The Divided Brain: An Interview with Dr. Iain McGilchrist

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

BW: How do you advise your patients in your psychiatric practice?

IM: As a psychiatrist I see people day in and day out who have problems in their lives. One way of looking at these problems might be that their minds are full of things that they feel are important, ways of thinking, and that it’s not so much that I can tell them to think differently. You can give people pointers, but the critical thing for them is to come to a realization that they’re doing things that are damaging. Therapy is always like that. Sometimes when I see a patient I have a pretty shrewd intuition of what they need to do. But if I were to tell them that right off, it would have no meaning. They need to find their way to it by realizing that what they’re doing now is not the right way.

One very practical thing — a recipe for healing for almost every one of my patients — is not forcing things to be the way they would like them to be, but to embrace the way that they’re likely to be and doing those things that will help that forward.

BW: It sounds like a very philosophical attitude.

IM: We are now understanding the benefits of mindfulness, which is officially recommended by the British body NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). The essence of mindfulness is clearing your mind of all the stuff that’s going on in there and stopping you from experiencing life. You’re so busy feeling bad about the past you can’t change and chasing after a future you can’t predict, instead of actually being alive in the moment. That is really the essence of mindfulness. Recent research shows that mindfulness engages wide networks in the right hemisphere, and the EEG studies show that there is a more balancing of the two hemispheres in those who are meditating. So I think meditation and not doing things, making space in your life and switching off your machines, being present in the moment, and practicing mindfulness would be a way to start.

BW: We often think about our brain in terms of cognitive processing, but the brain guides all of our activities from breathing and muscle movements to sensations and emotions. What do you think is the ultimate use of the human brain?

IM: I think that’s a terribly good question because it draws attention very beautifully to the fact that we are in fact not brains in a vat, but we are embodied beings. The cognitive processing model is mechanistic and sees us like a complicated heating system with valves and pumps and thermostats that switch things on and off. But one of the interesting things about the hemispheres is that the right hemisphere seems to be better able to take into its vision the information that is coming to it from what was always called the lower parts of the brain, the more ancient parts of the brain, and indeed, from the body. The difficulty with the cognitive model is that we think of the brain as a computer, and we think of memory as something like a data bank.

Memory, of course, is not at all like that. It’s part of the human’s whole world and is distributed in the body. In a way, you can say that the very muscles have memory. Memory is not something that is unchanging. It is contextual — and that’s a weakness of it in some ways, but it’s also very much the strength of it.

We now know that even something like the heart actually communicates with the brain and gives as much information back to the brain —  in fact, possibly more — than the brain gives to the heart. Anyone who suffers from depression will know that you have this terribly heavy oppressive feeling in the center of your chest. The things that you feel in your body are of course experienced through the brain, but they then are seen and experienced phenomenologically in the body. Our bodies and our brains can’t be separated in that way. So although cognitive science is a very useful thing, I think it ought to learn less from the Cartesian tradition of philosophy and more from the phenomenological tradition of philosophy, particularly from the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, who is probably the single most important philosopher of the last century for those who are interested in the relationship between mind and the body.

BW: What’s up next for you?

IM: I’m working on a book with the possible title, “The Porcupine is a Monkey.” In it I describe an experiment done by one of the most distinguished living Anglo-American neuroscientists, Marcel Kinsbourne, with a colleague, Deglin. They were able to interview people with one half of their brain at a time desensitized. Essentially, they were addressing either their left hemisphere or their right hemisphere, or, in a controlled condition, both. They asked them what they made of false syllogisms. [A false syllogism is one where you give a couple of premises and draw a conclusion, but one of the premises is wrong. Truth is either what is consistent with your model — i.e., it follows the logic of your system, and it’s what’s on this piece of paper — or truth is what you know about the world that you’ve gathered from both reading, learning, and living, all that rich mass of stuff that goes into your knowledge of the world, which we call common sense.]

I’m thinking of writing this book because you see such staggering examples of this all over our world. Clever guys with techie minds sold the idea that these things would work, and they now administratively run all the professions. Teachers used to create a relationship with their students by using the richness of their experience and knowledge of the world, often in idiosyncratic ways, with their infectious enthusiasm to fire up their students. Instead, it’s [been] replaced by, “You must do this curriculum, and you must escort so many on this, and you must have so many of the following.” That is death to the mind, to the imagination, in fact to our civilization. I would like to alert people to that.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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