Having studied neuro-cognitive psychology at university, I am always interested to read new theories in this area. We still have a very long way to go before we can claim to have a unified theory which explains how activity in the brain’s neurons (physical level) results in information processing (cognitive level), resulting in our conscious awareness of the world around us (the phenomenal level). Stephen Kosslyn, a hugely respected leader in cognitive neuroscience, along with Wayne Miller, have recently released a new book describing their new theory of how the brain works, which introduces a model of four modes of thought: Mover, Perceiver, Stimulator, and Adaptor. Kosslyn and Miller summarise their book in this article recently published in The Atlantic: How the Brain Creates Personality: A New Theory.
I am a huge fan of the work of psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, who has written the seminal The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World. I have already written a couple of articles about his work, but if you are not familiar with his thesis, I can certainly recommend that you watch this short animation narrated by Iain explaining his ideas:
I run a Facebook page for people who wish to discuss the work of philosopher Henri Bortoft (www.facebook.com/HenriBortoft), and we have already had a very excellent discussion on what the differences between these two books could be. James Soutter, one of the contributors to the discussion made this excellent observation:
From this point of view, ‘The Master and His Emissary’ is a work in the Goethean spirit of investigation [and one that surely Goethe, himself a master of many epistemologies, would have appreciated.] Its thesis also supports one of the pillars of Henri’s ‘Wholeness of Nature’ – the idea that there are two distinct modes of perceiving wholeness (‘counterfeit and authentic wholeness’, which Henri identifies with Heidegger’s ‘belonging *together*’ and ‘*belonging* together’). In the contrast between Kosslyn and Miller’s work, and McGilchrist, we could further identify this distinction with the ‘doing different things’ and ‘doing things differently’ which are their respective focii.
I was curious to know what Iain’s own thoughts would be on Kosslyn and Miller’s new book. I sent Iain an email asking if he could comment for Transition Consciousness, and he graciously has given me permission to publish his article below. I would like to thank Iain for allowing me to publish his reply, as I know that many people like myself who have a deep interest in this subject matter would welcome a dialogue on these differing approaches to this complex subject.
Iain McGilchrist replies to Stephen Kosslyn and Wayne Miller on the divided brain
Kosslyn and Miller are researchers I admire. They are quite right to take issue with what they call dated and crude ideas of hemisphere difference. So do I. ‘Dated’ and ‘crude’ are by definition bad. Agreed, management jargon about almost entirely fictional differences between the hemispheres are a hurdle one has to get over: I wrote a book taking such ideas to task. But that is quite different from suggesting we would be wrong to think in terms of hemisphere difference at all.
They write, as if it is some revelation, that ‘the brain doesn’t work one part at a time, but rather as a single interactive system, with all parts contributing in concert, as neuroscientists have long known’. Who, one feels like asking, do they think their readers are?
It is not that they are wrong to point to ‘top-bottom’ differences in the brain: in fact the idea is so plainly right, and has been known to be the case for so long, that I cannot imagine who it is they think might disagree with them. As was pointed out some 30 years ago by Nobel prize-winner Roger Sperry, ‘qualitative shifts in mental control may involve up-down, front-back, or various other organisational changes as well as left-right differences’: and as the distinguished neuroscientist Marcel Kinsbourne has reiterated, the brain as a whole is a dynamic system with these same three main, anatomically obvious, functional equilibria. The existence of one doesn’t in any way suggest the absence of the others: they are not independent, but interconnected in such a way that each is, in fact, implied in the others.
The brain is not only deeply divided down the middle (an odd fact, given that both its purpose and its power lies precisely in making connections), but clearly asymmetrical: the hemispheres reliably differ in size, weight, shape, surface structure, cell architecture in some areas, grey to white matter ratio, response to endocrine hormones and in neurotransmitter profile. Not only that, but much of the neural traffic between hemispheres has an inhibitory function. Such asymmetry is observable in most, if not all, animals: animal ethologists have been describing reliable differences in laterality for decades. Animals whose brains are not properly lateralised have poorer rates of survival, an observation that gives rise to the familiar adage, ‘asymmetry pays’. Humans are no exception to this rule. Any clinician could tell you that reliably different, and obviously different, changes occur in a patient’s experiential world depending on the side of the brain that is affected. To suppose that there are not significant differences between the hemispheres is a deeply irrational position, a dogmatic response in an area which demands a more thoughtful and subtle approach.
The crude, old ideas that logic and language are in the left, and images and emotions in the right, were exploded long ago. Each hemisphere is involved in absolutely everything we do. But it is hardly a scientific response to throw one’s hands up in despair as a result, and dismiss the topic of hemisphere difference. One needs to examine one’s thinking and see what it is one is missing. As soon as one stops asking the question appropriate to a machine – ‘what does it do?’ – and asks the question appropriate to part of a person – ‘in what manner does it do what it does?’ – the answer starts to become clearer. Differences between the hemispheres in birds, animals and humans ultimately relate to differences in attention, which have evolved for clear reasons of survival. But since the nature of the attention we bring to bear on the world changes what it is we find there, and since what we find there influences the kind of attention we pay in future, differences of attention are not just technical, mechanical, issues, but have significant human experiential and philosophical consequences. They change the world we inhabit.
Who could disagree with Kosslyn and Miller for a moment that the brain needs to function seamlessly from the point of view of individual experience? Whatever the hemispheres deliver is synthesised in consciousness in such a way as not to impair, but positively to facilitate, our immediate responses: we are not, while living from moment to moment, aware of the different ‘takes’ on the world that each hemisphere makes possible. But on reflection we are aware that many aspects of experience present incompatibilities and ‘paradoxes’. The advantage of having extensive neuroscientific data about hemisphere difference is precisely that it enables us to see hemisphere differences as if ‘from the outside’.
The problem of hemisphere conflict is not primarily about the individual’s day to day experience, but about the way individuals conceive – and in the end a culture comes to conceive – the nature of the world in which we live. It is about two ‘takes’ on the world, one of which, to put it simply and briefly, is concerned with closing down to a certainty and the other concerned with opening up to a possibility. One, therefore (the left), aims to reach one correct answer (‘either/or’): the other (the right) is more able to live with ambivalence and the possibility of two apparently incompatible possibilities being true (‘both/and’). In an era which prizes consistency within a system of thinking above fidelity to the sometimes irresoluble complexities of the real world, one of these ‘takes’ can become comparatively neglected.
It is admittedly hard to judge an argument on the basis of a short newspaper article. But let’s hope Kosslyn and Miller have more nuanced ideas about hemisphere difference than this piece suggests. Rather than dismiss something which evolution seems to find so valuable, despite its apparent costs, we should be bending our minds to what such differences really mean about us as human beings and why they came about in the first place. It is one of the most important, and fascinating, questions in neuroscience. We may get the answer wrong, but one way to be certainly wrong is not to attempt it at all.
Holistic Science and the Two Modes of Consciousness – A Dissertation by Ben Hanbury (Ben’s dissertation explores the work of Iain McGilchrist and Henri Bortoft)