The properly divided brain

September 29, 2013 | By | 2 Replies More

Psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist agrees that the brain is divided, but not at all in the way that is it is commonly thought. This is one of those quick-draw RSA Animate illustrated videos, deeply thought-provoking and also entertaining.

Here’s a transcript of McGilchrist’s lecture on the divided brain.

So you have, essentially, two kinds of attention, one that narrows a thing down as much as possible to a certainty so that you can pick it up and get it and sort it out. This is very useful for manipulating the world. It’s not good for understanding the world. For understanding the world you need what I would call a relational attention in which you don’t see yourself as somehow disconnected from everything around but realize how interconnected you are with it and need to be aware of all of it.

Paulson: So you’re saying this relational understanding, this understanding comes from the right hemisphere or the right brain whereas the manipulative side, the ability to control and master details, that happens on the left?

McGilchrist: On the left side. Yes that’s right. And you can see this rather nicely in birds and animals because unlike humans, humans are predators. We have the eyes on the front of the head. Most birds and animals have theirs on the side and you can just see that if that means that each eye cross-wires to the other hemisphere in a very neat way. So when you see themselves using their left eye or right eye and turning themselves especially to engage with the one that’s more appropriate for the task, you (?) of being able to observe this. When you come to humans, you find exactly the same story, that there are broadly five types of attention neurologists describe, but we don’t need to go into all of that. Essentially what it boils down to is that sustained, vigilant awareness of the surrounding and the broadest possible attention is paid also in humans by their right hemispheres. People who have a lesion or damage to the right hemisphere have a pathological narrowing of their window of attention, whereas the left hemisphere has this very highly focused, sharply focused attention.

Paulson: So you’re saying that a healthy brain needs both of these functions and the ability to switch back and forth. At some point you need-

McGilchrist: All the time.

Paulson: All the time.

McGilchrist: Precisely. We’re using both, or should be using both, all the time. AT a purely sort of millisecond to millisecond level there’s neural activity going on all the time, of course, in both hemispheres, but in terms of our consciousness, the attentional world, the phenomenological world if you like, the world we actually experience, it can be more like one or other of these depending on a number of factors, particularly what we think we are engaged in doing. The problem here is while we need both of these attentions the left hemisphere is the one that does the speaking and the organizing of an argument and the right hemisphere doesn’t have access to these benefits. In the book I called the left hemisphere the Berlusconi of the brain because it’s the kind of political heavyweight that controls the media. The evidence, if you like, or the arguments are skewed from the outset. It’s much harder to construct in language, the knowledge that the right hemisphere has, a lot of which is implicit and needs, in fact, to be taken in context and not disengaged from all the other things that it’s connected to. That, of course, is a very difficult thing to convey often in language.


Category: Human animals, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (2)

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  1. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    A confession.
    I am a mutant. My corpus callosum is over developed.

    This has resulted in a few mutant powers. For example, I can recognize, extrapolate, formulate and execute a response to a visual stimulus in considerably less time than most people. This ability made me the best dodge ball player in elementary school. It has also made it possible for me to avoid auto collisions by reacting in counter intuitive ways.
    A few months ago, while driving on a relatively busy street, A light ahead of me turned red. As I braked, I spotted a car in the rear view mirror approaching too fast to stop. As they slammed on their brakes and started skidding, I slipped my foot off the brake, goosed the gas pedal and got back on the brake, stopping two or three feet into the intersection and giving the other driver enough space to stop without hitting me.

    I had a data logger on the car at the time, so I checked the braking and acceleration data logs. The total time from my initial slowing for the light to complete stop was a little over 3 seconds.

    This recognition and extrapolation ability applies well to other parts of life. Early on I spotted the sociopathic behavior of corporations. I’ve been able to convince many people to think through the hate and fear mongering used to manipulate them and to see the flawed lies promoting the corporate agenda.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: I do think it is important for people to be able to unhook the social parts of their brains in order to quit being tribal, in order to see problems more objectively. I think I can do that, maybe a bit too well sometimes. I don’t have any research on this, and I don’t know if I’m just imagining that I do this well, but I often do step back and see political disputes as between two fallible positions. My “proof” is that I’ve been hammering positions of Barack Obama at this website, even though I voted for him.

      I do wonder if there is some research suggesting whether this can be done, to temporarily or permanently voluntarily remove one’s tribal glasses.

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