Consciousness Creates Form: Specimen and Species

I once read (and I can’t recall where) of the unusual experience of a biologist — Joseph Priestley, if I recall correctly — who was once observing a flock of birds. At some point, he later recounted, he saw the flock of birds as a singular fluxing energy field. I suppose you could call it his Castaneda moment — the culminating moment in his apprenticeship when he finally saw “energy as it flows in the universe”. Specimen and species disappeared and what he saw that he thought was a flock of birds was a singular field of energy in constant metamorphosis. In other words, pretty much the same description given by the neurologist Jill Bolte-Taylor of her own experience following the incapacitation of the left-hemisphere of her brain due to stroke.

Given McGilchrist’s research on the divided brain, what we might assume from this is that there was a temporary lacuna or hiccough in the function of the left-hemisphere of Priestley’s brain that, for a moment, allowed him to perceive using the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere of the brain. And what Priestley saw there was that species and specimen were themselves in-formed by something quite unformed or formless in itself — the constant metamorphosis and flux of energy that Bolte-Taylor called “the life force power of the universe”.

What I love about McGilchrist’s book The Master and his Emissary is that it turns all conventional thinking about neurodynamics and consciousness completely on its head. In that sense, it’s truly revolutionary. Conventional neurodynamics over-valuates the functions of the brain’s left-hemisphere as the “superior” function and the right-hemisphere’s contribution as the inferior one. McGilchrist reverses this thinking completely and with this one manoeuvre has demonstrated the the entire edifice and modern thought is a house of cards that has managed to invert the actual reality. The emperor, indeed, has no clothes.

It’s not consciousness that is “the hard problem”, McGilchrist insists. It is matter and materiality that is “the hard problem” — the mystery of materiality. The question really is, what does it mean to be physical? With that, McGilchrist has completely turned the tables on materialism, the atomistic approach, and the Mechanical Philosophy and has done so not as a matter of mere speculative philosophy and conjecture, but because the evidence from neurodynamics suggests that the conventional logic and received wisdom has everything upside-down, inside-out, and topsy-turvey. Even in contemporary physics, “matter”, solidity, and physicality have become the real mystery, as reflected in physicist Paul Davies’ book The Matter Myth. Most of the conventional thinking, McGilchrist insists, is at least a hundred years out of date and is in deep contradiction with the discoveries in neurodynamics, too. And that includes also evolutionary theory. Much of the life and social sciences are just whipping dead horses and fighting what are already lost causes.

The fundamental thesis of McGilchrist’s book and the issue of the “divided brain” is that the mode of attention determines the mode of being. “You find what you expect to find” is McGilchrist’s summary conclusion about the contrasting ways in which the left- and right-brain hemispheres perceive reality. This is what is called “intentionality” of consciousness, or of the principle that “consciousness creates form” or engenders form, and not vice versa. The act of perception is also an act of creation. Consciousness intends the reality it perceives.

The right-hemisphere’s mode of awareness perceives reality as the “quantum flux” — as a field of energy. It does not know space as extension or distance nor time as duration, which accounts for our intuitions about infinity and eternity or timelessness. From this field perception of the right-hemisphere, the left-hemisphere’s mode of attention selects certain elements for special attention (specialisation), according to its predilections or “interests” and these become the intentional elements of its world. The act of seeing, and of looking in a particular way or direction, is an act of selection. And how we choose to look at things — the mode and manner of that looking — is elective.

That is, surprisingly, already encoded in our language. The words “species” and “specimen” mean “appearance” or “form”, and both come from the word specere — to look or see. So, words like spectacles, speculate, special, species, specimen, specification, or expectation form of field of relations through the act of “looking” or “seeing”. In that sense, hindsight, foresight, insight or expectation (which really translates as “ex-sight” or “outlook”) by the simply act of looking intend those things for which they look, respectively, backwards, forwards, inwards or outwards, and thus form the matrix of space and time as a fourfold structure of past and future times, subjective and objective spaces. This is the function of the left-hemisphere, and which it encodes and formalises in the form of grammar. Grammar is a prescription for selecting the elements from the quantum flux for especial attention and actualisation, which become the elements of our world, according to something we call “interests”. But the root of grammar lies in the right-hemisphere of the brain and its mode of attention, for which reason we can appreciate Yogananda’s statement, too, in Autobiography of a Yogi that to arrive at the root of speech is the same as “enlightenment”. Grammar provides the pattern for translating the flux of energy into the pattern and the elements of physical reality.

This is, basically, Rosenstock-Huessy’s insight into the meaning of grammar and the function of grammar. Grammar is the matrix. This belongs also to Gebser’s notion of grammar as “mirror” and as symbolic form as Der grammatische Spiegel — the mirror of grammar.

As McGilchrist notes, categorisation, systematisation, labelling, arranging and distributing, picking and choosing, manipulating concepts and so on is the predilection of the left-hemisphere of the brain. Grammar is the prescription for that proper arrangement and distribution of the elements within the temporal and spatial matrix or framework. In that sense, it can be seen that Rosenstock-Huessy’s “metanomics“, as a becoming-conscious-of-grammar and of the roots of grammar, shifts the locus of attention to the source and root of grammar itself — in the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention. The “meta-” prefix is almost always a sure sign we are dealing with an influence that comes from the intuitions of the right-hemisphere’s awareness.

The mode of attention of the left-hemisphere, its outlook, is largely perspectivising — the elements of the “ratio” that informs its “rationality” are spatially oriented in terms of length, width, depth — a proportionality or ratio of triune spaces geometrically arranged in and as a “point-of-view”. This perspectivism determines its outlook and the foreground selection and arrangements of the elements of its world — the “text” as it were. The right-hemisphere’s mode of perception doesn’t have this “point-of-view”. What it does is the “overview”. It supplies the overall context for the “point-of-view”. So, they are somewhat opposed in their values and modes of attention, albeit also complementary in the same way. Formations like “specimen” and “species”, “public” and “private”, “collective” and “individual” correspond to context and text, or overview and point-of-view, and so language encodes in this way the influence of the two different modes of perception of the brain hemispheres.

So, you can conclude from this that something is dreadfully wrong with the functioning of consciousness when species and specimen, public and private, the collective and the individual, or context and text, or background and foreground are placed in radical opposition to one another. This is, in effect, what Gebser means by deficient perspectivisation, or “the mental-rational consciousness structure now functioning in deficient mode” — the problem of dualism. This is the “crisis of our age”, and McGilchrist thinks so too — divided brain, divided world. The crisis, McGilchrist believes, has been brought about by the left-hemisphere’s total inhibition of the perceptions of the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention and its own characteristic mode of being. Based upon McGilchrist’s interpretation of neurodynamics, I think it’s relatively easy to see that what Gebser intends by the words “aperspectival” or “arational” means the opening of the left-hemisphere to the intuitions and perceptions of the right-hemisphere’s mode of perception and mode of being. (And I do hope Mr. McGilchrist takes up my recommendation to look into Gebser because McGilchrist supplies very convincing empirical evidence from brain research for Gebser’s cultural philosophy).

Consciousness creates form. That’s the ultimate conclusion of both McGilchrist and Gebser. The kind of attention we bring to the world is the kind of world we will have. Or, to put that another way, the mode and manner of our attention will be the mode and manner of our being. And I think it can be seen immediately that the old philosophical and social conflict between Being and Having has very much to do with the two different modes of attention of the divided brain. It is this division that has now become unsustainable. The only question for me, now, is really how much further this division can go before it ends in complete self-negation and self-annihilation — Dr. Jekyll’s “final solution” to his own divided mind.


7 responses to “Consciousness Creates Form: Specimen and Species”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I’m not going to be shy about stating my belief that what McGilchrist has effected is a Copernican Revolution in terms of human self-understanding, and all the implications that follow from that. I don’t think that this is exaggeration or hype, either. Others may have had similar insights, but to have them verified empircally — that is, I think, a real game-changer.

    The Master and his Emissary proves a bit of a conundrum, though. To read and actually understand the book requires some lateral shifting towards that mode of attention that McGilchrist describes as the predilection of the right-hemisphere of the brain. If someone can’t make that lateral shift, the book will be unintelligible — “stuff and nonsense”. And I’m sure there are folks-aplenty who can’t make that shift, who can’t switch “foreground and background perspectives”, as Nietzsche referred to it. That might prove of bit of a problem, but it’s also not the first time in history that an older structure of consciousness was unable to understand a newer structure of consciousness.

    And it’s quite evident to me that Gebser, McGilchrist, Rosenstock, and Thomas Berry are representatives of the newer structure of consciousness.

  2. davidm58 says :

    Scott wrote: “Consciousness creates form. That’s the ultimate conclusion of both McGilchrist and Gebser. The kind of attention we bring to the world is the kind of world we will have. Or, to put that another way, the mode and manner of our attention will be the mode and manner of our being.”

    Jean Gebser: “The adage that ‘how we shout into the woods is how the echo will sound’ is undoubtedly accurate — and the woods are the world“
    – The Ever-Present Origin, p. 141

  3. abdulmonem says :

    We echo our shout is undoubtedly accurate. This is an old adage that has been vibrating across the ages. Ibn arabi centuries ago reached the same conclusion that god needs form to express his manifestations, that is, he needs the human to know him and to pass through the tunnels of the night of the soul until he reaches the only truth, the oneness of consciousness that is being grasped slowly but surely as the time passes. As Mr Berry said, it is not a new consciousness but a different one more scientifically grounded and more culturally unified thus eliminating all types of fragmentation and differences.The past movement of consciousness is from the above to the below, the present is from the below to the above and that is the original purpose of giving the human that consciousness, that is not to remain with the few but to be shared by the large. In the old time god is used to contact certain people to deliver his message, in our time we have to work to contact Him.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    I like to add, to move from the enclosed temples,irrespective of their names, to the open space of our earth which is filled with all creative signs that are clearly pointing to the One. It is always the road of the made,when fully grasped and appreciated that lead to the maker.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Oddly enough, I think Dr. McGilchrist would agree with you completely, only he’ld put it within the framework of neurodynamics and in terms of the different ways the two cognitive functions of the divided brain bring about our perception of things. The left-hemisphere mode of perception is fascinated with what it itself has made (realm of “facticity”) while the other mode of attention, the predilection of the right-hemisphere, is attuned to “the Other”. McGilchrist uses that capitalised “Other” quite a bit — the “other-than-itself”.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    In today’s Guardian there is a review of the book Cure by a doctor which takes on the question of the placebo effect and the nocebo effect the relation between consciousness and the experience of well-being or illness. (Nocebo effect isn’t mentioned by name, but it’s the subject). Placebo and nocebo effect are, basically, other ways of saying “consciousness creates form” whether that form is the sense of well-being or the sense of pain.

    There’s no great insight into these matters of well-being and pain expressed in the review (maybe the book is different) but it does reflect something of a critique of the approach of conventional medicine to the issue of pain and well-being and begins to address directly the role of consciousness in the perception of well-being and pain as intentional experiences of consciousness. There’s a lot more research being conducted these days (still not enough perhaps?) on placebo and nocebo effects.

    Oddly, these issues aren’t directly raised by McGilchrist in his book The Master and his Emissary. If the mode of attention we bring to the world also is the mode of being in the world, you would think that placebo and nocebo effect would be a matter of great interest — perhaps even the very crux of the issue of this intentionality of consciousness.

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