Connecting the Brain’s Missing Links: My Talk with Iain McGilchrist

Buddhism is an ideal practice and potent tool for balancing the left and right hemispheres of the human brain

11 mins read
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Dr. Iain McGilchrist, the renowned psychiatrist, neuroscience researcher, philosopher, and literary scholar [File Photo]

In this interview with Dr. Iain McGilchrist, a distinguished authority in neuroscience, we explore the nuances of contemporary society, education, and the profound implications of technological advancement, particularly artificial intelligence (AI). Dr. McGilchrist, renowned for his extensive scholarship on hemispheric specialization within the human brain, provides insights into the imbalance between mechanistic thinking and holistic understanding, advocating a critical reassessment of educational paradigms.

The interview begins with Dr. McGilchrist elucidating the dominance of left hemisphere thinking in modern Western society, drawing from his seminal work, “The Master and His Emissary.” He metaphorically portrays the right hemisphere as the true master, embodying intuitive wisdom and holistic perception, while the left hemisphere assumes the persona of an arrogant emissary, overestimating its capabilities and disregarding broader contextual understanding.

Renowned for his diverse expertise and insights, Dr. McGilchrist is a distinguished former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and an associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford. With a background spanning the fields of psychiatry, neuroscience, and literature, his scholarly contributions have left an indelible mark on our understanding of the human mind and its intricate relationship within broader cultural and societal contexts. His extensive clinical experience, coupled with his scholarly pursuits, has culminated in groundbreaking research on neuroimaging, schizophrenia, and the mind-body relationship.

The Master and His Emissaryhas won widespread acclaim for its exploration of the divided brain and its implications for Western civilization. His latest publication, “The Matter with Things,” serves as a critique of reductive materialism, inviting readers to contemplate existential questions concerning the nature of humanity, consciousness and the divine. As a prolific author, lecturer, and consultant, he continues to inspire audiences worldwide, igniting conversations that bridge the gap between science, philosophy, and the humanities.

Excerpts;

Question: Did specific childhood events or influences spark your interest in understanding the brain and its functions, shaping your interest towards becoming a neuroscientist and a writer later on?

Answer:Indeed. My family background, with doctors for both father and grandfather, sparked my curiosity in medicine early on. My maternal grandfather, a scientist, introduced me to the complexities of the brain when I was young, igniting my fascination. Philosophical inquiries in my teenage years also shaped my interest, alongside the nurturing environment of natural landscapes and Christian traditions at school. While initially drawn to philosophy or priesthood, I gravitated towards medicine to explore the mind-body problem empirically. With the guidance of educators who recognized my potential, I pursued neuroscience, ultimately influenced more by teachers and philosophical inquiry than familial ties.

Q: Why is it important to study the complexities of the brain, and what are the compelling reasons for individuals to explore its mysteries? What potential benefits do you foresee from understanding its workings?

A:Understanding the brain offers insights into how we perceive the world and process information, rather than just grasping mechanical details. While hemisphere differences are significant for understanding mental conflicts, previous misconceptions about them have been debunked. Both hemispheres play unique roles, challenging the notion of one being rational and the other creative. Instead, they contribute differently to our experiences, akin to two individuals reacting to the same stimuli.

For instance, hemisphere differences illuminate the diverse ways in which we attend to and interpret the world around us. Rather than viewing the brain as a mere processing unit, understanding these differences can shed light on the richness and complexity of human experience. Previous misconceptions about hemisphere functions have been challenged, revealing that both hemispheres play unique and nuanced roles in shaping our perceptions and behaviour.

Contrary to past beliefs, the left hemisphere is not solely rational and dependable, nor is the right hemisphere solely responsible for creativity and emotion. Instead, both hemispheres are intricately involved in all aspects of cognition and behaviour, albeit in different ways. For example, while the left hemisphere may be less dependable in certain contexts and susceptible to emotions like anger, it does not encompass the entirety of rationality or emotionality.

By recognizing the distinct contributions of each hemisphere, we gain a deeper understanding of how our brains construct subjective experiences. This understanding goes beyond simplistic dichotomies and reveals the multifaceted nature of human cognition. Ultimately, such insights not only advance scientific knowledge but also have practical implications for fields ranging from education to mental health.

In essence, studying the brain offers a pathway to unravelling the mysteries of human consciousness and behaviour, with far-reaching implications for enhancing our understanding of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Q: Is it accurate to claim that the brain is the most misunderstood organ in human civilisation?

A:Without a doubt, yes. The brain remains remarkably enigmatic, despite ongoing advancements in neuroscience. While our understanding of it has expanded considerably, there is still much to unravel about its complexities and functions.

Q: Can you provide an abstract on the missing links in our understanding of the brain?

A:Certainly. One significant area of inquiry revolves around the relationship between the brain and consciousness. Despite being intricately involved in our conscious experience, the brain’s role as the originator of consciousness remains contentious. Explaining how subjective experience emerges from the physical brain challenges conventional notions of matter and consciousness.

Moreover, the sheer complexity of the brain’s neuronal connections, often cited as the basis for consciousness, does not fully account for the emergence of consciousness. The disproportionate distribution of neurons between the cerebrum and the cerebellum raises further questions about the neural basis of consciousness, especially considering the cerebellum’s vast interconnectedness.

Furthermore, our understanding of neurochemistry in the brain is still in its infancy. While empirical evidence demonstrates the impact of neurotransmitters on mood and behaviour, the underlying mechanisms remain elusive. Describing the brain’s wiring and neural activity is one thing, but comprehending the processes that underpin consciousness and neurochemical interactions poses a formidable challenge.

Additionally, the brain’s remarkable ability to compensate for damage and adapt to changing circumstances raises intriguing questions about its self-awareness and functional reorganization. Understanding how the brain maintains essential functions in the face of damage underscores the complexity of neural networks and cognitive processes.

In essence, unravelling these missing links requires a multidisciplinary approach that integrates neuroscience, philosophy, and consciousness studies. Addressing these questions not only deepens our understanding of the brain but also sheds light on the nature of consciousness and human cognition.

Q: What sparked your interest in the differences between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, as discussed in your book “The Master and His Emissary”? What inspired you to delve deep into this topic?

A:My fascination with hemisphere differences stemmed from philosophical inquiries into the nature of interpretation and the reductionist tendencies in academic literary studies. I was struck by how dissecting literary works in seminars often stripped them of their unique power and emotional resonance, reducing them to mere paraphrases devoid of their original essence. This realization prompted me to explore how intellectual analysis can overlook implicit meaning and embodied experiences, leading me to question the role of the brain in shaping our understanding of the world.

My interest in hemisphere differences was further piqued during my medical training at the Maudsley Hospital in London, where I encountered a colleague’s lecture on the right hemisphere. Despite minimal emphasis on the right hemisphere in medical education, his insights into the distinct functions of each hemisphere, gleaned from studying patients with brain injuries, captivated me. His observations about the left hemisphere’s tendency to categorize and prioritize explicit over implicit meaning resonated with my philosophical musings about the limitations of intellectual analysis. This encounter sparked a profound curiosity about the neural underpinnings of consciousness and cognition, inspiring me to embark on a journey of interdisciplinary research into hemisphere differences.

Despite scepticism from some senior colleagues and the dismissal of hemisphere differences as pop psychology, I remained steadfast in my pursuit of understanding the brain’s complexities. Over the years, I have endeavoured to challenge misconceptions and offer nuanced insights into hemisphere functions, despite encountering resistance from those unwilling to reconsider their preconceived notions. While frustration arose from encountering scepticism, the growing interest in my work has affirmed the importance of continued exploration and dialogue in unravelling the mysteries of the human brain.

Q: Were you ever disappointed while explaining hemisphere differences and their workings in the brain?

A:Yes, there were moments of frustration. Some individuals dismissed my ideas without engaging with them, which could be disheartening. However, I’ve learned to accept that not everyone will be open to new perspectives. While encountering scepticism, I’ve remained encouraged by the increasing interest in my work, which outweighs any disappointment.

Q: Your work often touches on hemisphere imbalances and their impact on modern society. How do you perceive this imbalance manifesting in various aspects of our culture and daily life?

A:The imbalance between the left and right hemispheres is reflected in our cultural and societal norms, with the left hemisphere often dominating in modern contexts. The left hemisphere’s inclination to fragment information and seek certainty leads to a reductionist approach, where complex issues are oversimplified into black-and-white perspectives. This desire for definitive answers disregards the nuanced understanding offered by the right hemisphere, which embraces complexity and uncertainty.

In contemporary society, we witness a proliferation of proceduralization and bureaucratization, favouring mechanistic thinking over holistic perspectives. This mechanistic mindset, characteristic of the left hemisphere, prioritizes control and efficiency at the expense of intuition, imagination, and holistic understanding. As a result, we risk losing touch with the rich tapestry of human experience and ethical values, succumbing to a narrow focus on productivity and material gain.

To counteract this trend, it is essential to re-engage with practices that nourish the holistic functioning of the brain, such as spiritual contemplation, connecting with nature, and embracing silence. By fostering a balance between the left and right hemispheres, we can cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us, transcending mechanistic thinking to embrace the profound complexities of human existence.

Q: How do you envision your research extending beyond neuroscience into various fields such as philosophy, psychology, and education, and what contributions do you hope it will make?

A: My hope is that my research will serve as a catalyst for interdisciplinary dialogue and insight across diverse fields. While I can offer insights, ultimately, it’s up to individuals in those fields to engage with the research and apply it as they see fit. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the reception of my work among politicians, economists, legal professionals, philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists, who have found relevance and value in its implications for their respective areas. Through ongoing dialogue and collaboration, I aim to foster a deeper understanding and application of the insights gleaned from neuroscience in various domains.

Q: How do you reconcile scientific understanding of the brain with personal experiences of consciousness, and what insights does your work offer?

A: My latest book, “The Matter with Things,” endeavours to progress from neuroscience through philosophy towards a comprehensive understanding of existence. It’s essential to recognize that no human mind can comprehend everything, yet we must discern what we consider to be more truthful than others. While the brain’s complexity is intriguing, it should never lead to the reduction of human beings merely to their brains.

We are far more than our neurological functions. Fundamental questions about human existence and purpose remain paramount, and my work aims to shed light on these issues, urging individuals to contemplate beyond mechanistic views. Additionally, I advocate a balanced educational approach that values both analytical thinking and holistic understanding. While analytical rigour is crucial, it must coexist with an appreciation for the profound and unexplainable aspects of human experience. Encouraging philosophical inquiry and teaching empathetic listening skills can foster a more respectful and intellectually vibrant society, enriching our collective understanding of existence and consciousness.

Q: In your exploration of the divided brain and its implications for society, you have stressed the significance of mindfulness, which has deep roots in the Buddhist tradition. How do you envision the teachings and practices of Buddhism aiding in our comprehension and cultivation of mindfulness in today’s society? Additionally, how might the integration of ancient wisdom from Buddhism and insights from modern neuroscience inform our approaches to education, mental health, and societal well-being?

A: One aspect that brings me great satisfaction is the convergence I’ve observed between the insights gleaned from neuroscience and the wisdom traditions of the East, such as Buddhism. I’ve found that the discoveries of modern science, including those in biology, physics, and philosophy, align harmoniously with ancient teachings. Despite differences in emphasis, core principles like patience, compassion, and presence are shared across traditions, fostering understanding and unity among diverse beliefs.

While I don’t claim expertise in Buddhism, I’ve been heartened by its practitioners’ recognition of parallels between my work and their tradition. This intersection between ancient wisdom and contemporary science offers invaluable insights into human consciousness and well-being. Mindfulness, deeply rooted in Buddhist practice, serves as a potent tool for rebalancing the dominance of the left hemisphere in our minds. By fostering a more equitable distribution of brain activity, mindfulness practices hold promise for enhancing mental health and promoting holistic well-being in modern society.

Q: With advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, there’s a growing interest in exploring how these technologies interact with and mimic human cognition. Considering our understanding of the brain’s hemisphere specializations, how do you anticipate AI impacting our comprehension of human intelligence and consciousness?

A:AI’s impact on our understanding of human intelligence and consciousness is likely to be detrimental. While machines can mimic left hemisphere thinking, replicating sequential and linear processes, they struggle with the uncertainties that characterize right hemisphere cognition, which is non-computable and grounded in human experience. The increasing dominance of mechanistic thinking amplified by AI poses significant risks, as it perpetuates biases and limitations inherent in its programming, without the moral compass and depth of understanding found in human consciousness.

Moreover, the self-referential nature of left hemisphere thinking, coupled with AI’s reliance on machine-generated content, creates a closed loop of information that lacks the critical perspective and insight derived from human experience. This trend raises concerns about the erosion of truth, manipulation of public opinion, and the loss of genuine human creativity and wisdom in a world increasingly shaped by mechanical thinking. As AI continues to evolve, it is crucial to recognize its limitations and safeguard against the potential consequences for future generations’ well-being and autonomy.

Q: If this trend of creation continues, there may come a moment where we forget the essence of humanity, prompting humans to question their own identity. Do you agree?

A: Yes, AI will be programmed to provide insights into human nature, although not all of it may be inaccurate. However, true understanding of humanity comes from living life rather than fixating on screens, allowing for a broader perspective of the world. While the left hemisphere facilitates acquiring material possessions, the right hemisphere comprehends the bigger picture, including awareness of surroundings and relationships. Unfortunately, contemporary society often prioritizes material gain and control, neglecting the appreciation for nuances beyond human control. This imbalance, favouring left hemisphere dominance, leads to a lack of humility and awareness of our limitations, contributing to societal arrogance and misunderstandings. Moreover, the Dunning-Kruger effect illustrates how overconfidence correlates with limited knowledge, highlighting the importance of recognizing the extent of our understanding and the dangers of assuming omniscience.

Q: Your concept of the emissary underscores the prevailing dominance of the left hemisphere in contemporary Western society. How do you suggest we reinstate a more harmonious equilibrium between the two hemispheres, both at the individual and collective levels?

A: In “The Master and His Emissary,” the metaphorical representation suggests that the right hemisphere embodies wisdom as the true master, while the left hemisphere acts as an arrogant emissary, overly reliant on its limited understanding. Restoring balance between these cognitive domains requires acknowledging this imbalance, akin to a patient realizing the need for personal transformation in therapy. The first step is raising awareness of this disparity, as insight often precedes meaningful change. Individuals must recognize the dominance of left-hemisphere thinking in contemporary society and its detrimental effects on collective well-being.

Moreover, addressing this issue extends beyond individual awareness to systemic reform, particularly within education. The current education system, marked by its mechanistic approach and emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics) subjects, neglects the humanities essential for cultivating empathy, critical thinking, and a deeper understanding of human experience. Restoring balance entails reintegrating humanities into the curriculum, inspiring students to engage with literature, history, philosophy, and the arts. Such reforms aim not to diminish rigour but to foster a holistic approach to learning that nurtures curiosity and intellectual growth.

Furthermore, restoring balance requires re-evaluating professional structures, such as the medical field, where bureaucratic control undermines the autonomy and expertise of practitioners. Doctors, for instance, should reclaim their role as trusted healers rather than being dictated by profit-driven agendas. This broader societal shift involves recognizing the intrinsic value of professions beyond mere economic utility, acknowledging the importance of wisdom, compassion, and ethical integrity in guiding human endeavours. By embracing a more holistic perspective that transcends mechanistic paradigms, society can cultivate a deeper appreciation for the complexities of human existence and the pursuit of genuine well-being.

This interview was originally printed in Sunday Island on 31 March 2024

Nilantha Ilangamuwa

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is a founding editor of the Sri Lanka Guardian and has been the editor until 2018.

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