Friday, February 23, 2024

Who Am I? - Really!

     Most of us assume that our identity is defined exclusively by: our name, age, body, family of origin, education, job, successes, failures, illnesses, ups & downs - ie "the story" about us that we keep telling ourselves & others. We've become habituated to an almost continuous level of self-concern - anxiety & fear about our comfort & survival as if alone in a hostile world.

     One of the foremost experts in PTSD wrote: “If you feel safe & loved, your brain (is) specialized in exploration, play, & cooperation; if you are frightened & unwanted, it (is) specialized in managing feelings of fear & abandonment." Bessel Van Der Kolk. “The Body Keeps the Score. Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.” Penguin Books, 2015.     

    But what Van Der Kolk observed after severe trauma - preoccupation with managing fear, anxiety & unworthiness - is now almost ubiquitous in our society. This widespread unbalanced mindset, self-concept & worldview is what Iain McGilchrist has been studying, researching, writing & lecturing about for the past 30 years. He's found that our anxious self-concern activates & keeps us in left-hemisphere-dominant thinking WHICH overrides our much wiser, more balanced right-hemisphere-dominant perspective. Our current, as well as 3 previous global crises, arose due to left-hemisphere-dominant thinking.

     Below is part of a recent interview with Iain McGilchrist MD, PhD about his perspective on the huge problems we face, based on his extensive studies & research findings, described in 2 monumental, critically-acclaimed books: "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World" in 2019, and "The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World" in 2021. Here's a greatly abbreviated snapshot of, imho, his extremely important work:

    “I see my work as essentially philosophy rather than something about the brain, but I think the divorce between philosophy and science has been a disaster for both parties, and I want to try and bring them together a bit in a way that I think could be helpful.
    Just a little bit about my progress or lack of it. I started off wanting to study philosophy and theology at university. I thought I would probably be ordained and go into a monastic order. But I discovered during the three years I was at Oxford that I wasn’t a very good candidate for monastic life. It wouldn’t have been good for me, and it wouldn’t have been good for the monastery.
    So that was ditched, and I got a fellowship which allowed me to explore all sorts of things. And I had a problem about the academic study of literature, because people took something that somebody had written in the past, that had great meaning, and that they had left to communicate something to us, and instead, we sat in the seminar room and took it apart. The piece of literature had its value because it was unique. The message was embodied and also implicit, not explicit. When you made it explicit, you lost the point completely, like explaining a joke. And in the seminar room we turned this implicit, embodied, unique thing into something that was explicit, disembodied & with a message you could find anywhere. And that led me to write my first book, ‘Against Criticism,’ and I decided that what I needed to do is to find out more about the mind-body problem, because it seemed to me we were just too disembodied. I spent a lot of time in philosophy seminars on the mind-body problem, but it just seemed to me that the philosophers were far too disembodied in their approach.
    And around that time, Oliver Sacks had written a book called ‘Awakenings’ which I thought was very important. And he did two very wonderful things there, he went into individual cases in great detail, in order to show general points. This is a Goethean phenomenon. One of Goethe’s most important philosophical contributions is the idea that you don’t find the general by turning your back on the particular or the individual, but by going deeper into the particular in the individual. And he also seemed to me to be talking about what happened when the mind and body interacted in an odd way and something happened to the body and it changed the mind, or something happened in the mind and it had effects on the body. And the only way to know more about this was to study medicine, and so I did.
    And when I had qualified in medicine and was working at the Maudsley Hospital in London, which is probably the foremost psychiatric hospital in Britain, I heard a lecture one day by a colleague (John Cutting, whom I considered the most interesting living psychiatrist) who’d been studying the right hemisphere of the brain. It had never been my intention to study it, but he had done what lots of neurologists hadn’t done, which is to sit at the bedside of people who had had strokes, tumors or other injuries to the right hemisphere of the brain, and discovered that actually their consequences of this were more devastating for their ability to understand themselves, the world, or what was going on around them than a left hemisphere stroke, even though the left hemisphere most commonly made it difficult for them to use their right hand, to write, and to use language. So this was fascinating.
    And he told me in this lecture certain things that were based on a book, which was published by Oxford University press called, ‘The Right Cerebral Hemisphere and Psychiatric Disorders.’ He told me certain things that explained to me that the right hemisphere alone, really understands a unique case; that the left hemisphere has already taken whatever it is into a category, put it into a box, made it a representative of something rather than something unique in its own right. Also that the right hemisphere understood implicit meaning, irony, humor, metaphor, poetry, ritual, body language, facial expressions, the tone of voice, but the left hemisphere didn’t. It was more like a computer taking a book of syntax rules and semantics, and dictionary, and working out what people meant. And the third thing was that the right hemisphere was much more in touch with the body; the left hemisphere was effectively less so. I have to cut corners here enormously, but just to give you an idea which I think helps to explain why I ended up in this area.
    I went up to him afterwards and said this is very interesting, and I told him about the book I’d written about the philosophy of literature, and he wanted to read that. And that started a working relationship in which we researched hemisphere differences together. And I knew very, very well that this was a very risky thing to do. But I’ve got a perverse streak in me that if I think that there’s something here that’s really important, I’m not put off by people who say, ‘Oh that’s all rubbish. The thing about their brain hemispheres, it’s all been exploded. It’s all nonsense. It’s all pop psychology.’ Everyone warned me, ‘Don’t go into this.’ But of course it was true that what we then believed was wrong, but it didn’t mean that there were no differences, and the differences were fascinating. And it was the next 20 years of research, including neuroimaging at John Hopkins, & acquainting myself with the literature, & examining patients that led me to understand these hemisphere differences.
    And so these experiences were as an adjunct to a philosophical question about how we see the world, and what are the effective differences. I can put this as quickly as I can. For reasons of survival, all living creatures have to do 2 incompatible things at once. They have to be able to focus their attention on a detail so as to get it, and grab it, and eat it, or pick it up and use it, faster than anyone else, accurately. So a very clearly targeted, narrow beam of attention needs to be paid. But, if that’s the only attention you pay, then you don’t see the predators, you don’t see your kin, your conspecifics (organisms belonging to the same species), you just don’t understand where you are and you will not survive.
    So all the neural networks that we know, all the creatures, not just humans, but all the way down through mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish, birds, insects, everything that we know seem to have at least two centers of attention, dedicated to these two differences. And we think this goes back very anciently from examining fossils of trilobites and the most ancient living creature still extent ... And it’s already asymmetrical.
    So there’s something very, very important about different attention. Effectively, if you pay attention to the world in one way, you will see one thing, and if you pay a different kind of attention, you will see another. One of the things I would say is that attention changes the world. It actually makes the world that we experience – the only world that we can possibly know – different. And it also makes us different, because if we pay a certain kind of attention, we can become alienated from the world OR we can become connected with the world, for a start.

    What do these two kinds of attention result in in phenomenological terms? Well, the left hemisphere’s attention builds up a picture of a world that is made of isolated fragments that have no context and don’t mean anything until they’re put together by us. We arrange them, and we probably put them in a little category. The left hemisphere is very keen on putting things in a little box where they all belong together. And so you have a world which is simply made of fragments. The fragments are static. They’re frozen by this gorgon-like stare of the left hemisphere to capture it. (in Greek mythology, the Gorgons were 3 monstrous sisters with snakes for hair who could turn someone to stone just by looking at them). And they have no particular meaning for us. We are not connected with them. We are very distant from these things because we’re observing them and ready to attack them. And they have no sort of implicit meaning or connection with other things.
    Whereas the right hemisphere sees a world in which everything is flowing, changing all the time, in which everything is ultimately connected to everything else. Nothing is ever completely isolated. And that when you take something out of its context, you radically change what it is, completely change it. You can in fact reverse the take, or the meaning, or the impact of what it is you’re looking at by decontextualizing it.
    So these 2 ways of looking at the world are in a way both necessary. They both have a use. BUT they have contradictory effects. And what I began to see was that in the world we live in, we ONLY use the left hemisphere’s kind of attention.

    When I was in Baltimore at the Johns Hopkins Hospital I was imaging brains and looking at the abnormal asymmetry in the brains of people with schizophrenia. There is a normal symmetry in the brain that is absolutely normal – the brain is bigger at the front on the right, and bigger at the back on the left. But in schizophrenia, it’s often reversed or absent. And we think that is connected with the phenomena of the illness. While I was there, I got a message from my colleague John Cutting to say that there was a fascinating book ... called, ‘Madness and Modernism’ by Louis Sass, a psychologist at Rutgers in New York. What he showed was that in the modern period, people thought that their poetry, their stories, their paintings above all, & even their music, showed an aspect of something that was like what happens in schizophrenia. And in schizophrenia the world makes no sense. Things are no longer coherent. And he points to about 25 different phenomena that are seen in schizophrenia, but are also replicated in the last hundred years of philosophy, literature & art. I thought that this was absolutely fascinating. It’s a brilliant book and very well written. It may sound rather glib, but it isn’t. It’s extremely thorough and well thought through.
    And I began to think, if that’s happening now, we can’t all be getting schizophrenia, but I had already discovered that people with schizophrenia are very like people with a left hemisphere in overdrive and a right hemisphere that is not functioning properly. And again, I haven’t got time to go into that. But that led me to think, what’s happening now is that we are not listening to what our right hemisphere tells us, only to what our left hemisphere tells us
    And then I thought, maybe there were other times in history when the balance was better. And I found in short that three times over Western history, starting with the Greeks and working forwards to post-modernism, there have been three times when a flourishing society began to drift more & more to the take of the left hemisphere before collapsing. So that is quite relevant for us, because I believe we’re in that terminal phase now, unless we wake up and see what it is we’re doing. It’s not enough to have a list of things to do, because if we don’t change in our heart & our mind, if we don’t change the whole way we look at the world, we can’t survive. That in an incredibly brief & simple way, is to try and explain why I think this subject is important.”

Interviewer: “The way you describe it now, and in your books, really shows how our technological relationship to reality, what defines modernism, and also the kind of effectiveness of modernism, and the particularity of modernism, is very much related to the phenomena described with the left hemisphere of the brain. And ... that our crises may be related to the one-sidedness of our culture. …”

    The central thing is to do with values, because the value of the left hemisphere is in getting things, grabbing things, possessing things, having power over them, having control, and all the rest. It sees this tiny thing. It’s dedicated to something it already knows at once.
    But all the rest, the uncommitted attention to the whole, is yielded by the right hemisphere. And I sometimes put it like this, that the left hemisphere helps us apprehend the world, … whereas the right hemisphere helps us to comprehend the world, which is really to hold it together, perhaps to Big Life, but it’s a bit more than that. … This is the difference between them in their values, and so there’s something addictive about the left hemisphere, because it gives you power, it gives you control. Technology is the tool of the left hemisphere. But the important thing about technology is it’s neither good nor bad, it depends on the wisdom of the person who’s wielding it. And wisdom is what we’re leaving out of this picture. The right hemisphere is wise, and sees a lot. The left hemisphere is relatively ignorant, so it sees literally less than the right hemisphere, understands much less and doesn’t see the need for what the right hemisphere knows.
    Whereas the right hemisphere seeing more, knows that its knowledge is limited, & knows that it needs the left hemisphere. So they have an unfortunate inequality, in which the one that should be in control – the right hemisphere, the master as I call it, the one that can see where we need to go, that can exert wisdom, isn’t in control. Instead, we’re driven by the desire for stuff, for acquisition, for power, for control which is the left hemisphere’s raison d'être.

The Brain, the Sacred and the Soul - Iain McGilchrist & Thomas Steininger of Evolve

     So when we're finally fed up with "the story of me," and are ready & courageous enough to experience who we really are, who has been witnessing all the changes over this lifetime of ours, who has been consistently aware of all the changes taking place in that mirror of ours, start meditating in earnest, including "open questioning" or "self-inquiry," and instead of being ruled by fear & aggression, loving wisdom will guide us.

Excellent 25-minute (from 11:50 to 37:00) Guided Self-Inquiry Meditation by Helen Hamilton: (see below)

Ramana Maharshi. "How to Practice Self Inquiry." 2014.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. “The Power of an Open Question. The Buddha's Path to Freedom." Shambhala, 2011.


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