Why do we struggle with life, and with old age in particular?
I believe that the hemisphere hypothesis, as explained by British scholar Iain McGilchrist, offers a fertile framework for thinking about why we suffer mental conflict and confusion. Just as important, it offers guidelines about what we can do to limit our suffering.
The basic idea of the hemisphere hypothesis is that the two hemispheres of our brain provide us with two very different ways of relating to the world. One perspective can be characterized as direct experience (sensory) and the other perspective as conceptual. One experiences the world as it is, the other creates ideas and concepts about the the reality we experience.
When the two perspectives collaborate with each other, our minds work magnificently. Too often, however, our conceptual mind dominates and suppresses the perspective of the sensory mind. When this happens we live in a world of concepts and lose direct touch with reality. To flkourish, we need to restore collaborative balance between these two perspectives
Learn more about the hemisphere hypothesis and how it influences our ability to flourish in this episode.
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Hi. I’m Michael C. Patterson. Welcome to the Mental Flourishing series, in which we exploring how to flourish as we age. In this episode I’m going to focus on why we struggle, or why we suffer more than we need to.
An underlying premise of this series is that the quality of our old age will be determined largely by the quality of our mental states. Our quality-of-life, in other words, will be determined largely by how we interpret the experience of aging and our journey towards death.
In this episode I’m focusing on the hemisphere hypothesis. I think this hypothesis has great explanatory power about why we get hooked on negative mental states and why we find it hard to access more positive mental states.
The hemisphere hypothesis is offered by the British scholar Iain McGilchrist and is explained, in detail, in his 2009 book, THE MASTER AND HIS EMISSARY and is 2019 opus, THE MATTER WITH THINGS: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World. They are both amazing, mind-blowing works. One reviewer said this about THE MATTER WITH THINGS, “It’s very simple: this is one of the most important books ever published. And, yes, I do mean ever.” End quote. I agree. McGilchrist’s books have had a profound affect on me and have caused me to rethink a number of my long-held beliefs.
McGilchrist’s statement of the hypothesis is simple, the implications are profound and vast. The simple statement of the hypothesis is that:
“The bi-hemispheric structure of the brain makes possible attending to the world simultaneously in two otherwise incompatible ways.”
The revelation for me was that the mind is not a single unified system. As McGilchrist demonstrates with tons of research, the human mind has two major operating systems that work in very different ways - the two hemispheres of the brain. And the two minds often argue with each other. Well, no wonder we get confused and feel conflicted. We argue with ourselves.
McGilchrist is convinced that the two hemispheres of the brain represent two very different ways of relating to the world, two ways of attending to the mysteries of life. I’ve find it useful to characterize them as the conceptual mind and the sensory mind.
The human brain, like most brains is divided into two hemispheres. They are physical separated from each other and communicate across bridges of nerve cells that inhibit exchange as much as facilitate it. Each hemisphere attends to the world in a unique way.
One hemisphere, the RH, offers a view of the world that is grounded in sensory input. It sees the flow of life in a holistic manner. It is a better reflection of what is actually going on. For the sake of simplicity, we will call this the “sensory mind.”
The other hemisphere, the LH, creates a virtual reality version of the real world. It stops the flow of life, breaks it into little fixed pieces of information. The LH steps back from what is actually going on and creates representations (re-presentations) of the world that can be used to examine, investigate, and to make plans for the future. We will call this the “conceptual mind.”
So, the two hemispheres offer us the simultaneous benefit of a real world view and a virtual world view and both operate at the same time. We live and operate in the real world and, at the same time, are informed and guided by insights and instructions offered to us by the virtual reality version. When the two perspectives are coordinated, we get a richer perspective on what is going on. But, this perspective must, ultimately, end up in the right hemisphere with the real world perspective. We live, after all, in the real world, not in a virtual reality world.
It is the virtual reality version that most often rises to the level of conscious awareness. And, because it is more available to our conscious attention, the LH tends to dominate and even resists collaborating with the RH. The RH, the sensory mind, understands the value of the LH perspective and strives to work with it. The conceptual mind, however, prefers the world of its own invention and is happy to go it alone. Why let reality mess up its interesting fantasies?
Well, we struggle and suffer when the conceptual mind takes over and suppresses input from the sensory mind. We become alienated from the real world and get lost in the matrix of a make-believe world. For, what I hope are obvious reasons, living in a make-believe world is confusing, disorienting, alienating and often bizarre. Living in a world seen exclusively through the LH is like living the world of a schizophrenic or someone who has experienced profound damage to the right hemisphere.
Suffice it to say, for now, that the LH perspective, without the moderating effect of the RH perspective, is pathological. It causes all kinds of conflict and confusion and makes us do crazy things. To flourish, we need to restore a collaborative flow between the hemispheres, which means spending much less time caught up in the conceptual mind and spending much more time making use of our sensory mind.
How can we re-balance the influence of our two hemispheres? That is a question that will drive many of my subsequent podcasts.
I suspect that balancing our hemispheres will entail figuring out which mindsets and states of mind that pull us into our conceptual mind, and then learning how to let go of those states. At the same time, we need to figure out which mindsets ground us in our sensory, experiential mind. Then we can learn how to activate those beneficial states, practice them and gradually make them out natural state of being.
If you want a little homework, see if you can recognize the difference between your conceptual mind and your sensory/experiential mind. How much time do you spend being led by your conceptual mind? How are you feeling? When do you feel that your sensory mind is in charge? How does that make you feel?
Until next time. Live long and live well.