Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. You can read the Part 1 here.
You swing between optimism and pessimism (or, call it “realism” if you prefer) about our ability to break the dominance of the left hemisphere over our lives and culture. Is there something individuals can do, rather than just read the articles about “blah blah blah money doesn’t bring happiness, it’s been scientifically proven”? Because it seems there is this rise of the positive psychology movement, saying that what really brings happiness is this right brain stuff: community, fraternity, beauty, nature. But their methods for achieving these things seem to amount to cognitive behavioural therapy, which seems left-brainy to me. “Here is my check list to achieving happiness.”
I think you have spotted me trying, perhaps too hard, to counter my natural pessimism. I do find it very hard to be optimistic at present, because, as I say in the book, the left hemisphere’s view pretends to have it all sown up, and people are taken in by that, especially when it appears to come from the mouth of “science” (usually biologists – the discoveries of physicists forced them long ago to abandon the Victorian mechanistic model, but the life sciences are slow in catching up). Not that the current arts scene is much better – postmodernism is no challenge to the left hemisphere’s view, but, as I suggest, an expression of it.
I firmly believe that the first step towards change is to become aware of what is happening now, in our own ‘take’ on the world and that of our culture. It may be a bit of a cop-out for me to say that, but it was hard enough to clarify the problem, without my claiming to have found the solution.
At the cultural level, any optimism I have comes from the marvellous unpredictability of the human mind. In the past one would often have been hard pressed to predict significant shifts in our world view that occurred only a matter of a few years later; and, as I suggest, our progress tends, fortunately, to be more circular (as the right hemisphere understands) than rectilinear (as the left hemisphere thinks). I also believe it is good that we are more open to Far Eastern cultures — though, as you know, I have great admiration for the strengths of Western culture, too.
At the personal level, I hope the result of reading my book might be to make one more sceptical of some of the natural assumptions of the world we are living in, and perhaps to awaken latent knowledge of one’s own. A surprising number of people who have read the book have told me something to the effect that they seemed to become aware of their own latent understanding of themselves and their brain – what I call the brain cognising itself – and that it brought into focus things they had been peripherally aware of, but had somehow blocked out. This had the effect of changing the way they looked at the world. If that happens, I could not ask for much more.
Explicit checklists are a bit limited, I agree, though even they have their uses in pointing one in the right direction. Ultimately, though, I believe the best things in life are by-products — which makes personal plans for happiness less useful than they look.
You started off studying English, is that correct? And then made the switch some time later to psychiatry. What was the spark that led you to go off in another direction?
It sounds like a big switch, but in a way there was a logical progression. When I arrived in Oxford in the early seventies, I intended to study philosophy and theology, but, as the system was, had to take the entrance exam in something else, which happened to be English literature. My examiner, John Bayley, encouraged me to read English, and after graduating I was elected to a Fellowship of All Souls College where I had time to pursue a number of interests, particularly philosophy and psychology.
But my experience of teaching English made me think a lot about the ‘mind-body’ relationship. I felt that what I and others were undertaking ran counter to the grain of the matter we were dealing with — works of art, written by real, living people, who had grappled with their experience of the world, and left something, also living, behind them, for us to enjoy and understand. What engaged me in any great piece of writing was the utter uniqueness of the experience.
What it was like to read Hardy’s poems was completely different from what it was like to read anyone else – at all, ever. Bad writers were quite “lumpable” together: but the more the writer succeeded in producing something truly living, the more it was completely “of itself”. Yet when writing about the work of art the only things we could say seemed to be in terms of generalities, exactly the sort of things that could be found elsewhere (Nietzsche again: words make the uncommon common).
Being true to the experience of the work defied language, which seemed only to return one to central concepts and abstractions, when the thing one admired was wholly individual, quirkily concrete, incarnate, part of the embodied world of experience to which it related. Getting to know it was more like getting to know a person, than trying to understand a bunch of ideas. It defied analysis into parts, since the whole point was its impact as a whole, in the light of which one felt bound to revise the way in which one would, out of context, have evaluated its parts. Its weaknesses on analysis turned out to be its strengths taken in context.
What has this to do with the mind-body relationship? In the explicit study of literature, we inevitably adopted a cognitive approach to something that became abstract and conceptual, when in fact the whole embodied self, heart and lungs as well as cortex, unconscious as much as conscious, had to be brought into play in relation to a whole other embodied being, the poem or whatever it was that we were experiencing. I found what philosophers had to say about the ‘mind-body’ issue was curiously subject to the same problem: disembodied, theoretical, scuppered by the nature of denotative language and analysis. (If I had not been in Oxford at the time, I might have made the acquaintance of the European phenomenological tradition – virtually unheard of there – at an earlier stage, and have saved myself years of laborious work inventing the wheel.
On the other hand, there’s nothing like having to get there for yourself.) So after writing a book about the problems of explicitness in the approach to literature, called Against Criticism, I went off to find out about the mind-body problem in a more ‘embodied’ way by training as a doctor. That way, I hoped to discover, as near to first hand as I could, what it was like when afflictions of the brain affected the mind, and when the problems of mind affected the body. Hence neurology and psychiatry.
The interviewed author: Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, and writer who is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise – the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is moulded by, our minds and brains. His book, “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World ” is being made into a feature length documentary, “The Divided Brain“. You can follow the documentary on Twitter @divided_brain and on Facebook.
The interviewer: Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor of the magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. She is the author of The Dead Ladies Project, published by The University of Chicago Press, and The Creative Tarot, published by Touchstone. She has written for many publications, some of which are still in existence. She has lived in Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Ireland, Berlin, among other places. She currently lives nowhere in particular. You can follow her on Twitter @thebookslut You can find out more about Jessa through her website.
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