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May 16, 2023

"I think we are in a world which is now fully deluded."

Simon Riley

This recent interview given by Iain McGilchrist, a huge intellect and fascinating thinker, to a gathering organised by Unherd, is well worth a read / listen: McGilchrist interview with Unherd .

McGilchrist was a literary academic at Oxford but retrained in medicine and specifically neuro-imaging, becoming a Consultant and Clinical Director of acute mental health services at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital in London. He is a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford (a post-graduate-only college for the the brightest of the bright, though somehow John Redwood has also been a Fellow).

He wrote a very influential book called The Master and his Emissary in 2009, a book about the divided brain. In it, he describes how, in the culture that has developed in recent centuries in the West, the relationship between the two hemispheres has become skewed towards the left hemisphere, in terms of how we attend to the world we find ourselves in. That is, as a culture, we have been privileging habits of thought associated with the left hemisphere: taking a narrow beam, targeted on precise things; which converts reality into a mechanical simulacrum, a bit like looking at a map of a place rather than the place itself. It's thinking that captures a complex, changing, subtle picture and simplifies it into dead, rigid, movable parts so that we can process it.

This is not the simplistic left brain / right brain of popular psychology but something subtler. As McGilchrist says:

Just about everything that is said about the hemispheres in pop psychology is wrong because it rests on beliefs about what the hemispheres do, not about how they approach it.

The left hemisphere should be the "emissary", doing the bidding of the "master", the right hemisphere. The latter is characterised as seeing much more widely, with broad, open, vigilant attention and few preconceptions. It sees things as interconnected, flowing and changing, and it sees the actual world we live in, not an abstracted diagram of it.

In the interview with Freddie Sayers of Unherd, he is asked what he has observed since he wrote that analysis 2009. His answer is that the dominance of "left hemisphere thinking" has got many times worse:

I think we are now in a world which is fully deluded ... now it's quite common to hear people say - and for them to go completely unchallenged - things that everybody knows are completely impossible ... There are aspects of our culture that have become very vociferous and very irrational, and very dogmatic and very hubristic."

Quoting Hannah Arendt, he observes:

Once something can't be said, you're already in a tyranny.

He names no names but it's clear to this listener what McGilchrist is referring to . He is not impressed with the post-modernist attempts to avoid realities:

The post-modern thing is a disaster, it's basically collapsing into: 'There's nothing really there, we can make it all up ... everything is equally true.' I believe there is such a thing as a truer view, a truer pronouncement. But it's not that there's something out there that we have to get to by a chain of reasoning. It's something that we have to feel our way towards.

When the times are out of joint, as now, to state reasonable things can appear dangerous to those going with the crazy flow. McGilchrist is just one of those wise people who has refused to be cowed, and his erudition, openness and intellectual curiousity, not to mention his being at the end of his academic and medical career, will make him particularly hard for those trapped in more rigid thinking to dismiss - though you can bet some will try.

He now lives in Talisker on the Isle of Skye, a tiny place which through bizarre coincidence I visited and stayed near on one of my British covid-era holidays in 2021. I almost certainly peered into McGilchrist's house wondering who lived there, en route to Talisker beach with daughter and dog. Feeling a bit sheepish about it now.

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Written by Simon Riley

Simon Riley does interesting research

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Published on Shore Qual

Shore is a UK-based qualitative research consultancy run by Simon Riley.

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