The Master and His Emissary: A Conversation with Dr. Iain McGilchrist Transcript

YouTube Video
Podcast Episode
Audio published on February 17th, 2018

Keywords: Hemisphere, Music, Purpose, Kuhn, Vygotsky, Piaget, Kabbalah

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The Master and His Emissary

A Conversation with Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, I have a question. I’d like to know a little bit more about why you specifically chose the title "The Master and His Emissary".

It was an attempt to explain what I believed was the relationship between the two brain hemispheres. Like most other things in life, they’re unequal and asymmetrical. One of the brain hemispheres sees more than the other. That is the one that I’ve designated the "master", and is the right hemisphere.

That’s a weird inversion, because people often think of the left hemisphere as the one that’s dominant.

They do, they do. Traditionally, that’s been the case, but, as is becoming ever clearer, the right hemisphere—this has been a real steep learning curve for some people—is in many ways more reliable, sees more, understands more than the left hemisphere, which is like a high-functioning bureaucrat, in a way. The idea of the story was simply that certain matters needed to be delegated, not only because, as it were, the master couldn’t do everything—he needed an emissary to go abroad and do some of it—but also that he must not get involved with a certain point of view. Otherwise, he’d lose what it was that [inaudible]. What I’m really saying, there, is that there’s a good reason why, evolutionary speaking, the two brain hemispheres are separate.

When you say "doesn’t get involved", what’s the advantage of that detachment from the involvement?

Well, it’s that… Ramón y Cajal, who you know is a great histopathologist—one of his findings was that, in primates, there are more prohibitory neurons than in any other animals, and there are more in humans than in any other primate.

And that’s speaking proportionally.

Proportionally, and there are more kinds, as well. We think that about 25 per cent of the entire cortex is inhibitory, so it’s a very strong effect. The callosum seems to be very largely, in the end, inhibiting function in the other hemisphere. That is, I think, because, over time, the two hemispheres have had to specialize. There are reasons why, actually, it can’t be. I’m not going to go into it now, but I was talking just a few days ago at the evolutionary psychiatry meeting. But there are reasons why the corpus callosum has had to become more selective, and to inhibit quite a lot of what’s going on in the other hemisphere; because it enables the two to do distinct things. Of course, they have to work together, but, usually, good teamwork doesn’t mean everyone trying to do the same row. So differentiation is very important for two elements to work together. Inhibition is one way of doing that. Effectively, the two takes on the world, if you like, that the hemispheres have are not easily compatible; and we’re not aware of that, because at the level below consciousness there’s a meta-control center that is bringing them together. So in ordinary experience we don’t feel that we’re in two different worlds, but effectively we are. They have different qualities and different goals, different values, different takes on what is important in the world.

I’ve developed a conceptual scheme for thinking about the relationship between the two hemispheres, and I’ve been curious about what you think about it, and how it might map onto, or not, your ideas. I’ve been really interested in the orienting reflex, discovered by Eugene Sokolov, I think, back in about 1962. He was a student of Luria's. The orienting reflex manifested when something, at least in their terminology, unpredictable happened. I’ve thought much more recently that it’s actually when something undesired happens, and the laboratory constraints obscured that, and that actually turned out to be important. I kind of put together the ideas of the orienting reflex with some of the things I learned from Jung’s observations on the function of art and dreams. So imagine that you have a conceptual scheme laid out, and we could say it’s linguistically mediated, it’s enforced on the world, and then there are exceptions to that conceptual scheme, and those are anomalies, things that are unexpected. The orienting reflex orients you towards those.

Yes.

So those are things that aren’t fitting properly in your conceptual scheme that you have to figure out. The first thing you do is act defensively, essentially, because it might be dangerous. And then your exploratory systems are active, and the exploratory systems, first of all, are enhanced attention, from an attentional perspective. But then—and this is where the art issue sort of creeps into it—the idea would be something like "the right hemisphere generates an imaginative landscape of possibility that could map that anomaly." So you can kind of experience that if it’s at night, you know?

Yeah.

Say you’re sitting alone at night. It’s 2 or 3 in the morning. You’re kind of tired. Maybe you’re in an unfamiliar place, and there’s a noise that happens that shouldn’t happen in another room. You can play with that. So, for example, if you open the door slightly and put your hand in to turn on the light, and you watch what happens, your mind will fill with imaginative representations of what might be in the room.

Yes, yes.

It’s like the landscape of anomaly will be populated with something like imaginative demons, and that’s a first-pass approximation. It seems to me that’s a right hemispheric function, and that, as you explore further, that imaginative domain, which circumscribes what might be, is constrained and constrained and constrained and constrained, until you get what it actually is, and that’s specialized and routinized. It’s something like that.

Yes, yes.

Does that seems like a reasonable—what do you think about that?

I love that for a whole host of reasons. One is, you mentioned "defense", and one of the ideas behind my hypothesis is that the right hemisphere is on the lookout for predators, whereas the left hemisphere is looking for prey. This has been confirmed in many species of amphibians and mammals.

I’d never heard that second part. When you’re in left hemispheric mode, you’re more in predator mode; and when you’re in right hemispheric mode, you’re more in prey mode.

Of course, we are not lizards or toads or marmosets, or whatever. But in animals, generally speaking, this is the case. The left hemisphere’s the one that controls the grasping [inaudible], and exploring, which you mentioned, is more right hemisphere. When a frontal function is deficient, people often go into an automatic mode of the hand of that side. And the left hand, it’s usually exploratory motions. Meaningless ones, but trying to explore the environment. And with the right hand, it’s grasping pointlessly at things. They’re automatic things. With the left hand, the right hemisphere to explore. With the right hand, the left hemisphere to grasp. So when you said "exploratory", and you said "defensive", and you said, also, "opening up to possibilities"—these are all aspects of the way the right hemisphere… I often say the right hemisphere opens up to possibility, while the left hemisphere wants to close down to a certainty, and you need both of these.

Right, right. It’s a chaos and order issue.

Chaos and order. In your talk, you talked about chaos and order, but, if I may say so, you seem—and maybe you’d like to gloss that a little—to suggest that it would be good… We can’t get rid of chaos, but you seem to imply that it would be better if we could, whereas my view is that chaos and order are necessary to one another, and there is a proper harmony or balance.

Yeah, well, ok. I think that’s as deep a question as you could possibly ask, I would say, in some sense.

Good.

I would say there’s a central theological issue, there.

Yes.

The issue there is that, you know, in Genesis, the proper environment of humanity is construed as a garden.

Yes.

I see that as an optimal balance of chaos and order. Nature flourishing, and it’s prolific and it’s chaotic. If you add harmony to that, you have a garden, so you live in a garden. You’re supposed to tend a garden. Ok, so then a garden is created. It’s a walled space, because Eden is a walled space. It’s "paradeisos". It’s a walled garden.

That’s it.

The thing is, as soon as you make a wall, you try to keep outside out, but you can’t, because the boundaries between things are permeable. So, if you’re going to have reality and you’re going to have a bounded space, you’re going to have a snake in the garden. Then the question is, "what the hell should you do about that? Should you make the walls so high that no snake can possibly get in? or should you allow for the possibility of snakes, but make yourself strong enough so that you can contend with them?" I think there’s an answer, there, that goes deep to the question of, maybe, even why God allowed evil to exist in the world.

I agree with you.

It’s like, "well, do you make people safe or strong?" Strong is better, and safe might not be commensurate with Being. It might not be possible to exist and to be safe.

Our existence is predicated on the fact that we die, so it’s never safe.

Well, it’s certainly bounded, right? It’s inevitably wrapped up with that sort of finitude. There’s a lovely, lovely Jewish idea, an ancient idea. It’s one of the most profound ideas I’ve ever come across. It’s kind of a zen koan. It’s a question about the classic attributes of God: omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. What does a being with those three attributes lack? The answer is "limitation," and the second answer is, "that’s the justification for being," that the unlimited lacks the limited.

Exactly, exactly.

And so the limited is us.

For anything to come into existence, there needs to be an element of resistance, so things are never predicated on one pole of what is always a dipole. Everything always has that dipole structure.

Yeah, it’s like a prerequisite for Being.

It is, and it’s imaged in the yin-yang idea. But it seems to me very important, because, in our culture, we often seem to suppose that certain things are just good and other things are just bad, and it would be good if we could get rid of the bad ones. But, actually, by pursuing certain good things that are good within measure too far, they become bad, and so forth. But let’s go back to your anomaly thing, because Ramachandran calls the right hemisphere the "anomaly detector".

Yes, yes.

So I think that’s a very important point, because there are two ways you can react to an anomaly: one is to—and both have to be explored—try and prove that it’s not really an anomaly, and therefore you can carry on with things are normal.

Yes. That’s what you hope will happen.

That’s the typical left hemisphere approach. It doesn’t want anything to have to shift, and quite reasonably. You don’t want to be chaotically shifting, if you’re on to a good thing.

Yeah. It’s too stressful.

Exactly.

It takes too much work.

And you might actually be mistaken.

Yes, that too.

In a way, it’s perfectly correct to be wary, but it’s not correct to be so wary that you blot out anomalies, and there’s lots of evidence of that. The left hemisphere simply blocks out everything that doesn’t fit with its take. It doesn’t see it, actually, at all. So there’s a hugely important element in the right hemisphere going, "hang on: there may be another way of thinking that will accommodate this better." And, actually, good science needs to be skeptical about anomalies, otherwise there would be chaos, but it also needs to be able to shift when an anomaly is large enough, or there are quite a lot of them and they don’t really fit really well.

Exactly, yes. There’s another observation that Jung made. I loved this observation. He was trying to account for radical personality transformation. His idea was this, and I think it’s commensurate with the ideas of inhibition between the two hemispheres. So let’s imagine the left is habitually inhibiting the function of the right, to keep fear under control. It does that in all sorts of ways. Imagine the right is reacting to anomalies, and it’s aggregating them. The left can’t deal with them, so the right is aggregating anomalies. Maybe that’s starting to manifest itself in nightmarish dreams, for example. These anomalies are piling up. It’s indicating that you’re on shifting sand. So then, imagine that the right hemisphere aggregates anomalies, and then it starts to detect patterns in the anomalies. Now it starts to generate what you might consider a counterhypothesis to the left’s hypothesis.

Exactly.

If that counterhypothesis gets to the point where the total sum, in some sense, of the anomalies, plus the already mapped territory, can be mapped by that new pattern, then at some point it will shift.

Yes.

And the person will kick into a new personality configuration. It’s like a Jean Piagetian stage transition, except more dramatic.

It is, and what a Piagetian stage transition is also like—and it subsumes both—is Hegelian [inaudible], the idea that a thing is opposed by something else, but when there is a synthesis, it’s not that one of them is annihilated: they’re both transformed and taken up into the whole, which embraces what before looked like in opposition.

Ok, here’s a question for you. When I read Thomas Kuhn, I was reading Piaget at the same time—and I knew that Piaget was aware of Kuhn’s work, by the way. The problem I had with Kuhn and the interpreters of Kuhn—who interpret Kuhn as a moral relativist, in some sense—is that they don’t seem to get the idea of increased generalized ability of "plan". So let’s say I have a theory, and a bunch of anomalies accrue, and I have to wipe out the theory. So then I wipe out the theory, and I incorporated the anomalies, and now I have another theory. That’s a descent into chaos. That’s my estimation. That’s the oldest stories. So the anomaly disruption is the mythological descent into chaos, and then you reconfigure the theory with the chaos, and you come up with a better theory.

Yes, the resurrection.

"Why is it better?" Well, the answer is, "it accounts for everything that the previous theory accounted for, plus the anomalies."

Exactly.

So there’s progress.

Always.

Yes, exactly. But Kuhn is often read as stating there is no progress. There’s incommensurate paradigms, and you have to just shift between them. But there isn’t cumulative knowledge, in some sense.

I think one thing that we would both probably agree about is that we don’t buy the story that because nothing can be demonstrated definitely, utterly, to be the case, there is no truth. I mean, I think we both believe that there are truths, things that are truer than other things.

We certainly act that way.

We couldn’t even talk, could we, if we… And even to say that there are no truths is itself a truth statement, which is that it’s truer than the statement "there are truths". So everyone automatically has truths, whether they know it or not.

It’s because, well, you said why. It’s not only that you can’t talk—you can’t even see.

No.

Because you wouldn’t know how to point your eyes.

You wouldn’t know how to discriminate what’s coming into your brain at all. So it’s inevitable. I think we would agree about that. But I think there may be a slight point of difference between us in that I’m very willing to embrace the idea of uncertainty, and I may be wrong—perhaps you could expand on that—but sometimes you come across as a man who has certainties that…

Well, it’s a peculiar kind of certainty. I’m certain that standing on the border of order and chaos is a good idea.

Good.

That’s a weird certainty, eh?

Exactly, exactly. You need to be in the sort of slightly unstable position.

Yeah. You have to be… what would you say… encountering as much uncertainty as you can voluntarily tolerate.

Yes.

I think that’s equivalent of Vygotsky's "zone of proximal development". So when we talked a little bit earlier about an instinct for meaning, I think what meaning is, is the elaborated form of the orienting reflex. But what meaning does, it’s function, it’s biological function—which I think is more real, in some sense, than any other biological function—is to tell you when you’re in the place where you’ve balanced the stability, let’s say, of your left hemisphere systems with the exploratory capacity of your right, so that not only are you master of your domain, but you’re expanding that domain simultaneously.

Yes, yes.

I think that when you’re there, it’s kind of a metaphysical place, in some sense. You’re imbued with a sense of meaning and purpose. That’s an indication that you’ve actually optimized your neurological function.

Yes, and perhaps we could gloss the idea of "purpose", because I think people get very confused, I think, about the idea of "purpose", particularly whether there’s a problem that’s suggesting there is a purpose. I believe there is a purpose, or there are purposes to the cosmos, not just to my life—suggest that it’s all been predetermined by God, but this is misunderstanding the nature of time, that there are static slices, and God is there, and he’s sorted it all out, the whole thing’s just unfolding, as Bergson says, "like a lady’s fan being unfurled." It’s extremely boring, and an entirely static and uncreative universe. But, actually, something is at stake. Things are unfolding. They have overall a direction. But exactly what that direction is, isn’t known.

That’s what it looks like to me.

It’s a fool who says anything positive about the nature of God, but I’m not convinced that God is omniscient and omnipotent, either. I think God is in the process, is becoming. God is not only just becoming, but is becoming, if you see what I mean.

Yeah, so Being and becoming.

More becoming.

More becoming.

Becoming is the important thing.

Why do you think that? It’s also a strange segue. I mean, I’m not criticizing you, but I’m curious. What drove you to that conclusion?

An awful lot of things, really. I think that everything is a process. In fact, I’m writing a book called "There are No Things".

Oh, what are there instead?

There are processes.

Yes.

And there are patterns.

Patterns. That’s why music is so powerful.

Music is one of the most mysterious and wonderful things in the universe, and I don’t think it is at all foolish of people to have thought that the planetary motions were in some way like a kind of music.

No, it’s not at all. It’s a great insight.

I think it is a very important insight.

Well, music… I’ve said this in public lectures, that music is the most representative of the arts.

It is.

Because the world is made out of patterns, and music describes how those patterns should be arranged.

You’re using "representative" in a very different way.

I know, I know, but it depends on what you mean by "representative". It’s representing the ultimate reality of the cosmos. That’s pretty representative.

Well, I would like to say "presentative", in that it’s not "representing" anything. When we’re in the presence of music, something is coming into Being, which is at the core of the whole cosmic process.

I think that’s why people love music.

They do, and there’s hardly any originality in the idea, because lots of physicists say this, but the movement of atoms and movement of planets and so forth are more like a dance or more like music than they are like things bumping into one another.

Right, right. I thought of "things" as patterns that people have made into tools.

I agree with you, and tools are what the left hemisphere is always looking for. It’s always looking for something to grasp. It rarifies processes that… It’s all a matter of time. Every single thing, including the mountain behind my house, which is billions of years old—if you were able to take, as it were, a series of time lapse camera—you’d see the thing morphing and changing and flowing. As Eric [inaudible] once said, "everything flows. It’s just over the time period that you consider it."

It’s a question of tempo.

It’s a question of the tempo. So taking time out of things and considering them in the abstract, deracinated from context, particularly from the flow and the context of the time, changes them into something else. I think that what, in brief, Plato has done and what a lot of the history of more recent Christianity has done is to thing-ify God and heaven—perfect states that are unaltered, and so on. I think it is an evermore wonderfully self-exploring, self-actualizing process that requires a degree of opposition, as a stream, in order to have the movement and the ideas and patterns in it, it has to be constrained.

I’ve had intimations like that about death. It’s hard to describe these experiences, but when I’ve contemplated death deeply, it’s struck me as a fundamental repair mechanism against the part of the mechanism by which new things that are better are brought into Being.

Absolutely.

You see that in your own Being, because, of course, without death, you couldn’t live, because you’re dying. The things about you that aren’t right, even at a physiological level, are dying all the time. Unfortunately, you also completely die. But more cosmically speaking, it does seem to me that death is… I don’t know, man. I’ve had intuitions or intimations that death is the friend of Being. That’s… It’s hard to get my head around that.

I completely agree with you, and that’s been said by many wiser people than myself—maybe even than yourself.

I would suspect so. Hopefully so.

I think that’s right, that death is predicated on life, but also that it shouldn’t be seen as something that’s a negative. It’s a necessary stage in Being becoming what it is. Since everything is ramified, since nothing is just isolated, you and I may look [inaudible] or feel [inaudible], but as you often eloquently say, we all have a history and in time we come from a place, but also as a culture we have history. We can’t detach ourselves from it. We’re expressions of it. But we’re also inevitable dependent, as all organism are, on the environment: where I end and where the "environment" begins. I don’t like the word "environment", so "nature".

No, it’s a mythological concept.

It suggests something that’s always being born, whereas "environment" suggests something around me, from which I’m separate.

And even opposed to.

Yes, yes. So I would see us as like an eddy in a stream, or like a wave in the sea. It’s never separate.

Schrödinger talked about life as such things.

The coming together of physics with a process philosophy are very strong.

So when does that book come out?

When I finish writing it.

Oh, hah.

And I’m very worried that it’s getting bigger and is… In all this time I’m writing it, I’m seeing more and more things that I really must get to know more about it, and it’s an ever-receding…

Well, that’s the danger of a book that aims at something fundamental, because you never hit the proper boundaries.

That’s it. I need that wall.

I also had imaginative experiences, I would say, that, when I was trying to understand, say, the necessity of evil—because that’s also a fundamental theological conundrum and a metaphysical conundrum: "why is it that Being is consisted such that evil is allowed to exist," right? It’s Ivan Karamazov’s critique of Alyosha’s Christianity, essentially. "What kind of God would allow for this sort of thing?"

It’s an ancient question.

Yeah, it’s an ancient question. Part of what I’ve… I’ve thought about the adversarial aspect of that, which is that you need a challenge. You’re not forced to bring forth what you could bring forth without a challenge, and the greater the thing you’re supposed to bring forth, the greater the challenge has to be, so you need an adversary. Something like that. But I also thought, "it’s possible that Being requires limitation." You might say optimal Being requires free choice. I know I’m going through a lot things quickly. Free choice requires the real distinction between good and evil.

It does.

Without that, you don’t have choice. Also, maybe it’s possible to set up a world where evil is a possibility, but where it isn’t something that has to be manifest: it’s an option open to you, and a real option, and it has to be, and the challenge that was presented to you, but it’s something that you can not move towards, if you so desire. That seems to be something like the ethical requirement. That’s the fundamental ethical requirement, to avoid evil. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. That’s not the same issue.

No, it isn’t. I wonder, one could recast it as the need for otherness. God needs something other, and that other, if it’s not going to be just part of God, has got to be free. Otherwise, there will be no creation. The nature that there is something other than God… It may, in the end, come from and come back to that God, or that divine essence, or that whatever.

That’s something I can’t figure out, either. In the Christian idea, there’s the end of time, where the evil is separated from God forever. I think about that as a metaphysical… Well, you might think, if it’s a form of… Imagine it’s a form of perfection, a form of striving for perfection. You fragment yourself; you challenge yourself; you throw what’s not worthy into the fire everlasting. Something like that. So what you end up with retained is much better than what you started with, through the trials. Something like that.

That sounds a bit like the dialectical process that we’ve been talking about.

Right.

You have eluded to a couple of very good Jewish myths, and there’s one in the Lurian Kabbalah about the creation. I don’t know if you know it, but it’s absolutely riveting to me. The idea is that the primary being—Ein Sof, the ground of all Being—needs something other to come into being: the creation. That creation, what does that Ein Sof do? This is his first act. Is it to stretch out a hand and make something? Not a bit. The first act is to withdraw, to create a place in which there can be something other than the Ein Sof. And so the first stage is called Tzimtzum. It sounds negative, as so many creative things do. It withdraws, and, in that creative space, there are vessels. A spark falls off of Ein Sof and falls into the vessels, and they all shatter. That’s called "the shattering of the vessels".

Yes. I came across that in Jung.

Right, yes. And then there is the third stage, "repair", in which what has just been fragmented is restored into something greater. And so this process carries on. In my terms, that’s very much like what happens with the hemispheres. The right hemisphere is the one that’s first accepting. It’s sort of actively receptive, if you can put it that way, to whatever is new. You were talking about Elkhonon Goldberg’s, and so on. And then, whatever that is, is then sort of processed by the left hemisphere at the next stage into categories—"this is that"—and try to understand it. Of course, whatever it is, is much bigger than any of the categories. So they all break down, and it gets restored in the right hemisphere into a new whole: the tikkun; the repair.

That’s "tikkun", right? T-i-k-k-u-n.

T-i-k-k-u-n, right. The kind of easy way of thinking about it is learning a piece of music. You’re first sort of attracted to it as a whole. You then realize you need to practice that piece at bar 28, and you realize that at bar 64 there’s a return to the dominant, or something. And then, actually, when you go on stage, you’ve got to forget all about that. But it’s not that that work is lost. It’s just that it’s no longer present.

Right.
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