Insights from ‘The Matter with Things’

[A version of this piece appeared originally at The KCP Group.]

Why is this worth your time? Regular readers will be aware that I think Dr. Iain McGilchrist is one of the most consequential minds of our times. Last month he published a monster 1,400 page book, The Matter With Things. It’s his masterpiece, and an attempt to comprehensively expand on a thesis that has changed my life. I had the privilege of interviewing him last week.

As my notes alone are over sixty pages long, distilling this book down to any summary you’d have the patience to read is an exercise in futility. Instead I will explain what it means to me and why I think it’s so important. Reading it was like scaling a mountain; a worthy challenge rewarded with a stunning view from the top. I can’t show you the view, but I can tell you what I saw, and recommend you make the climb yourself.

This recent Rebel Wisdom interview is a great introduction to the book’s thesis and will probably be a good barometer of whether you’ll enjoy it. It has already tipped two people I love into finally understanding why I think his work is so revelatory.

The three parts of the book: The first part of the book discusses an imbalance between the hemispheres of our brain that he thinks has had a catastrophic impact on our lives and civilization. The second part discusses how we come to know anything at all about the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that it includes almost every idea about “thinking” that I’ve ever found meaningful, and several more. The third part is a much broader discussion about what we can know about anything. The book starts in the relatively dry foothills of neurology and ends in the cosmos. Hence this last part is virtually impossible to do any justice to in a space this small.

The [extremely simplified] thesis: There is a characterological difference between the hemispheres of our brain. Counter to pop psychology, both sides do similar things, but they do them in very different ways. Counter to scientific rebuttals, just because both sides can do similar things, doesn’t mean the way they do them isn’t radically important.

Moreover, there is an absolutely necessary tension between the two sides. McGilchrist likes to use the example of a bird. A bird uses its left hemisphere (LH) to identify if a grain is food or sand, while simultaneously using its right hemisphere (RH) to be on guard for predators. Narrow focus and broad focus, simultaneously and in balance. Without the narrow focus of the left, you can’t interact with the world and sort things into useful categories, without the right, you focus too narrowly and get eaten by a cat. [I outlined more details in my brief insights from The Master and His Emissary, a book McGilchrist wrote twelve years ago, that I first read two years ago and have thought about every single day since].

 

 

Source: Getty Images.

The LH treats the world like a predator would; it locks onto something to chase it down and kill it. The primary tool we now use to manipulate the world is language, so that’s where it dominates.

The left hemisphere has a much more extensive vocabulary than the right, and more subtle and complex syntax. It extends vastly our power to map the world and to explore the complexities of the causal relationships between things. This is surely its raison d’être, and it is valuable to a predator, at least in simple circumstances, where there are not many factors, as there almost always are once one starts taking the broader view.

Like a child pulling the wings off a butterfly, the LH reduces things down to ingredients, so as to understand them and manipulate them, but it often kills what it touches. A joke isn’t funny when it’s explained. The world loses its magic when reduced to atoms. But most critically, mechanistic analysis of lines on spreadsheets fails to account for the way the whole system flows together. As I’ve written ad nauseam, this is a massive failing of reductionism and our analytical approach to inherently complex systems.

In a formulation which is staggeringly consistent throughout the book, the ideal is a Right => Left => Right transition. McGilchrist talks about the need for real world experience to originate in the right hemisphere, to be moved to the left for processing, but then returned to the right for synthesis into its global context. The musician hears a piece of beautiful music, deconstructs it into notes and learns it painstakingly, then eventually performs it intuitively. Problems emerge when we fail to do the essential final stage of putting the pieces back together.

The critical imbalance: The central idea of McGilchrist’s work is that of an imbalance between the hemispheres: the left should be the servant of the right, but it is now too often the master. McGilchrist illustrates why this is radically problematic. The LH has access to infinitely less information, yet tends to lie when faced with its own limitations.

Some LH stroke victims get the right side of their body knocked offline, and they are aware of the paralysis in their right arm. But if their RH gets knocked out, the remaining left hemisphere will categorically deny anything is wrong with their right side:

They will deny completely that they have a paralyzed arm and if forced to move it, they will say “there, I just moved it,” while nothing moved. And if you bring the hand round in front of them and say “no, move that” they say, “Oh, that’s not my arm that belongs to that man in the next bed” …. the left hemisphere has a very high opinion of itself, and the right hemisphere has a much more modest opinion of itself, which goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the right hemisphere is more intelligent, not just emotionally and socially more intelligent, but more cognitively intelligent than the left hemisphere.

The left hemisphere is more competitive, but also less able to admit when it’s wrong.

“It should be stressed that the right-hemisphere [deficit] patients virtually never respond ‘I don’t know’ to an open-ended question. Instead, they generally contrive an answer – confabulating if necessary – in seeming indifference to the inappropriateness of the response.” – Penelope Myers.

“In my opinion, it is the most stunning result from split-brain research … The right hemisphere does not do this. It is totally truthful.” – Michael Gazzaniga

 

A central problem is that the RH is comparatively mute. The LH, as its goal is power and control over the world, has greater usage of language, linearity, and logic. It is great at “grasping” things, breaking them down and working out how to use them, but it consistently misses the importance of the whole. Just because something is logical, consistent. and articulately expressed doesn’t make it true.

What does the hemisphere hypothesis tell us about thinking better? It’s pretty nuanced, but McGilchrist’s general take is easily anticipated: we have overemphasized reductive reasoning at the significant cost of intuition. I have read many, many books on how to use the LH to be more rational, use mental models, reduce cognitive biases, etc., but have seen relatively few on how to use the RH. The idea is to better see what lies beyond reason.

Pascal, one of the greatest philosopher-mathematicians that ever lived, nonetheless said that ‘the ultimate achievement of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which surpass it. It is indeed feeble if it can’t get as far as understanding that.’

In The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist talks about using reason to achieve a still higher “suprarationality” where it transcends its own limitations. Music is one such example:

One might make a distinction between what is irrational (against reason) and what is ‘suprarational’ (beyond reason). Music might act as an everyday example of something very real, possessed of deep meaning, and not irrational, but suprarational.

A sensitivity for the implicit, music, creativity, and the ability to recombine parts to see the whole is the specialty of the RH. Throughout Part 2, McGilchrist persuasively argues that:

The right hemisphere is responsible for, in every case, the more important part of our ability to come to an understanding of the world, whether that be via intuition and imagination, or, no less, via science and reason.

Again, there’s a necessary tension, but with the RH having overarching control and ideally the final say. The right can incorporate insights from the left, but the left can’t see what the right sees. Again- it’s Right/Left/Right in process:

“Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way. They both are necessary. The way I like to put it is that when I have an intuition about something, I send it over to the reason department. Then after I’ve checked it out in the reason department, I send it back to the intuition department to make sure that it’s still all right.” – Jonas Salk

As both sides can do a little of everything, it’s not only the LH that uses science and reason. But, as the two hemispheres do the same things in different ways, there’s a practical application to knowing when to use each side.

Where the circumstances are familiar, the problem is determinate and explicit, the situation is congruent with one’s belief bias, and the presentation is lexical, there is a clear left hemisphere advantage in reasoning. But where the circumstances are unfamiliar, indeterminate or implicit, challenge one’s bias, or are not expressed in primarily lexical terms – or require interpretation in the light of context – there will be a critical role for the right hemisphere.

Impact on civilization: It originally seemed implausible to me that an “internal” imbalance in our brains could influence and reflect our “external” world.

Now I see it literally everywhere I look. I clearly observe limited LH thought in myself and in people around me, as well as the way our modern world is shaped and treated. Cultures across time have myths that warn about the dangers of exactly the hemispheric imbalance we are currently experiencing. In both ancient Greece and Rome, it heralded the collapse of their civilizations. John Glubb’s theory of civilizations found that they last on average two hundred and fifty years, and the “age of intellect” typically arrives just before a collapse. The period of most separation and disengagement from our environment also makes us the most fragile. McGilchrist thinks we’re now at urgent risk of it happening again.

McGilchrist is particularly taken with an ancient Iroquois myth, but a familiar contemporary example is Disney’s The Lion King. The overtly intellectual brother Scar overthrows the king Mufasa, and the result is the deterioration of the entire environment; Pride Rock becomes a barren wasteland.

Perhaps most worryingly, McGilchrist draws a very convincing parallel between modern society and the symptoms of autism and schizophrenia. Both of which seem to be relatively recent conditions, emerging post industrialization.

Excessive abstraction has been described as ‘probably at the source of cognitive deficit in schizophrenia’ – living in the map, not the world: words that refer only to other words; abstractions that become more real than actualities; symbols that usurp the power of what they symbolise: the triumph of theory over embodied experience. I believe there are resonances here with academic trends in the humanities, with scientism, and even with the world-picture of the average Western citizen.

This observation seems to have a lot of common-sense evidence going for it. It’s curiously reflected in the structure of the world we inhabit. Modernity is filled with grids and straight lines, features totally absent in nature. We exist separated from our immediate environment, with our lives increasingly mediated by screens and digital abstractions. Everything we value; intimacy, friendship, community is now provided in digital form, but with all the nourishment removed. We are already living in a simulation. Our focus is on safety, power, and control, yet we’ve never felt so disconnected. If the LH could invent a world, it would surely look a lot like this.

Why is any of this important to us as individuals? Carl Jung believed personal transition back from “ego” (LH) to “self” (RH) was the meaning of life. Yet again we see the Right/Left/Right formulation: we go from naïve children in the flow, to powerful but disconnected adults, ideally back to the flow again. But this time with an increased appreciation for the whole.

The “hero’s journey” that is the dominant story of almost every human culture alludes to this transition as the path to individual and societal renewal. Neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor suffered arguably the world’s most famous left-hemisphere stroke. Her original viral TED talk describes the bliss and oneness she experienced as her left-hemisphere was knocked offline. She explicitly agrees with the hero’s journey parallel in her recent book Whole Brained Living:

In the language of the brain, the hero must step out of his own ego-based left-brain consciousness into the realm of his right brain’s unconsciousness. At this point the hero feels connected to all that is, and is enveloped by a sense of deep inner peace.

The link between the individual and society is slightly clearer in this context; correcting the imbalance is our brains restores our harmonious relationship with the flow of life.

In fact, as the book unfolds, McGilchrist makes a surprisingly persuasive case that the RH is in relationship with values, truth, reality, life, flow, and everything of ultimate value. But, perhaps even more usefully, allows you to identify the kind of LH thinking that hinders you from directly experiencing it.

All that matters most to us can be understood only by the indirect path: music, art, humour, poems, love, metaphors, myths, and religious meaning, are all nullified by the attempt to make them explicit.

McGilchrist relates this back to what the Navajo called “seeing with soft eyes.” The analogy I always think of is one of those “magic eye” pictures where you could only see the whole image by relaxing your eyes. Then when you re-focused it would disappear again.

The somewhat practical personal takeaway for me is the importance of subtle attention. If narrow LH attention sees and knows little, lies, and doesn’t even know what it doesn’t know, we certainly shouldn’t be using it to direct our lives. Instead we need to use the RH for our exploratory growth.

Thus you’re left with the paradox what we can’t pursue anything we love too directly. Instead let go of the tiller and follow our bliss. That way we have a chance of participating in the flow of unfolding that the RH is directly in relationship with. I recently outlined a quick rundown of this concept in the opening minutes of my last podcast with Jim O’Shaughnessy.

Finally- eight ideas that stood out.

Again, this isn’t a summary, just some resonant ideas and illustrations.

  1. Anger. This is one of the most strongly lateralised of all emotions, and it lateralises to the LH. “What is striking is that anger, irritability, and disgust stand out as the exceptions to right hemisphere dominance, fairly dependably lateralising to the left hemisphere.” Hence whenever I get angry, or see others getting angry, I almost invariably notice it’s a reaction to a threat to the individual ego. It is now a staggeringly useful tool for self-knowledge.
  2. Intuition and pattern recognition. Expert intuition can be incredibly powerful. After only a couple of seconds, chess Grandmasters can nearly perfectly memorize the location of pieces on board. But their advantage over non-experts disappears if the board layout is random and has no relationship to an actual game of chess. Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow has always felt subtly wrong, so there’s a very satisfying critique in the book: “As far as ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking goes, jumping to conclusions (LH) is fast, but so is flawless intuition (RH); following algorithms is slow (LH), but so, at least relatively speaking, is acting as devil’s advocate (RH).”

  3. Paradox. Often a paradox is a way of directly illustrating the tension between the two ways our brains view the world. As I tried to articulate in The Ship of Theseus, the idea is that seeing only the parts can blind you to a common sense appreciation of the whole.
  4. Cooperation and competition. The LH provides competition, the RH cooperation. “the right hemisphere is engaged in social bonding and empathy, the left hemisphere in social rivalry and self-regard.” That resistance is necessary for there to be creativity. “Resistance in nature is the cause of suffering, but, by the very same token, of creativity. According to Paul Cilliers, a philosopher of complex systems, ‘for self-organisation to take place, some form of competition is a requirement.’” Hence we need the resistance provided by the LH. The nuance, yet again, is the fact that competition works locally but cooperation works globally. It’s Right, Left, Right again.
  5. The immense power of myth, imagination and metaphor. McGilchrist repeatedly and adamantly emphasizes the power of implicit myth, metaphor, and imagination. It reaches back from abstract language to the world; it bridges the hemispheres. “It is metaphor alone (the word itself is a metaphor: it means one that ‘carries across’) that can carry us across the apparent gap between language and the real lived world. ‘The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor [a combiner of ideas]. It is the one thing that cannot be learnt from others; it is also a sign of genius, since a good metaphor implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilars’.- Aristotle”

  6. The dangers of following scientific orthodoxy. Well into the 1980s, human infants were operated on without anaesthetic. The scientific consensus was that they couldn’t feel pain because they couldn’t verbalize it. “Their screams were just the creakings of a machine.” We might be committing the same atrocity with other species due to a related flawed logic.
  7. Flow and boredom. In the LH existence, especially for schizophrenics, time gets sliced and loses its flow. One likened the experience to the movie Groundhog Day. As McGilchrist puts it “Life becomes lifeless – boring: a very modern concept (the word arose only in the eighteenth century, and is associated with a disengagement from the world which began with the Enlightenment). …. In contrast, in full RH engagement, “When you are properly in the flow you do not experience time passing because you are flowing with it. But it is there all the same in the flow.”

  8. Embodiment: As you may have read in my recent piece, embodiment seems like a critical missing piece for the rediscovery of our connection. It will not be surprising that it’s a RH trait. “It is widely accepted in clinical neurology that the right hemisphere is specialised for perception of the body… A meta-analysis shows that it is the right hemisphere that predominates in receiving and interpreting information from the heart.”

The book closes with a story related by a member of the Swiss Parliament Lukas Fierz:

Jung told us about his encounter with a Pueblo chief whose name was ‘Mountain Lake.’ This chief told him, that the white man was doomed. When asked why, the chief took both hands before his eyes and – Jung imitating the gesture – moved the outstretched index fingers convergingly towards one point before him, saying ‘because the white man looks at only one point, excluding all other aspects’.

Later in life, Fierz met a successful industrialist, self-made billionaire and significant adversary of his Green Party movement in Switzerland.

I asked him what in his view was the reason for his incredible entrepreneurial and political success. He took both hands before his eyes and moved the outstretched index fingers convergingly towards one point before him, saying ‘because I am able to concentrate on only one point, excluding all other aspects’. I remember that I had to swallow hard two or three times, so as not to say anything …

In McGilchrist’s own words, he wrote the book because he wants to take people to a place where they see a different viewpoint that is new, but not alien. He often hears that readers intuitively know that his perspective is true, but haven’t had it articulated to us in this way before. That has been my experience.

Tom

Postscript: some personal views on how to read the book. Adele made Spotify remove the shuffle button from her new album to make sure it was listened to in the order she intended. I’m broadly in agreement with that view when it comes to really important books. But, I also appreciate not everyone has the time or inclination to read a book of this length. McGilchrist himself suggests it can be dipped in and out of. If you’ve already read The Master and his Emissary, you can get by reading the summaries of the chapters in Part 1. This section is a pretty challenging read. My personal take on Part 1 is that he’s probably spent so long defending his thesis that every five pages there’s a staggering insight, and 4 pages of studies and proof. This makes it dangerous to skim. I would recommend you read the final chapter of Part 1 on the relationship between schizophrenia and autism and the character of the modern world. For the remainder, I wouldn’t skip a single page of Parts 2 and 3. The intimidating length of the book obviously makes me sad that a great number of people will be deterred from reading it. Especially as he says it’s so long because he wanted it to be comprehensible to anyone with a relatively basic understanding of the vast breadth of deep concepts he covers.