McGilchrist: The Divided Brain, II

In the past, I have defended Carlos Castaneda against charges by skeptics that Castaneda was a fraud, and that he had hoaxed the whole matter of his time as “sorcerer’s apprentice” with the Yaqui Indian brujo, don Juan Matus. In some respects that is true. But only to the extent of keeping his agreement with don Juan never to reveal his teacher’s true identity or disclose his location. Those are disguised and fictionalised, as Castaneda himself freely admitted. In other respects, the “improbable” events described by Castaneda in his many books are not fraudulent, as I have argued previously. I will not revisit those arguments here except to say that some aspects of Castaneda’s “improbable” experiences I have experienced myself, and can therefore corroborate his veracity.

If anything, McGilchrist’s summation of present knowledge of neurodynamics in The Master and his Emissary also provides further proof that Castaneda did not perpetrate a hoax, and that the “teachings of don Juan” (the title of the first book of the series Castaneda published) could be said to describe the expert manipulations by don Juan and don Genaro of the two hemispheres of the brain and their different modes of attention. That is to say, the “separate reality” (the title of the second of Castaneda’s books) can easily be seen as the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere of the brain.

I think it’s safe to say equally that don Juan the “teacher”, and don Genaro the “benefactor” were such because of the nature of the divided brain itself, whose distinct tasks it was to safeguard the integrity of the distinct mode of perception of each hemisphere, even if they didn’t actually conceive of it in that way.

Of course, neither Castaneda nor his don Juan described any of this in terms of neurodynamics, but in terms of modes of attention or perception — the “first attention” and “the second attention”, corresponding to what don Juan called “the tonal” on the one hand, and “the nagual” on the other. Here, the tonal or “first attention” refers to the mode of perception of the left-hemisphere of the brain, while the nagual or “second attention” refers to the extraordinary mode of perception of the right-hemisphere. In other words, Castaneda was being inducted into the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere of the brain, which was the domain of the nagual.

(I have reversed the terms “first attention” and “second attention” in the previous post on the divided brain in keeping with McGilchrist’s own view of the primacy of the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere. Don Juan uses “first attention” and “second attention” to describe “ordinary perception” and “extraordinary perception”. And if you had a chance to view the video of Jill Bolte-Taylor’s description of her own experience with this in LittleBigMan’s comment in the last post, you’ll appreciate that these terms are not arbitrary. Not only do the two hemispheres have different modes of perception — radically different — but also different sets of values, as well as moods).

Castaneda’s experience makes perfect sense in terms of McGilchrist’s description of neurodynamics, or even Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience of her devastating stroke. Don Juan essentially disabled or interrupted the left-hemisphere functioning of Castaneda’s brain (called “the tonal“) through various manipulations or “tricks” (including the “power plants”) thereby inducting him into the “awareness of the left side” or “second attention” (ie, the left side is that controlled by the right-hemisphere of the brain) also called “the nagual“. And in the mode of attention of the nagual or right-hemisphere, a man may become a crow (or, in my case, a fish, as I recounted in my “dream of the fish”. And I suppose the fish would now be considered my “totem animal” or “familiar”). It was this mode of perception that is referred to as being “a separate reality”.

McGilchrist doesn’t mention Castaneda at all, of course. But it follows from his own assessment that “the mode of attention” of the right-hemisphere constellates a unique world and reality that is quite different from that constellated by the mode of attention of the left hemisphere. But it is a reality that the left hemisphere finds terrifying — Nietzsche’s Dionysian. (Recall that Heraclitus recognised that Dionysus was also one of the aspects of Hades). This is also connected with something McGilchrist notes about the mood of the right-hemisphere, that it is one of tragedy and pessimism, presumably because it perceives more than the left-hemisphere allows itself to perceive. And, in fact, don Juan insisted that Castaneda keep and polish his “shields” because the shock of the encounter with the nagual could drive the tonal to depression and even suicide. So, I think it was don Juan’s task to keep Castaneda’s tonal intact, while it was actually don Genaro who ushered Castaneda into the mode of perception and the power of the nagual.

(Of course, if you aren’t familiar with Castaneda’s writings, none of this will make much sense).

In quite similar terms, McGilchrist even describes the left-hemisphere as “parasitic” on the right-hemisphere — the “master”. Don Juan described the “mind” in quite the same terms — as a parasite which he called “the foreign installation”. It is not the authentic self. Jill Bolte-Taylor discovered that through an incapacitating stroke that disabled the left-hemisphere of her brain. In Castaneda’s case, don Juan deliberately “blasted” Castaneda’s left-hemisphere mode of attention with the power plants, not because they were necessary, but because Castaneda was a “plugged up fool”. The liver cancer that eventually took Castaneda’s life Castaneda even blamed on the ingestion of the power plants.

For all his life, Castaneda struggled to make sense of what he had undergone as “sorcerer’s apprentice”. Even his very fine and insightful last statement, published as the Preface to the 25th anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan, never made the connection between neurodynamics and the different mode of cognition that was the sorcerer’s way. But it makes perfect sense in relation to McGilchrist’s description of the divided brain.

It comes through more clearly in her book My Stroke of Insight than in the video, but Jill Bolte-Taylor also saw, as Castaneda saw, “energy as it flows in the universe” as the basic reality and human beings as fundamentally energy entities (something of that is made explicit in the video). Somehow, the left-hemisphere of the brain translates this perception of the flow of energy into the perception of solid objects with defined boundaries and definitions. This is not much different from Blake’s “vision” of energy. But Blake lived more or less permanently as a citizen of the “first attention” of the right-hemisphere of the brain. And Nietzsche’s vaunted ability to “switch perspectives” between “background and foreground effects” was almost certainly a statement about his relative dexterity in switching between the right and left hemisphere modes of perception, or, in his terms, the Dionysian and the Apollonian consciousness.

When you come to appreciate Castaneda’s experience in terms of neurodynamics, as described by McGilchrist, it doesn’t seem particularly kooky at all. It’s just the “suchness” of things.

In my next installment on The Master and his Emissary, I’ll want to turn to its relevance for the current rehabilitation of the Hermetic Philosophy (too little discussed by McGilchrist), and its relevance for reinterpreting the works of Blake, Nietzsche, and Gebser, and finally what it all potentially means in terms of the “transhuman” mutation or “integral consciousness”


9 responses to “McGilchrist: The Divided Brain, II”

  1. Mike McDermott says :

    Scott, when you remark that Hermetic philosophy was “too little discussed by McGilchrist” there is a visceral repulsiveness triggered in scientism’s fundamentalists and narcissists to anything they consider “woo-woo”. I venture to suggest that McGilchrist considered it wise not to trigger that Pavlovian response in them any more than necessary.

    I have not read McGilchrist, but I have read reviews which stated that he was too dichotomous in his hemispheric dualism, that the mind is a bit more complex than that. However, that could well be quite beside your point. In that context, I commend to your attention paragraph 29 of Thomas Traherne’s “Centuries of Meditation:

    “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

    There is another work I have been studying over the last couple of days, an essay called “Open Secret Societies, by James Thomson (BV), available at:
    Wherein BV (like me orphaned but with a far sadder life than mine) noted:

    “There is the Open Secret Society of the Poets. These are they who feel that the universe is one mighty harmony of beauty and joy; and who are continually listening to the rhythms and cadences of this eternal music whose orchestra comprises all things from the shells to the stars, all beings from the worm to man, all sounds from the voice of the little bird to the voice of the great ocean; and who are able partially to reproduce these rhythms and cadences in the language of men. In all these imitative songs of theirs is a latent undertone, in which the whole infinite harmony of the whole lies furled; and the fine ears catch this undertone and convey it to the soul, wherein the furled music unfurls to its primordial infinity, expanding with rapturous pulses and agitating with awful thunders this soul which has been skull-bound, so that it is dissolved and borne away beyond consciousness, and becomes as a living wave in a shoreless ocean.”

    He also noted that:

    “Lastly (for this brief essay), there is the Open Secret Society of the Mystics. These are the very flower and crown of the four already touched upon, Saints of Saints, Heroes of Heroes, Philosophers of Philosophers, Poets of Poets; the identity of the masculine ideal of Hero and Philosopher and the feminine ideal of Poet and Saint. Their mysteries have been published to all the world in the choicest visions and actions, thoughts and strophes, of the choicest members of these other fraternities; yet not only do they remain utterly obscure and illegible to the common world of men, they are dark to all of even those fraternities who have not been initiated to the supreme degree.”

    Lastly for me, I don’t know if you have ever read any of the works of Ben Okri. I haven’t, but having listened a couple of nights ago to the program “Ben Okri in conversation”:

    I mean to rectify that. Okri counts Blake amongst his great influencers, and for now I suspect Ben Okri is one whose Master and emissary are whole.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I have not read McGilchrist, but I have read reviews which stated that he was too dichotomous in his hemispheric dualism, that the mind is a bit more complex than that

      That’s partially true, but I would challenge his critics to do better, given the complexities of it. McGilchrist freely admits that he all but ignored, for example, anterior-posterior brain bilateralism in order to focus on hemispheric bilateralism. I’ve already commented on that as a foregiveable shortcoming. He’s also, I think, too much under the spell of Hegel and Hegelian dialectics (he describes Hegel as “the unseen presence” in the book), and it shows in what I earlier described as his unpersuasive treatment of the Protestant Reformation as a “left-hemisphere phenomenon”, which I criticised in my post on “the Imperial Church”. I think that commitment to dialecticism perhaps is a limitation that prevents him from reaching that plateau that Blake described as “fourfold vision”. Nonetheless, I think that, in broader terms, he definitely is on to something, and he has the testimony of Jill Bolte-Taylor to back him up in that respect.

      Although McGilchrist doesn’t spend much time at all with the Hermetic Philosophy, he does acknowledge it’s core principle — coincidentia oppositorum or coniunctio oppositorum, and does spend a good amount of time on what paradox reveals about brain bilateralism, and that is quite convincing. That is to say, acceptance of the paradoxical itself points not to a “synthesis”, but rather an integration. In fact, paradox is, in some ways, a decisive refutation of dialectics, because in paradox the “thesis” and the “antithesis” are actually identical — the old saw of “the same but different” that drives strict logicians into conniptions. I once remarked in The Chrysalis about a logician I had read who expressed bemusement and perplexity about how the “thesis and the antithesis had become one and the same”.

      Well, that’s explicable in terms of what we call “enantiodromia” — reversal at the extremity. At the extremity, thesis and the antithesis become identical. McGilchrist doesn’t address the meaning of enantiodromia.

      Thanks for the link to Ben Okri. I’ll have a listen.

    • Scott Preston says :

      That interview with Ben Okri was quite interesting (good interviewer too). I think I might be interested also in reading some of his work. The first thing that grabbed my attention was the mention of the quylph. The other word for quylph is egregore, and I wrote something about that earlier — a “thought form” — in just the same sense as Okri speaks of the quylph. It apparently is central to Okri’s new book “Age of Magic”. But that was the first time I had heard the word “quylph” for that.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    It’s illuminating to see that you revisit the knowledge Castaneda accounted for in his apprenticeship days with don Juan (i.e. the difference between “the tonal” and “the nagual”) and connect that most wonderful work to McGilchrist’s work.

    Every time you mention the name of one of the most powerful naguals, don Genaro, I remember his demonstration for Castaneda at the waterfall in Mexico, and that, in turn, reminds me of Seth’s remark that our species is not yet aware of the full extent of the abilities of His own physical body.

    In relation to McGilchrist’s work, it seems to me that as the workplace environment is a strong stimulant of the left-brain hyperactivity, there are other activities that stimulate the right-brain hyperactivity and mode of perception.

    It just might be that creative activities of all kind (e.g. doodling, painting, writing, etc.) appear to awaken or “intensify” the level of activity in the right-hemisphere.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Creative activites, even doodling I suppose, don’t come from the left-hemisphere. The left-hemisphere is not the source of the creativity. It records, classifies, arranges, orders, etc. All those things that Seth associates with an “enlightened ego consciousness”, as he put it that is capable of handling the irruption of unconscious knowledge — the intuitive. Clearly, this has something to do with McGilchrist’s brain bilateralism, too.

      This is another set of value debasements: creativity confused with productivity, originality with novelty. It’s one of the reasons, too, I’ve critiqued McGilchrist’s work for associating revolution with the left-hemisphere (especially the Protestant Reformation). I think this confuses issues as well. In his own terms, the right-hemisphere is associated with the perception of the “new”, or is the originary, the creative, so logically also from there comes the impulse for revolution, and not from the left-hemisphere which doesn’t innovate at all. It merely takes the inspiration, utilises it, and then finally exhausts it through abuse.

      I think Gebser is more correct here, that the onset of civilisations or Eras begins with consciousness functioning in “efficient mode” and ends in their decadence when the originating inspirations are finally exhausted — the “deficient” phase. Using McGilchrist’s own metaphors of neurodynamics, we can say it begins as an inspiration from the right-hemisphere, passes over into the left-hemisphere for “processing”, and is finally processed to death, ending as cliche, formula, vain ritual and empty ceremony, dead and deadening form — zombie mode, as it were. The spirit has flown the coop.

      Sometimes doodles may be quite revealing, therefore — something akin to “automatic writing”, the attempt at an unconscious level to “work things out”, to express new patterns, etc. Or, they may just be zombie mode, like nervous tics. Jung, in any case, spent a lot of time investigating doodles as something akin to communications from the unconscious, if we want to put it that way.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        Excellent additional analysis. Thank you!

        As I understand it, most people get into doodling during childhood and adolescence, and/or then again after they retire. So, usually, there’s this gap between the ages of say, 20 and 60 (or whenever one retires), that these kinds of activities (doodling being just one of those) take a backseat and most people forget about them.

        It seems to me, then, while earning a living becomes primary during certain years, the right hemisphere becomes a lot less active – to use McGilchrist’s model of brain activity.

        I can say from my personal experience that my involuntary hiatus and the sudden onset of my lack of Out of Body Experiences (OOBEs) since nearly 2.5 years ago is directly tied to a very substantial increase in my entanglements in the workplace.

        By the way, survey after survey in America, reveals that the retired people are the happiest people in the country. It seems to me that, generally speaking, having the chance to commit to activities that one truly enjoys (a walk in the park, playing an instrument, studying The Chrysalis 🙂 etc.) is perhaps another way to stimulate activity in the right-hemisphere.

        I do recall Seth, at some point, highlighting the importance of even thinking joyful thoughts.

        • Scott Preston says :

          One of the things I appreciate about Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience with her stroke I mentioned also in my “Dream of the Fish”, as you may recall — the sheer immensity and vastness of the awareness that we essentially are — an essentially formless infinity of endless possibilities — and that the fish, the fisherman, and the ego-nature I call “myself” were just tiny fragments of its possibilities. Its very formless vastness is the infinity that we are, essentially, which people all “the abyss”. And it is the abyss in the sense of being unfathomable in its depths. Heraclitus said that same about the Logos (which some have translated as “the soul”)

          “One would never discover the limits of the soul [logos], should one traverse every road, so vast is the measure of it”

          It’s here and now. It’s what we are right here and now. It is, as is said “closer to us than we are to ourselves”, and this is understandable. Just as the very very small is often overlooked, so is this vastness that we are. Our consciousness is so narrowly focussed that we overlook the greater awareness that we are essentially. But that awareness is, as I’ve said, often experienced as abyss of nothingness when perceived from the “point of view” of the left-hemispheric consciousness. This is, I think, why the left-hemisphere inhibits the perceptions of the right-hemisphere. It fears its own infinity as abyss of nothingness.

          In Bolte-Taylor’s experience, her awareness moved completely into the right-hemisphere. Her “point of view” had completely collapses with the incapacitation of the left-hemisphere. With the mode of perception of her right-hemisphere, she knew herself as identical with the cosmos and the cosmic process — no sense of “I am” to distinguish her from it. She was immense, pure energy, and only when she returned to left-hemisphere functioning did she reacquire that sense of “I” as separative being and (very importantly) the sense of her body as a solid object.

          In that sense, Jill Bolte-Taylor’s experience stands as an objection, really, to McGilchrist’s argument that the right-hemisphere is attuned to the “Other” — the Other-Than-Itself. But that’s an interpretation of the left-hemisphere. Even to speak of the “Other” implies an “I am” which is related to the “Other”. In Bolte-Taylor’s experience, though, there was no “Other” because there was no “I am”.

          • LittleBigMan says :

            Wonderful thoughts; especially the last paragraph which is quite enlightening to me, because I didn’t think of Jill Bolte Taylor’s experience as an “objection” to McGilchrist’s work.

            But I do see your point, completely, and I think that assessment is correct in the sense that the right-hemisphere does not seem to derive any portion of its identity from the left-hemisphere.

            The left-hemisphere seems to be tuned to three dimensional physical reality, and that experience, as we know, is a very narrow portion of what ‘the self’ is capable of experiencing.

            On the other hand, the right-hemisphere appears to be tuned to the relationship between ‘the self’ and any reality where things like “time” and “I” as a form of existence would have no meaning.

            It maybe (though a far fetched assumption on my part) that McGilchrist misspoke when he took the right-hemisphere as being attuned to the “Other” as the left-hemisphere.

            We know that mankind is a multi-dimensional being. One question then is whether this multidimensionality has any manifestation in physical terms?

            The structure of the brain might be where we can point to a physical evidence for that manifestation, where the left-hemisphere takes care of the business in the physical reality, and where the right-hemisphere connects the physical self to the rest of its multidimensional existence.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    I think it is aggression to call the left brain as the abode of death. Every organ has it is use. It seems there is a third organ that mediates and settles the final repose, as co-creator to help in this sea of tantalizing uncertainty, that is filled with limitless possibilities that the human can not choose without the assistance of the divine who has put him in the earth as his physical support but alas ungratefully has turned against him, forgetting that he who has fed and is feeding the brain in both his sides with thoughts and ideas that move the human to perceive and act and he who put in him the perception and acting faculties. In the quran we read he who has imbued with the ability to know and the ability to act. The other world as Blake stated is implicit in this world, in another expression my words are implicit in His. The law of continual creation and recreation. We need to be humble in the presence of the divine, who put in us this magnificent ability to perceive and express what we perceive across all these artistic innovations and scientific inventions.

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