THE PRIMACY OF THE RIGHT HEMISPHERE - THE DIVIDED BRAIN - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)



IF THE TWO HEMISPHERES PRODUCE TWO WORLDS, WHICH SHOULD WE TRUST IF WE are after the truth about the world? Do we simply accept that there are two versions of the world that are equally valid, and go away shrugging our shoulders? I believe that the relationship between the hemispheres is not equal, and that while both contribute to our knowledge of the world, which therefore needs to be synthesised, one hemisphere, the right hemisphere, has precedence, in that it underwrites the knowledge that the other comes to have, and is alone able to synthesise what both know into a usable whole. In this chapter I will explain why I believe that to be the case.

We might be persuaded by the fact that the left hemisphere provides a detailed and precise picture, to suppose that it, rather than its irritatingly imprecise counterpart, gives us the truth about the world. And its less engaged stance might be a clue that it is more trustworthy. However, the fact that disengaged attention is in some cases psychopathic tells us that the question has meaning for the value, including the moral value, of the world we experience. It's an important question to decide - but there is a problem in reaching a conclusion here. Each hemisphere attends in a different way; different ways of attending produce different realities, including about this question of hemisphere difference. How to break out of the hermeneutic circle?

One way of approaching the question would be to look at the results: to compare the results of adopting a more detached kind of attention to the world with the results of adopting a more engaged kind. Towards the end of this book I will do just that - look at how the assumption that the world is best understood according to the left hemisphere's take, as a mechanism, compares with the assumption that the world is more like a living thing, a connected whole, as the right hemisphere would see it. I will do so without any special pleading, judging the answer according to the values of the left hemisphere, not those of the right. We can after all measure the consequences of the way we look at the world by what happens to it, and what happens to us. However, since attention alters us as well as what we attend to, the very judgment we made might reflect not so much reality as the nature of who we had become or were becoming. It seems hard to step outside this problem, which raises another circularity.

This is why the last chapter looked for indications from philosophy. I began by suggesting that there might be some clues from physics, the other path by which we try to apprehend ultimate reality - if it is indeed another path, and not the same path in another light. There is a tendency for the life sciences to consider a mechanistic universe more ‘real’, even though physics long ago moved away from this legacy of nineteenth-century materialism, with the rather odd result that the inanimate universe has come to appear animate, to take part in mind, while the animate universe appears inanimate, mindless. Science has to prioritise clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up from parts; sequential analytic logic as the path to knowledge; and the prioritising of detail over the bigger picture. Like philosophy it comes at the world from the left hemisphere's point of view. And the left hemisphere's version of reality works well at the local level, the everyday, on which we are focussed by habit. There Newtonian mechanics rules; but it ‘frays at the edges’, once one pans out to get the bigger picture of reality, at the subatomic, or at the cosmic, level. Here uncertainty replaces certainty; the fixed turns out to be constantly changing and cannot be pinned down; straight lines are curved: in other words, Einstein's laws account better than Newton's. Straight lines, such as the horizon, are curved if one takes a longer view, and space itself is curved - so that the rectilinearity of the left hemisphere is a bit like the flat-Earther's view: ‘that's the way it looks here and now’. I would say that the shape, not just of space and time, but of our apprehension of them, is curved: beginning in the right hemisphere, passing through the realm of the left hemisphere somewhere in the middle, and returning to that of the right hemisphere. Reality has a roundness rather than rectilinearity, a theme I will return to at the end of this book.

In the last chapter I pointed to the fact that in the twentieth century, despite the nature of the philosophic process, themes emerged from philosophical debate which, unknowingly, corroborate the right hemisphere's understanding of the world. These include: empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness; the importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention; the implicit or hidden nature of truth; the emphasis on process rather than stasis, the journey being more important than the arrival; the primacy of perception; the importance of the body in constituting reality; an emphasis on uniqueness; the objectifying nature of vision; the irreducibility of all value to utility; and creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.

Wittgenstein spoke of ‘an experience that was, for him, a paradigm of the sense of ultimate value: the sense of wonder at the very existence of the world itself.’1 Heidegger said that what we call the pre-Socratic philosophers were not philosophers, but thinkers (Denker) who had no need of ‘philosophy’, caught up as they were in the radical astonishment of Being. For Plato, ‘the sense of wonder (thaumazein) is the mark of the philosopher - philosophy indeed has no other origin’;2 in fact he thought that theios phobos (sacred fear) was so profoundly moving and life-altering that the arts, which could summon it up, ought to beunder strict censorship to preserve public order. Aristotle wrote that ‘it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin, and at first began, to philosophize.’3

But already Democritus, a contemporary of Plato, starts to praise athaumastia and athambia, a refusal to be moved or amazed by anything; ‘the Stoic sages regard it as their highest aim not to lose their composure, and Cicero as well as Horace commends the nil admirari’ - to be astonished at nothing.4 The mark of the true philosopher becomes not the capacity to see things as they are, and therefore to be awestruck by the fact of Being, but precisely the opposite, to keep cool in the face of existence, to systematise and clarify the world, so that it is re-presented as an object of knowledge. The role of the philosopher, as of the scientist, becomes to demystify.

The sense of awe which motivates philosophy was, however, never lost: even Descartes held that ‘wonder [is] the first of all the passions’.5 But it has also been perceived by many that wonder was not just the origin, but the aim, of philosophy. Thus to Goethe it was ‘the highest that man can attain’.6 Wittgenstein saw greater wisdom in mythic than in scientific accounts of the world, which ‘leave us with the distinct impression that everything has been accounted for; they give us the illusion of explaining a world that we might do better to wonder at … Wittgenstein criticises explanation in order to make way for wonder. Clarity for him was largely in the service of awe; his critical energies were directed at unmasking what he saw as the pseudo-explanations that tend to come between us and the world, blinding us to the sheer wonder of its existence.’7 Similarly Thomas Nagel writes: ‘Certain forms of perplexity - for example, about freedom, knowledge, and the meaning of life - seem to me to embody more insight than any of the supposed solutions to those problems.’8 And most recently Arne Naess put it in these words: ‘Philosophy begins and ends with wondering - profound wondering.’9 It is this that twentieth-century philosophy painstakingly regained.

Philosophy shares the trajectory that I have described as typical of the relationship between the hemispheres. It begins in wonder, intuition, ambiguity, puzzlement and uncertainty; it progresses through being unpacked, inspected from all angles and wrestled into linearity by the left hemisphere; but its endpoint is to see that the very business of language and linearity must themselves be transcended, and once more left behind. The progression is familiar: from right hemisphere, to left hemisphere, to right hemisphere again.

This would also be in keeping with other evidence for the primary role of the right hemisphere in yielding the experiential world.


In fact we have already touched on a number of reasons for supposing that the right hemisphere plays a primary, grounding role in the relationship between the hemispheres. There is the primacy of broad vigilant attention: though focussed attention may appear to its owner to be under conscious control, in reality it is already spoken for; we direct attention according to what we are aware of, and for that we need broad, right-hemisphere, attention. Then there is the primacy of wholeness: the right hemisphere deals with the world before separation, division, analysis has transformed it into something else, before the left hemisphere has re-presented it. It is not that the right hemisphere connects - because what it reveals was never separated; it does not synthesise - what was never broken down into parts; it does not integrate - what was never less than whole.

We have also looked at the role the right hemisphere plays in delivering what is new: its primacy of experience. What we know had to come into being first for the right hemisphere, since by definition at first it is new, and the right hemisphere delivers what is new as it ‘presences’ - before the left hemisphere gets to re-present it. And we have the fact that the left hemisphere's most powerful tool, referential language, has its origins in the body and the right hemisphere: a sort of primacy of means.

I'd now like to look at some further lines of evidence on the matter.


The origins of language in music and the body could be seen as part of a bigger picture, part of a primacy of the implicit. Metaphor (subserved by the right hemisphere) comes before denotation (subserved by the left). This is both a historical and an epistemological truth. Metaphorical meaning is in every sense prior to abstraction and explicitness. The very words tell one this: one cannot draw something away (Latin, abs-away, trahere pull), unless there is something to draw it away from. One cannot unfold something and make it explicit (Latin, ex- out, plicare fold), unless it is already folded. The roots of explicitness lie in the implicit. As Lichtenberg said, ‘Most of our expressions are metaphorical - the philosophy of our forefathers lies hidden in them.’10

Metaphor is not just a reflection of what has been, however, but the means whereby the truly new, rather than just the novel, may come about. When a metaphor actually lives in the mind it can generate new thoughts or understanding - it is cognitively real and active, not just a dead historical remnant of a once live metaphor, a cliché.11

All understanding, whether of the world or even of ourselves, depends on choosing the right metaphor. The metaphor we choose governs what we see. Even in talking about understanding we cannot escape metaphors. ‘Grasping’ things, for example, won't get us as far as we would like, because the most important things in life refuse to be grasped in either sense. Like Tantalus' grapes they retreat from the reaching hand.

The paradox of philosophy is that we need to get beyond what can be grasped or explicitly stated, but the drift of philosophy is always and inevitably back towards the explicit. Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, Scheler, and the later Wittgenstein perceived that explicitness ties us down to what we already know, however much we may carry on ‘unfolding’ and ‘unfolding’ it. Implicitly, and at times explicitly, each of them tried to take philosophy beyond the explicit, therefore in one sense beyond itself. In doing so, they illuminated the limits of analytic language (‘whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent’). But the attempt still is worth making, indeed has to be made, and always will, provided only that one respects the limits to what can be achieved. ‘For an old psychologist and pied piper like me’, wrote Nietzsche, only too aware of the problems of language, ‘… precisely that which would like to stay silent has to become audible’.12

These philosophers' writings are replete with metaphorical images which not only embody, but themselves express, implicitness. Thus, perhaps echoing Heidegger's circuitous path through the fields (Feldweg), Wittgenstein speaks of philosophical inquiry as, not an explicit statement, but a series of perspectives, like a number of discrete walks across a mountain range which will, perhaps, allow an idea of the whole to emerge. Three hundred years before either Heidegger or Wittgenstein, Donne had written: ‘On a huge hill, / Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and hee that will / Reach her, about must, and about must goe …’13Perhaps it is fitting that a poet should have got there first. This circular, or more accurately, spiral-like, progress is, again, very suggestive.

The biggest problem of explicitness, however, is that it returns us to what we already know. It reduces a unique experience, person or thing to a bunch of abstracted, therefore central, concepts that we could have found already anywhere else - and indeed had already. Knowing, in the sense of seeing clearly, is always seeing ‘as’ a something already known, and therefore not present but re-presented. Fruitful ambiguity is forced into being one thing or another. I started this chapter by suggesting that, because of its power to change, attention can also destroy. Many things that are important to us simply cannot withstand being too closely attended to, since their nature is to be indirect or implicit. Forcing them into explicitness changes their nature completely, so that in such cases what we come to think we know ‘certainly’ is in fact not truly known at all. Too much self-awareness destroys not just spontaneity, but the quality that makes things live; the performance of music or dance, of courtship, love and sexual behaviour, humour, artistic creation and religious devotion become mechanical, lifeless, and may grind to a halt if we are too self-aware.

Those things that cannot sustain the focus of conscious attention are often the same things which cannot be willed, that come only as a by-product of something else; they shrink from the glare of the left hemisphere's world. Some things, like sleep, simply cannot be willed.14 The frame of mind required to strive for them is incompatible with the frame of mind that permits them to be experienced. As Montaigne wrote:

Even things I do easily and naturally I cannot do once I order myself to do them with an express and prescribed command. The very parts of my body which have a degree of freedom and autonomy sometimes refuse to obey me if I plan to bind them to obligatory service at a certain time and place.15

What's true of making love and going to sleep is also true of things less physical: for example, attempts to be natural, to love, to be wise, or to be innocent and self-unseeing, are self-defeating.16 The best things in life hide from the full glare of focussed attention. They refuse our will.

It is, however, precisely the left hemisphere's task to bring things into focus, to render the implicit explicit, in order that what is seen may become the object of our will. This is achieved by a certain kind of vision, since only vision, of all the human senses, can give truly detailed information, and give clear pinpointing in space, to guide our grasp. This clarity and fixity of the object is highly amenable to the world view of the left hemisphere: in fact it is only in the case of the left hemisphere, not of the right, that one can speak appropriately of a world ‘view’ at all. But sight alone of all the senses also allows finely discriminated depth. As long as that depth is preserved, it yields for the right-hemisphere engagement, ‘betweenness’. Shorn away, it allows precision-focussing by the left hemisphere, at a point in a two-dimensional plane (one is aware of this two dimensionality particularly when focussing a microscope or telescope). The resulting illusion is of clarity, the ability to know something ‘just as it is’, as though everything about it were revealed through clear vision.

Depth is the sense of a something lying beyond. Another way of thinking of this would be more generally in terms of the ultimate importance of context. Context is that ‘something’ (in reality nothing less than a world) in which whatever is seen inheres, and in which its being lies, and in reference to which alone it can be understood, lying both beyond and around it. The problem with the ‘attentional spotlight’, as conventional psychological literature calls it, is that this isolates the object of attention from its context - not just its surroundings, but the depth in which it lives. It opacifies it. Our vision stops at ‘the thing itself’. The price is that this sheering away of the context produces something lifeless and mechanical. In a famous passage in the Meditations, Descartes speaks of looking from a window and seeing men pass in the street. ‘Yet’, he reflects, ‘do I see any more than hats and coats which could conceal automatons? I judge that they are men.’17 It is not surprising that, shorn by the philosophic stare of all context that might give them meaning, the coats and hats that Descartes sees from his window walking about in the street could be animated by a machine. They have become fully opaque; the observer no longer passes through them to see the living person beneath. He no longer sees what is implied. However, the attention of the right hemisphere, concerned as it is with the being in context, permits us to see through them to the reality that lies around and beyond them. It could not make the mistake of seeing the clothes and hats in isolation.

The illusion that, if we can see something clearly, we see it as it really is, is hugely seductive. Ruskin, in Modern Painters, makes the point that clarity is bought at the price of limitation: ‘We never see anything clearly … What we call seeing a thing clearly, is only seeing enough of it to make out what it is; this point of intelligibility varying in distance for different magnitudes and kinds of things …’ He gives the example of an open book and an embroidered handkerchief on a lawn. Viewed from a distance of a quarter of a mile, they are indistinguishable; from closer, we can see which is which, but not read the book or trace the embroidery on the handkerchief; as we go nearer, we ‘can now read the text and trace the embroidery, but cannot see the fibres of the paper, nor the threads of the stuff’; closer still and we can see the watermark and the threads, ‘but not the hills and dales in the paper's surface, nor the fine fibres which shoot off from every thread’; until we take a microscope to it, and so on, ad infinitum. At which point do we see it clearly? ‘When, therefore, we say, we see the book clearly,’ Ruskin concludes, ‘we mean only that we know it is a book.’18 Clarity, it seems, describes not a degree of perception, but a type of knowledge. To know something clearly is to know it partially only, and to know it, rather than to experience it, in a certain way.

With the beginnings of modernity our experience itself becomes increasingly pictorial. As Heidegger writes: ‘The world picture does not change from an earlier one into a modern one, but rather the fact that the world becomes picture at all is what distinguishes the essence of the modern age.’19 This changes the nature of existence.

Where the world becomes picture … the world [is] conceived and grasped as picture. What is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.20

Heidegger's animus was directed particularly against the impact of Descartes, who had written that the ‘conduct of our life depends entirely on our senses’ and ‘sight is the noblest and most comprehensive’ of them.21 This is precisely because Descartes was concerned with vision as an instrument of clear, sharply defined knowledge of each thing in isolation - a project impossible to reconcile with understanding based on the implicit, context-bound nature of things as delivered by the right hemisphere, which the left hemisphere only subsequently ‘represents and sets forth’ as distinct items. It is not by chance that the word ‘distinct’ implies division.

In order truly to see the thing as it is, attention needs to do something quite different. It needs both to rest on the object and pass through the plane of focus. Seeing the thing as it is depends on also seeing through it, to something beyond, the context, the ‘roundness’ or depth, in which it exists. If the detached, highly focussed attention of the left hemisphere is brought to bear on living things, and not later resolved into the whole picture by right-hemisphere attention, which yields depth and context, it is destructive. We become like insects, as Merleau-Ponty says. It is similar with works of art, which as I have said have more in common with people than things. Explicitness always forces this sheering away, this concentration on the surface, and the loss of transparency - or more correctly semi-transparency. It is the analogue of the joke explained, the metaphor laboriously restated. In such circumstances, the mechanism of the joke, of the metaphor, becomes opaque and obtrudes. Metaphoric meaning depends on this semi-transparency, this being-seen-and-not-being-seen. Kerényi writes of Homeric symbols, for example, that they can be ‘seen through’, as ‘the visible sign of an invisible order … not as an element of “symbolism”, but as a transparent part of the world.’ If they obtruded as symbols, they would need to be explicitly decoded, and that would rob them of all their power.22

Making things explicit is the equivalent of focussing on the workings, at the expense of the work, the medium at the expense of the message. Once opaque, the plane of attention is in the wrong place, as if we focussed on the mechanics of the play, not on the substance of the play itself; or on the plane of the canvas, not what is seen there.

Depth, as opposed to distance from a surface, never implies detachment. Depth brings us into a relationship, whatever the distance involved, with the other, and allows us to ‘feel across’ the intervening space. It situates us in the same world as the other. Thus, however distant the figures in a Claude painting, we feel drawn to them and their world; we are taken on a journey into the depth of space that surrounds them, as Hazlitt said. Diderot wrote a series of descriptions of seven walks he had taken with a certain Abbé for his companion through the most beautiful, wild scenery, and what they had seen and experienced there; only at the end does he reveal that these were imagined travels within the landscapes of Vernet's paintings.23 What produces alienation is not depth, but lack of depth. Loss of depth forms an important feature of the Cartesian, objective view of the world, as if it were projected on the surface of the retina, or on the photographic plate. We are rebuffed by the two dimensionality of the plane that stands some distance from us, without depth, a two-dimensional world in which we can no longer stand alongside what becomes the ‘object’ of our vision. Depth is of great psychological significance, and it is relevant that in schizophrenia, which simulates an overactive left-hemisphere state, there is, as Louis Sass has shown, a perspectival slippage, a loss of grip on the frame of reference.24 Attention ceases to be paid to, say, the scene pictured on the paper, and is transferred to the plane of the paper itself. There is a loss of precisely the transparency that operates when we understand something in the normal way.

A painting is not a thing in the world: nor is it just a representation of the world. In a marvellous phrase of Merleau-Ponty's, we do not see paintings, as much as see according to them.25 They are, like people, and the forms of the natural world, neither just objective things, nor mere representations of things: they permit us to see through, and according to, themselves. They have a semi-opaque (or semi-transparent) quality, not disappearing altogether, in which case some reality or other would be seen in their place, a reality which they would no more than represent. No, they have reality of their own. But equally they are not mere things, existing ‘out there’ independent of us or whatever else it is that exists. We are aware of them but see through them, see the world according to them. To take the example of the Claude painting: we neither allow our eye simply to rest on the pure thing in front of us, a canvas measuring such and such, with so and so patches of blue, green and brown on it, nor do we see straight through it, as though ignorant that we are looking at a painting, and imagining we look through a window. Equally with poetry: language does often function as if it were transparent, when we are reading a piece of prose, and unaware of its facticity. But in poetry the language itself is present to us - semi-transparent, semi-opaque; not a thing, but a living something that allows us to move through it and beyond, though never allowing the language to disappear as though it played no part in the whatever it is beyond language that it yields to us.

Drama, too, can be either completely absorbing or quite alienating, becoming a picture in which we do not participate. In order to absorb, the medium has to be translucent or transparent: we must not focus on the players - or the playwright (Shakespeare completely disappears in his work). That's why bad acting can be so embarrassing. It draws our attention to the fact that the actors are acting, and to how they see themselves; they become like critics whose self-preening causes them to obtrude between us and what they claim to illuminate. The implicit becomes explicit and all is lost.


If the implicit grounds the explicit, it would imply that one's feelings are not a reaction to, or a superposition on, one's cognitive assessment, but the reverse: the affect comes first, the thinking later. Some fascinating research confirms that affective judgment is not dependent on the outcome of a cognitive process. We do not make choices about whether we like something on the basis of explicit assessment, a balance sheet, weighing up its parts. We make an intuitive assessment of the whole before any cognitive processes come into play, though they will, no doubt, later be used to ‘explain’, and justify, our choice. This has been called ‘the primacy of affect’.26 We make an assessment of the whole at once, and pieces of information about specific aspects are judged in the light of the whole, rather than the other way round (though these pieces of information, if there are enough that do not cohere with our idea of the whole, can ultimately cause a shift in our sense of the whole).27 The implication is that our affective judgment and our sense of the whole, dependent on the right hemisphere, occur before cognitive assessment of the parts, the contribution of the left hemisphere. ‘I would anticipate that … at some deep and fundamental affective level, the right hemisphere is more in touch with true inner feelings and less able to lie.’28 Panksepp's suspicion would be supported by the research evidence discussed in Chapter 2. While affect is not of course the same as value, like value it is primary, not just derived from cognitive assessment, as the left hemisphere would have us believe when it retrospectively examines the process; and it was this insight that lay behind Max Scheler's important concept of Wertnehmung, pre-cognitive apprehension of the value of something, its meaning for ‘me’.29

The disposition towards the world comes first: any cognitions are subsequent to and consequent on that disposition, which is in other words ‘affect’.30 Affect may too readily be equated with emotion. Emotions are certainly part of affect, but are only part of it. Something much broader is implied: a way of attending to the world (or not attending to it), a way of relating to the world (or not relating to it), a stance, a disposition, towards the world - ultimately a ‘way of being’ in the world.

But emotion is very important, and it too is closer to the core of our being than cognition. As Nietzsche wrote, ‘thoughts are the shadows of our feelings—always darker, emptier, simpler’.31 Several lines of reasoning from the evidence converge to suggest that the essential core of being is subcortical.32 Perceptual-cognitive awareness would appear to have developed on the back of affective awareness, which was a ‘revolutionary prerequisite’, writes Jaak Panksepp: ‘From such a vantage, Descartes’ faith in his assertion “I think, therefore I am” may be superseded by a more primitive affirmation that is part of the genetic makeup of all mammals: “I feel, therefore I am.” ‘33 He later goes on in a footnote: ‘the bottom-line statement probably should be “I am, therefore I am.”‘34

Emotion and the body are at the irreducible core of experience: they are not there merely to help out with cognition. Feeling is not just an add-on, a flavoured coating for thought: it is at the heart of our being, and reason emanates from that central core of the emotions, in an attempt to limit and direct them, rather than the other way about. Feeling came, and comes, first, and reason emerged from it: ‘emotion has taught mankind to reason’, as the eighteenth-century French philosopher Vauvenargues put it.35 Even the prejudice we have in favour of reason cannot itself be justified by reasoning: the virtues of reason are something we can do no more than intuit. In his influential book Descartes' Error, Damasio points to the primacy of emotion in neurological terms, when he notes that

the apparatus of rationality, traditionally presumed to be neocortical, does not seem to work without that of biological regulation, traditionally presumed to be subcortical. Nature appears to have built the apparatus of rationality not just on top of the apparatus of biological regulation, but also from it and with it.36

This observation brings me back to the point I made in Chapter 1, that the structure of the brain gives its history, and helps, partly because of that very fact, towards an understanding of the mind. Nonetheless Damasio does not appear to recognise the phenomenological primacy of emotion or affect: instead he sees emotion as auxiliary, there to play a role in guiding the thinking being that we are, rather than seeing thinking as there to guide the feeling being that we are. ‘Emotions’, he insists, ‘are not a luxury’, as though such an idea could ever have occurred to anyone in the light of experience, let alone of the acknowledged primacy of affect. Emotions are not a luxury, Damasio goes on to reassure us, because they are useful tools: ‘they play a role in communicating meaning to others, and they may also play the cognitive guidance role that I propose …’37 Thus emotions are there to serve as handmaiden to reason, playing a useful role in helping us communicate, or possibly in weighing the products of cognition, but not at the irreducible core of the experience of ourselves.

In the process of trying to rehabilitate feelings by showing that they form, after all, a vital part of the cognitive process, Damasio inevitably does so by trying to make them explicit, measurable, quantitative - turning them into speed or an amount of mental associative processes, speed or an amount of motor behaviours - rather than qualitative. He also sees them, as William James did, as an interpretation of bodily ‘data’: in fact he even states that ‘regular feeling comes from a “readout” of the body changes’.38 The inseparability of the body and emotion (not to mention affect) is interpreted in such a way that emotion ends up derived from the body by a ‘readout’, there to guide the cognition that is doing the reading. Apparently unaware that he is repeating Descartes' error,39 he writes: ‘I conceptualise the essence of feelings as something you and I can see through a window that opens directly onto a continuously updated image of the structure and state of our body …’40 Once you are able to ‘see’ your feelings ‘through a window’ opening onto an ‘image’ of your body, you have clearly far outstripped Descartes at his own game.

I think part of the difficulty here, which I will return to throughout this book, is that in the context of intellectual discourse we are always obliged to ‘look at’ the relationship of cognition to affect from the cognitive point of view. Quite what it would mean to treat it from the point of view of affect is less easily said, not easily even imagined: there is no question about it, if we want to know about this relationship, rather than be satisfied with intuition, then we are obliged to treat cognition as the path to knowledge. Asking cognition, however, to give a perspective on the relationship between cognition and affect is like asking an astronomer in the pre-Galilean geocentric world whether, in his opinion, the sun moved round the earth or the earth round the sun. To ask the question alone would be enough to label one as mad. But notice what the metaphor reveals: for in time the observation of tiny discrepancies in the model became significant enough to cause a bouleversement of the entire known universe. And so cognition eventually did find its own path to its kind of truth: the primacy of affect.


Some now famous experimental work by Benjamin Libet, published in 1985, attempted to investigate the conscious will from a neurophysiological point of view. Libet asked subjects to make spontaneous movements of their fingers at will, and recorded what was going on in the brain by monitoring the accompanying electroencephalographic data, recorded by electrodes on the scalp.41 He confirmed earlier findings of a German neurologist, Hans Kornhuber, who had shown that there is a blip in the trace, known as a ‘readiness potential’ (Bereitschaftspotential), about a second before the movement takes place.42But, much to his amazement, he discovered that the conscious urge to move the finger occurred, not before, but approximately 0.2 seconds after, the readiness potential. In other words the brain seemed to know in advance that its ‘owner’ was going to make a decision to carry out an action.

This clearly doesn't square with the common-sense notion that we make a conscious decision to do something, and has cast doubt in some minds on free will, giving rise to an extensive philosophical literature of debate. As Susan Pockett puts it, some of Libet's research results ‘seem to deny to consciousness any major role in the conduct of our day-to-day affairs’.43 Quite so. But as one of the contributors to this debate points out, this is only a problem if one imagines that, for me to decide something, I have to have willed it with the conscious part of my mind.44 Perhaps my unconscious is every bit as much ‘me’. In fact it had better be, because so little of life is conscious at all.

One would have thought that such a conclusion would not be hard to embrace in a post-Freudian era. It certainly would not surprise those who have read the now classic work of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he systematically disabuses the reader of the idea that consciousness is needed for any of the defining features of human mental life.45 He points out that very little brain activity is in fact conscious (current estimates are certainly less than 5 per cent, and probably less than 1 per cent), and that we take decisions, solve problems, make judgments, discriminate, reason, and so on, without any need for conscious involvement.

Before saying more about the conscious and unconscious mind, it would be helpful to clarify the terms. Adam Zeman is admirably concise in doing so.46 He distinguishes three principal meanings of the term consciousness: (1) consciousness as waking state: ‘after a lucid interval, the injured soldier lapsed into unconsciousness’; (2) consciousness as experience: ‘I became conscious of a feeling of dread, and an overpowering smell of burning rubber’; (3) consciousness as mind: ‘I am conscious that I may be straining your patience’ - in which case, unlike the previous example, one is not reporting on experience as such, but on something one bears in awareness even if not actually thinking about it and experiencing the consequences of such a thought at the time. Consciousness in each of these senses is sustainable by either hemisphere in isolation, though the quality of that consciousness might differ. The major difference between the hemispheres lies in their relationship with the unconscious mind, whether that means the dream state (thinking of consciousness in the first sense), or what we experience or bear in mind without being aware of it (the second and third senses). Whatever does not lie in the centre of the attentional field, where we are focussed, is better yielded by the right hemisphere, and the left hemisphere can sometimes show surprising ignorance of it.

Jaynes aligns the right hemisphere with the unconscious mind, and this link has been made by many others.47 The alignment has to be a matter of degree rather than all or nothing. As one writer puts it, ‘the left side is involved with conscious response and the right with the unconscious mind’.48 It is true that processing of pre-conscious information, which includes most of what is encompassed in social understanding, tends to be carried out by the right hemisphere.49 The attentional system that detects stimuli outside the focus of conscious processing, is ‘strongly lateralised to the right hemisphere’.50 Equally, conscious processing tends to go on in the left hemisphere. This dichotomy can be seen at play even in a realm, such as emotion, with an admittedly strong right-hemisphere bias: the right hemisphere processes unconscious emotional material, whereas the left hemisphere is involved in the conscious processing of emotional stimuli.51 Certainly the right hemisphere experiences material that the left hemisphere cannot be aware of; 52and according to Allan Schore, Freud's pre-conscious lies in the right orbitofrontal cortex.53 Freud wrote of non-verbal, imagistic thinking that it ‘is, therefore, only a very incomplete form of becoming conscious. In some way, too, it stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words, and it is unquestionably older than the latter both ontogenetically and phylogenetically.’54 Freud may in fact have derived his distinction between the secondary (conscious) process and the primary (unconscious) process from Hughlings Jackson's distinction between the verbal, propositional thought of the left hemisphere and the speechless, ‘lower levels of ideation’ associated with the right hemisphere.55 All of this is perhaps in keeping with evidence suggesting that during REM sleep and dreaming there is greatly increased blood flow in the right hemisphere, particularly the temporoparietal region.56 EEG coherence data also point to the predominance of the right hemisphere in dreaming.57

If what we mean by consciousness is the part of the mind that brings the world into focus, makes it explicit, allows it to be formulated in language, and is aware of its own awareness, it is reasonable to link the conscious mind to activity almost all of which lies ultimately in the left hemisphere. One could think of such consciousness as a tree growing on one side of a fence, but with a root system that goes deep down into the ground on both sides of the fence. This type of consciousness is a minute part of brain activity, and must take place at the highest level of integration of brain function, at the point where the left hemisphere (which in reality is in constant communication with the right hemisphere, at the millisecond level) acts as Gazzaniga's ‘interpreter’.58 Not the only one that does the experiencing, mind you, but the one that does the interpreting, the translation into words. (Note the significance of the metaphor. Meaning does not originate with an interpreter - all one can hope for from the interpreter is that in his or her hands the true meaning is not actually lost.)

Why should ‘we’ not be our unconscious, as well as our conscious, selves? Libet's experiment does not tell us that we do not choose to initiate an action: it just tells us that we have to widen our concept of who ‘we’ are to include our unconscious selves. The difficulties seem to arise, as so often, because of language, which is principally the left hemisphere's way of construing the world. It will be objected that what we mean by words such as ‘will’, ‘intend’, ‘choose’ is that the process is conscious: if it's not conscious, then we did not will it to happen, we did not intend it, it was not our choice. The fact that it is clear to all of us these days that our unconscious wishes, intentions, choices can play a huge part in our lives seems not to be noticed.

If forced to concede this point, the next line of defence is to disown the unconscious, just as in split-brain patients the left hemisphere will disown the actions that are obviously initiated (‘chosen’, ‘intended’, ‘willed’) by the right hemisphere: it was not ‘my’ will. One does not in fact have to look at split-brain patients to see that the right hemisphere has a will, can intend, mean, will and choose, just as the left hemisphere can. As Hans Vaihinger wrote:

the organic function of thought is carried on for the most part unconsciously. Should the product finally enter consciousness also, or should consciousness momentarily accompany the processes of logical thought, this light only penetrates to the shallows, and the actual fundamental processes are carried on in the darkness of the unconscious. The specifically purposeful operations are chiefly, and in any case at the beginning, wholly instinctive and unconscious, even if they later press forward into the luminous circle of consciousness …59

I want to present some amazing research findings that I hope will confirm not only that this is so, but that, once again, these intentions arise from the right hemisphere and are prior, in every sense - temporally, logically and ontologically - to those of the left hemisphere.


The findings in question come from the study of gesture, in itself a sort of language with a subtlety and immediacy that goes beyond the explicitness of words: ‘We respond to gestures with an extreme alertness and, one might almost say, in accordance with an elaborate and secret code that is written nowhere, known by none, and understood by all.’60 There is, incidentally, a hemispheric distinction between expressive gestures, which embody inner emotional states, and instrumental gestures, designed to influence the immediate behaviour of another. As we might expect, expressive gestures activate the right hemisphere, in the region of the superior temporal sulcus, while instrumental ones activate a left-lateralised system associated with language and motor imitation.61

But the importance of gesture is that it gives an insight into the genesis of thought. David McNeill has for years painstakingly videotaped human interactions and analysed the relationship between gesture language and what is spoken. The focus of his work is not on hemisphere difference as such, but along the way he lets drop some observations that are pure gold to those who are interested in the topic.62

The first point of interest to ourselves is that gestures slightly anticipate speech:

The anticipation of speech by gesture is important evidence for the argument that gestures reveal utterances in their primitive form: there is a global-synthetic image taking form at the moment the preparation phase begins, but there is not yet a linguistic structure with which it can integrate.63

It will be clear that ‘global-synthetic’ is a description of the holistic or Gestalt nature of thought associated with the right hemisphere. McNeill refers, by contrast, to the ‘linear-segmented’ nature of verbal utterance - linearity and segmentation being features of the analytic nature of thought in the left hemisphere. So it would appear that the first manifestation of thought is in the ‘global-synthetic’ form generated by the right hemisphere. Yet the actual stroke phase of the gesture - its expressive part - appears to be deliberately delayed so that it is synchronised with the act of speech, once the left hemisphere has got there, and the two modes of thought have combined.64

McNeill reviews evidence for the main hypotheses about the relationship between gesture and speech, and concludes that there is a synthesis of two ‘opposite modes of thought’. One is expressed in gesture, and is ‘global-synthetic all the way down’: it is constructed at the moment of speaking, and is idiosyncratic in nature, rather than forming a systematic code - all features that identify it as right-hemisphere-derived. The other is expressed in words, having ‘a linear-segmented hierarchical linguistic structure,’65 features which identify it as derived from the left hemisphere. But he emphasises that it is the right-hemisphere contribution that has both temporal priority and ontological priority, since thought is originally ‘largely imagistic and minimally analytic’, whereas by the moment of utterance, it has become ‘both imagistic and analytic and is a synthesis of the holistic and analytic functions.’66 In terms of the thesis of this book, then, the process begins in the realm of the right hemisphere, gets input from the left hemisphere, and finally reaches a synthesis of right with left.

‘Gestures do not merely reflect thought’, writes McNeill, ‘but help constitute thought … Without them thought would be altered or incomplete.’67 This is reminiscent of Max Black's insistence that paraphrase of metaphor produces ‘a loss of cognitive content’; it is not just that literal paraphrase ‘may be tiresomely prolix or boringly explicit (or deficient in qualities of style); it fails to be a translation because it fails to give the insight that the metaphor did.’68 Almost all gestures accompany speech,69 and though most are made by the right hand70 - since speech and gesture are so closely combined in and near Broca's area - the metaphoric nature of gesture language, in fact, comes from the right hemisphere, and has to be routed across to the left hemisphere for execution. We can see this in split-brain patients, whose gesture pattern from the right hand (reflecting the disconnected left hemisphere) is abstract and impoverished in the extreme, but becomes rich again when it comes from the left hand (reflecting the disconnected right hemisphere). Fascinatingly, though, this now interferes with fluency of speech, since the global-synthetic form of what one wants to say, expressed with fluency immediately by the left hand, cannot, as it normally would, be transferred across the corpus callosum to become available to the left hemisphere for speech71 - further evidence, if such were needed, that the richness of thought comes from the right hemisphere and is transferred across to the left hemisphere secondarily for translation into language. Gazzaniga's image of the ‘interpreter’ again, perhaps more apt than even he realized.

McNeill unearths further evidence of the link between the gestural language that has primacy and its right-hemisphere origins. ‘After right-hemisphere damage, speakers show tendencies both to decontextualise speech and to reduce gesture output;’72 and those who do not make gestures tend to give more ‘segmented’ sequences of information than global descriptions.73 As mentioned, restricting hand movement limits the content and fluency of speech,74 and we can now see that this is probably because it inhibits expression of the primary global-synthetic concept of what one wants to say, originating in the right hemisphere.

Perhaps the most striking finding of all is that, when there is a mismatch between gesture and speech, it is the gesture that carries the day in 100 per cent of cases. ‘In all cases, the affecting element in the stimulus appeared to be the gesture, and it was never the speech.’75 Where a mathematical speaker made a mistake verbally, his gesture proceeded with the metaphorical meaning correctly, implying that the thought was correct even if the language wasn't, and the gesture conveyed the thought.76

McNeill also found that the disconnected left hemisphere could not engage with narrative, for two main reasons: it lacked concreteness and specificity in its relation of the story, and became abstract and generic; and it got time sequences wrong and conflated episodes that were separate in the story because they looked similar (in other words, it categorised them, and therefore put them together, even though in the lived world their meaning was destroyed by being taken out of narrative sequence). In place of a narrative, it produced a highly abstract and disjointed meta-narrative.77 Narrative forms of thought are associated with the right hemisphere;78 they are associated with self-other interactions and are heavily affectively charged - and they arise earlier than ‘paradigmatic’ forms.79

Overall McNeill's evidence supports strongly the other arguments that thought, meaning and the urge to communication come first from the relatively unconscious realm of the right hemisphere. If the historical hypothesis that music led to language is correct, then this is yet further demonstration of the primacy of the right hemisphere way of being.80


The evidence from McNeill's work is that - temporally, logically and ontologically - the right-hemisphere world grounds that of the left. It forms an illuminating companion, in my view, to Libet's work on the will. In both cases the conscious left hemisphere believes that it is an originator, whereas in fact it is a receiver of something that comes to it from elsewhere.

Similarly I would say that the conscious left hemisphere thinks that it is in control, directing its gaze where it wants, bringing the world into being as it squints here and there as it pleases, while the reality is that it is selecting from a broader world that has already been brought into being for it by the right hemisphere - and often it is not even doing that, since, far more than it realizes, its choices have already been made for it.

This has to be the case since the business of re-presentation has to wait on the phenomenon of presentation. Turning to the neurological and neuropsychological literature again, we can see what happens when the contribution of the right hemisphere to the world is absent. The world loses reality. People who have lost significant right-hemisphere function experience a world from which meaning has been drained, where vitality appears attenuated, and where things themselves seem insubstantial, to lack corporeal solidity. Because of the sense of detachment, such people can begin to doubt the actuality of what they see, wondering if it is in fact all ‘play-acting’, a pretence, unreal. They can come to think that the hospital, with its doctors and nurses, is an elaborate charade put on for their benefit. This is similar to the delusional misidentification syndromes of Capgras and Fregoli referred to earlier, in which familiar people, things or places are felt to be replaced by copies, or impostors - syndromes which are also associated with right hemisphere deficits. Vié, in a series of papers in 1944, reported some remarkable examples of various kinds of misidentification, including two separate cases of French soldiers who, invalided out of the First World War, maintained that it was all - soldiers, trenches, bombs and all - a theatrical performance.81 The left-hemisphere world is, after all, virtual - not present, but a representation. In schizophrenia this can easily slip over into a feeling of menace, in which there seems to be something being ‘put on’ or pretended which is being ‘kept from’ the individual; the alienation leads to paranoia, coupled with a sort of anxious boredom or ‘ennui’. Others exhibit an almost fatuous lack of concern. Interestingly right-hemisphere-damaged individuals may see their own bodies as alien, as mechanical, an assemblage of parts, or a mere thing in the world like other things, rather than an integral aspect of ourselves that we live, not just live in. An inappropriate sense of detachment, alienation, and estrangement from the self and the world are all characteristic consequences of right-sided, usually temporoparietal, lesions.82 This condition is similar to aspects of schizophrenia, and it is probable that much of the phenomenology of the acute phase of schizophrenia arises from the fact that important aspects of right-hemisphere function are distorted or attenuated.

Thus it is the right hemisphere that permits a living world to come into being, and it is from this that the re-presented world of the left hemisphere is derived. The difference between the two, what is present and what is represented, is illustrated beautifully by the different concepts of truth that they hold.83 How would you get an idea of that? Take the following example of a syllogism with a false premise:

1. Major premise: all monkeys climb trees;

2. Minor premise: the porcupine is a monkey;

3. Implied conclusion: the porcupine climbs trees.

Well - does it? As Deglin and Kinsbourne demonstrated, each hemisphere has its own way of approaching this question. At the outset of their experiment, when the intact individual is asked ‘Does the porcupine climb trees?’, she replies (using, of course, both hemispheres): ‘It does not climb, the porcupine runs on the ground; it's prickly, it's not a monkey.’ (Annoyingly, there are in fact porcupines that do climb trees, but it seems that the Russian subjects, and their investigators, were unaware of this, and therefore for the purposes of the experiment it must be assumed that porcupines are not arboreal.) During experimental temporary hemisphere inactivations, the left hemisphere of the very same individual (with the right hemisphere inactivated) replies that the conclusion is true: ‘the porcupine climbs trees since it is a monkey.’ When the experimenter asks, ‘But is the porcupine a monkey?’, she replies that she knows it is not. When the syllogism is presented again, however, she is a little nonplussed, but replies in the affirmative, since ‘That's what is written on the card.’ When the right hemisphere of the same individual (with the left hemisphere inactivated) is asked if the syllogism is true, she replies: ‘How can it climb trees - it's not a monkey, it's wrong here!’ If the experimenter points out that the conclusion must follow from the premises stated, she replies indignantly: ‘But the porcupine is not a monkey!’

In repeated situations, in subject after subject, when syllogisms with false premises, such as ‘All trees sink in water; balsa is a tree; balsa wood sinks in water’, or ‘Northern lights are often seen in Africa; Uganda is in Africa; Northern lights are seen in Uganda’, are presented, the same pattern emerges. When asked if the conclusion is true, the intact individual displays a common sense reaction: ‘I agree it seems to suggest so, but I know in fact it's wrong.’ The right hemisphere dismisses the false premises and deductions as absurd. But the left hemisphere sticks to the false conclusion, replying calmly to the effect that ‘that's what it says here.’

In the left-hemisphere situation, it prioritises the system, regardless of experience: it stays within the system of signs. Truth, for it, is coherence, because for it there is no world beyond, no Other, nothing outside the mind, to correspond with. ‘That's what it says here.’ So it corresponds with itself: in other words, it coheres. The right hemisphere prioritises what it learns from experience: the real state of existing things ‘out there’. For the right hemisphere, truth is not mere coherence, but correspondence with something other than itself. Truth, for it, is understood in the sense of being ‘true’ to something, faithfulness to whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves.

However, it would be wrong to deduce from this that the right hemisphere just goes with what is familiar, adopting a comfortable conformity with experience to date. After all, one's experience to date might be untrue to the reality: then paying attention to logic would be an important way of moving away from false customary assumption. And I have emphasised that it is the right hemisphere that helps us to get beyond the inauthentically familiar. The design of the above experiment specifically tests what happens when one is forced to choose between two paths to the truth in answering a question: using what one knows from experience or following a syllogism where the premises are blatantly false. The question was not whether the syllogism was structurally correct, but what actually was true. But in a different situation, where one is asked the different question ‘Is this syllogism structurally correct?’, even when the conclusion flies in the face of one's experience, it is the right hemisphere which gets the answer correct, and the left hemisphere which is distracted by the familiarity of what it already thinks it knows, and gets the answer wrong.84 The common thread here is the role of the right hemisphere as ‘bullshit detector’. In the first case (answering the question ‘What is true here?’) detecting the bullshit involves using common sense. In the second case (answering ‘Is the logic here correct?’), detecting the bullshit involves resisting the obvious, the usual train of thought. This illustrates the aspect of the right hemisphere's activity which Ramachandran refers to as the ‘devil's advocate’.85


One further line of evidence merits consideration. I have suggested that the function and structure of the brain act as a metaphor of mind: in other words, that we can learn something about the nature of mental processes by observing the brain. At the same time I have suggested that there is something more fundamental about the world that is brought into being by the right hemisphere, with its betweenness, its mode of knowing which involves reciprocation, a reverberative process, back and forth, compared with the linear, sequential, unidirectional method of building up a picture favoured by the left hemisphere. But surely, it may be said, the nervous system isn't itself like the right hemisphere model. One nerve transmits an impulse to the next, which transmits it in turn to another, or to a muscle fibre, and eventually that results in action. The process is linear, sequential: what's ‘reverberative’ about that? Surely if neurones themselves work in this linear, sequential, unidirectional way - whatever may happen later on in the handling of this ‘information’ - then the left hemisphere model is fundamental to our being, to our mental processes and therefore to consciousness itself.

Well, as it happens, the way in which neurones behave is not linear, sequential, unidirectional: they behave in a reciprocal, reverberative fashion, and not just in the right hemisphere. Here is Marcel Kinsbourne:

Counter to the traditional image of the brain as a unidirectional information thoroughfare, when cell stations in the brain connect, the traffic is almost always bi-directional. The traffic is not in one direction, with a little feedback, either. Areas interact equally in both directions, directly reciprocally, or indirectly by looping across several cell stations, so that the neural traffic reverberates through its starting point. The forebrain is overwhelmingly an arena of reverberating reciprocal influence.86

It seems that this reciprocity, this betweenness, goes to the core of our being. Further than even this, there is fascinating evidence that betweenness and reciprocity exist at the level of cell structure and function within the single neurone, even at the molecular level, as the brain comes to understand something and lay down memory traces.87 Whether it goes on at the atomic and subatomic levels I do not know, but my layman's reading of such literature suggests that it may well do so.

The process of bringing the world into being begins, then, with the right hemisphere. And, as I mentioned in Chapter 2, it is the right hemisphere which develops its functions first, and which remains dominant through at least the first year of life.88


Primacy could just mean coming first, in the sense that childhood comes before maturity. But I do not mean only that the right hemisphere starts the process of bringing the world into being. I mean that it does so because it is more in touch with reality, and that it has not just temporal or developmental priority, but ontological supremacy. Whatever the left hemisphere may add - and it adds enormously much - it needs to return what it sees to the world that is grounded by the right hemisphere.

Now we come to the world of the left hemisphere, a virtual world, but one where we are no longer patient recipients, but powerful operators. The values of clarity and fixity are added by the processing of the left hemisphere, which is what makes it possible for us to control, manipulate or use the world. For this, attention is directed and focussed; the wholeness is broken into parts; the implicit is unpacked; language becomes the instrument of serial analysis; things are categorised and become familiar. Affect is set aside, and superseded by cognitive abstraction; the conscious mind is brought to bear on the situation; thoughts are sent to the left hemisphere for expression in words and the metaphors are temporally lost or suspended; the world is re-presented in a now static and hierarchically organised form. This enables us to have knowledge, to bring the world into resolution, but it leaves what it knows denatured and decontextualised.

This is the world that is familiar to us from the intermediate, or ‘classical’ period of philosophy, from Plato at least until Kant, once the insights of the pre-Socratic philosophers were lost and before those of the German ‘idealists’, and later the phenomenologists, were gained. In physics it is that of classical mechanics, the Newtonian universe, and more broadly that vision of nature that began with Democritus and his contemporaries and came to an end with Niels Bohr and his.

The left hemisphere, the mediator of division, is never an endpoint, always a staging post. It is a useful department to send things to for processing, but the things only have meaning once again when they are returned to the right hemisphere.

There needs to be a process of reintegration, whereby we return to the experiential world again. The parts, once seen, are subsumed again in the whole, as the musician's painful, conscious, fragmentation of the piece in practice is lost once again in the (now improved) performance. The part that has been under the spotlight is seen as part of a broader picture; what had to be conscious for a while becomes unconscious again; what needs to be implicit once again retires; the represented entity becomes once more present, and ‘lives’; and even language is given its final meaning by the right hemisphere's holistic pragmatics.

So what begins in the right hemisphere's world is ‘sent’ to the left hemisphere's world for processing, but must be ‘returned’ to the world of the right hemisphere where a new synthesis can be made. Perhaps an analogy would be the relationship between reading and living. Life can certainly have meaning without books, but books cannot have meaning without life. Most of us probably share a belief that life is greatly enriched by them: life goes into books and books go back into life. But the relationship is not equal or symmetrical. Nonetheless what is in them not only adds to life, but genuinely goes back into life and transforms it, so that life as we live it in a world full of books is created partly by books themselves.

This metaphor is not perfect, but it makes the point. In one sense a book, like the world according to the left hemisphere, is a selective, organised, re-presented, static, revisitable, boundaried, ‘frozen’ extract of life. It has taken something infinitely complex, endlessly interrelated, fluent, evolving, uncertain, never to be repeated, embodied and fleeting (because alive) and produced something in a way very different that we can use to understand it. Though obviously far less complex than life itself, it has nonetheless brought into being an aspect of life that was not there before it. So the left hemisphere (like the book), can be seen as taking from the world as delivered by the right hemisphere (unconsidered ‘life’), and giving life back enhanced. But, on the shelf, the contents of the book are dead: they come back to life only in the process of being read. No longer static, boundaried, ‘frozen’, the contents of the book are taken up into the world where nothing is ever fixed or fully known, but always becoming something else.

I take it that there is something that exists outside the mind. One has to have a starting point, and if you do not believe at least that, I have nothing to say, not least because, if you are right, you are not there for me to say it to. The relationship of our brains to that something whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves could be of four kinds: (1) no relationship at all - which returns us to solipsism, since my brain would be the sole source of everything I experienced; (2) receptive - in the sense that, perhaps like a radio set, the brain picked up at least something of whatever it was from out there, and that became what is experienced; (3) generative - in the sense that the brain created at least something of the whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves; or (4) reverberative, that is to say, both receptive and generative - both picking up, receiving, perceiving, and in the process making, giving back, creating ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves but includes ourselves’. I am simply going to state at this point that I adopt the last of these alternatives. Of course, which is right is a terribly important question for philosophy, but if such a thing is susceptible of proof, I can't prove it. All I can say is that all the evidence available to me as a living, thinking, experiencing human being leads me to that conclusion.

So, given the argument of this book, is it both the hemispheres that are doing this giving and receiving and becoming part of it all out there - or just one? My view is that both the right and left hemispheres are involved in the giving and receiving process out of which the world we experience is created, but, once again, not symmetrically. The right hemisphere appears to be the first bringer into being of the world, but what it brings into being can only inevitably be partial. The idea that our brains are perfectly adapted to bring into being for us everything that may exist in the universe, particularly that they could bring into being everything in the universe at one time, is patently ridiculous. To use the analogy of a radio receiver, it can be tuned into only one wavelength at a time, and there will always be radio waves, not to mention other forms of waves, that it will never be able to pick up. But this filtering, this restriction, imposed on the right hemisphere is not just a limitation in the negative sense, any more than being able to transmit one programme at any one time is a negative quality in a radio. Such limitation is a condition of its functioning at all. From it, something particular is permitted to come into being for us, the world as the right hemisphere delivers it to us.

The left hemisphere in turn grasps, sees, receives only some of what the right hemisphere has received. Its method is selection, abstraction - in a word negation. But this selection, this narrowing, is once again not a diminution, but an increase. By restricting or selecting, something new that was not there before comes into being. The process is like sculpture, in which a thing comes into being through something else being pared away. The paring away can reveal the thing that lives within the stone: but equally that thing, whatever it is, lives only in the stone, not in the paring away on its own. Thus the stone in a sense depends on the sculptor's hand, but not as badly as the sculptor's hand depends on the stone. The world that we experience is a product of both hemispheres, clearly, but not in the same way. The restrictive bringing into being of something by the left hemisphere depends still on its foundation in something that underwrites it in the right hemisphere (and both of them on something that underwrites them both, outside the brain).

It is possible that this biphasic, and essentially apophatic (‘no-saying’), structure to the disclosing of whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves was foreseen by Max Scheler. While there is no simple equation between the right hemisphere and Scheler's Drang, and the left hemisphere and his Geist,89 I believe this nonetheless illuminates an important element both in how the hemispheres relate to one another, and in how they together relate to whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves. The relationship between the hemispheres is permissive only. The right hemisphere can either fail to permit (by saying ‘no’) or permit (by not saying ‘no’), aspects of Being to ‘presence’ to it. Until they do so, it does not know what they are, and so cannot be involved in their being as such prior to their disclosure. Subsequent to this, the left hemisphere can only fail to permit (by saying ‘no’), or permit (by not saying ‘no’) aspects of what is ‘presented’ in the right hemisphere to be ‘re-presented’: it does not know what the right hemisphere knows and therefore cannot be involved in its coming into being as such.

This negatory or apophatic mode of creation of whatever-it-is is reflected in our experience that what we know about things as they truly are, starting with Being itself, is apophatic in nature: we can know only what they are not. Its particular significance is that it describes the path taken to truth by the right hemisphere, which sees things whole, and if asked to describe them has to remain ‘silent’. It has no way of coming at what this thing is other than by pointing to it, or by unconcealing it, allowing the thing to reveal itself as much as possible (by not saying ‘no’ to it, but saying ‘no’ to whatever lies around and obscures it), as a sculptor chisels away the stone to reveal the form inside. Further, because what the left hemisphere has available to it is only what it does not say ‘no’ to of what ‘presences’ to the right hemisphere, it has parts of the whole only, fragments which, if it tries to see the whole, it has wilfully to put together again. It has to try to arrive at understanding by putting together the bits and pieces, positively constructing it from the inside, as though the statue were ‘put together’. By such a process, a human person becomes like a Frankenstein's monster, rather than a living being - not for nothing one of the originating metaphors of Romanticism.

This idea is not only a philosophical insight that helps us to explain what we know of the worlds brought into being by the two hemispheres at the phenomenological level. Once again we find it instantiated at the neurological level in the functional anatomy of the brain. Remember that the primary function of the corpus callosum is to act as a filter on transmission between the hemispheres,90 allowing communication to pass, but preponderantly acting to inhibit activity, thus shaping the evolution of conscious experience in, primarily, the left hemisphere. But that is not all. The most highly evolved part of the brain, the frontal cortex, achieves what it does largely by negating (or not negating) other brain activity. ‘The cortex's job is to prevent the inappropriate response rather than to produce the appropriate one’, writes Joseph LeDoux; that is, it pares down from among things that exist, it selects, it does not originate.91 And one answer to the problem raised for free will by Libet's experiments is that there is time between the unconscious initiation of an action and its execution for the conscious mind to intervene and ‘veto’ the action. In this sense, it may exert its influence more as ‘free won't’ than ‘free will’.92

The frontal lobes are indisputably the parts of the brain that make us most human, that bring about for us all the greatest things we achieve. This negation is therefore hugely creative. When we remember that it is the right hemisphere that succeeds in bringing us in touch with whatever is new by an attitude of receptive openness to what is - by contrast with the left hemisphere's view that it makes new things actively, by wilfully putting them together bit by bit - it seems that here, too, is evidence, if any further were needed, that the right hemisphere is more true to the nature of things.


Ultimately the principle of division (that of the left hemisphere) and the principle of union (that of the right hemisphere) need to be unified: in Hegel's terms, the thesis and antithesis must be enabled to achieve a synthesis on a higher level. Split-brain patients can tell us a little about this level from their experiences outside the lab, in their encounters with life; for they appear to have problems with dreaming and imagination.93 In the case of dreaming, it may be that it takes place but that the difficulty lies in the left hemisphere having access to it, and therefore being able to report it. But one can see that the generation of the greatest feats of the human spirit require integration of both hemispheric worlds, and split-brain patients do appear to have an impoverished level of imagination and creativity, suggesting, as I believe to be clearly the case, that integrated functioning of both hemispheres is needed for such activity. The form that that integration takes may be far from straightforward, of course. It may be that, in the absence of the intact corpus callosum, it is impossible for either hemisphere to inhibit the other adequately and stop it from interfering for critical periods. Or it may be a failure of reintegration once the separate business is done.

If the left hemisphere vision predominates, its world becomes denatured (in Heidegger's terms, there is ‘unworlding’ of the world). Then the left hemisphere senses that something is wrong, something lacking - nothing less than life, in fact. It tries to make its productions live again by appealing to what it sees as the attributes of a living thing: novelty, excitement, stimulation. It is the faculty of imagination, however, which comes into being between the two hemispheres, which enables us to take things back from the world of the left hemisphere and make them live again in the right. It is in this way, not by meretricious novelty, that things are made truly new once again.

The right hemisphere needs the left hemisphere in order to be able to ‘unpack’ experience. Without its distance and structure, certainly, there could be, for example, no art, only experience - Wordsworth's description of poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ is just one famous reflection of this. But, just as importantly, if the process ends with the left hemisphere, one has only concepts - abstractions and conceptions, not art at all. Similarly the immediate pre-conceptual sense of awe can evolve into religion only with the help of the left hemisphere: though, if the process stops there, all one has is theology, or sociology, or empty ritual: something else. It seems that, the work of division having been done by the left hemisphere, a new union must be sought, and for this to happen the process needs to be returned to the right hemisphere, so that it can live. This is why Nietzsche held that ‘in contrast to all those who are determined to derive the arts from a single principle, as the necessary source of life for every work of art, I have kept my gaze fixed on these two artistic deities of the Greeks, Apollo and Dionysos.’94 According to Nietzsche, these two gods represented the two fundamentally opposed artistic drives (Kunsttriebe): one towards order, rationality, clarity, the sort of beauty that comes with perfection, human control of nature, and the celebration of masks, representations or appearances; the other towards intuition, the over-riding of all humanly contrived boundaries, a sense of oneness or wholeness, physical pleasure and pain, and the celebration of nature beyond human control, as she really is. It will be appreciated that this contrast does not correspond neatly to the left hemisphere versus the right hemisphere - more, in neuropsychological terms, to the frontal lobes versus the more ancient, subcortical regions of the limbic system; but since, as I have emphasised, such distinctions carry with them implications for the division of the hemispheres (in that the right hemisphere is more in touch with these ancient and ‘primitive’ forces, though modulating them importantly in many respects), they have a relevance to the subject of this book.

The left hemisphere knows things the right hemisphere does not know, just as the right knows things of which the left hemisphere is ignorant. But it is only, as I have tried to suggest in earlier chapters, the right hemisphere that is in direct contact with the embodied lived world: the left hemisphere world is, by comparison, a virtual, bloodless affair. In this sense, the left hemisphere is ‘parasitic’ on the right. It does not itself have life: its life comes from the right hemisphere, to which it can only say ‘no’ or not say ‘no’. This idea lies behind Blake's perception in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell that ‘Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy [emphasis added].’ Reason (what Blake calls elsewhere Ratio, closer to rationality than reason) draws its very existence from the delimitation of something else in which the life actually inheres. This is not, as Blake may have intended it, to decry the importance of reason, but it is to say something important about its ontological status. Similarly the relationship between the hemispheres entails more than an equal and symmetrical participation of the two: there is an asymmetry between the principles of division (left hemisphere) and unification (right hemisphere), ultimately in favour of union. Heidegger was not alone in seeing that beauty lies in the coming to rest of opposites, that have been sharply distinguished, in the connectedness of a harmonious unity. The need for ultimate unification of division with union is an important principle in all areas of life; it reflects the need not just for two opposing principles, but for their opposition ultimately to be harmonised. The relation between union and division is not in this sense, once again, equal or symmetrical.95

Thinkers and philosophers of the Romantic tradition have struggled to express this idea in different ways. I introduce the term ‘Romantic’ here with some trepidation, because to some it suggests the limitations of a circumscribed period of recent Western cultural history, in their minds associated with fantasy and lack of rigour. Unfortunately it is the only term we have to refer to a philosophical, as much as cultural, revolution which heralded the beginnings of a reawareness of the power of metaphorical thought, of the limitations of classical, non-paraconsistent logic, and the adoption of non-mechanistic ways of thinking about the world, which belatedly enabled us to catch up with ideas that have been for centuries, if not millennia, current in Eastern cultures. With the advent of Romanticism, paradox became once more not a sign of error, but, as it had been seen by Western philosophers before Plato, and by all the major schools of thought in the East before and since, as a sign of the necessary limitation of our customary modes of language and thought, to be welcomed, rather than rejected, on the path towards truth. ‘Paradox is everything simultaneously good and great’, wrote Friedrich Schlegel.96

As I say, the Romantics, struggled to express the idea of the unity of union with division.97 Here is Schlegel again: ‘Where philosophy stops, poetry has to begin … Whatever can be done while poetry and philosophy are separated has been done and accomplished. So the time has come to unite the two.’98 Making a slightly different point, but in a similar vein, he wrote: ‘It is equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two.’99 And Coleridge wrote in his Biographia Literaria:

In order to obtain adequate notions of any truth, we must intellectually separate its distinguishable parts; and this is the technical process of philosophy. But having done so, we must then restore them in our conceptions to the unity in which they actually co-exist; and this is the result of philosophy.100

Hegel, too, held that union and division have themselves to be unified, suggesting the ultimate priority of the principle of union over that of division, despite the necessary part played by division at one stage of the process. ‘Everything’, he wrote (with characteristic impenetrability) ‘depends on the unity of differentiatedness and non-differentiatedness, or the identity of identity and non-identity.’101

The concept of the individual (entity or person, whatever it may be) is therefore an ambiguous concept. On the one hand it can be seen as a part, which has prior existence to the whole in which it resides, and that whole is seen as reached by summing the parts - the individual as a ‘unit’ in a complex of units, like a block amongst building blocks (left hemisphere point of view). On the other, the individual can itself be seen as a whole, indivisible into parts from which that whole could ever be recreated once dismembered; but nonetheless not itself separate from a greater whole to which it belongs, and which is reflected in it, from which, even, it derives its individuality (right hemisphere point of view). Thus, according to this point of view, the divisive tendency towards individuation exists within the tendency to union; individual entities are distinguished, but only within a union which supervenes, and qualifies that distinction. In Romanticism, as I shall suggest later, this sense of individuality, as applied to the human individual, was sustainable, but nonetheless felt to exist within the context of something broader and deeper than itself, towards which it tended. This tending towards something else did not annihilate the individuality of the self, but grounded it.

The system building of the left hemisphere has been very powerful historically, because it is rhetorically powerful. It looks like being a way of integrating, or reintegrating, the disparate facts or entities that the left hemisphere has itself created.

But in fact it creates something very different from the whole that has been lost. I would merely draw attention, following Elster, to the fact that rationalistic systems contain the seeds of their own destruction. In a Gödelian way, there are always elements that arise from within the system (rationally conceived goals) that cannot be achieved by the system (rational means of pursuit), and that indeed draw our attention to the limits of the system, and point us beyond. Similarly there are tensions between the rational pursuit of certainty and the desire for knowledge, since, as Hegel pointed out, ‘immediacy’ (the quality of being understandable without the need for any other concept or idea) is not compatible with determinacy, and hence certainty is purchased at the expense of content: ‘The more certain our knowledge the less we know.’102 The more we pinpoint something to be certain of it, the less we actually know of it, the equivalent of the uncertainty principle referred to above.103

The difficulty of articulating the deeply felt distinction between, on the one hand, a vision of the world as an assemblage of parts or fragments that need, in order to be understood, to be aggregated into a system (left hemisphere), and the appreciation of individual, or particular, entities that are never separate from the whole to which they belong, and from which unity, paradoxical as it may seem, they derive their individuality (right hemisphere), preoccupied and perplexed the Romantics. In Coleridge's letters, and in his Biographia Literaria, one sees him struggling towards a clearer perception of this duality; indeed finding a way of illuminating this deeply felt aspect of the mind's own duality was the battle in which he was engaged for most of his intellectual life. He wrote:

I can at times feel strongly the beauties, you describe, in themselves, & for themselves—but more frequently all things appear little—all the knowledge, that can be acquired, child's play—the universe itself—what but an immense heap of little things?—I can contemplate nothing but parts, & parts are all little—!—My mind feels as if it ached to behold & know something great—something one & indivisible and it is only in the faith of this that rocks or waterfalls, mountains or caverns give me the sense of sublimity or majesty!—But in this faith all things counterfeit infinity! [emphasis in the original].104

By contrast, only a few days later he wrote of his

love of ‘the Great’, & ‘the Whole’.—Those who have been led to the same truths step by step thro’ the constant testimony of their senses, seem to me to want a sense which I possess—They contemplate nothing but parts—and all parts are necessarily little—and the Universe to them is but a mass of little things.105

By the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche had concluded that this vision of a mass of disconnected little things was not just another way of seeing, but an artificial way, imposed on the underlying connectedness of existence for the convenience of knowing: ‘there are no lasting, final units, no atoms, no monads: here too the ‘being’ of things has been inserted by us (for practical, useful, perspectival reasons)’.106 What he means here by the ‘"being” of things’ is the sense of finished, independently existing entities, rather than an interconnected whole always in the process of becoming: a sense that is imposed on the world by the left hemisphere for ‘practical, useful, perspectival reasons’, parts and systems being a by-product of the process of ‘knowing’, left-hemisphere fashion.

‘My mind feels as if it ached to behold & know something great …’ In German the feeling of longing for something that exists outside the self to which it feels itself to be connected was crystallised in the word das Sehnen, often translated into English as ‘longing’. What this concept seems to me to enshrine is the feeling of being connected to something but removed from it. The connection remains despite the distance, and the separation despite the sense of union. Why I bring this up here is that the distinction exists within the union, which trumps it. However distinguished, the individual remains part of the whole and is understandable only in terms of the whole of which it forms a part.

The word das Sehnen, longing, is from the same root as die Sehne, a tendon. The object of longing is that towards which we ‘tend’, and ‘tendon’ is similarly related to the words ‘tend’ and ‘tendency’. In fact the English word ‘sinew’ is cognate with die Sehne, and ‘sinew’ used to refer to the whole elastic union of muscle and tendon. These images suggest the workings of a joint, such as for example, the elbow. The joint is made possible by the existence of the tendon, an elastic connection that allows the bones that take part in the joint (but do not constitute the joint) to move away from one another and to remain connected, or to move together and remain separate; an image picked up wittily, but nonetheless profoundly, by Donne in his pair of compasses, the image of the two lovers in A Valediction: forbidding mourning. The significance of these ideas will become more apparent in Part II.

There is, in summary, then, a force for individuation (left hemisphere) and a force for coherence (right hemisphere): but, wherever the whole is not the same as the sum of the parts, the force for individuation exists within and subject to the force for coherence. In this sense the ‘givens’ of the left hemisphere need to be once again ‘given up’ to be reunified through the operations of the right hemisphere. This sense that the rationality of the left hemisphere must be resubmitted to, and subject to, the broader contextualising influence of the right hemisphere, with all its emotional complexity, must surely explain the eminently sane and reasonable philosopher David Hume's assertion that ‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and so never can pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’107 He did not mean that unbridled passion should rule our judgments, but that the rational workings of the left hemisphere (though he could not have known that that was what they were) should be subject to the intuitive wisdom of the right hemisphere (though he equally could not have recognised it as such). If reason arises from feeling, as Vauvenargues says, and should in turn bow to feeling, as Hume here suggests, this perfectly expresses my view that what arises in the left hemisphere does so from the right hemisphere, and needs to be subject to it once more.


I have expressed this reintegration in terms of a ‘return’ to the right hemisphere. This risks suggesting that the achievements of the left hemisphere's interventions are lost or nullified, reduced only to a remembrance to be borne in mind when looking at the new whole achieved by the right hemisphere, as though one were looking at the same whole as before, only with new eyes. This would be like a child taking a watch to bits and putting it together again. The only significant sense in which the reintegrated watch would now be different would be in the child's newfound knowledge of its constituent parts; an important difference for the child, to be sure, but not effectively altering the watch. Once again we are misled by the metaphor of a mechanism, a watch, that is, at least in one sense, no more than the sum of its parts.

Instead, the pattern I would adopt to explain the way in which this process occurs in the bihemispheric apprehension of the world is that of Hegel's Aufhebung. The word, often translated as sublation, literally means a ‘lifting up’ of something, and refers to the way in which the earlier stages of an organic process, although superseded by those that come after, are not repudiated by them, even though the later stages are incompatible with the earlier ones. In this sense the earlier stage is ‘lifted up’ into the subsequent stage both in the sense that it is ‘taken up into’ or ‘subsumed’ into the succeeding stage, and in the sense that it remains present in, but transformed by, a ‘higher’ level of the process. In a famous passage near the opening of the Preface to The Phenomenology of Mind, Hegel illustrates it by reference to the development of a plant:

The bud disappears when the blossom breaks through, and we might say that the former is refuted by the latter; in the same way when the fruit comes, the blossom may be explained to be a false form of the plant's existence, for the fruit appears as its true nature in place of the blossom. These stages are not merely differentiated; they supplant one another as being incompatible with one another. But the ceaseless activity of their own inherent nature makes them at the same time moments of an organic unity, where they not merely do not contradict one another, but where one is as necessary as the other; and this equal necessity of all moments constitutes alone and thereby the life of the whole.108

Thus what is offered by the left hemisphere should be and needs to be aufgehoben by the right hemisphere, not cancelling the left hemisphere's contribution, but taking it further, by drawing it back into the realm of unification (in fact in German aufgehoben positively includes the idea of being preserved, as well as transformed).

It's not just that Hegel happens to crystallise the relationship of the hemispheres with this concept, or even that the relationship of the hemispheres is an example of dialectical ontology - the nature of existence arising out of opposition or negation. Hegel, along with Heraclitus and Heidegger, has a particular place in the unfolding story of the relationship between the cerebral hemispheres, in that, it seems to me, his philosophy actually tries to express the mind's intuition of its own structure - if you like, the mind cognising itself. His spirit is like an unseen presence in this book, and it is necessary to devote a few pages to his heroic attempts to articulate, in relation to the structure of the mind or spirit (Geist), what lies almost beyond articulation, even now that we have knowledge of the structure of the brain.

My choice of the Nietzschean fable of the Master and his emissary suggests that right at the heart of the relationship between the hemispheres I see a power struggle between two unequal entities, and moreover one in which the inferior, dependent party (the left hemisphere) starts to see itself as of primary importance. Hegel, too, spoke of the ‘master’ and the ‘slave’, it is true, but let me first clear something out of the way. What most people know of Hegel's treatment of the master/slave relationship is from a passage in Phenomenology of Spirit (B, IV, A) entitled ‘Lordship and Bondage’. There he is talking about a master and slave in the accepted sense of two persons in a socially defined relationship, and his concern is the paradoxical relationship between an actual master and slave in their quest for mutual ‘recognition’. Putting it simply, the slave's recognition of the master is rendered worthless to the master because of the master's contempt for the slave,109 but the slave is able to gain a more genuine sense of recognition for his skilled work, and is thus enabled after all to achieve a more fulfilled self-consciousness. This is essentially a fable about the futility of social elitism, and does not concern us here.

But there is a far more interesting, and far more profoundly prescient, passage that follows this in Phenomenology of Spirit (B, IV, B), that on the ‘Unhappy Consciousness’. Here he is talking of something quite different, something of immediate relevance to the subject of this book: the inward division of the mind or spirit, which finds itself split into a ‘master’ subself and a ‘slave’ subself. The description of the relationship of these two parts of the mind uncannily foresees what neurological research was going to reveal about the workings of the brain, and which forms the subject of this book, except that Hegel is using the term ‘master’ here to refer to the usurping force that I associate with the left hemisphere - in other words to the emissary turned despot, known as the ‘major’ hemisphere - and the ‘slave’ to refer to the true Master, ill-treated by the usurper, which I associate with the right hemisphere, the ‘silent’ or ‘minor’ hemisphere.110

In a rather dense passage from the same work, Hegel gives such a brilliant exposition of what neurological research appears to indicate that I include it here as the most extraordinary instance of the mind by introspection ‘cognising itself’. He gives in the first paragraph what seems to me to be a perfect description of the weaknesses of the approach to the real world made by the left hemisphere so long as it remains unresolved by subsequent engagement of the right hemisphere. In the second paragraph he describes how true knowledge redeems itself by ‘returning back into itself’ in the right hemisphere (the italics, and of course the interpolations, are mine):

If the specific determination … is one that in itself is concrete or actual [as present to the RH], it all the same gets degraded [by the formal understanding of the LH] into something lifeless and inert [because merely a re-presentation], since it is merely predicated of another existing entity, and not known as an immanent living principle of this existence [which are all LH modes, by contrast with those of the RH]; nor is there any comprehension of how in this entity its intrinsic and peculiar way of expressing and producing itself takes effect [as the RH would be able to understand, with its ability to appreciate such deep-lying and unique qualities, by contrast with the LH]. This, the very kernel of the matter, formal understanding leaves to others to add later on [the LH leaves for the RH to reinstitute at a later stage of reintegration, which is why such a reintegration is essential]. Instead of making its way into the inherent content of the matter in hand [as the RH would], understanding always takes a survey of the whole [from the LH's vantage point on the vertical axis, as if reading a map], assumes a position above the particular existence about which it is speaking, i.e., it does not see it at all.

Here Hegel has brilliantly seized the difference between the reality of the world as originally perceived by the right hemisphere, and the ‘formal understanding’ of it by the left. He continues:

True scientific knowledge, on the contrary, demands abandonment to the very life of the object [the mode that only the RH can achieve], or, which means the same thing, claims to have before it the inner necessity controlling the object, and to express this only. Steeping itself in its object [along the horizontal axis, as the RH does], it forgets to take that general survey [as the LH would have done], which is merely a turning of knowledge away from the content back into itself [alluding to the inevitably self-referring nature of the LH]. But being sunk into the material in hand, and following the course that such material takes, true knowledge returns back into itself [to its origin in the RH], yet not before the content in its fullness [as fully ‘unpacked’ by the LH, its invaluable contribution] is taken into itself, is reduced to the simplicity of being a determinate characteristic, drops to the level of being one aspect of an existing entity [not just what the LH sees, but taken alongside, and in the context of, what the RH yields], and passes over into its higher truth [as revealed by the final Aufhebung of both RH and LH]. By this process the whole as such, surveying its entire content, itself emerges out of the wealth wherein its process of reflection seemed to be lost [the return to the RH recovers the whole, now made richer by the LH process in which it had threatened to be lost].111

What is offered by the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere is offered back again and taken up into a synthesis involving both hemispheres. This must be true of the processes of creativity, of the understanding of works of art, of the development of the religious sense. In each there is a progress from an intuitive apprehension of whatever it may be, via a more formal process of enrichment through conscious, detailed analytic understanding, to a new, enhanced intuitive understanding of this whole, now transformed by the process that it has undergone.

This idea, though difficult, is critically important, because the theme of Part II of this book will be that there has been a tendency for the left hemisphere to see the workings of the right hemisphere as purely incompatible, antagonistic, as a threat to its dominion - the emissary perceiving the Master to be a tyrant. This is an inevitable consequence of the fact that the left hemisphere can support only a mechanistic view of the world, according to which it would certainly be true that the unifying tendency of the right hemisphere would reverse its achievements in delineating individual entities. According to that view, opposition cannot result in sublation, a negation of negation, but only negation pure and simple. But this is to see according to ‘either/or’; and to see individual entities as atomistic, like billiard balls operating in a vacuum - there being no larger entities, except those that are the sum of the interactions of the individual ‘billiard balls’. Nature in fact abhors a vacuum, as we all know, and there is therefore not nothing between the ‘billiard balls’. Rather than separate entities in a vacuum, we might think of individual entities as dense nodes within some infinitely stretchable or distensible viscous substance, some existential goo - neither ultimately separable nor ultimately confounded, though neither without identity nor without the sense of ultimate union.

This idea explains the apparently paradoxical attempt according to the spiritual practices of all traditions to ‘annihilate’ the self. Why would one want to do such a thing, if the point of creation was to produce the infinite variety embodied in the myriad selves of all the unique existing beings in the created world? Would this not be just to strive to reverse the creative process, and return from Being to Nothing? Instead what I understand by this miscalled ‘annihilation’ of the self is a sacrifice of the boundaries which once defined the self, not in vitiation of the self, but in its kenosis, a transformation whereby it is emptied out into a whole which is larger than itself.112 So it is that neither the bud nor the blossom is repudiated by, but rather aufgehoben in, the fruit.

As I have suggested above, all apparently ‘complete’ systems, such as the left hemisphere creates, show themselves ultimately, not just by the standards or values of the right hemisphere, but even in their own terms, to be incomplete. In addition, whether or not the superstructure holds up, their foundations lie in, and are ‘bootstrapped’ on, intuition: the premises from which the rational system building begins, and even the rational mode of operation itself, that of the value of reason, cannot be confirmed by the process of rationalistic systematisation, but need ultimately to be intuited. That does not invalidate our intuition in favour of reason, of course, any more than it invalidates other of our intuitions, such as the value of goodness, or of beauty, or of truthfulness, or the existence of God. (Wittgenstein in the Tractatus describes each of logic, ethics and aesthetics as transcendental.113 ) But it does mean that they take their origin from the right hemisphere, and cannot transcend their origins except by reverting to the right hemisphere in a process of sublation or Aufhebung. However much rationalistic systems give the illusion of completeness - and they can be very hard to escape for those who cannot see their weaknesses - they do in fact conceal within themselves the clue of thread that leads out of the maze.


The left hemisphere seems to play a crucial role in determining what comes into being; it is part of the process of creation. Applying linear, sequential analysis forces the implicit into explicitness, and brings clarity; this is crucial in helping bring about an aspect of what is there. But, in doing so, the whole is lost.

Here again we are brought to face the incompatibility of what we need to do. We have to attend openly to the world in order not to miss something new or important that will tend to change the way we look at any one thing; and yet to focus on one thing so that we can see what it is well enough that, once relinquished, it can return to being constitutive of the whole picture in an enriched sense. Again we are made to recognise that to see clearly one aspect is to conceal another aspect: that truth is a concealing as well as an unconcealing. The difficulty is an expression of the fundamental incompatibility involved in mounting the vertical axis at the same time that we go out as far as possible into the world along the horizontal axis.114 Living seems to force us, like Schrödinger's cat, into some sort of limiting option. It seems that we cannot achieve specificity in observation and at the same time preserve the other characteristics of the object of our attention, much as a light wave (a process) collapses and behaves like a particle (an isolated entity) if it is pinned down by detailed observation.

The right hemisphere needs not to know what the left hemisphere knows, for that would destroy its ability to understand the whole; at the same time the left hemisphere cannot know what the right hemisphere knows. From inside its own system, from its own point of view, what it believes it has ‘created’ appears complete. Just because what it produces is in focus and at the centre of the field of vision, it is more easily seen. This is one reason we are so much more aware of what it contributes to our knowledge of the world.

The left hemisphere cannot deliver anything new direct from ‘outside’, but it can unfold, or ‘unpack’, what it is given. Its very strength - and it contains enormous strength, as the history of civilisation demonstrates - lies in the fact that it can render explicit what the right hemisphere has to leave implicit, leave folded in. Yet that is also its weakness. The clarifying explicitness needs to be reintegrated with the sense of the whole, the now unpacked or unfolded whatever-it-may-be being handed back to the domain of the right hemisphere, where it once more lives. This turns out to be a problem, as I shall try to explain in the next chapter.