The hemispheres of the brain are responsible for different views of the world – one literal, narrow-beam, and maybe a little angry, and the other broad-minded, nuanced, and appreciative of beauty. Psychiatrist, philosopher, and literary scholar Iain McGilchrist has spent his career studying how the two hemispheres of the brain work, together and separately, to forge our understanding of our world. Plus…the curious case of Mr. Phineas Gage.
Phil Stieg: Hello. I’d like to welcome Professor Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist, philosopher, neuroscientist, and literary scholar from Oxford University.
Everyone knows that our brains are made up of left and right hemispheres. For decades scientists have attempted to debunk popular misconceptions about how these hemispheres differ, and how they control our behavior. Professor McGilchrist has dedicated a significant portion of his career furthering the divided brain debate in such books as The Master and his Emissary, The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning, and Ways of Attending. His newest book – The Matter With Things continues his exploration of how the form of our brains have shaped the society we live in. Let’s learn how Professor McGilchrist views our brains as both divided and interconnected, and how these complimentary functions make us who we are.
Iain, thank you for being here with us today.
Iain McGilchrist: Yeah, it’s a great pleasure. Phil. Thank you for inviting me.
Phil Stieg: Let’s get everybody on to the same page; What are the two hemispheres of the brain, and really why do we have them? Why didn’t God or evolution design just one big brain without hemispheres?
Iain McGilchrist: It’s a perfect question when I asked myself 30 years ago. And the answer is that we need to solve a conundrum – every living creature does. What we have to do, what all living creatures have to do, is to be able to get, grab food and not become somebody else’s food. And the only way that you can effectively do that is by paying two kinds of attention at the same time. A very targeted, narrow beam attention that gives you precisely where the thing that you’re interested in is. And meanwhile, another kind of attention that is taking in the whole picture, looking out for predators, looking out for your mates and embedding you, if you like, in a context. A living context.
A sound bite I have is that the left hemisphere helps us manipulate the world, but the right hemisphere is what helps us understand the world.
Phil Stieg: So where do you see the divide? Where do you see it? We’ve gone wrong in our thinking.
Iain McGilchrist: We’ve become focused on the left hemisphere. After all, after a left hemisphere stroke, the patient may not be able to speak, may not be able to use their right hand. These are pretty significant for negotiating the world. And so a lot of focus has been on left hemisphere syndromes. After a right hemisphere stroke, the person may seem more competent and so they tend to get less studied and dismissed from hospital much earlier. And what this means is that we’ve largely become ignorant about what the right hemisphere subserves.
The fact is, the person with the right hemisphere damage is handicapped in understanding the world. Understanding what people mean – tends to take things literally, doesn’t understand irony, can’t see why people do things, get periods of time completely confused, because they have no sense of a narrative, they have no sense of a flow, they are effectively turned into sort of computers, to an extent. And it’s the right hemisphere that is what really humanizes us.
Phil Stieg: So the left brain, the way you think about it, is hardwired for the task. It’s where speech function is localized, but then it’s the right side of the brain that is… Would you say that the left brain is the hard drive and the right brain is the software that manipulates the hard drive, putting it in current terms?
Iain McGilchrist: Yes. Well, I’m allergic to comparisons of the brain to a computer because they miss almost all the important things about a brain. But in this one respect, you can compare the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere’s personal computer. The right hemisphere understands far more, but it knows that the left hemisphere can carry out certain learnt procedures very expertly and faster than it can. But if you put data that you understand, you’ve gathered from the real world into a computer and the computer spews out an answer. It doesn’t really understand that answer. You have to pick it up and go, “aah, that tells me what’s going on, where I gather the data”. So it’s a little like that, that the right hemisphere has a very much broader and subtle understanding of what’s going on.
Different aspects of language are better served by different hemispheres. So, for example, the left hemisphere has a greater semantic vocabulary, it has a more sophisticated syntax. But actually understanding what somebody’s utterance means in context, which is what in real life matters, is something called pragmatics, which the right hemisphere does. It also understands prosody, which is the inflection with which you deliver a sentence. And of course, depending on how you deliver it, you can be being ironic. You can being funny. You may be meaning the exact opposite of what you’re saying. The computer just thinks you’re saying exactly those words. And the left hemisphere is a little bit like that.
Phil Stieg: So I don’t want to get into consciousness. I mean, we’d be here until next year talking about what is it? But I’m more curious, given your thoughts about how the left and the right brain work independently but then are integrated, what makes me, me and you? You know, I mean, does one individual have a maybe a little bit more dominant left hemisphere? Might I have a more dominant right brain and you are more dominant left, and that’s what makes us different. Why are we different?
Iain McGilchrist: Well, why are we different? It’s, of course, a massive question. And I know that we really want to keep the questions and answers relatively brief.
But you’re right to an extent people may rely more typically say an analytic, detached way of looking at things. Or they may rely on a more holistic way of thinking. But I’d rather resist the idea that a person just is a left hemisphere or right hemisphere person. It’s all more complicated than that, as of course, you and I know.
But it can make some of the difference. For example, people with autism and people with schizophrenia and indeed psychopaths to some extent are more likely to get stuck into the left hemisphere’s vision of the world. Because what I need to emphasize is the brain is not just a machine. It’s not just doing functions as too often we think in medicine and neuroscience, it’s actually creating a world. And the world that we know, the only world we can know, is mediated by our brain. And the two hemispheres yield different pictures of the world. The left hemisphere yields a picture of a world that is made up of discrete fragments that have no connection unless we connect them, that are deracinated, taken out their context, turned into something abstract and general and basically lifeless.
Whereas the right hemisphere sees that nothing is ever fixed or certain, that it’s always connected to other things, that it’s flowing and changing, that it’s embodied, and that it’s usually unique.
So these are quite different visions of the world. One is a bureaucrat’s dream, the left hemisphere’s view, and the other is a bureaucrat’s nightmare because this is a live world with all its complications. Now, if you listen more to one or other or tend to espouse more one or the other of these visions of the world or takes on the world, then that will influence very much who you are, what things you know, and how you come across to others.
Phil Stieg: Tell me how you think the right and the left brain appreciate different stimuli. You seem to have a good sense of humor. Let’s do humor first. What’s the difference between the right and left brain and appreciation of humor?
Iain McGilchrist: Well, this is that the right hemisphere understands implicit meaning, whereas the left hemisphere tends to collapse it all into the surface or explicit meaning. And all the stuff that really matters to us can’t be said so directly. Bald statements are not the same as listening to a Shakespeare play, reading a poem, listening to a piece of music that has no words in it. At all is, in that sense, ultimately non explicit.
I’m talking about the things that matter, like love or the realm of the spiritual or divine. These are things that if you nail them down to a few explicit statements, become almost ridiculous because they’re so empty. What we need for these things is what the right frontal cortex offers us, which is coming back to humor, the ability to see the many layers in a remark that is funny and to be able to see all the different perspectives. And it’s that that makes us laugh.
Phil Stieg: What about art? Art is the visual cortex, which isn’t dominant on one side or the other. It says, see different sides of the world. Your right brain sees the left side, vice versa. Is there a dominance there in terms of the way we appreciate it or is that more of an interplay.
Iain McGilchrist: What I have to emphasize is that when people think the whole hemisphere thing has been exploded, which is what a lot of people say, but they just don’t caught up. They need to read my stuff. For 30 or 40 years, it’s been clear that what was said in the past was wrong used to say the left hemisphere does language and reason in the right hemisphere does pictures and emotions, and we now know that all of these are spread across both. What’s different is the way in which it’s approached in that way makes all the difference. So you can think about language as just a lot of technical symbols, or you can think about language as an embodied thing where the sound and the expression in it make part of the meaning and so on and so forth. You can think that metaphors matter and the right hemisphere understands them. Where the left hemisphere tends to take them literally. Coming to the visual spatial. Yes, they both take part in it. It is true that the right hemisphere probably is better at doing certain visual spatial tasks, such as rotation and orientation in space and so forth and seeing in three dimensions.
But they both, as you quite rightly say, contribute to it. In the new book, The Matter With Things, I’ve looked at the extent to which each hemisphere contributes to the most important values goodness, truth, beauty, the divine. And in each of these case, I can demonstrate the right hemisphere is more important for them. But that’s not really the question you’re asking. But the appreciation of the work of art does depend on appreciating beauty. And the right hemisphere is better at that.
Phil Stieg: Well, I’ll mention your book, The Matter With Things; Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the Western World in relation to the next question about, again, that interplay right and left. When it comes to emotions and memory. Every being has an emotional life. And from your standpoint, what’s important so that we have a balanced emotional life, so that we’re not anxiety ridden, we’re not schizophrenic.
Iain McGilchrist: When I would say that both emotion and memory are not confined to the brain, I would say they’re perceived through the entirety of the nervous system, and indeed, the neuroendocrine system has a very big part to play in both. So we shouldn’t just think of this lump inside our skull, but of the manifold inputs from the body. It’s a fun fact that there are more neurons in the human gut than there are in the brain of a dog. And a dog is a fairly intelligent animal. So, yes, having said that, what’s important is that the emotional reason shouldn’t be sundered one from the other. Reason grows out of emotion and without the help of emotion becomes irrational.
So emotion is very important to both hemispheres. And here are two things that people probably don’t know. The emotion that lateralizes most of all is anger, and it lateralizes to the left hemisphere, not the right. And that the right hemisphere is the more important one for inhibiting emotion as well as for emotional subtlety and depth.
What you get is superficial emotions like irritation, anger, disgust, very well served by the left hemisphere. But the more, if you like, the ones that involve human meaning and understanding, like feelings of sorrow, guilt, are much better served by the right hemisphere. Both are important.
Phil Stieg: So I’m going to exercise my left-brain function here, and we are humans. I can’t imagine that somebody isn’t thinking about, how can I control this? I want to breed some mathematicians, very linear thinkers. So how do I make them exercise or develop their left brain more fully? Or I want my child to be an artist. What do I do to make the right brain more active?
Iain McGilchrist: Well, the first thing to say is that almost nothing is more right hemisphere dependent than mathematics
Phil Stieg: In terms of the broad scope of things. Yeah,
Iain McGilchrist: In the broad scope of things. And the children who are precociously good at mathematics have very highly developed right hemisphere functions and actually rely more on the right hemisphere than the ordinary child. And I suspect that all the great breakthroughs in mathematics were made by a kind of ability to see forms gestalten as we say, the wholes that can’t be just digested into parts, and to see that intuitively, all of which is highly dependent on the right hemisphere.
But to come to your point, can we somehow influence things in this way? Obviously, education has a part to play, but also so does the less explicit social medium, as it were, that we inhabit. In the past, life was impregnated with things that told us about something that couldn’t just be reduced to a few sentences or formula. You will be living in a community that had age, that had developed certain ways where people were massively interconnected with one another, where they were living in harmony with nature. All of this helped encourage the bit of our brains largely to the right hemisphere, which understands these much larger networks which help to make us what we are.
We would also probably have spent more time in a church or a temple or a mosque or wherever it might be then we commonly do nowadays, which is a space really where you consider the stuff that I normally do in my daily life, the pedestrian everyday stuff. There’s something probably more than that, and I’m going to try and compose my mind to be receptive to it. But one way of doing it in a relatively godless age is to practice meditation. So particularly mindfulness meditation. We know there’s a strong correlation between that and activation of the right hemisphere. And indeed, there can be anatomical changes so that people who have practiced this for a long time have greater thickness of the cortex in the right hemisphere in certain areas. So these things are important. And I would say in education, we’ve got it wrong when we prioritize only STEM subjects.
Phil Stieg: When we plan our educational curriculum, it seems like it has to be planned more right, left balance, and we’re not doing that.
Iain McGilchrist: No, I think that’s right. And soon we’ll reach a point where nobody realizes that there was something else we’re now missing, if you see what I mean. You always don’t know what it is you don’t know, which makes it so important that education should expose us to all sorts of things that we might not otherwise know or see. And this doesn’t mean sitting in judgment at other times, other places, other cultures, and saying, well, they don’t tick the boxes that I think are important now. Instead, we should be broadening our minds by thinking these intelligent and just as good people as we are thought that the world was structured in an entirely different way. How’s about that? Let’s think about that.
(Interstitial Theme Music)
Narrator: There’s a saying among nuclear physicists; studying the structure of the atom by using a particle accelerator is somewhat like trying to figure out how a fine Swiss watch works by smashing it against the wall and picking up the pieces that fall to the floor.
In a sense, the same could be said by neuroscientists.
In the centuries before the invention of modern diagnostic tools like the electro encephalograph or functional magnetic resonance imaging, nearly all scientific understanding of how the brain worked came from “picking up the pieces” after traumatic, disfiguring accidents.
SFX – railroad crew at work
In 1848 a twenty-five-year-old railroad construction supervisor named Phineas Gage was preparing an explosive charge in a rock ledge. Suddenly the charge went off, …sending a thirteen-pound iron rod rocketing high into the air, passing through his left cheek and out the top of his skull before landing eighty feet away.
Miraculously, Phineas survived the accident – but not unscathed. It became apparent to those who knew him that Phineas had undergone a sudden and quite dramatic change in his personality. Before the accident he was described as hard working and well-liked by his employer, but afterwards they reported that he had changed:
Reading from contemporary report
[Mr. Gage] is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity … A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that his friends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”
Narrator: Nineteenth Century neuroscientists had long debated as to whether the brain had specialized regions of each of its functions, or whether the whole brain was one large, undifferentiated organ – secreting thoughts that same way the liver secrets bile.
Phineas’ impulsive behavior and lack of inhibitions appeared only after he suffered physical damage to the frontal cortex. It was evidence of the specialized role of that region in controlling behavior. Making that connection gradually shifted our entire view of the structure of the brain.
Phineas became the object of great fascination to both the scientific community and the general public. A year after the accident, Professor Henry Jacob Bigelow of Harvard Medical School presented Phineas at his lecture to the prestigious Boston Society for Medical Improvement. Later he was a “distinguished exhibit” at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in New York City.
Thankfully, today’s neuroscientists do not have to rely on freak accidents to help advance knowledge in their field. Nevertheless, the preserved skull of Mr. Phineas Gage – along with the iron rod that had once passed through it – are still on display at the Harvard Medical School as a gruesome reminder his contribution to our understanding of the brain.
Phil Stieg: So in your new book, The Matter With Things, you get into this much more deeply, that Western society is too left brain focused. You come across very strongly with that opinion. So give me one or two key examples of where you think we’re way too left brain.
Iain McGilchrist: If we were way too left brain, what we’d see is that there would be no role for personal judgment. There would be black and white, right and wrong answers that followed from algorithms, bureaucracy would have a field day. Administration would become more important, actually, than what it was administrating.
Phil Stieg: That sounds like today’s society.
Iain McGilchrist: I was going to say exactly! And in my experience in medicine, it may have happened for you too. Increasingly over my lifetime, I’ve found that administrators seem to be more important in decision making than doctors, but there you are. There’ll be very little subtlety. So we’d have this computer like impassive society filled with the need to control because the left hemispheres raison detré is control. It’s not understanding, it’s being in control. It to be able to grab, to be able to manipulate, to be able to get for myself in a competitive way. And that seems to be, again, an aspect of the society we now live in, in which a more subtle idea of who we are, that we’re not just atomistic individuals, but belong to a society out of which we come and to which we owe something in turn. All of that would disappear and the arts would become. The visual arts would become bizarre, with distorted perspectives and over abstract, they become accompanied by text telling you what the artist was trying to do. Well, when you look at a Fra, Angelica, there’s no text telling you what the artist is trying to do, but you bloody well know it.
And the same with modern music, it would forsake melody and harmony and so on, which are very much right hemisphere elements. The only element in music, the Left Hemisphere is any good at is rhythm. And that’s all I ever hear when I go around the place nowadays!
So I think there are good signs that we are, as de Tocqueville prophesied back in the 1830s, that eventually the society he looked at and democracy would be strangled by a network of petty rules. And that seems to be the world that we’re in, where it’s almost impossible to do anything quickly or freely. All the sense of spontaneous action, the action of imagination is taken out of it. Everything becomes leaden, plodding, following of a code and a procedure. Where are you going to find creativity in a society like that?
Phil Stieg: But don’t you find that if you look back at all civilizations and cultures, that probably was the struggle then, as it is now, it’s just taken different shapes and forms. Now we have computers, now we have bigger government, now we have different ways of voting. But 1000 years ago, the Romans went in and they just burned down Jerusalem.
Iain McGilchrist: Yes, you’re exactly right. And of course, as you’re aware, the second half of my book, The Master and His Emissary, I look at the second half of the book is a survey of Western culture from the Greeks forward. And what I show is that in the case of the Greeks and the Romans, there was the same shape I see since the Renaissance in the modern west, which is that at first there was a marvelous flourishing and exchange of richness between what we would now think of as the right hemisphere’s way of looking, in the left hemisphere’s way of looking. And this made great steps forward in maths, in science, in art, in music and drama – all these things. And then as the Empire became too great, they had to administer an area that was too far away from the center. Things became rulebound, stereotyped, left hemisphere dominated and fell apart. And the same thing happened with the Romans again around the year. Dot this amazing richness which lasts for about 100 years. And then you can see art deteriorating. You can see architecture deteriorating, becoming the architecture and art of an Empire that’s really only interested in power. And eventually, of course, it plays itself out in about 410.
And I’m afraid that we’re doing this right now. If you look around us, we’ve had this wonderfully rich period in the Renaissance, but since certainly since the Enlightenment, which was a wonderful movement in itself, prioritizing a rational way of looking at things. But since then, it’s been taken to the distances that the great Enlightenment thinkers would never have anticipated, that actually everything is simply reduced to some kind of scientific formula. But it is not, in my opinion, absolutely not reducible in that way.
Phil Stieg: In your new book, The Matter With Things, do you get into that more about how we got a pullback from our left brain and how society can get back more towards the midline is that your goal?
Iain McGilchrist: What I want to do is not so much to tell people what to do, but to open their eyes to what they’re doing and what’s happening all around them. And I know as a psychiatrist that the first thing you learn is that it’s no good telling people right away when you see what they need to do. Often, if you spent an hour and a half with them, assessing them on the first appointment, you know more about them than anybody they’ve ever spoken to in their lives, including their children, their parents and their spouse. And you can say, I know that we could do this and that and the other. But the best thing is not to do that until the patient begins to see it themselves, then they will want to follow that path and they will know how to.
So your job is actually to get them to see there’s something very wrong with what they’re doing now and it hasn’t worked. How about trying something different? And then they are keen and they know the things that they need to do, because if you tell them to do it, either they won’t or they’ll do it for a while and then stop. But if they’re motivated by having seen what they’re doing to themselves, they begin to change.
And so what I’m hoping is that nobody can read this book without seeing very clearly what we’re doing wrong and wanting to change it. But if I told people there’s a list of six bullet points you do, these and we’ll all be saved. They think they could carry on as before, which they can’t.
Phil Stieg: Well, I’m glad to hear that you’re not an ideologue.
Iain McGilchrist: No indeed!
Phil Stieg: All right. You’ve got my dopamine levels a little bit low now, and I’m a little bit sad. I want some hope here. Can you tell me what can I do? What can the listeners do to achieve what you would consider the more appropriate right, left brain balance? Are there things we can do?
Iain McGilchrist: Push back everywhere you see that machines are taking over from human beings. Push back when you hear a bureaucracy that’s full of codes and procedures, taking over from skill and judgment of professionals. Hit back if you’re a teacher, if you’re a doctor, you have skills. Learn to practice them. You make relationships with students or with patients. These are the important things about your work, not something that can be administrated.
Push back about education. Let us broaden the scope of education. Bring back in things like philosophy, history, the understanding of other people’s cultures, and our own history of culture, not in some punitive way where we score it as not measuring up to our Mark, but actually trying to understand it.
And let’s also bring back into our lives the love of things that are not utilitarian. It’s no good thinking of things like music and going to an art gallery or something as some way to make you a better stockbroker or something like that. That’s to mistake the nature of it. It’s not to achieve another end. It’s not utilitarian. The left hand is only understands utility. Instead, the thing has enormous beauty and value in itself. So does great art. So does the great beauty of nature, and so does the beauty of spiritual rights, rituals and places.
Phil Stieg: Dr. Iain McGilchrist, I can’t thank you enough for spending time talking to us about the differences between the right and the left hemisphere, but the importance of their interconnectedness and the communication which provides balance in our lives Both emotionally in our memory and in our souls. Thank you so much for being with us.
Iain McGilchrist: Thank you very much, Phil. It’s been a huge pleasure.