Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World

This post builds and expands upon a brief comment I posted below the post remarking on the similarities between Dr. McGilchrist’s take on the divided brain and some elements found in the Seth material. Although Dr. McGilchrist might flinch a bit at having his work compared to that of an “energy personality essence no longer focussed in physical reality”, what they both have to say about the divided brain and its different modes of perception and attention is remarkably similar and very relevant to the central themes of The Chrysalis.

I am well into my initial reading of McGilchrist’s new book The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World , which is quite lengthy — split into two volumes, in fact (much like the divided brain Dr. McGilchrist studies). The work builds upon and expands upon his audacious thesis originally published in The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is itself a treasure trove of insights into what makes us tick as human beings.

As I was reading The Matter With Things, I was reminded of a passage from one of the Seth books entitled The Nature of Personal Reality. The passage was a reference to “senility” and the right hemisphere of the brain, which I quoted in the comment but will also cite here again:

“Many instances of expansion of consciousness, and mental psychic growth, are interpreted by you as senility. No important correlations have been made between the subjective experience of the old, particularly “senile” conditions, with those of other ages involved in expansion of consciousness, whether natural or drug induced.

Any such sensations are immediately repressed by the old for fear that “senility” will be the diagnosis. The experiences, however, affect the right hemisphere of the brain and in such a way that abilities are released in somewhat the same manner as the adolescent’s.

The individual, when it is time then, begins to see beyond temporal life, to open up other dimensions of awareness that in your terms he or she could not afford while involved in the intense physical focus of normal adult life. Unfortunately the personality has no system of beliefs, as a rule, to support such an expansion. The natural therapies, both physical and mental, are denied. Drugs are often used as depressants, clouding the clarity of what seems to be distorted vision. This is one of the most creative, valuable aspects of your lives. Instead the old are made to feel useless in your society. Often of course they share this value judgment, and their experience within your communities has in no way prepared them to face subjective experience.” (pp. 294-295 The Nature of Personal Reality).

That passage, I then realised, is completely comparable to another from an entirely different Seth book entitled The Unknown Reality from which I quoted long ago in a posting entitled “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature“. This quote deals, however, with the transitional phase we find ourselves in presently and the stakes involved. As with the elderly, so too with aged epochs, civilistions, and societies. The dynamics are quite the same, and call to mind Jung’s principle (or Heraclitus’s as the case may be) of “enantiodromia” — reversal of polarity at the extremity.

Ego consciousness must now be familiarized with its roots, or it will turn into something else. You are in a position where your private experience of yourself does not correlate with what you are told by your societies, churches, sciences, archaeologies, or other disciplines. Man’s “unconscious” knowledge is becoming more and more consciously apparent. This will be done under and with the direction of an enlightened and expanding egotistical awareness, that can organize the hereto neglected knowledge–or it will be done at the expense of the reasoning intellect, leading to a rebirth of superstition, chaos, and the unnecessary war between reason and intuitive knowledge.

When, at this point now, of mankind’s development, his emerging unconscious knowledge is denied by his institutions, then it will rise up despite those institutions, and annihilate them. Cult after cult will emerge, each unrestrained by the use of reason, because reason will have denied the existence of rampant unconscious knowledge, disorganized and feeling only its own ancient force.

If this happens, all kinds of old and new religious denominations will war, and all kinds of ideologies surface. This need not take place, for the conscious mind – basically, now —  having learned to focus in physical terms, is meant to expand, to accept unconscious intuitions and knowledge, and to organize these deeply creative principles into cultural patterns…

I am saying that the individual self must become consciously aware of far more reality; that it must allow its recognition of identity to expand so that it includes previously unconscious knowledge. To do this you must understand, again, that man must move beyond the concepts of one god, one self, one body, one world, as these ideas are currently understood. You are now poised, in your terms, upon a threshold from which the race can go many ways. There are species of consciousness. Your species is in a time of change. There are potentials within the body’s mechanisms, in your terms not as yet used. Developed, they can immeasurably enrich the race, and bring it to levels of spiritual and psychic and physical fulfillment. If some changes are not made, the race as such will not endure.

What is meant by “ego consciousness” is, in McGilchrist’s terms, the hyperactivity of left hemisphere of the brain and its particular mode of attention (corresponding, in fact, to William Blake’s deranged Zoa named “Urizen”, and which McGilchrist calls “the Emissary” mode) and which also, by its very hyperactivity, inhibits or represses or usurps the mode of attention of the right hemisphere of the brain, which is more holistic, more realistic, more “global” in its outlook and is very probably that transformative mode of attention that astronauts often experience as “The Overview Effect”, and quite similar to neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor’s own experience following her left-hemisphere stroke.

(For those not yet familiar with either The Overview Effect or with Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “Stroke of Insight”, I’ve linked again to the two relevant short documentaries here. Both, in my view, very strongly buttress McGilchrist’s fundamental thesis about the two modes of attention of the divided brain).

A corresponding problem with the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere mode of attention is its hypertrophy — stuckness, as it were. And another word for that would be “decadence”. This seems likewise clearly related to what Jean Gebser calls “the deficient mode of functioning” of the present “mental-rational consciousness structure”. The Matter With Things is an excellent resource for deepening our understanding of just what Gebser means by the mental-rational consciousness structure functioning in “deficient mode”.

There is, however, a proverbial “silver lining” in this, one attested to by Seth and McGilchrist and which bears on Jung’s insight into enantiodromia. When a consciousness structure enters into its hypertrophy, a compensatory dynamic is invoked, and that is the shift in the locus of consciousness towards the mode of attention of the right hemisphere. This is the very meaning of “transition” in the current context, and in the interim there is confusion, neurosis and even pandaemonium for the reasons given by Seth — there is no present framework for the integration of “rising unconscious knowledge”: that is, the mode of attention of the right hemisphere that has been inhibited and repressed by the left hemisphere — the Emissary’s “usurpation” of the Master, as McGilchrist puts it. But it is the work of people like McGilchrist, Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy, David Bohm, and even William Blake among others to provide such a framework for the restructuration of consciousness. It is an urgent task, which Rosenstock-Huessy referred to as “outrunning the modern mind” in its throes of dissolution and fragmentation — all too apparent today.

It is, nonetheless, a dangerous time. The left-hemisphere is a jealous god, and it would just as soon damn the Earth and everything in it to Hell rather than surrender its hegemony over the psyche. Blake described the problems of the transition very well centuries ago, as did Nietzsche later, and I have certainly witnessed this resentment of the left-hemisphere consciousness myself on social media. This incorrigibility and intransigence of the ego consciousness is also well-covered by McGilchrist, which has made him something of a pessimist, as the subtitle of his book shows — the unmaking of the world.

23 responses to “Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World

  1. InfiniteWarrior says :

    which has made [McGilchrist] something of a pessimist, as the subtitle of his book shows — the unmaking of the world.

    Then, why is he so jovial all the time? I’ve no idea for certain, of course, but could it be that “the unmaking of the world” may very well be a prerequisite for the remaking of the world?

    • Scott Preston says :

      Then I suppose he would have subtitled it as “the remaking of the world” rather than the “unmaking”, although both are implied in the other. But in my communications with him, he seems rather more positive than gloomy (although I don’t think he’s followed up on my suggestion that he look into Gebser — yet, anyway. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has mentioned Gebser to him either).

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Unmaking and remaking; deconstruction and reconstruction; formation and reformation; death and resurrection (or rebirth); transformation…. There are a lot of descriptors in play and, it would seem, translation is going to play a pivotal role in the process.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        We hear a great deal today about Nietzshe’s “revaluation of values;” not as much about what “transvaluation of values” means. Un-s and re-s aside for a moment, its the “trans-” in “transvaluation” that provides us with the most significant clue and, of course, we find the prefix in abundant use today: transpersonal, transcultural, transgenerational, transformational, etc. and, of course, transgenderational, which is generally thought of strictly and exclusively in biological and psychological terms of gender today though we know the word is equally indicative of numerous concepts of the Androgyne to be found in our wisdom traditions.

        A little translation may go a long way here:

        The fulfilment that is being in love with God is not the product of our knowledge and choice. It is God’s gift. Like all being in love, as distinct from particular acts of loving, it is a first principle. So far from resulting from our knowledge and choice, it dismantles and abolishes the horizon within which our knowing and choosing went on, and it sets up a new horizon within which the love of God transvalues our values and the eyes of that love transform our knowing. — Bernard Lonergan

        This is essentially the principle encapsulated in the Hindi greeting, Namaste (the utterance and practice of which has been and is in the process of being banned and unbanned in public schools by a few state legislatures in the US, btw).

        I can’t speak for anyone else, but my spiritual feathers ruffle at the notion of elevating one of the two “hemispheres” over the other; of one colonizing (or having colonized) and attempting to control the other; and agree with McGilchrist (if I am understanding him correctly) that it is the intrinsic and proper balance between them that is of vital importance. (The imbalance between them among facets of thought and action our world today is patently obvious.)

        Not really going anywhere in particular with this. It’s just been far too much on my mind of late. I was pleased to see mention of A.H. Almaas’ ‘The Point of Existence’ appear once again in the pages of The Chrysalis. (Haven’t seen that much since TDAB days.) Another work by Almaas may prove helpful in our contemplations on the subject of “transvaluation of values”: Facets of Unity.

        • AJOwens says :

          @nfiniteWarrior– The notion of elevating one hemisphere above the other bothers me too, but this extends to the idea that one is the Master.

          • InfiniteWarrior says :

            Neither are “Master,” as I see it. The “integrating principle” of which McGilchrist writes and which he is constantly hinting at in his talks is the true “master” as far I’m concerned. We are, in our entirety, expressions of Nature and the Cosmos, not just our “brain hemispheres” or, especially, “ego-selves.” (“Awareness is already integral.”) If others want to believe one mode of human perception or the other is or should be “master” over the other, that’s fine by me, but the sheer anthropocentricity of the present moment is, frankly, getting on my nerves as are the debates between modes of thinking on the subject. Knowing that the “debates” flow from different “modes of perception” is enough to convince me that what they’re really all about is attempting to claim dominance. Er, no thank you.

            Some argue that one is already “dominant” over the other in a civilizational sense. Makes sense, but if the task is considered to effect the inverse, everyone can just count me out. I prefer my “brain hemispheres” properly balanced and “the integrating principle” does a damn fine job of doing that without my interference. The imbalance is only an issue on the societal/civilizational front, afic.

            • AJOwens says :

              Dr. McGilchrist’s books are extremely impressive, but they deserve more of a dialogue than they seem to be getting. Most reviews I’ve seen are full of praise; hardly any of them ask questions. I’m glad to hear from someone else who isn’t completely bowled ove by his thesis.

              I agree with you that there’s something a little but left-brain about McGilchrist’s approach. Lately I’ve written a few blog posts about The Master and His Emissary. (I’m still working my way through the book). You might enjoy them.

            • InfiniteWarrior says :

              I don’t find anything particularly “left-brain” about McGilchrist’s thesis (aside, perhaps, from the analysis of the human condition prerequisite to writing it) and respect it tremendously. What I balk at is the labelling of one hemisphere as “master” and the other as “emissary” when it’s the “partnership” between them he stresses otherwise along with what some have decided to do with it, i.e. use it as weapon in the “culture wars.”

              Thanks for the tip. I’ll be sure to check out your posts.

            • AJOwens says :

              What’s obviously left-brain about it is the aspect of dissecting the functioning brain into two parts, and then trying to fit them together to see how they work. A truly holistic view would place more emphasis on the “betweenness” of their relationship.

              Less obviously, there’s also the quality of egotistic self-absorption, where the left brain wants to talk about how all our problems concern what the left brain does and what the left brain thinks (somewhat self-flagellating, in this instance), and the associated suggestion of independent competition with the right brain.

            • InfiniteWarrior says :

              The subtitle of the book in question itself being “The Making of the Western World,” it’s pretty obvious to me that McGilchrist sought to explain, in the neurological terms with which he’s most familiar, “the decline of the West;” how it is that “left-brain” functionality has come to overshadow and is severely out of balance with “right-brain” functionality in Western institutions while careful to admit that, though different and differently focussed, the brain hemispheres nonetheless work in concert and that mapping various kinds of functionality to different aspects of the human brain is not an exact science. As a metaphor, it works beautifully in a Yin-Yang sort of way and there is plenty of evidence to support the thesis, e.g. the fact that our institutions of higher learning increasingly “select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic” along with the alarming trend we’re seeing among certain scientists to explain (or explain away) human qualities and affinities that simply cannot be explained using the scientific method.

              I’ve been looking forward more to his current book in the hopes that he would touch more upon the “betweenness” he so often describes as “the integrating principle.” He doesn’t know any more than the rest of us “what” that principle is, because it’s not a “what” we can observe and measure with the scientific method, but I’d be interested in his thoughts on the subject nonetheless.

            • Scott says :

              We should get clear about what McGilchrist means by the “Master-Emissary” relationship. The metaphor is taken from Nietzsche, who made that discernment between Self and Ego, or in other places, the “intuitive man” and the “rational man” (in “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”. McGilchrist is also influenced by Einstein, and it was Einstein who insisted that the intellect made a good servant but a poor master. Likewise, the Master-Emisssary relationship is reflected in Blake as “Imagination” and “Reason”, and in Coleridge as “Primary Imagination” and “Secondary Imagination”.

              It would be a mistake, however, to persist in thinking of the Master and Emissary relation in strictly dualistic terms. It is a singular awareness that performs different roles within the physical system. In order to understand what McGilchrist means by Master-Emissary is to understand that the former is concerned with “presence”, while the latter with “re-presentation”.

              Another way that Blake represents the same relationship is his “Fountain-Cistern” metaphor. “The Cistern contains, the Fountain overflows”. The cistern receives the superabundance of the Fountain, and this reflects equally what McGilchrist identifies as the energetic “flow” or “flux” perceptual mode of the Master, and the relative stasis or “fixity” of the left-hemisphere mode.

              Another way of saying this is after Almaas, in terms of “Essential Identity”. The master is the seat of the Essential Identity, but what happens in the Emissary’s “usurpation” is that the Essential Identity collapses into mere self-image and self-representation, and becomes confused with self-image and self-representation, and this is essentially the narcissistic condition.

            • InfiniteWarrior says :

              I kniow what he means by the “Master-Emissary” relationship and still object to his mapping of master and emissary to the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Or are objections not allowed?

            • Scott says :

              “Betweenness” is actually a word and concept that McGilchrist employs quite a lot, especially in more detail in *The Matter of Things*.

            • InfiniteWarrior says :

              The book I’ve been looking forward to. Good to know. I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy just yet.

    • davidm58 says :

      Unmasking the world…remaking the world….or Rethinking the World, ala Peter Pogany. And provides some direction on how “Rethinking” will manifest.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    It’s the right hemisphere mode that is the “trans-” or “meta-” in relation to the left hemisphere mode. McGilchrist does acknowledge that the RH mode is “superior” at some things, but not at others which are the province of the LH.

    Recall that William Blake stated that his “four Zoas” “reside in the Human Brain”, and so his despotic Zoa named “Urizen” — the jealous god — is evidently the very same left hemisphere mode of attention and its deficiencies described by McGilchrist which he calls “the Emissary” and a “usurper” — that is, it also appropriates the truthful and realistic knowledge and insights of the RH mode and distorts or falsifies them in keeping with its belief system and its model of the real. Those are the knowledges that Seth refers to as “unconscious knowledge”.

    So in the “trans-” mode (in relation to the LH mode) that includes not only Nietzsche’s transvaluation, but also Gebser’s “trans-parency”. In Gebser’s terms, then, we come to understand, via McGilchrist, that his “latent” and “manifest” modes of the real are relative to the acitivity of the two modes of attention of the divided brain.

    This is, in large part, what McGilchrist is about. To the mode of attention of the right hemisphere, reality is transparent (therefore “the Master” mode) while it is not so to the left hemisphere involved in “hemineglect” — reality is opaque without acknowledging and integrating the superior insights of the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention. This seems to be largely associated with the Zoa named “Los” in Blake, “The Eternal Prophet” who alone amongst the Zoas recalls their original unity.

    • Scott Preston says :

      While on the subject of Nietzsche and his “transvaluation of values” (*Umwertung aller Werten*), it might be remembered that Nietzsche credited his insights and wisdom to the fact that he could “switch perspectives” — switch between foreground and background effects. From McGilchrist’s neurological approach, we can conclude, or at least suspect, that what Nietzsche means is that he was able to switch between left and right hemisphere modes of attention, and that the mode of attention associated with the right hemisphere (the more holistic, creative and “intuitive” mode) is what informed his views on the “transvaluation of values”.

      In any case, we shouldn’t speak of a “neurological basis” for Gebser or Blake, et al, but “neurological referents”. That would be the superior view. When it comes to “the concretion of the spiritual”, as Gebser calls it, that also applies to the body and the brain, as insisted upon by both Blake and by Seth. Remember the passage in *The Marriage of Heaven and Hell* entitled *The Voice of the Devil*

      “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that calld Body is a portion of Soul discernd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age ”

      So, the body is already an instance of the “concretion of the spiritual”, but only when it becomes transparently so.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Nietzsche credited his insights and wisdom to the fact that he could “switch perspectives” — switch between foreground and background effects.

        As can we all, quite naturally, and do whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. This is not a talent particular to Nietzsche and not something we have to work at, but the unnatural conditioning we undergo from childhood habituates us to “spend more time,” as Bolte-Taylor put it, in the “left-hemipheric” mode of attention as opposed to the right, as I understand it.

        Would you say that what Buddhists call the “ground of Being” (which, of course, goes by a plethora of other names) lies deeper still than these two “modes of perception?”

        • Scott says :

          Actually never heard Buddhists use the phrase “ground of Being”. That seems to be a Western concept. Being has no ground because it is the ground, if you want to put it that way.

          • InfiniteWarrior says :

            God as the ground of being cannot be conceived of. Nirvana also cannot be conceived of. If we are aware when we use the word “nirvana” or the word “God” that we are talking about the ground of being, there is no danger in using these words.

            But if we say, “According to Buddhism, this exists,” or “This does not exist,” it is not Buddhism, because the ideas of being and non-being are extremes that the Buddha transcended. ~ Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh

            Thich Nhat Hanh is very wary of the grave danger of living only with names and concepts of Divinity — as was Eckhart — and he explains why clinging to notions and ideas is so debilitating: It does not take us to the depth of things and into the depths of our experiences. In fact, it keeps us away. ~ Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times by Matthew Fox

            • Scott Preston says :

              Yes. Just as essential identity comes to be tangled up and confused with self-image and self-representation, so Essential Being comes to be entangled with and confused with abstraction, or with the symbolic forms that are only the proverbial “pointers at the moon”, as it were. This is the essential problem of what used to be called idolatry, but is now, in a more secular age, called “narcissism”.

              The problem of our times is simple, really. We’ve lost connection with Essential Being and Essential Identity (as Almaas calls this). This is Gebser’s “distantiation” as loss of “presentiation”, as mentioned before, the meaning of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (which also, it seems, follows the law of the Yugas in his descent into squalor, but also his recovery from squalor).

              But while the problem may appear very simple, the resolution of it doesn’t appear to be so. It takes some hard work to disentangle who and what we essentially are from our delusions, confusions, idols, false beliefs, and so on. It takes a good deal of self-scrutiny that most people avoid like the fires of Hades, for it can be uncomfortable. Which is why it is necessary to cultivate of a mood of non-identification or non-attachment or what science calls “disinterestedness” proper. This is the proper role and place of what we call the “objective attitude” or “perspectivity”. It’s just one phase in the process.

            • Scott Preston says :

              It might also be pointed out that the plurality of crises we are confronted with in Late Modernity are all summarily a crisis of health, and of our understanding of health and of disease — mental, physical, spiritual. The Kaliyuga is, essentially, a condition or state of disease, but also necessary therefore to undergo in order to learn what is true health and well-being. and, of course, sanity.

              So, summarily, these multiple crises are at root one crisis, a crisis of health and of our understanding of health and the healthy, which has been based in faulty belief systems which work only to estrange us further from the true and authentic sources of our being as essential vitality.

              The disintegration of mind, body, soul, and spirit is, of course, the condition of disease. It is experienced as quite traumatic and stressful, but also a necessary precursor to learning its contrary — authentic integration (and I would emphasise the word “authentic” here because a lot of what is being bandied about today as “integration” is just more self-interested nonsense and bullshit and delusive thinking).

              We learn, or we succumb. Simply as that.

          • InfiniteWarrior says :

            I remembered the phrase, “ground of being,” from Hanh’s book, but it is a Western phrase Hanh utilized to get this across. (Doesn’t much matter to me. I like it.) From what I can gather, it originated with Paul Tillich, with whose work I’m not familiar, sorry to say.

            [T]he ground of revelation, for Tillich, is described as the “ground of being manifest in existence” Tillich’s Life and the Development of His Thought

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