>>Rick Archer: Welcome to Buddha at the Gas Pump. My name is Rick Archer. Buddha at the Gas Pump is an ongoing series of interviews with spiritually awakening people. I’ve done over 560 of them. Now, if this is new to you and you’d like to check out previous ones, please go to batgap.com – b a t g a p – and look under the past interviews menu. This program is made possible through the support of appreciative listeners and viewers. So if you appreciate it and would like to help support it, there’s a PayPal button on every page of the website. And there’s also a page explaining other ways to support it if you don’t like to use PayPal. I’m honored to have as my guest today Dr. Iain McGilchrist. Dr. McGilchrist researched in literature and philosophy as a fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, and then went to medical school and became a psychiatrist and clinical director at the Maudsley Hospital, London. Later he was a research fellow in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore. He has published original articles and research papers in a wide range of publications on topics in literature, philosophy, medicine, and psychiatry. He is the author of a number of books but is best known for The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which we’ll be discussing today. He is currently working on a book on neurology, epistemology, and ontology and I hope we can discuss that too towards the end of our conversation. He lives on the Isle of Skye and has two daughters and a son. I’m just going to show you a little glimpse here of what the Isle of Skye looks like. This is from his website, Channel McGilchrist: you can see that it’s a strikingly beautiful place. I’m sure he doesn’t want us all to move there. Right, Iain?
>>Iain McGilchrist: That’s always been my passion – to come and live somewhere like this. And I am living it. And loving it.
>>Rick Archer: Here’s one other little bit from Monty Python co-founder John Cleese, who said of Dr. McGilchrist that he is, quote, “unusually self-effacing for a genius. He emanates a gentle, curious amusement that puts ordinary earthlings at their ease. I believe he’s one of those rare polymaths who’s more interested in finding the truth than he is in being right.” So I love that phrase.
>>Iain McGilchrist: They’re lovely words, lovely words. Totally, totally unmerited, but very nice.
>>Rick Archer: Well, that just verifies what John Cleese said about you. So the title of your most famous book is The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, and I thought it might be a good place to start for you to just tell the story of the Master and his emissary. And you know, it’ll become obvious as you tell it, why that’s relevant to the brain.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Okay, well, it’s a story that actually, unlike everything else in the book, I’m not quite sure where I found it. I say it’s a story in Nietzsche, but I can’t really find it in Nietzsche. But the story goes like this – and it’s really a story very similar to that of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’. There’s a master, a spiritual master, who looks after a small community. And because he looks after it so well, it flourishes and grows. And after a while, he decides that he must not try to look after all the business of this community, because if he did that, he wouldn’t be able to maintain his wise overview. So he appoints his brightest and best to go about and do his business on his behalf, effectively a kind of high functionary who is a bit of a bureaucrat, who can pass back messages to the Master. The thing about this emissary is that bright as he is, he doesn’t know what it is he doesn’t know. In other words, he’s a typical person with not much insight, who thinks they know it all. And so he starts thinking, what does the Master know? He sits back there at, you know, the temple sitting on his ass, smiling, but I’m the one that knows everything. I’m the one with the power and the influence. And so he goes about the place donning the Master’s cloak and pretending to be the Master; and because he doesn’t know what it is he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t respect the Master, the emissary, the Master, and the whole community falls into ruin. And that struck me very strongly because of the way I understand the relationship of the two hemispheres of the brain – which is a way quite different from the one that most people think they know. All of that, quite correctly, has been dismissed. But nonetheless, there are important differences, very, very important differences. And one is that the right hemisphere understands a good deal more than the left. But the left is the one that does all the kind of administration, does all the talking, and does all the kind of “working out” of things. And it thinks it knows everything, but actually knows very little compared with the right hemisphere. And I believe that we live in a world in which this left hemisphere take has become the dominant one. And we’ve lost the wisdom that we could have had from what the right hemisphere prompts us to know.
>>Rick Archer: This reminds me of what I think happens to every religion, which is that some great mystic comes along who has, you know, deep spiritual insight and enlightened perspective, but could probably be adept at administration if he put his mind to it, but he’s busy having the deep spiritual insights and has better things to do than sort of running an organization. So administrators take over, and, and they begin to dumb it down. And in fact, they begin to persecute the mystics in that religion, you know, ostracize them, then the whole thing becomes sort of this top-heavy left-brained operation that loses the spirit that started it in the first place.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Absolutely. And that is the theme of the very last chapter. There are 30 chapters in this book that I’m just finishing now, and that chapter is called ‘The sense of the sacred’, and it’s basically a kind of short book-length in itself. But in it, what I suggest is that the wellspring that is recognized in our idea of the Divine, and the sacred, is something that cannot be articulated, regulated, systematized, and monetized. And that’s what happens when institutions take it over: it becomes left-brain and it’s dogmatic, and “you must believe this”, and “it’s all written in a book”, and “we are right and you’re wrong”, and all this kind of thing. So it’s the opposite of what the original person with the insight wished for.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah, there’s a joke you can add to your book, if you like, God, and the devil are walking down the road, and God sees something, picks it up, and puts it in his pocket. And the devil says, “Hey, what’s that?” And God says, “It’s the truth. And the devil says, Oh, give it to me. I’ll organize it for you.”
In any case, I know that, you know, from my layman’s perspective, I’ve been reading things about the two hemispheres of the brain since the 60s. And like most people, I think I probably had a very simplistic understanding of the functions of the two hemispheres. So perhaps you could spend a little time now dispelling that misunderstanding and giving us a more nuanced understanding of what’s actually going on.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Okay. Well, first, I’ll just say something about why I got involved with this whole topic, because it’s a strange topic for somebody who wants to have a career to get involved with. In fact, I was warned in no uncertain terms, “don’t go there. Don’t even look at this, because it’s so toxic. It’s all to do with middle management seminars and advertising. People won’t take you seriously.” So just to backtrack a little: when I was at Oxford, I was interested in philosophy and literature. And I became intrigued by what it was we were doing to works of art, works of literature, in our seminars, we were taking things that somebody in the past had taken great care to make, quite unique objects of great beauty – poems, like a vase, you know, can’t be paraphrased, or, you know, have its meaning ripped out of it. And yet, we would make this implicit thing explicit. And we would make this embodied thing disembodied. And we would take what was special and categorize it. I wrote a book called Against Criticism, which is very hard to get hold of now. But one day I’ll make a reprint. And then I went off to do medicine, to find out more about the mind-body problem. And when I was there, I just happened to go to a lecture by a colleague called John Cutting, who had just published a book with Oxford University Press called The Right Cerebral Hemisphere and Psychiatric Disorders. And I thought that’s really interesting, because in my training everything was about the left hemisphere. So I happened to go along to this — and it changed my life. And I’ll explain why. He had spent 20 years sitting at the bedside of people who had some kind of right hemisphere injury, damage, stroke, tumor, and seeing what had happened to their take on the world. And it’s much subtler than what happens after left hemisphere injury, where you can’t use your right hand, you can’t speak, it’s pretty barn-door obvious. But something much more important happens after a right hemisphere stroke, which is that you don’t really understand the world anymore. You don’t understand what people mean. And he pointed to three things that were quite relevant to my move from the humanities into science, which were my dissatisfaction with this process of abstraction, disembodiment, and the turning of the unique into the general. And what he said was, the left hemisphere only understands things as they belong to a category, the right hemisphere actually sees the unique instance; the left hemisphere sees things in a very abstract way, the right hemisphere sees things in relation to emotion and embodiment. It has much better connections with the body and with the part of the brain, in which our emotions and our bodily sensations come to be merged with our thinking in a very important and valuable way. Also the right hemisphere understands the implicit, it understands metaphor, it understands humor, tone of voice, all these things that are so valuable in literature. And the left hemisphere doesn’t get it at all, it takes everything very deadpan, like somebody who, you know, just can’t understand what human beings mean. And so I realized that why I had not been able, or had found it very difficult at any rate, to overcome the difficulties in English of explaining why the implicit is more important than the explicit, why the embodied is more important than the abstract, why the unique is more important than the category — why that was difficult was because the voice, my speaking, is all done by my left hemisphere, which doesn’t understand: it hasn’t generated vocabulary for it. So a colleague of mine, who was a sinologist said, Well, you might study Chinese, because it has words for all these things. So I had to toss up, either to do medicine or Chinese, and medicine won. Anyway, what you’re seeing there is three aspects of a vision of the world. It’s not what they do, in each case – which we’d been told in the past: It’s like “the left hemisphere does reason, does language, and the right hemisphere does emotion, does creativity. They’re both involved in just about everything. And that had made a lot of people think “Well, there’s nothing in it, you know, because we now know that, actually, they’re both involved in everything. So that’s the end of the story. But no, that was just the beginning of the important story, which was to see that it’s not what you do, but how you do it, that each hemisphere approaches whatever it’s doing in a quite, quite different way. And this has to do with attention. The hemispheres attend to the world in two quite different ways that we need in order to survive. One is the attention that helps us grab stuff, it’s a very narrow beam attention precisely focused on a target, it enables you to get your food, pick up a twig to build shelter, be quick and dirty and get and grab before the other guy. The right hemisphere meantime is looking out for everything else, while you’ve got this very narrow attention going; because if you had only that attention going, you’d soon become a prey to another predator. And you need to be understanding the whole of the scene around you. So the left hemisphere pays this very narrow-beam sharply focused attention to a detail that it knows it wants, whereas the right hemisphere pays an uncommitted, broad, open, sustained, vigilant attention to the world as a whole. And that results in a significant difference in the way they have a take on the world. Because when you attend to the world differently, you see different things. You know, that’s very obvious in daily life, that if you’re interested in one thing, when you see something that somebody else sees, as well, you’re seeing two different things because your focus of interest is different. For example, there are many, many ways in which you can look at a human body: when you’re appreciating a work of art, when you’re doing a pathology examination, you know, when you’re in bed with your lover, these are all completely different ways of experiencing the body: they bring different kinds of attention, and they change, therefore, the experienced world. That means that, you know, we have these two ways of looking at the world. What are the main differences? I’d say the main differences are that the left hemisphere sees disconnected fragments, which then have to be somehow put together in order to make something: it sees them as static, two-dimensional, categorical, ‘either/or’, fixed, known and familiar, and certain, and can therefore be grasped – because the left hemisphere wants to grasp things, it actually controls your right hand with which, for most of us, we grasp things. Meanwhile, the right hemisphere, is seeing that that is a very artificial view, it’s like a snapshot – which rather nicely the French call a cliché. In other words, it’s got all the real life drained out of it. The right hemisphere sees a world that is living, constantly changing, complexly interconnected, where everything is interconnected, ultimately, to everything else, in which there are shades of meaning, in which nothing is ever completely repeated. There is uniqueness, the joy of discovering the unfamiliar, and so on. And that’s a world to which we feel connected. Whereas the left hemisphere’s world is a world from which we feel detached, as though we were clinically observing it through a lens; whereas in the right hemisphere’s take we are part of the world that we are observing. So that’s putting it as briefly and as broadly as I can; it gives the listener an idea.
>>Rick Archer: Interesting, as you were saying that I was thinking about the implications of it for degree levels of spiritual awakening, which this audience is, is very much interested in. And we’ll get into this more as we go through the conversation. But in the spiritual community in general, over the last couple of decades, that seemed that there was initially this sort of impersonal, heartless, they call it Neo Advaita approach to spirituality in which you know, the very existence of a person is denied. And that, you know, you are not involved in activity, you’re just a witness, and you there is actually no, you and there was a tremendous emphasis on that. And after a while, the community at large, you know, with some exceptions, began to think, well, this isn’t working, you know, what about life? What about emotions? What about feelings? What about, you know, compassion and all this. And so there was an emphasis on embodiment, and integration, and the word embodiment is, has been used a lot in recent years. So I wonder if there was some kind of growth of awakening such that maybe in some way, I don’t know how this would relate to the hemispheres, but maybe in some way, it started out in the left hemispheres of people, and then kind of expanded to incorporate the right as well. Does that make any sense? Or would that again, be a simplistic take on it?
>>Iain McGilchrist: I think there’s quite a lot of in that. It relates, again, to stuff I’ve written about. In the Journal of Consciousness Studies, I was asked to contribute to a series of articles about the nature of the self. And there were various people, mystics, philosophers, and so on, and we commented on one another. And I tried to explain that to think that there is no self is as simplistic and as damaging as the idea that we’re just ourselves, in some isolated atomistic way; that we mustn’t try to collapse these dipoles, as I call them (that are like the two poles of a magnet); it’s much more comfortable to just go, okay, the self is just an imaginary construct. Or to say, I’m just me, I don’t know what you’re talking about, that we’re interconnected. You have to hold both of the difficulties together. And true spirituality is not to deny either of these things. But the way in which you understand the self changes, so that instead of seeing the self as something that is over and against other people, it’s something that partakes of other people. And it’s something that gives to and belongs to other people. So that a primitive ego gets taken up into a much more sophisticated idea of the self. Jung talks about this, that, you know, when you’re young, you need this defended concept of yourself as different, because you’re distinguishing yourself and setting your boundaries. But then as you grow in insight and experience, you see that something much more mature and valuable comes which is this other sense of the self I’ve been describing.
>>Rick Archer: That’s very good. Here a few minutes ago, you’re saying how the right hemisphere is good at nuance and both and thinking and stuff like that. And I think that’s what a lot of people have kind of realized in the spiritual community that you can’t just glom on to, you know, one perspective to the exclusion of all others. But the true spiritual maturity is kind of an incorporation of a whole range of, we could say perspectives or levels of awareness or whatever, which might seem contradictory to one another taken in isolation, but which, as a whole, from a more holistic perspective, or, we could say are harmonized within a more holistic perspective on made compatible even though taken in isolation, they may seem incompatible. Does that make sense?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Completely, yes. In fact, again, I have a chapter in this book –
>>Rick Archer: We’ll have to do another interview when that book comes out –
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yeah, sure! – on the coincidence of opposites, the generative nature of opposites, that nothing exists without its opposite. And we live in a world in which we think that things are very simple: x is good, and therefore more and more and more of it is going to be better; y is bad, and less and less and less of it is going to be better. But actually, things are never like this, as Jung pointed out, there is always the dark side to everything that has a positive. And it’s knowing these things and being able to hold them in a fruitful conjunction without, you know, dispensing with one or the other. An image I quite like to demonstrate this is the idea of a very good loving relationship. It’s one in which there is a degree of togetherness with a degree of independence. It’s not better if the two elements in the relationship are fused. And it’s not better if they’re so diffused that they really don’t sort of touch one another, then you want something that is in the middle. But it’s not just a middle position, it’s not just a compromise. Because in this position, you are both together with the other person and maximally fulfilled in your own individual self. It is through that relationship that you are fulfilled as a self. And it’s through the fulfillment of you that the relationship is enriched for the other person. So these two things that look like they’re opposites —the solution is not like a midpoint. It’s like a holding of the two together, which is really what I’m saying. And it’s that, that the right hemisphere is able to do, and the left hemisphere can’t. It thinks it’s got to be this or that. Or it’s just something in the middle. Another image that I often use is one from my favorite philosopher, the early Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and he has the image of a bow or a lyre. So a bow that shoots an arrow or a lyre that plays music —
>>Rick Archer: A lyre is like a little harp —
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yeah, like a little harp. And he says “they do not understand how a thing and its contrary come together. It’s like the tension in the string.” And if you think about it in a string like that, the power, the force, the energy comes from it being pulled apart. And you might think, well, what’s the point in pulling it that way, and that; let’s just conserve energy and just stop pulling. But no – it just goes flat, and then you’ve got no music, and you’ve got no arrows. So everything depends on this holding of the two extreme positions together.
>>Rick Archer: In harkening back to your point about being able to focus sharply while maintaining broad awareness, and you use the example of a bird pecking a seed out of some, you know, gravel, and yet and actually using what is it using the left eye to look for the seed and at the same time, the right eye is looking out, broad perspective looking for predators, so he doesn’t get gobbled up while he’s trying to find the seed. A spiritual teacher I studied with for many years spent a lot of time focusing on a very similar point that one needs to culture the ability to focus sharply and maintain broad awareness. And he used it in a practical sense, like, you know, he used to say routine work kills the genius in man because like you’re working on an assembly line, and you have to focus sharply, but you lose the broad awareness and sort of squelches your, your creativity. And he was, you know, he used it in that sense, but also in a spiritual context. Because one stage of enlightenment is that, you know, you’re functioning in the world able to focus on details, and yet at the same time, awareness has become unbounded. There’s a Buddhist sage from way back named Padma Sun bhava and he said that Although my awareness is as vast as the sky, my attention to karma meaning action is as fine as a grain of barley flour.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Mmm, very nice. Yeah, I just want to just clarify something because you misspoke earlier. You said, the right eye is looking out for predators. It’s the right hemisphere that’s looking out for predators, right? Therefore the left eye. Yes, I just want to clarify in case people were confused there. So the right hemisphere is taking the broad view for predators, the left hemisphere is taking the narrow view for what it wants to get. And that maps onto, in the case of a bird, the right eye being the tool of the left hemisphere, and the left eye being the tool of the right hemisphere. Just to complicate it, it’s not true of humans – but we don’t need to go there – it’s the left half of the visual field that serves the right hemisphere, and the right half of the visual field of both eyes that serves the left hemisphere. That’s because our eyes are on the front of our heads, whereas with a bird, they are usually on the side.
>>Rick Archer: I have a friend who’s a brain scientist, and I asked him about this a little bit, he said, For humans, the outer field of each eye goes straight back to that hemisphere, but the inner field of each eye crosses over and goes to the opposite hemisphere. So each hemisphere gets input from both eyes.
>>Iain McGilchrist: That’s right – that’s exactly right. And so, yes, to go back to your point about being able to balance these types of attention, we can only do that because we have two neuronal masses, each of which is capable of sustaining consciousness on its own. If we didn’t have that, we couldn’t – if we just had one neuronal mass, we couldn’t dispose it in two ways towards the world. It’s only because there are two that can support consciousness on their own, that one can do it one way and the other can do it the other way. And it’s valuable in life always to be able to blend these, although as in the image of the Master and his emissary, one of them should always take precedence, the right hemisphere should guide the left, and the left should serve the right because the left doesn’t understand very much. So when it takes over, all kinds of terrible things happen, which I think we’re witnessing in the world around us – which we can come onto at some point. There is a spiritual exercise, which I have enjoyed trying to do at times, which is to focus your attention very, very narrowly. And once you’ve managed to achieve that, at the same time to broaden it as broad as you can and hold the focus and hear the periphery and be aware of the periphery. And it’s a very good exercise to do that.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah.
>>Iain McGilchrist: But I like the image. And I think that there’s something here also about, you know, what I was talking about the idea of the self and so on, and too easily dismissing something. It’s like that famous – there are various versions of it, but you know, the 13th century Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, Dogen?
>>Rick Archer: Yes.
>>Iain McGilchrist: And he said: ‘Before enlightenment, mountains were mountains and streams were streams. When I was gaining enlightenment, mountains were no longer mountains, and streams were no longer streams. When I achieved enlightenment, mountains were mountains and streams were streams.’ And so what he’s saying is that he didn’t just reject the old thing. But a synthesis of something came together into a new vision, which is first articulated as “the mountains are mountains”, but by now, he had a much richer understanding of what that was.
>>Rick Archer: Yes. And several themes here we could pursue, but um, what since you’ve just said that one. Another one stage of it. Another stage of enlightenment considered a higher stage is that when you look at the world, you see it. Actually, in terms of the self, in other words, you look at the mountain, and you’re actually looking at the essential nature of the mountain, which is identical to your essential nature. So there’s a unity between oneself and the mountain, but you don’t deny its existence as a mountain either. So it’s appreciated in both respects is it you could say the full spectrum of its existence is appreciated its essential nature as consciousness, and its, you know, apparent nature as mountain.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Absolutely. And this takes us to another very important issue, absolutely central in all philosophy and all spirituality as well, which is the relationship between what the left hemisphere calls objective and what the left hemisphere calls subjective, and it sees those again as two incompatible elements that somehow have to be linked; whereas to the right hemisphere, they’re both present in one thing that doesn’t actually annihilate the subjective element or the objective element but doesn’t make a hard and fast distinction either. I’m sorry, I’m quoting Japanese poets, and mystics, but that’s alright, that’s okay for your audience! You know the great Japanese poet Basho said to one of his disciples, “the trouble with most poems is that they’re either subjective or objective”. And his disciple said, “do you mean either too objective or too subjective?” To which his full answer was “no”.
>>Rick Archer: Like a Zen koan there. Actually, I was thinking about that, because I know on your YouTube channel, you read poetry on a regular basis, and I should really start listening to that. And I’ve always, I mean, I think I have a brain deficit in that I’ve always had a hard time, not spacing out, when listening to poetry, if it’s something very literal, like Robert Frost, or maybe, you know, some Rudyard Kipling or something, I can really follow it. It’s almost like prose. But the more sort of abstract poets, I just, I’m off in LaLa land, and I lose the train of thought. So what does that say about my brain?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Not to worry. I think you may be unhappy with the idea of allowing your mind to be taken where the poem will take it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah, I’m going into abstract realms, but um, I don’t know with poetry. I’ve always had that problem. And in fact, that reminds me. Oh, go ahead. I’m sorry,
>>Iain McGilchrist: I think the thing about poetry is that – TS Eliot had something very good to say about poetry. He said, “the meaning of a poem is the meat that the burglar tosses to the dog while he burgles the house”. What he’s saying is, while the left hemisphere is going “oh, yes, let me see what’s going on”, it’s, you know, it’s out of the picture. And it allows the right hemisphere to take it in. And as you remember, it’s the right hemisphere that understands metaphor, is aware of the movement of the verse, understands all the implicit associations that are being evoked. So the right hemisphere is vital for understanding poetry.
>>Rick Archer: Nice. Want to just touch back on something you said a few minutes ago, you said you had a technique you practice where you’ll focus sharply on something and then try to maintain, you know, broad awareness as much as possible. And there are kinds of meditation which actually do that, as part of their, you know, their mechanics. So, for instance, you could be, you know, attuning yourself to subtler and subtler levels of a mantra and getting down to a very fine subtle appreciation of a mantra, and at the same time, your awareness is expanding to, you know, vastness and your, your culturing the ability to have that subtle focus on something, in addition to vast awareness simultaneously, which eventually becomes I think this would be as a result of transformation of the brain, it becomes a normal way of functioning in everyday life, not just something you would do in meditation.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Right, right. Well, that sounds like another way of bringing these two types of attention to bear on the world at the same time. And it’s a useful exercise if only to make one more aware of how the two types of attention work together and to be able to deploy them a little more at will.
>>Rick Archer: yeah. And what happens is, I believe, you know, you can comment on this, that is that there’s a, you know, over the years of doing such a thing, that through neuroplasticity, or whatever the whole neurophysiology actually does get restructured such that that becomes one’s ordinary way of functioning 24/7, as opposed to just something one can do when sitting in a meditative state.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes, there’s quite a bit of neuroscience evidence, which again, I quote, in this new book, which points towards – of course, spiritual practices are very complex things, and you wouldn’t expect them just to narrow down, in some reductionist way, to some part in the brain. But broadly speaking, what tends to happen is that parts of the right hemisphere cortex become thickened, they become enlarged, they grow, with use, and one’s ability to use those parts of the brain seems to increase neurophysiologically as well, by EEG measurements, so we do have some evidence that that is the case. In any case, you’ve seen it from experience, and that’s probably more important than any kind of neuroscience.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. But it is it does emphasize the point that I think, you know, I mean, obviously, the brain functions differently in different ordinary states of consciousness, waking, dreaming, and sleeping. And if enlightenment is as radically different from ordinary waking state, as it is purported to be, there probably is a radically different style of brain functioning associated with it.
>>Iain McGilchrist: I would imagine that is right. Yes. And I hope we never find out what it is, or somebody will try and instrumentalize it in some way …
>>Rick Archer: They’re doing that actually. Jeffrey Martin, who has been on my show, is doing stuff with some kind of magnetic thing that stimulates very deep structures very specifically in the brain. And he’s, he’s got a guy working with Shinzen Young, who’s also been on my show, a very long-term Zen practitioner, who says that it’s, it’s eliciting the most profound spiritual experiences he’s ever had. Personally, I mean, I don’t know. It’s like, do we really know what? Well, I shouldn’t speak for Jeffrey. But to me, I mean, spiritual evolution is not just eliciting some particular experience. But there, there’s a whole grab bag of deep impressions and you know, that have to eventually be worked out in order for spiritual enlightenment to become a living reality. You can’t just shortcut the process as people try to do with psychedelics and expect to sort of be transformed.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes, it’s not an area that I feel confident to talk about. It’s never really interested me, psychedelics. Partly because it seems to me very difficult to square it with, with my understanding of spiritual transformations; but I’m not, I’m not ruling it out, and I’m not belittling it. And I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I suspect it does. Because some people say that the experiences they’ve had with drugs have altered their life. And you can’t argue with that. I just happen to be completely unresponsive to these drugs. I mean, as a young person, I wasn’t interested in them, my drug of choice has always been good wine. But as life has gone on, various people have said, you know, given your interest in the brain and spiritual experience, why don’t you try these things. So I’ve tried quite a few of them. And not one of them has the slightest effect on me, except to make me feel slightly “premed-y’ – like, you know, somebody has given me something that’s made me a little bit woozy, but I have no further experience. That includes marijuana by smoking it, inhaling it, syrup cakes, in conjunction with magic mushrooms. I’ve even experimented with being injected (by a doctor) with ketamine. None of these things has more than a very limited effect. It’s interesting. So it just doesn’t really interest me. But I would say that you know, my peak experiences have all happened through poetry. And I have them a lot in nature, you know; you know, where I live is just like a place to respond in that way. Yeah, perhaps not as dramatic. But it’s, it’s a very beautiful thing.
>>Rick Archer: Your experience with drugs reminds me of a story with Ram Dass going to his guru Neem Karoli Baba, and he had a bunch of LSD pills. And Baba said, “Give me the pills”, and he just sort of swallowed them all. And apparently, nothing happened.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Right. I don’t know. Well, fascinatingly, the occasion on which I took magic mushrooms and marijuana was at Ram Dass’s house in Hawaii.
>>Rick Archer: I thought he’d given up that stuff –
>>Iain McGilchrist: He had, it wasn’t he who gave me the stuff. It was a common friend who took me to meet him. And so yeah.
>>Rick Archer: Moving on to another slightly different topic. I watched an interview you did with Jordan Peterson. And in that interview, you mentioned that the left brain resists anomalies, and the right brain is open to them. And that’s very interesting. You can explain perhaps what anomalies are. But there’s a famous book by Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. And he talks about how, you know, anomalies provide a certain stability – excuse me, not anomalies, paradigms – provide a certain stability to our knowledge, but they are, you know, impacted by anomalies, things that conflict with the paradigm. And when those anomalies get convincing and perhaps overwhelming enough, the paradigm has to shift. And I think it was, I don’t know, some famous physicist said, science progresses through a series of funerals because people are very resistant to that shifting. But I wonder if you could comment on that whole phenomenon a bit?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes. Well, I think the remark which was either Bohr or Planck was very true. And I sort of understand why. By the time scientists have achieved any kind of progress in their career, they’ve had to conform an awful lot, otherwise, they would never have got appointed. And their career is now fixed on certain kinds of tenets that underlie all their research. So they really don’t want to hear about the possibility that that might be too simple or wrong. And I think it’s very important that we have to balance the need for stability, with the need for fluidity; if things are over-stable, they’re fossilized, but if they’re over-fluid, they become chaotic. So it’s a question of knowing how many and how valid are the anomalies. And there comes a point when you have to say, “we have to look again and find a better paradigm”. And that is the point at which I find myself standing in relation to the brain: putting forward a hypothesis, at enormous length (I mean, you know, The Master and his Emissary is, what, 600 pages in the original, anyway). And the book that I’ve just finished is almost twice as long. And in them together, I rely on about 6000 individual pieces of research; it’s almost impossible to just dismiss it. So people are beginning to pay attention. But it’s a slow process. I mean, everyone says it takes about 20 years to get a breakthrough acknowledged. And I’m not saying that I’ve made a breakthrough, I’m hoping I’ve cast some light, and I’m hoping that people will find it useful. All scientific insights are going to be developed, and to change. Because we never get to the end of the road. We never know it all. And so what I’m suggesting is just a new, what I call a Gestalt, you know, perhaps your listeners do, which is a German word, which simply means the overall form or shape of something – we don’t really have a nice word for it in English, but it means seeing the whole thing in a new way. Rather, like, you know, those optical illusions where, first of all, you see a vase, and then you see “oh, no, it’s two faces looking at one another”. Well, there are two Gestalts if you like: one Gestalt is the vase, that’s one way of seeing the whole; the other is the two faces. And what I am getting from readers, and what I hope to achieve with this new book, is that they will look at things that they thought were familiar, and they’ll go, “Oh, my God, I’ve just seen it a different way”. And people write to me every day, saying things like that, that it just was an insight that has completely changed the way they see the world. Which is lovely. I mean, I didn’t expect to get any emails like that, and most writers wouldn’t. But you know, I get them almost on a daily basis, which is one of the things that keeps me going.
>>Rick Archer: That’s great. In Part Two of your book, The Master and his Emissary, you look at the evolution of Western culture, beginning in the ancient world. I’m quoting you here, “with the extraordinary efflorescence of culture in the sixth century BC, in Athens, where it seems the two hemispheres worked as never before or since, in harmony”; then there’s the decline associated with the rise of the left hemisphere in the late Roman Empire. And then, in turn, at the seismic shifts that we call the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, modernism, and postmodernism, you say, I believe they represent a power struggle between these two ways of experiencing the world, and that we have ended up prisoners of just one, that of the left hemisphere alone. So is your purport, is your hope, in publishing these books, to actually, you know, rebalance things in society to help, you hope to have that influence and to shift us back from what could be, you know, a catastrophic future – if we don’t shift back.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes, in the second half of the book, as you say, I do a sort of overview of the main shifts in the history of ideas in the West. And I think that three times I can see the same pattern, that… You’d think that a civilization would build up very, very slowly, and then crash. But it seems that what happens is that it comes into being, just like that, and then sort of tails off. And in the Greek case, things were, you know, at their best in the sixth century BC. And then over time, the balance between the two hemispheres went further and further towards the left. And then you get the same thing in Rome, you know, around the “year dot”, the end of the Republic, the beginning of the empire, things were very good. And then, as you go on for the next 300 years through the Empire, they get more and more left hemisphere. And I think we can see the same thing in our own time, since the Enlightenment. So things are sort of tailing off. I mean, in every case, this has to do with a number of things. One is usually an empire that overreaches itself, that tries to administer too much, and tries to take on and influence too many things, and therefore overreaches itself. And the only way it can do this is by – a sort of a simple way of putting it would be a very bureaucratic take so that everything is rolled out the same, everything is procedural, everything is categorical, all the fineness, the individuality, the responsiveness goes – and everything becomes very kind of cut and dried. And I think we are very strongly heading in that direction. And I want to try and help, I think, you know, there are a number of massive problems, they’re so obvious I hardly need to name them. But one is, you know, the way in which we’re killing, literally, the living planet, and another is the way in which we’re driving to extinction peoples who have a pre-Western or non-Western way of living their lives. And in our own civilization, I think I can see things breaking down now. Many of the great institutions that used to be on the side of, you know, things that are rich (I mean, imaginatively rich), and spiritually alive and flexible, instead are becoming dogmatic and categorical, are overrun by bureaucrats, managers, and people who have to tick boxes, this is not a good way for any institution to be, whether it’s a church, or a university, or a school, or anything – or a hospital. And in fact, in my lifetime, I’ve seen the hospitals become more and more and more left-brained. You know, when I was first training, things were more flexible. People were much more willing to try something, in case it worked. And we’ve seen a little of that come back, just for a while, in the COVID crisis. So we’ve been so desperate for something, you know, that that doctors have finally broken free of red tape and have been allowed to sort of go, “Well, this is worth a go, because if we don’t do it, this person’s going to die”, you know. And so, anyway, I think that drift towards the administered, the soulless, the gray, generalized world is the way we’re going.
>>Rick Archer: Are you optimistic, pessimistic?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Well, I call myself a hopeful pessimist, which means you should never lose hope. And I don’t lose hope. Because actually, none of us knows what the future contains. You know, I have complete ‘crystal ball failure’. But on the other hand, when I look around me, it seems that things are heading in a way I don’t like; so, to that extent, I’m a pessimist. But I don’t, I don’t want to say, you know, it’s all up. But I think a degree of concern, a degree of fear, would be a good thing in helping us to shift out of our complacency. So there we are.
>>Rick Archer: Some people think that things are just going to collapse more and more over the next several years at least. And that then, out of the rubble, will arise a much better culture, a much more enlightened civilization, but that this collapse is kind of necessary because so many structures that dominate the world really would have no place in a more enlightened civilization and somehow, rather, they’re going to have to, you know, come to an end in order for something better to take their place.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yeah. The only thing about that is that when the Roman civilization collapsed in 410 AD, or whenever you like to place it, it took 1000 years really for civilization in Europe to re-emerge as a kind of vibrant force. I’m not saying that the Dark Ages, as we used to call them, were entirely barbaric. But effectively, civilization is not something you can take for granted. And to be hacking away at its main institutions in the way we are – ha! – I mean, it’s so reckless. It is like pulling down statues. It is like, you know, Islamic fundamentalists taking a pneumatic drill to an Assyrian winged bull, you know, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re just scrawling all over the history of the West and rubbishing it, and not actually teaching people properly. So I’m kind of concerned about it. Very.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. Well, I think reasonably. And actually, that brings up a couple of questions here. That came in from listeners. One is from Bill in Oakland, California. When you mentioned teaching people properly it reminded me of his question, he said, What do you think a right-brain school curriculum would look like? Since it seems like the right hemisphere is often concerned with personal inner knowledge and that it eludes the control that the left hemisphere desires? It doesn’t seem like right hemisphere knowledge is easily transferred from teacher to student.
>>Iain McGilchrist: A wonderful question, a very, very good one. And there are a couple of – two or three – points to take, and I’ll take the last one first. It’s, it depends how – like everything to do with research here – it’s the how that matters. And it’s quite true that the sort of things that the right hemisphere understands, can’t be just put into a formula, which can then be learned and regurgitated in an exam – that is what we’re now getting. And that is the typical left hemisphere idea. But the right hemisphere’s knowledge is communicated, as everything I know was communicated to me, by inspired teachers. So one of the changes that would happen in a “right-hemisphere-sort-of-congruent” school, would be that the teachers were not treated like functionaries in a bureaucracy who had to instill some information into the children at nine o’clock on a Monday morning, according to page 32 of a certain textbook. But we’re actually encouraging them to think! You know, because education is – it’s a cliché to say that education is – not about putting things in, it’s about drawing something out. And actually, what you’re trying to do is make the stuff that children have in them flourish. And that means clearing things away. I often think being a teacher is like being a good gardener. You know, a gardener cannot make a plant, and he can’t make the plant grow. But the gardener can get out of the way all the stuff that would choke that plant and make the conditions good for that plant to do the flourishing. So in a way, you’re mediating the flourishing of another individual. And that’s what a good teacher is doing. So one of the things that ought to happen is the deregulation of that, which means deregulation of many, many things, not total deregulation because that’s the other extreme that you get from the left hemisphere: “Oh, so you don’t want any rules at all? And nobody is accountable for it?” No, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, there is a degree of necessary monitoring, and there’s a degree of accountability, but there must be freedom too – because otherwise, you kill the human spirit. So that’s one thing. Another is what the curriculum would contain. And we’ve become obsessed in a very left hemisphere way with grabbing and getting, as you know, I mean, that’s what the left hemisphere is for. And so its main thing is that we should be teaching techniques to make people fit into a large machine that will make money. Now that is not an education – that is simply not an education. Education is not teaching a rote skill or teaching information that gets to be regurgitated. It’s teaching a child to think, to use their imagination, to listen to their intuitions, to argue all the time against what seems to be the fashionable story. And to think we might be different. That’s what’s not happening. Children are being brainwashed now, in the current education system. And in this country, you know, during this last month or so, the government said, “Oh, children can … no longer need to be bothered with learning poetry or studying poetry”. And I was thinking, well, that’s a very, very weird thing to be saying in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. It’s one of the reasons that I started reading poetry on the internet every day for the last 120 days or whatever, is that actually, people need soul food, and there’s nothing simple, and there’s nothing that’s kind of a soft option about the humanities; learning and understanding history is about putting yourself in other people’s position and understanding what they understood then, broadening your mind – not narrowing down what they did to whether they tick your boxes as good people. Learning philosophy is not a soft option, it’s the most difficult thing you can do. And, you know, studying literature is not a soft option. It is if you just have to learn the six things you need to know about Jane Austen, which seems to be what it’s all about. But if you really are going to understand literature, it means putting yourself into the mindset of another person and experiencing the world through their eyes. And that is liberating and beautiful, and intellectually challenging. And it also arms you for life. You know, if we bring people out of school, and they haven’t got the faculties to concentrate, to pay slow, deep attention, to enter into other people’s imaginative worlds, to question their own dogmatisms all the time, even though they think they’re perfectly correct. If we’re not doing that, we’re letting civilization go. So thank you – I can’t remember your name – but thank you – Bill.
>>Rick Archer: It’s hard not to think about politics while you say this stuff, you know, because it seems that there are characteristics of the different political persuasions that describe the different, the left brain, right brain orientations.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yeah, well, maybe so: but what people sometimes say to me is, so is the left hemisphere, kind of right-wing and the right, left-wing. And I think if anything, it’s the other way around, actually, but what I would say is that you can be on the right in politics in a very right-brained way, as well as in a very left-brained way. And you can be on the left-wing in politics in a very left-brained way, as well as in a right-brained way. And in our country, the UK, which is I know, quite different in its political spectrum from America, the left is enormously doctrinaire, they’ve become what we call the authoritarian left, who have, you know, ‘right opinions’, and anybody who disagrees with them deserves to be retrained in some sort of Maoist way. Well, this is not a very good idea at all, and, you know, people on the right can be very much more interested in individual flourishing, not just a corporate … we have a tradition in this country that the right-wing is on the side of the small guy, not on the size of the corporations. And I took a test on the internet, which is an American test, but anyway, it was interesting to me to find that I was in the most leftist quarter of the four things. And it was because I had a great concern for the environment and didn’t think that big business should be allowed to take the liberties that it does. And so in that sense, I was very much on the left. But in terms of, you know, do I think that socialist values should be rammed down people’s throats? – no, I’m not on the left.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. Well, that’s interesting, because what you’re saying is that we need a more nuanced politics as we need a more nuanced perspective in all things. And that it’s too easy to fall into sort of the ‘us and them’, you know, polarized camp, of one side or the other.
>>Iain McGilchrist: That’s exactly what the left hemisphere does, it gives ‘us and them’. Whereas the right hemisphere is “look, we’re, we’re all part of this together”. And that has consequences for how we talk as well. I think it’s much more important. Again, the right hemisphere understands that the way in which something is done is more important even than what it is. And so I think that rather than controlling what all the time, we ought to instill in people, what used to exist in them, which is a sense of how it is appropriate to be, to talk, to live: we’ve lost a kind of moral compass. We’ve lost, as you call it, the idea of the nuanced position. And it’s been replaced by simple-minded dogmatism and rule-following.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah, here’s a question that came in from Nick in London that relates to this. And I think I’ll preface it by asking you also about conspiracy theories. Our ability to discern patterns helps us – I’m quoting this from an article I read – our ability to discern patterns helps us to construct internal narratives that give our lives meaning and make sense of the world around us. Conspiracy theories hijack that ability by linking loosely connected events into a semi-coherent narrative, usually through the assistance of a well-edited YouTube video. The next question is, why do you think this time is characterized by claims to no definitive truth? And the reason this question relates to the other thing I just read is: if you talk to people who are into conspiracy theories, such as QAnon – they are quite certain that, you know, there are hundreds of 1000s of children in underground tunnels being victimized by politicians and Hollywood celebrities, and you can’t convince them otherwise. It’s like this fundamentalist certainty. So to repeat the next question, why do you think this time is characterized by claims of some definitive truth?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Well, I think it’s all part of the picture I describe of a way of thinking, which is very typical of the left hemisphere. It’s certain, the left hemisphere, it’s certain it’s right, even when it’s very obviously not. I mean, the most striking example of this, which I give in the book, and, you know, sometimes mention when I’m speaking about it, is a paralysis of the limb, which is denied. So that after right hemisphere stroke, the person may have a left arm that they simply cannot move; but they will swear that they are currently moving it and that it’s absolutely fine. So if you can swear that, and be absolutely immovably certain about it, then, yeah, you’re going to believe that politicians are victimizing children in underground tunnels. So I think that is part of the problem … you know those wonderful lines from Yeats’s poem the Second Coming: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with a passionate intensity …’ And now I see around me, you know, just that playing out – that the most simple-minded views are being violently pushed forward by people who are completely sure they know it – and therefore, of course, don’t know very much, because that’s a very ignorant position to take. Whereas people who can see that things are much, much more complicated than that are, you know, being marginalized; because it’s a society now in which if you’re not 100% for us, you’re against us. If you want to say, “Hey, look, there’s some truth in what you say. But there’s also truth in something else I want to put to you”, you will be shouted down.
>>Rick Archer: There is an amusing movie called Idiocracy that came out some years ago: it was about this guy who was put into suspended animation as some kind of experiment. He was supposed to be in there for a year. But something happened, and he was in there for 500 years. And then he came out. And what had happened was that the sort of narrow-minded folks who tended to procreate more than the nuanced you know, sort of, oh, well, maybe we should wait until we’re 40 kinds of people had completely come to dominate society, as well as the government. And this guy had been put into suspended animation because he was considered absolutely middle-of-the-road normal. But when he came out, he was a total genius, compared to everyone else. And he ended up rising to the presidency. Interesting movie.
>>Iain McGilchrist: No, I mean, I, when I look at the quality of leaders now and compare it with the quality of leaders in the years when I was a young man in the 60s and 70s, in terms of their sophistication, their ability to see different points of view, just their level of education apart from anything else, and the way in which they were able to talk intelligently; and you look at the inarticulate dogmatic bunch of people who are running things now, you just think “what the hell happened here?”. And it’s all part of this decline into this dogmatic left-hemisphere world that I’m trying to help people recognize for what it is.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah, I just reread Lincoln’s Gettysburg address yesterday, because a friend of mine was talking about it. And I wanted to see how much of it I could remember. But I thought, wow, you know, if we had a politician who could write like that, who could think like that? Wouldn’t that be a breath of fresh air?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Oh, I know. Or you look at the speeches of Burke or any of those great … I mean, Gladstone while he was Prime Minister, was also editing Homer. I mean, it’s an extraordinary thing to do! Of course, times have changed, but, you know, you just think – the thing that really strikes me is the level of – you know, we have contempt for people in the 19th century, they were so ignorant, and they were so, you know …but people worked so hard, the ordinary people in London, the working class people, worked so hard. And they had one day off, which was Sunday. And they were so able to follow something deep, that they were happy to stand, often outside a church where a certain preacher was preaching, and listen for an hour or two hours, to theological ideas being put across; so they would sacrifice their time and go there. And now, you know, we can hardly sit on the sofa and watch something for more than a few minutes without going “oh, yeah”. So it’s worrying what’s happening – very, very, worrying. The dumbing down is colossal.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. So what was that phrase you used with regard to yourself – you’re an optimistic pessimist or a hopeful pessimist, or something? What was it, a hopeful pessimist or some such thing?
>>Iain McGilchrist: A hopeful pessimist.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah, so let’s, let’s brighten it up a little bit and consider the potential, we’ll come back, we’ve taken a stab at it, but consider the potential antidote to this dumbing down. One thing, one, one bright spot I see, is that there is a kind of a global epidemic of interest in spirituality. Now, that doesn’t automatically mean that a person is going to become sensible. In fact, I know a large percentage of spiritual people who are heavily into the kind of conspiracy theories I just mentioned. But there is a sort of a, I think, perhaps a novel interest in enlightenment awakening, and, and that is made more accessible by the Internet, which we haven’t had before, you know, a couple decades ago. And if spiritual awakening or enlightenment is everything it’s cracked up to be, perhaps even a small percentage of people who sincerely engage in it or pursue it or achieve it will have an outsize impact on the rest of society and things will really shift – you know, the 100th monkey. Any thoughts on that?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Well, I think you’re certainly right, that it is encouraging to see that movement. And it’s very encouraging to see lots of things that young people are enthusiastic for. One of the things that strike me when I go – which of course I don’t, because of COVID, now – but when I go and speak at places, as many young people as old people like me come up to me afterward and say, “it’s absolutely fascinating – what can we do?” – you know, so people are hungry for something new, beyond the kind of reductionist mechanistic view of the world that is peddled to them. So that is all very good. Whether those people will rise to positions of influence, I don’t know; because, generally speaking, people who are enlightened go off and do the equivalent of living in a cave, rather than becoming Prime Minister – for very good reasons. So yes, I mean, we could, but it would need the intervention of an overhaul of education. So that education was something more like what education used to be – ie, truly educating people in a whole wealth of ideas that are their heritage, not just putting them through the paces of something mechanical and making sure they get 95 out of 100 of them right.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, there’s some hope there are some good signs there. Firstly, most of the people who are interested in spiritual topics these days, have no desire to live in a cave, and are, you know, living active lives in various ways. And even those who aren’t explicitly interested in spirituality, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on. If you look at the Bioneers conference, for instance, which is held every year in San Francisco, I believe, there are so many initiatives that don’t make the evening news that are signs of something really good happening in terms of people, you know, want to change the world in a positive way. And then obviously, the huge uprising that Greta Thunberg put in motion, you know, with her school strikes and increased awareness of the environmental crisis and so on. So I don’t know, you know, it’s a tug of war. We’ll see who wins out. But, go ahead. You’re about to say something.
>>Iain McGilchrist: I mean, I’m a great supporter of the environmental movement, and I’ve spoken at Extinction Rebellion events, but I mean, I’m a hopeful pessimist – because I think the science tells us we’ve left it too late. I know science is disputed. And so my hope is based on the idea that we don’t know what the certainties of the situation are – there aren’t any – and we don’t know what the future may hold, and what we may be able to remedy. But I think it would be a great mistake to, sort of sit back on one’s laurels and say, “oh, we’ll find a way of sorting this out”. Because that’s the typical left hemisphere in denial. You know, unless we go flat out to try and remedy the situation, we’re not going to manage it in time. You know, I say with great grief, because I’ve got three children and two grandchildren so far, and, you know, I love them to bits – and that’s the world they’re inheriting, you know.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. And so far, we are not going flat out to remedy the situation, we’re still kicking the can down the road. And, you know, half of the US Congress is in denial that there is actually a global warming problem. So we can only hope.
>>Iain McGilchrist: I think a spiritual revolution is the most likely thing, actually. Because I think that when things get really, really bad, it’s what’s needed for them to get better. And people need to be shocked, really, into seeing how their lives have been drained of meaning, drained of richness by the attitudes that have been foisted on them, actually, by the public intellectuals – by, you know, it’s invidious for me to name names, but you know who I mean, when I talk about some very popular public scientists, some very popular public philosophers, who are enormously reductionist in their views. And that’s a very simple point of view to espouse; you don’t really need to be thinking very hard, you just say it, and then you appear smart, because you’re not “taken in” by all these things that other people get “taken in” by, and actually, you’re not even smart enough to see that actually there could be some truth in these things! And that’s the theme of my book, to show why it’s not at all smart to adopt this cynical, reduced point of view, and why we need to expand our horizons imaginatively. And that includes taking into account a cosmos that is conscious.
>>Rick Archer: You’re probably referring to like, you know, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, and all these sort of, what do they call them? No, new atheists or whatever. And if you listen to what they say, and it’s kind of interesting to listen to them, they’re using straw man arguments against sort of ridiculous aspects of spirituality, you know, which are easy to knock down, but not really taking into consideration the sort of profound intrinsic, you know, intelligence that seems to permeate and pervade all of the universe, if you actually take a look. Is that what you’re alluding to?
>>Iain McGilchrist: As I say, I’m not naming names. I think, so, no, I think this is a development. But I’m glad that there’s a lot of kickback. A lot of people are not really convinced, at all, because they see that these are straw arguments. And there’s a vast range of points of view. And it’s very easy to take hold of people who, you know, exemplify all the things that I call the left hemisphere aspect of something; and the spiritual life has its left hemisphere proponents, just as everything else does; and I’m not in favor of them either. But that’s not a reason to dismiss the extraordinary wisdom of people for thousands of years, which has been coherent, about aspects of reality that are not out of keeping at all with modern science – or with reason.
>>Rick Archer: Very, very much true. I mean, you know, 100 years ago, physics was saying things about reality that the common understanding still hasn’t caught up with. You know, I don’t know if it will, but maybe it will. Maybe it just takes a while. Because that’s not obvious to our senses. I mean, we see a Newtonian world and we don’t perceive the quantum mechanical world, but you know, if you sort of rise to higher levels of spiritual development, you do begin to see that world and function that way.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes, I mean, I’m like many people a little wary of, of making too easy comparisons between physics and spirituality. But on the other hand, I think that more sophisticated comparisons exactly are hugely revealing. And what I believe I’m showing in the book that I’m writing is that, much as you would expect, the most revealing aspects of modern philosophy, the most revealing aspects of modern neuroscience, and the most revealing aspects of physics lead us to similar conclusions; at least they do – I’m thinking about neuroscience – if you accept my idea that there are important hemisphere differences that are manifest in the ways we think and behave in the world, at the confluence of these three important strands. And that’s why it’s a long book because I explore them in some depth. I don’t just kind of allude to them: and I make use of friends I have who are experts in these fields to run things by them to make sure I’m on the right track when I say these things. So anyway, there we are, you’re about to say something.
>>Rick Archer: Oh well, your book sounds fantastic. If we do a second interview about that book, I’ll have to take a month off beforehand, so I can actually read the whole thing because I’m sure it’d be very enriching. I’m afraid I didn’t get to read your previous book in preparation for this. But I did read all the other stuff you sent me and listened to many hours of your talks.
>>Iain McGilchrist: I always say about my book The Master and his Emissary, that it’s far too long, you know: that if I hadn’t actually written it, I’d never have had time to read it. But on the other hand, it contains, I like to think, and I’m commonly told, so much that it couldn’t really have been compressed any more than it already is.
>>Rick Archer: It must have been an incredibly enriching experience just to write it.
>>Iain McGilchrist: It was, yes, it was, that was an interesting thing for me because I found it very, very hard to write. I’d been gathering material and thinking about it for, you know, a decade or 15 years, and I was still not able to write it. And it was only in the last few years, I was able to write it. ‘Now why can’t I write this?” And it was like that everything connected with everything else, that everything I knew depended on explaining already something else that I had to explain, and it’s how to tackle the snake with a tail in its mouth. And I always gave up and I thought, “Well, you know it, so ,,, and nobody’s going to read it … so why not just die happy that you’ve done this! And then something kept me going and wanting to write it. And in the end, I did. And it was a very humbling experience because I realized that what I thought I knew before writing was an ‘outline’ of what I ended up saying, but a lot of the richness wasn’t there until I actually worked it out and wrote it down.
>>Rick Archer: As I’m sure is always the case, I mean, none of us would function very well with either hemisphere impaired.
>>Iain McGilchrist: No, exactly. As I always say, “it wouldn’t be better if we all had a left hemisphere stroke”, no.
>>Rick Archer: Want to loop back to something you said a few minutes ago, you were saying that, you know, perhaps society will kind of crash and we’ll realize, you know, we’ve got to turn things around, it kind of reminded me of the phenomenon of an alcoholic bottoming out. And they say, and sometimes people have to bottom out before they’re gonna want to look at themselves and get help. So maybe that’s what society is in the process of doing. And, you know, I mean, not all alcoholics manage to remain alive after bottoming out. But you know, those who live to tell about it obviously do
>>Iain McGilchrist: Exactly right. I think it’s a very good analogy. And you know, I’ve helped a lot of people with alcohol problems. But you’re right, that some people don’t ever recover from rock bottom, but nobody seems to get better unless they hit rock bottom. And that’s an uncomfortable place to be, which sometimes means you, you lose your family, you lose your livelihood, and you have to start again. And the equivalent of that, in our case, would be that some human beings will survive. But much of what we think of and take for granted as you know, civilized living, won’t be there. We’ll have to be much less demanding, and much more in touch with the earth and much more focused on local communities.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. And one of the things that turns an alcoholic around is the realization that they can’t do it on their own. Nothing they have tried has worked. And maybe societally, that’s where we’re heading for. We’ll kind of realize – and I think you said something like this a little while ago, that all the things in which we put our trust have not proven trustworthy, and that we need entirely different ways of thinking and doing things in order to actually have a flourishing society.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes, I think that is right. And having things to trust and trusting is central to a flourishing society. And I think, for reasons partly to do with the globalization of everything, on such a huge scale, nobody really knows who or what they’re dealing with most of the time. And so it’s very hard to trust. Whether society can actually manage without trust, I don’t know. I can’t remember who the Chinese sage was, but he advised an emperor: there are three things that you need for your people: guns, food, and trust, in that order of increasing importance. If you have to do without one, do without the guns; if you have to do without the next one, do without food; but without trust, you simply can’t survive.
>>Rick Archer: Here’s a quote from your writing, which happened to pop out at me here, the left hemisphere cannot trust and is prone to paranoia. It needs to feel in control, we would expect government to become obsessed with issues of security above all else, and to seek total control. So that’s related to what you’re just saying.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Well, yeah; I mean, what I do right at the end of the book is imagine what the world would look like if the left hemisphere was really the dominant deviser of the way we think and behave. And most people read it and go, “Oh, my God, that’s where we’re at”.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah, I mean, do you want to elaborate on that? Or do we not need to, because we can see what we’ve got going on in the world? Yeah,
>>Iain McGilchrist: I mean, there are so many, so many ways in which I think it’s true. You know, our thinking has become decontextualized, black-and-white, dogmatic. Everything has become more virtual, more purely cerebral. We have no kind of tradition, spiritually or otherwise, in which to bed our beliefs, our history, our lives. And that’s a very important thing. It’s, again, one of the things that enables any civilization to flourish. And not having those things is dangerous. So you know, there’s so many things, it’s what’s happening in the arts, it’s what’s happening in politics, the need for control, with everybody shuffling off responsibility and saying, “it’s you that’s at fault for all the things I suffer”. Not ever saying, “well, maybe I could do a little bit better”, which is a very right hemisphere mode; actually the right hemisphere is very keen on taking responsibility and needs a little balancing with the left, which doesn’t take responsibility. So in depression, which is often a right frontal overdrive condition, people believe that they are responsible for the ills of the world. They think that – and really, when they’re psychotically depressed, I mean – I had a patient who believed he caused the war in Bosnia, you know; and another woman who was a middle-aged lawyer, who thought she’d committed a murder in Wales that she’d seen on the television 700 miles away, you know. And so people begin to think “I’m responsible for all these things”. And in left hemisphere-dominant conditions, like schizophrenia, which is like a kind of overdrive of the left hemisphere, a sort of hyper-technical way of looking at life, it’s always somebody else’s fault. It just won’t take responsibility; which is why when confronted with a paralyzed limb, they go, “Oh, that – that doesn’t belong to me, that belongs to that guy over there”. And that’s the world we’re living in; you know, everybody should be taught to take responsibility from an early age. You can’t always choose your … but your responsibility is to deal with them as well as you can. And you know, in psychiatry… in alcoholism, the key thing is you know the alcoholic will never get better as long as “it’s my wife, it’s because of her that I drink”. No, no, mate. It’s because of you that you drink and until you take 100% responsibility for your state of things, even though other things in life affect you …They affect everybody. But the key thing is you take responsibility for what you do now about this situation. And that’s just not happening. Everybody’s pointing the finger at somebody else.
>>Rick Archer: Hmm. So you just described the left-brained society is one in which you abdicate responsibility for everything, you blame it on all those you described as sort of an abnormal right brain situation in which you take responsibility for things for which you’re not responsible. Perhaps you could say a bit more about what it would what a person or society would look like if they were too right-brain dominant to the exclusion of the left, but also perhaps you could kind of give us a picture of the ideal, in which both hemispheres, either in an individual or society, are optimally balanced.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes. There is no such thing as, there never has been a right hemisphere-dominant society.
>>Rick Archer: If there were, what do you think it would look like?
>>Iain McGilchrist: It would look very balanced because what you have to remember is the master is responsible for the emissary, appoints the emissary, and knows the emissary has a job to do. So the master wants to work all the time, in partnership with the emissary. That’s why he has an emissary.
>>Rick Archer: So it’s one in which the emissary knew his place and did his job and deferred to the Master, and the Master was really ultimately calling the shots.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Exactly, and or not exactly calling the shots, but, you know, in a more sympathetic way, working synergistically with the emissary. So it’s not a matter of subjugation (that’s the left hemisphere’s power struggle way of thinking, you know): you quoted earlier that there’s a power struggle. And of course, what I meant there was that the right hemisphere sees this as something that we should be working together on; the left hemisphere sees it as a power struggle. It’s like Satan in Paradise Lost: he has this thing, he must have the power, not God – you know? And that’s the analogy there. So when the right hemisphere is dominant, this can only happen in an individual, it can only happen in individual pathology. And a good example of it is certain kinds of depression, in which people become overwhelmed by other people’s suffering, by feeling responsible for it, and so forth. The picture is more complicated than that, and I can’t hope to do it without, you know …
>>Rick Archer: you gave a couple of examples, you know, about the, yeah, the Bosnia guy and the lady who thought she murdered somebody …
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yes, that’s right. But actually what’s complicated is that when it becomes actually psychotic, the left hemisphere seems to be playing a different role in it. But anyway, so, I haven’t got time to go into all of that …but you don’t get societies like that. You only get either balanced societies or societies that are unbalanced towards the left. Because as I say, as long as the right hemisphere has a say, it will say, “but I need the left hemisphere to help me”. And so when I say that there’s been these three times that the graph has changed, it’s not that it’s swung from right to left, it’s swung from perfect balance towards the left every time. So I would say, in this period of the, you know, early Greek civilization around the sixth century BC, in and around the year dot in Rome, in around the, you know, the beginning of the Renaissance, there was a wonderful marriage of the, of everything, of, for example, the beginnings of science, actually investigating what is really happening in the world in an empirical way, rather than taking it out of a book or out of a story. There’s also, you know, the beginnings of drama or poetry, of music, of doing astronomy, of, you know, a civil society developing a government that is democratic and – or at least more democratic than anything that ever existed before then. And you get this, this rather wonderful efflorescence of everything coming from a working together of the technical mind along with the imagination. And you see the same thing in Rome; you see the, you know, wonderful literature, the beginnings of Roman law, which ensured a sort of stable society, a deep morality, an appreciation of nature, all these things happening together, and then going into a terribly bureaucratic, abstracted, militaristic, hierarchical way of thinking. And, you know, every time it starts off, okay: and you know, to me, the great period is, you know – it’s fashionable for people who don’t really know what they’re talking about to criticize the Renaissance, but there has been very little in the history of the world to compare with it in terms of its actual humanity – you look at any other societies and civilization prior to it, they’re not very humane, but you get figures like Erasmus and More, and these wonderful people with a sense of, you know, humor, of proportion, of the balance of the individual with the state, all that kind of thing, of not being dogmatic, you know, but nonetheless, encouraging learning and spirituality, you get a wonderful balance between the male and the female spirit there, you get wonderful poetry, the beginnings of great science, you know, suddenly it all happens in like 100 years. And then gradually, it gets fossilized, into a mechanistic worldview, in which nothing has a place unless, as it were (let’s name him) Dawkins can prove it in a lab. Well, my dear friend Richard, there’s very, very, very much more in the world than can ever be proved in a lab.
>>Rick Archer: Interesting. Now, I don’t suppose that any we could look back and say, Well, okay, there was this sudden flourishing that we call the Renaissance, because this, that, and the other person did X, Y, and Z, it almost seems more like it was something whose time had come. And it was a RE, it was a swing of the pendulum back from the other extreme, and it was just time for, you know, more enlightened age to dawn for a while.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Well, it is, but as I say, last time, it took 1000 years to come around. And, you know, we haven’t got 1000 years, we’ve got like, seven, or something like that.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah. Well, since you just mentioned humor, I have to throw in a joke here. And you also mentioned the Renaissance. So this is a Steven Wright joke. He went into a restaurant, or a diner and the sign said, “Breakfast served any time”. So he said, “Okay, I’ll have French toast during the Renaissance.”
>>Iain McGilchrist: [Laughs]
>>Rick Archer: Okay, so in our final minutes, throw in a joke every now and then, in our final minutes. There’s a question from Kenneth and a point I’d like you to touch on, and then we’ll wrap it up. Kenneth is located in the Netherlands. He said, “Some philosophers like Kant and scientists like Donald Hoffman, explained that our perceptions are always mediated by certain mental structures, but that these structures also limit our experience of reality”. Aside from Dan’s question and Kenneth’s question, I’m reminded of what they say about psychedelics, that it sort of removes the limits, which otherwise, you know, we need in other words to function, we can’t deal with that much perceptional at once. But anyway, how does your work relate to this distinction between experienced consciousness and what’s behind appearances? And related to this? If Oh, go ahead and comment on that. Now ask you the second part.
>>Iain McGilchrist: It’s interesting, because Kant is one case, Donald Hoffman may be a slightly different one. Because although he says, consciousness is just an illusion he doesn’t really mean that, because he actually says, “when I taste the taste of chocolate, that’s the real deal, I’m actually really tasting the taste of chocolate”. Now I know you can say, well, that’s because what he means by the real taste of chocolate is what your brain turns it into, and so on. And there’s no way we can possibly know or talk about what it would taste like without a brain. So we end up somewhere in the sort of slightly fruitless dispute between idealists and realists. And, as I may have said earlier, I can’t remember, I adopt a position which is that of Schelling, a very underrated philosopher, that, in fact, the idea that there is a sort of world out there beyond our consciousness, and that there’s another world inside, and they can never really contact one another, is a false point of view. I certainly argue against this in my book. It leads too easily into the idea of a sort of homunculus sitting on a cerebral sofa, looking at images on a screen, which is all we can know of reality; but I take the view that whatever reality is, consciousness is part of it, and that there is no ultimate divide between my consciousness and what is, because what is, is in consciousness in any case; so there are limits – very, very severe limits – on my consciousness, of course; I can only see a tiny part of the whole, that’s what it means to be a human being. But the tiny part that I do see is real – is not a fiction. It’s true that our brains anticipate what they may be going to experience, and so come up with things from memory. But these shouldn’t be confused with the idea that somehow there is no contact between consciousness and reality. There’s an Italian philosopher whose name – and I’m getting to that stage in life, have pity on me, well, names disappear, but it’ll come to me in a minute [Riccardo Manzotti] – but who takes the view that when we are conscious of things in space around us, they are where we see them to be, and our consciousness is with them. So that consciousness is not located behind my eyes in my head but is something that actually is in the world and which I have a kind of access to. I haven’t explained that very well. It’s a notoriously difficult one to try and explain. But in the book, I take a slightly different view, as I say, which wouldn’t fit either with one understanding of what Donald Hoffman is saying and wouldn’t fit with Kant.
>>Rick Archer: Yeah, well, I listened to a couple of hours of talks, your interview with Tim Freke, and another talk or interview you gave in which you kind of gave us a preview of your upcoming book. And when that book is published, if you’d like we can do a whole interview on it, because it’s a whole ‘nother batch of subject matter than what we’ve talked about today. But it was all fascinating stuff, which I think we could really have a good conversation about. One final question: and this kind of relates to Kenneth’s question, and that is about acquired savant syndrome, where people have a brain injury, and all of a sudden, they have this explosion of artistic or mathematical or musical ability, often without any training in those fields. What do you make of that?
>>Iain McGilchrist: Well, like everyone else, I’m utterly fascinated by it. I deal with that also, in this book. Because when, when you look at acquired savant syndrome, following some form of injury, and there are, you know, a dozen cases that I know of where there is a localized injury that gave rise to it, the injury is pretty much always in the left hemisphere. So it looks like a release phenomenon of the right hemisphere, in that something that is normally kept in check becomes more possible. And there’s some reason to believe this may be the case, because of the work of a man called Alan Snyder in Sydney, who applied transcranial magnetic stimulation – you can do this to one hemisphere at a time, and depending on the frequency, you can either stimulate or inhibit – and he inhibited the left frontal cortex, and he inhibited the right frontal cortex; and he had a control condition in which the person’s brain was just functioning in the normal way. And they were asked to approach and solve puzzles. And there’s a certain puzzle, called the nine-dot puzzle, which unless you’ve seen it solved, virtually nobody can solve. And in the intact normal state, nobody could solve this puzzle; with the right frontal cortex suppressed, they were no better, in fact, not as good. But with the left frontal cortex suppressed 40% of them were able to solve the problem. And that is staggering because that’s a huge increase. So I think there’s quite a lot in that, yes. The difficulty is that autism in itself is very much more like a left hemisphere overdrive syndrome. And I think this is a very complex picture, which has to do with changes we know exist in the corpus callosum, the band of nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres at their base, in which there are a number of abnormalities in both schizophrenia and autism – it’s not easy to describe without diagrams and so forth, but I do talk a bit about that in this book. I haven’t given a name to it: I’m calling it The Matter with Things, which is a pun on several levels, but my editor hasn’t yet heard that. At any rate, that’s what I’m calling it. He may have other ideas – we’ll see.
>>Rick Archer: Interesting. Well, we’ve jumped around a bit. And obviously, you know, we’ve just taken a sampling of many, many different things that you have to offer, even in just your first book, not to say your second one. But I hope it’s given people, you know, an adequate introduction to your work, because I think that people, many people who are listening to this would enjoy exploring more deeply, I’ve certainly enjoyed exploring it in the past week, and we’d like to explore a lot more. So as I said, you know, in the second book is on the horizon, we can, we can do another one and talk about that if you’d like. Let me just tell people about your websites a little bit. So you have the one website, which is iainmcgilchrist.com. And I’ll be linking to that. I’m just showing it on the screen right now. And then you have something called Channel McGilchrist, which one can browse for free; and if you wish to join, there’s a fee for joining. And basically, it includes access to recent interviews, discussion about your upcoming book, lectures, a discussion forum, where various articles that I guess aren’t available elsewhere, an opportunity to ask you questions, and then a whole community of like-minded people that you can join and interact with.
>>Iain McGilchrist: I should point out that it has a non-members area as well, which is free. So you can visit it and have a look; it’s a new venture, it’s only been up for about a month, so it’ll get more interesting. But it’s already pretty interesting, and quite a lot of people have joined. But there it is – anyway, I just wanted to say that.
>>Rick Archer: So I’ll link to that from your page on batgap.com, as well as to your other website and to YouTube channel, which is, has a bunch of interesting stuff, including those poems that you read every day. Okay, yeah, yeah, it’d be nice to subscribe to that. I’d like to listen to you read a poem each day. All right, well, thank you very much. And I’ve really enjoyed getting to know you a bit and having this conversation. It’s been really an honor for me.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Thank you, Rick. It’s been great. And I hope we can talk again some other time, and perhaps have a little more luck with the internet connection. But we’ll see!
>>Rick Archer: Maybe next time, we’ll figure out how to get a wire going from your router to your computer, say that relying on Wi-Fi. Yeah. So for those who are listening or watching, thank you for that. And we, if you want to check out Batgap.com. And if you haven’t done so already, you’ll find a bunch of things there that you might find interesting. There’s an audio podcast of the program, you can sign up for this email notification thing so that you get an email whenever I post a new interview. There are several different ways in which the past interviews are indexed. And you can explore that, categorically or most popular or, you know, various other ways chronologically, alphabetically. And I’m actually building a quote section on the website now because I keep coming across all these great quotes and I think they are organized in some way so people can access them. So I’ve been working on that. And some other things just go to the website and explore the menus and you’ll see what’s there. So thanks for listening or watching. Thank you again. And enjoy the Isle of Skye. Go take a hike for me.
>>Iain McGilchrist: [Laughs] I’ll take that in the nicest sense.
>>Rick Archer: No, yes, I mean that I can envision myself hiking those hills with you. It’d be so much fun. So healthy breathing, breathing that fresh salt air.
>>Iain McGilchrist: Yeah, okay.
>>Rick Archer: All right. Bye-bye. Thank you. Thanks to all, bye-bye.