Iain McGilgrist and the Widening of Attention Patricia Adams Farmer
The enchanting Masterpiece series All Creatures Great and Small features a crochety but loveable Yorkshire vet, Siegfried, and his brilliant young partner, James. In this series, based on the real-life stories of James Herriot, the two vets have a policy of “putting the animal first,” that is, above profit. Yes, it’srather scandalous --even in the 1940s-- for profit to be put on the backburner in favor of living, breathing animals.But it’s not just cows and goats and dogs that come first. Their compassion for the animals’ owners requires the two vets to be flexible on occasion --that is, to accept jam and eggs and the odd chicken as payment when they really needhard cash. But they do it because they not only care for the animals; they also see the fuller picture of community well-being andthe need forcaring for their neighbors. They live within the creative tension of compassion and making ends meet. But of course, these beloved characters are imperfect like the rest of us, so sometimes they make the wrong call. Such was the case in Season 4, in which Siegfried, overcome with the tyranny of mounting paperwork and general office chaos, decides to hire Miss Harbottle, anuber efficient secretary, to come in and straighten up things.Soundsperfectly reasonable, right? Miss Harbottle certainly cleans up and organizes the chaos. But in the process, she begins to take control of everything, telling the doctors what they could and could not do,taking over Siegfried’s own office as her own, and generally alienating everyone with her rigid rules and domineering ways.On her first day,Miss Harbottle takesa disgusting dislike to Siegfried’s beloved pet rat, Volonel, whose cage sits next to his desk, and takes it upon herself to banish Volonel to a dark back room. This would not stand! Siegfried returnsVolonel to his proper place and even triesto muster the courage to fire Miss Harbottle. But alas, his resolve crumblesagainst her rigid, manipulative dominance. One day, a man named JoeCoyne brings in his little whiteferret, Wilf, who is suffering from a lump on his skin and needs surgery. Miss Harbottle turned him away for not making “a proper appointment” or paying in advance (her new policy). Joe stomped away with his ferret in tow, vowing never to return. That act provesto be Miss Harbottle’s undoing. Because the “animals first” policy is so brutally disrespected,James and Siegfried conspire to bring Wilf in for surgery after Miss Harbottle leaves for the evening. But alas, the formidable Harbottle returns for the post she had forgotten and encounters this “unauthorized”operation in progress. Livid, she decries, “You wentagainst my authority!” Upon which Siegfried responds, “an authority I should have never relinquished.” Of course, Miss Harbottle is dismissed on the spot and life returns to its normal creative chaos.An entertaining story, for sure, but it also reminds us of the tensions within human nature and, on a deeper, spirituallevel, reveals something of what is wrong with the world even now. Miss Harbottle as Metaphor Miss Harbottle is the perfect metaphor for what philosopher, psychiatrist, and neuroscientist Iain McGilgrist calls “left-hemisphere dominance.” His “hemisphere hypothesis” is that the lefthemisphere of our divided brain has an important role to play in our lives, but it is a limited one that serves the broader view of the right hemisphere -- like a camera zooming in to grasp, isolate, and manipulate (left-hemisphere) and then zooming out to see the larger context (right hemisphere). We need both perspectives in order to survive and thrive. The problem comes when the left hemisphere goes rogue and takes over (i.e., Miss Harbottle). When this happens, we lose perspective and life becomes mechanical, shallow, literal, fragmented, and lifelessly static. Like Miss Harbottle, the left-hemisphere simply can’t see the whole picture, the broader context, and the relational aspects of existence. It believes it is always right, seeks to control, and gets angry when confronted (anger being the prime emotion of the left-hemisphere). When we (individuals or whole societies) allow this part of our thinking to be our dominant view of reality, we become rigid and limited in our thinking, cut off from the real world of flesh and blood and feeling, and from the spiritual world that gives meaning and purpose. We are inviting tyranny into our lives. McGilgristdoes not reduce the mind to the physical brain as doscientific materialists, but rather sees the brain’s two hemispheres as a physical home for our consciousness. How we use our brains becomes a moral and spiritual choice. As his decades of research shows, we can open ourselves to meaning, spirituality, and beauty only when our brains are balanced, with the right hemisphere being the master and the left, the helper. In his massive (and massively important) work The Master and the Emissary, he tellsa fable which could easily be Siegfried and Miss Harbottle: a master becomes overcome with too much work to handle and hires an emissary to help. But the emissary begins to take over. In the process, life--human, animal, creation -- along with compassion and an intelligent sense of the broader picture is lost in the small and narrow focus of left-hemisphere tyranny.Relations are fractured, rigidity rules, and catastrophe ensues. Miss Harbottle’s big mistake was not her efficiency and skill, which was sorely needed, but her desire to take over with rigid rules that look good in the abstract but fail miserably in reality.She failed to see herself as a “helper” and took control over the vet practice, leaving soured feelings and fractured relationships. She couldn’t seethe larger context in which she worked -- the real world of struggling country folk, suffering animals, and delicate village relationships. When the left hemisphere overreaches its authority and does not return attention (zoom out) to the larger, living, breathing, interconnected world, bad things happen. Devoid of the right hemisphere’s larger, more intelligent, and contextual view of things,farmers and ferrets become mere numbers and abstractions rather than living beings. The sense of interconnection, flow, and all the values of the spiritual life are lost in the emissary’s grasp for power.Our openness to the Divine and to the higher values of goodness, truth, and beauty-- all that makes life meaningful --depends on our choice to return our focus to the master, i.e., the right hemisphere. But how? A is for Attention McGilgristemphasizes thatthe brain hemispheres attend to the world differently, and that, yes, we have a moral choice in the matter. Like Siegfried, the modern world has relinquished much of its power to the emissary. It appears we are stuck with the tyranny of Miss Harbottle until we have the courage to push back and make moral choices that bring our brain hemispheres into balance, opening us up to the richness and depth of love, beauty, and compassion above the rigid, narrow focus on money, power, and control. It will take a change of viewpoint --of attention -- and some soul-searching to rediscover what matters. Another way of putting it: we need to enlarge our souls for the sake of the world. The right hemisphere’s take on the world is broadening and well-rounded, while the left hemisphere lacks depth, complexity, and flexibility. So perhaps enlarging our attention is the first step to enlarging our souls. After all, “A” is for attention in the “Alphabet of Spirit Literacy.” Perhaps it is first in importance, too, or at least foundationalto all the other spiritual values. If we choose to attend to the world of left-hemispherenarrowness, we will be impoverished to the point of putting our very existence in peril. The spiritual part of us needs the right hemisphere’s way of attending: seeing the whole context, the flow, and the relationality of God and the world. None of this makes sense to the rigid, literal, and abstract oriented left-hemisphere. The Courage to Push Back The struggle between Miss Harbottle’s narrow approach to the world and Siegfried’s attention to larger issues serves not only as a cautionary tale but an insight into our humanity and what we must regain in order to survive these perilous times. Many of our religious and spiritual values have fallen by the wayside -- or been usurped by false prophets. By fattening our souls rather than our wallets, by enlarging our experiences with nature, art, and face-to-face interactions, and by broadening our minds to learn and listen to the views of the “other,” we might just regain our humanity and survive as a species. But it’s going to be an uphill battle. The Miss Harbottles of this world are a formidable lot! But there is hope. In our story, when things fell apart in the vet practice, Siegfried had the courage to admit he was wrong in relinquishing his authority to Mrs. Harbottle. He was finally able to push back against the tyranny and return to his foundational values of relationships and compassion over profit and power.Yes, Siegfried had the courage to return his attentionto what really matters.The question is: Do we?
Iaian McGilgrist on The Matter with Things
"I believe that we are engaged in committing suicide: intellectual suicide, moral suicide and physical suicide. If there is anything as important as stopping us poisoning our seas and destroying our forests, it is stopping us poisoning our minds and destroying our souls.
Our dominant value – sometimes I fear our only value – has, very clearly, become that of power. This aligns us with a brain system, that of the left hemisphere, the raison d’être of which is to control and manipulate the world. But not to understand it: that, for evolutionary reasons that I explain, has come to be more the raison d’être of our – more intelligent, in every sense – right hemisphere. Unfortunately the left hemisphere, knowing less, thinks it knows more. It is a good servant, but a ruinous – a peremptory – master. And the predictable outcome of assuming the role of master is the devastation of all that is important to us – or should be important, if we really know what we are about.
Even if we could, by some miracle, reverse the course on which we are set, unless we change our way of thinking, of being in the world – the way that is destroying us as we speak – it would all be in vain. This is why I have written the last long book I will ever write: The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. In it I search out what it is we have lost sight of, all that is there for us to see, if only we were not blinded to it: an inexhaustibly, truly wondrous, creative, living universe, not a meaningless, moribund mechanism. By bringing to bear up-to-the-minute neuropsychology, physics and philosophy, I show not only that these are in no way in conflict with one another, but that they all lead us, time and again, to the same insights. And that this is not in opposition to, but rather corroborates, the wisdom of the great spiritual traditions across the world.
All this converges on a vision that is necessary if we are to survive; and, even more importantly, if we are to deserve to survive. What I hope for my readers is that, if they are willing to accompany me on this adventure, they will never see the world in quite the same way again."
Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, neuroscientist, philosopher, and author of several books that explore the relationship between the two hemispheres of the brain and the implications for culture, history, and society. Some of his books are:
The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning2: This is a short and accessible introduction to his main thesis, in which he explains how the two hemispheres differ in their attention, perception, judgment, and creativity, and how they can work together to achieve a more holistic and integrated understanding of reality.
The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World3: This is his latest and most comprehensive book, in which he expands on his previous ideas and explores how the left hemisphere’s worldview has shaped various aspects of human knowledge and experience, such as science, religion, art, ethics, politics, and ecology. He also offers a vision of how we can restore the balance between the two hemispheres and reconnect with the living world.
His core ideas are based on the premise that the two hemispheres of the brain have distinct and complementary roles in human cognition and behavior, and that they reflect two different modes of being in the world. The right hemisphere is more attuned to the whole, the context, the implicit, the metaphorical, the embodied, the relational, and the transcendent. The left hemisphere is more focused on the parts, the abstract, the explicit, the literal, the detached, the instrumental, and the predictable. He claims that these differences are not just functional, but also reflect different values and attitudes. The right hemisphere is more open, curious, empathic, and humble, while the left hemisphere is more closed, certain, manipulative, and arrogant. He suggests that the history of Western culture can be seen as a struggle between these two modes of thinking, and that the left hemisphere has gradually usurped the role of the right hemisphere, leading to a distorted and impoverished view of ourselves and the world. He proposes that we need to recover the insights and wisdom of the right hemisphere, and to integrate them with the achievements and skills of the left hemisphere, in order to create a more harmonious and sustainable society.
A Soul with Size
"By S-I-Z-E I mean the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature."
- Bernard Loomer
Iain McGilchrist and Process Philosophy
Iain McGilchrist’s recent magnum opus The Matter With Things (2021) constitutes one of the most significant contributions to the contemporary process tradition as revealed through layers of neuroscientific data and decades of remarkable clinical research into brain lateralization and the hemisphere hypothesis. Drawing from multiple scientific disciplines, and from both ancient and modern philosophers including Heraclitus, Schelling, James, Bergson, Whitehead, and others, McGilchrist has established himself as a formidable process thinker committed to reintegrating the holistic modes of thought associated with the right hemisphere as a guide to cultural renewal. As part of this effort, he affirms the ontological irreducibility of relationality, time, value, purpose, experience, consciousness, and the sacred. This conference brings leading process thinkers across various disciplines, including physics, neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, and theology into critical dialogue with McGilchrist’s work in a collegial effort to assess, question, extend, and apply it.
For information on the conference, so-sponsored by the Center for Process Studies and The California Institute for Integral Studies, click here.