of the surroundings.

With that awareness I step back, internally rather than literally. I become engaged with the world around. Trees become alive. My walk has a smoother quality, a bit slower, somehow deeper. Birds are singing their evensong. A breeze arises and then falls away. A blackbird forages close by in the hedge. The full moon is full of meaning as it skates between the branches and hides behind buildings, to reappear in the gaps.

I interpret this as the difference between living in the world and living in the mind’s abstractions, living with the whole brain-body, not just the left brain.

Featured image of blackbird by Stulli, via Wikemedia Commons

Maps and reality

“The map is not the territory”

Alfred Korzybski, 1931

In his excellent book Taking Appearance Seriously, Henri Bortoft expresses succinctly the effect of the brain’s left hemisphere in overriding the lived experience registered by the right hemisphere (in line with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary):

“Where the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation – it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for experience itself.”

Not only does this result in scientists confusing their maps of reality with reality itself (see earlier post), it leads to much of our lives being led at second hand, as we focus on our conceptual maps of what is going on, rather than on the real lived experience. This is perhaps a contribution to the disconnection from body mentioned in my post reviewing In Touch.

This is not intended as a criticism of the left hemisphere, indeed this is where social media such as blogs largely reside. It is just that we do need to be aware of what is going on and ‘remember’ our real selves.

Featured image by Allan Ajifo –, CC BY 2.0,


Presence or represent

In his book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought, Henri Bortoft gives an interesting insight into the two modes of being present in the world, which he relates to the left and right hemispheres of the brain as outlined by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary, which he quotes:

“the right hemisphere delivers what is new as it ‘presences‘ – before the left hemisphere gets to represent it.”

Bortoft goes on to say:

“Where the right hemisphere mediates the lived experience of wholeness, the left hemisphere mediates its representation – it replaces experience with a model of experience, which then gets confused with and mistaken for the experience itself.”

This is surely a crucial confusion that lies at the heart of the modern project. Rather than living within the world and nature as an integral part of it (right hemisphere), we live in the world at second hand in the abstracted meaning (left hemisphere) that occurs to us following the experience. Having lost that direct connection with nature as it presences, we treat it as an external object to be exploited and dominated. Look around you – the evidence is before your eyes.

It happened in Europe from about the time following the Renaissance. And it was arguably a necessary development of humanity. Now however, it is becoming imperative to readjust the relationship, so that direct experience of nature has equal status with our abstractions, such as science, technology, economics, capitalism, materialism… Dominance by abstractions is leading us into a nightmare world.

The New Renaissance must involve reconnection with our essential nature, a balance between left and right hemispheres.

My post on Presence gives another perspective on that word.
Featured image by Allan Ajifo, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Environment

The language we use shows what we care about. When we talk about the natural world, notably in the media, there is that psychological distancing by using the term ‘the environment’, as if it were something out there to be exploited and controlled. People who care about the natural world and point to facets of the natural world that are being degraded, polluted, driven to extinction and so on are disparagingly referred to as ‘environmentalists’, as if they were somehow inexplicable activists for some impossible ideal state.

It is only the logical left brain that can act in this way. When right brain is engaged we cannot but help be in connection and empathy with the natural world, so that it really matters, just as much as our human artifacts, jobs, economies and so on.

The Paris climate accord was a left brain agreement which concluded that something must be done to stop the threat posed by global warming to this great left brain civilisation.

Thus, the species extinctions, increasing denatured environments, desertification and pollution are only treated seriously when perceived to be a threat to this left brain world. Otherwise, species and ecological communities can go hang, just like the dodo. Only the right brain grieves.

The need is clear. We are a part of nature, we are nature. We know that when we engage full faculties. There is no separate ‘environment’ – we are the natural world, we are it and slowly, in our technological trance, we are setting about trashing ourselves and our future.

It’s time to wake.

To quote Christopher Fry from a different context:

But will you wake for pity’s sake!

Featured image including dodo by Sir Thomas Herbert (d. 1682), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Master and His Emissary

The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

master emissary coverReview of the book by Iain McGilchrist. This review is an edited version of one that was first published in Conjunction, the magazine of the Astrological Psychology Association in 2011.  I believe that these ideas need to be much more widely understood. I have included some astrological analogies in parentheses for those familiar with the astrological planets.

This book is about the brain and its left- and right- hemispheres. Most of us are aware that there is something about the hemispheres and what they are good at – the left being better at speech, logic, abstraction and science, and the right being better at feeling, sensation, holistic perspective and the arts. [Astrology has of course for millennia recognised these different perspectives on humanity by the two ‘intelligence’ planets Mercury (‘left brain’) and Jupiter (‘right brain’).]

Iain McGilchrist is a former psychiatrist, neural researcher and teacher of English at Oxford University and has felt impelled to write this book to alert us to the dangers of a current imbalance between the  two hemispheres, which imperils our very existence. The left brain has usurped the right and put itself in a dominant position in human affairs, a role to which it is not suited and which leads us to the precipice…

The book is in two parts. The first part looks at the science of the brain, and the latest neurological research, to give an up-to-date perspective on this essential brain asymmetry and the roles taken by the two hemispheres. The result is a rather more subtle picture than the popularly understood characterisation presented so far.

Research shows that, in both humans and animals, the right hemisphere is of crucial importance for mediating new experience via the senses [Jupiter], aware of signals coming from the environment, whereas the left hemisphere gives the narrow, focused attention necessary for getting and feeding. The right sees things whole and in context; the left sees them abstracted [Mercury] from context and broken into parts.

However, this difference is asymmetrical, corresponding to two different levels of being in the world. The right brain corresponds to human and animal experience in the world before the intervention of language; the left creates abstraction, which is but a model of the real world. So in effect the right brain perceives the world as it really is, whereas the left brain creates its own self-contained virtual world, which it maps onto the real world.

Of course, the left brain is intelligent, so the map is continually refined to relate more closely to reality – see e.g. the development of the scientific and technological world over the past 400 years. But there is also disturbing evidence over the ages of its tendency to develop fixed viewpoints which are not necessarily well-adapted to reality, resulting in disturbing episodes such as the Inquisition, Wars of Religion, witch trials, the Terror following the French Revolution, the Nazi search for supremacy, and so on.

Research shows that the right hemisphere alone can bring into the experience something new, whereas the left largely handles things that it ‘already knows’. The left takes a ‘short term view’, whereas the right sees the ‘bigger picture’. The right sees the ‘whole’, whereas the left is concerned with the ‘parts’. The right understands context, meaning and metaphor, whereas the left is the hemisphere of abstraction – taking things out of context. The right is ‘personal’, the left is ‘impersonal’. The right has affinity with the ‘living’, the left with the ‘mechanical’. The right with empathy and social behaviour, the left with autism. The right hemisphere handles emotional expression and recognition, with the exception of aggression and anger, which are left-dominated.

When it comes to reason, the right is associated with insight, and the left with explicit thought processes. Thus all scientific advancement is initiated from the right hemisphere. The right also plays the major role in the appreciation of music, time and depth of space. The right is more self-aware; denial , boredom, depression and schizophrenia being specialities of the left. The left also has a tendency to positive feedback and becoming ‘stuck’. The left is always engaged in a purpose; the right has a relationship of concern with whatever happens to be.

All of this research gives a picture of two hemispheres with radically different approaches to the world, both of which are necessary to our experience. The right aligns with the unconscious; the left with the conscious mind. The right with common sense, the left with what is required by rules and systems. The integration of the two essentially comes from a process of ‘imagination’. The new originates in the insight of the right, transfers to the left for ‘unpacking’ and then is given life by being taken back and validated by the right. Both are necessary, but the right needs to be dominant for healthy operation of this ‘system’.

You will see from the above characterisations that the modern Western world is dominated by left hemisphere characteristics, and indeed this has been increasingly the case since the time of the Scientific Revolution.

The second part of the book looks at ‘how our brain has shaped the world’ and the influence of left and right brain on the development of our culture over the millennia. Broadly there is a succession of shifts of balance between the two.

Crudely, the right was dominant in ancient Greece before the time of Plato, followed by a gradual shift to left-dominance through Roman times until this crystallised into the Dark Ages, which also corresponded with the institutionalisation of Christianity.

The right is reconnected with in the 12th century ‘Early Renaissance’ followed by the Renaissance proper, inspired by the recovery of much of the ancient Greek knowledge, followed by the Reformation and Scientific Revolution. With the so-called Enlightenment the left takeover began, with a hiatus of Romanticism eventually submerged in the glamour of the Industrial Revolution and Capitalism, both left-hemisphere driven.

But it is only the 20th century that sees signs of a closing off of the ‘escape routes’ of art and religion, with a ‘conceptualising’ of art and music, a utilitarian modernism, the loss of meaning in post-modernism and scientism’s denial of religious experience, etc.

The left hemisphere has taken over and usurped its master, the right. It is observed that the East Asian cultures are less left-skewed, which might offer signs of hope.

Is the author’s analysis correct – has the emissary [Mercury, the messenger] usurped its master [Jupiter, king of the gods]? As he says, it certainly is a metaphor which has some valuable truth for us today. I can live with that, and came from reading his book a little bit wiser about how we got where we are today.

Should you read it? Just be aware that McGilchrist is an academic, and there are 460 pages to read, plus 120 pages of notes and bibliography. For me the effort was well worthwhile.