Gebser and McGilchrist

A brief remark on some striking similarities between Jean Gebser’s history of consciousness structures and Iain McGilchrist’s neurological discoveries.

In the opening chapter entitled “Fundamental Considerations” to his great book The Ever-Present Origin, Jean Gebser provides a succinct description of what he means for a consciousness structure to decay into its “deficient mode” of functioning — (deficient means running a deficit, digging yourself into a deeper hole, and so on — the contrary dynamic being the “effective mode” of functioning. “Fundamental Considerations” is available online and is well worth reading).

“When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the centre or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving centre finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation, while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation, indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient.” (p. 3)

Now, this remark of Gebser’s echoes Nietzsche’s own view that “since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X” and is the issue of his parable of the “madman in the marketplace” from The Gay Science (modeled on the Greek philosopher Diogenes)

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

In effect, what both Gebser and Nietzsche are saying is that the human ego consciousness has become unhinged from its sun, which is the truth of its origin and its being and the source of its own vitality. Uncorrected, it results in dissolution and fragmentation of the ego consciousness at the periphery or outer limits — the consequence that the ancient Greeks referred to as “Nemesis”. (A.H. Almaas, who developed the “Diamond Mind” approach, much like Gebser’s ever-present origin, describes the core vitality as simply “Being” or “primordial awareness”, which Gebser also calls “the Itself”).

Now, this is exactly the situation that McGilchrist is describing in his two books on neurology — The Master and His Emissary and the recently published The Matter With Things. What Jean Gebser calls the “deficient mode” of the mental-rational (or “perspectival”) consciousness structure (or modern mind, it you will) is what McGilchrist refers to as the “hypertrophy” or “hyperactivity” of the mode of attention associated with the left-hemisphere of the brain. This is the condition we describe as “ego-centric” or “egoism” or “narcissism”.

This danger of dissolution and disintegration of the ego consciousness at the outer periphery or limit is, of course, the theme of Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

This is what McGilchrist refers to as “the Unmaking of the World” in the subtitle to The Matter With Things. So we are warned by Nietzsche, by Blake, by Yeats, by Seth, by McGilchrist, by Bohm, by Gebser that unless this unhinged situation of the ego consciousness is corrected, the outcome will be dire indeed, as it was for Narcissus in the myth of Narcissus and Echo.

The first few chapters of The Matter With Things is an eye-popping catalogue of the kinds of pathologies that can arise from the left-hemisphere’s denial, repression, or inhibition of the influence and insights of the brain’s right-hemisphere mode of attention, which has been effectively suppressed to become “the unconscious”, but which McGilchrist sees as being more truthful, more realistic, more honest, more holistic than the unhinged left-hemisphere which, without the guiding inputs of the “intuitive” influence of the mode of attention associated with the right hemisphere, becomes false and tricksy, given to confabulation and bullshit, delusions and self-deception. To quote just one passage in that respect

The left hemisphere is more likely to act on its theory as though it represented reality. A very important aspect of the real world is that in it nothing happens in isolation. Everything exists only in relation to an indescribably rich and complex nexus of other things, some of which modify whatever happens to be the ‘target’ of our attention by their very presence. Equally they will be changed by our intervention and, in turn, will change the nature and direction of the intervention itself.  In other words there is never a truth without a context with which it interacts: there is a context for everything in the real world. In the theory that gets left out. 
Part of the problem is the left hemisphere’s reluctance to confess when it is nonplussed. Its self-belief is a problem: it believes its own propaganda. It often does the ‘smart’ thing – which is, in actuality, not as smart as it looks. As we know it hates uncertainty; and according to Gazzaniga’s research team, ‘the left hemisphere tends to create inferences and explanations to resolve uncertainty’. Meanwhile, as they put it, ‘unlike the left hemisphere, the right hemisphere, in our view, places a premium on the truth.’

What Gebser calls “waring” is McGilchrist’s “mode of attention”. And what Gebser calls “verition” — the perception of the world as truth by virtue of “diaphaneity” or “transparency” — is what McGilchrist identifies with the mode of attention of the right hemisphere of the brain, and for this reason calls it the “Master” mode. Gebser’s phenomenology of consciousness, as presented in The Ever-Present Origin, is powerfully corroborated by McGilchrist’s neuroscientific discoveries.

And that, for me, is the great value of studying McGilchrist — the insights he provides also into Gebser’s history of consciousness — that makes the time and effort quite worthwhile. Gebser’s own distinction between the Whole and the Totality also reflects McGilcrhist’s findings of how the two modes attention of the divided brain approach reality. The right hemisphere perceives reality whole, while the left-hemisphere sees it as an assemblage of parts or things in aggregation — “The 10,000 Things”, as th Taoists call it, which they contrast with the Oneness of the Tao.

So, how do we correct for this very dangerous condition of the hypertrophy, indeed despotism, of the mode of attention deployed by the left-hemisphere? McGilchrist seems rather pessimistic about our chances of stepping back from the brink, much as Gebser also anticipated a “global catastrophe”, although McGilchrist does seem at least a little encouraged by things like meditation and “mindfulness” practice, and there are certainly signs of a spontaneous corrective emerging to this hypertrophy of the ego consciousness. As Heinrich Heine well put it, “where the peril is greatest, there lies the saving power also”.

A good thing to keep in mind.

But it you do have the sense that “the world is going to hell in a handcart”, well, at least you know why now — call it what you will: narcissism, ego-centrism, the hypertrophy/hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain, or its “usurpation” of the entire psychic ecology, as it were that denies, inhibits or represses any moderating influence, insight, or even truth that may emerge from the right-hemisphere mode of attention.

One of the most revealing issues in that regard is the problem of “symbolic belief”, where the left-hemisphere (ego consciousness) clings and cleaves stubbornly to beliefs that are otherwise known to be untrue in its “heart of hearts” (another way of speaking of the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention). An impressive example of this problem of “symbolic belief” was once published in The Guardian — impressive evidence for McGilchrist’s thesis.


34 responses to “Gebser and McGilchrist”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    I should mention also to forestall any misunderstandings, that McGilchrit probably sees the brain as an organ of consciousness, and not vice versa — consciousness as an organ of the brain. Being a good scientist he doesn’t want to go beyond the evidence. But I think his preference is to view the brain as an organ of consciousness. The brain acts like a focus for consciousness.

  2. Antonio Dias says :

    “(ego consciousness) clings and cleaves stubbornly to beliefs that are otherwise known to be untrue in its ‘heart of hearts'”

    This for me is the defining point in Fascism. It is the aggregation of lost souls around this horrible affirmation, “Together we will reject what is.”

    The Lie isn’t peripheral. It is central to what Fascism is.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Seems quite true, Antonio. When I was studying Nazi propaganda, I was struck by how many believed it although they knew it was untrue. They believed it because it seemed to make their drab lives more exciting and dramatic, that they were important actors in a great cosmic struggle.

      The thing that the Nazis valued (and rewarded) most in their followers was fanaticism. To be “fanatisch” was high praise indeed, and its easy to link that to McGilchrist’s “hypertrophy” or “hyperactivity” of the brain’s left-hemisphere.

  3. Scott Preston says :

    Perhaps the most impressive thing I’ve gleaned from McGilchrist’s book so far, as bears on Gebser’s work, is deeper appreciation for why Gebser made a distinction between “Whole” and “Totality”, suspecting that “total” was related to the German word “tot” for “dead”, whereas “whole” points in the antithetical direction to “dead”. Given McGilchrist’s findings in neurology, it’s easy to see now why Gebser felt he had to make that distinction.

    It means, too, that Gebser had access to both modes of attention of the divided brain, and that this, too, informs his interests in “integral consciousness”, so McGilchrist’s work really does illuminate Gebsers own “fundamental considerations”.

  4. InfiniteWarrior says :

    “Looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking for dance in the legs.” ~ Alva Noe

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      “Looking for consciousness in the brain is like looking inside a radio for the announcer.” – Nassim Haramein

    • Scott Preston says :

      True enough, although even Seth notes that some physiological changes must now be made for consciousness to function effectively — “mutations” in other words. This physiological side of the matter is not something Gebser deals with much in his own theory of “mutations”, which is understandable given his background. It wasn’t in neurology or physiology.

      McGilchrist is certainly no reductionist. His (very lengthy) introduction to *The Matter With Things* goes to great lengths to repudiate reductionism as deficient. In fact, reductionism (and fundamentalism) are LH phenomena and very much pertain to the issue of the “deficient mode” of functioning of the mental-rational consciousness, which is largely the province of the LH mode of attention.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        McGilchrist is certainly no reductionist. His (very lengthy) introduction to *The Matter With Things* goes to great lengths to repudiate reductionism as deficient.

        Certainly not and indeed. Most involved in conversations about ‘the hard problem,’ otoh, are.

  5. lyleaolson says :

    #1 teacher said “All of the body is in the brain, but not all of the brain is in the body.” Unfortunately, syllogisms are not proofs but illustrations of a point to be made. Few neurologists agree with this one but McGilchrist probably would.

  6. Scott Preston says :

    Interesting article on lucid dreaming, which is quite an accomplishment if you can achieve it bringing lots of other benefits. You might recall that Castaneda’s very first task as the “sorcerer’s apprentice” was to master lucid dreaming. He was instructed to find his hands in his dreaming. It was a key and major step in his training when he finally did.

    I’m still a novice at this myself, but I really understand its value.

  7. Scott Preston says :

    It seems, thanks to McGilchrist, that we have a working definition of the word “stupidity”.

    There’s an extremely interesting phenomenon in neuroscience by the name “hemineglect” (hemi-neglect). It pertains to a lack of integration or cooperation between the modes of attention of the two hemispheres of the brain. One will neglect or totally inhibit the other, so that they do not function integrally. Thus the hypertrophy or hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere also corresponds with hemineglect of the influence and insights of the right hemisphere, and that, in McGilchrist’s terms, leads to the “unmaking of the world”.

    Bohm made a very similar argument between “memory” and “intelligence”, the latter being the insightful mode and the former being merely associative thinking mode without insight — formulaic and procedural.

    So we can say with some confidence, I think, that stupidity arises from this problem of hemineglect.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Just following up on this comment with a passage I just came across in McGilchrist’s book, which seems to emphasise this:

      “What has been happening to g, our intelligent capacity to make sense of the world? I will argue in this chapter that it is in decline because we are increasingly wearing what James Flynn, one of the most famous living intelligence researchers, calls ‘scientific spectacles’. What this amounts to is that the right hemisphere understanding is being ‘elbowed’ out by the left hemisphere’s insistence that we see the world *its way*: even though this way is less intelligent. ” (p. 377)

      Basically, the left hemisphere declares “my way or the highway”, and becomes stupid.

    • steve says :

      As a child, I was taught in school that the brain produces consciousness. Steiner offers another teaching, that behind or beneath neural tissue there is something to us not created in the cranium. As we have seen, this is the etheric body of formative forces, that which is not produced by the brain but in fact produces the brain. The brain’s mortal perception of external space and of the passage of clock-time are imaginations originating in the etheric body. If ordinary consciousness turns inward to contemplate its own limits, it finds there a passageway to the ethereal. This door is the Imagination, the first stage in the development of the organ of spirit. Imagination is akin to seeing the outside, the surface, of inner spiritual realities. Further development is needed to penetrate to the core. Seeing the reflected image in the still water at the base of the soul, one then hears the voice of what speaks from within it. This is the stage of Inspiration. We not only see the light of the Word, but hear it in our own heart. We are warmed by Its Love. Finally, in the stage of Intuition, the organ of spiritual perception/cognition is complete. We are born through the water of the soul into spirit. We become one with the Word.


  8. Scott Preston says :

    An interesting remark by McGilchrist

    “it is highly characteristic of individuals with right, but not left, hemisphere lesions grossly to overestimate their capacity in relation to the task”

    Does that not suggest the problem of the “Dunning-Kruger Effect”? Not that it is caused by right-hemisphere damage altogether, but also related to the problem of “hemineglect” and the hypertrophy of the left-hemisphere mode of attention.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Another, related issue. Carl Jung once stated “we are no longer content to believe, we want to know”. That refers to the especial provinces of the left hemisphere and right-hemisphere respectively, in McGilchrist’s terms. The right-hemisphere mode of attention doesn’t have to believe. It’s perceiving is its knowing. It’s the left-hemisphere that interprets that as its “intuition”

  9. TheOakofNormal says :

    McGilChrist writes, “For Jung, the unconscious is the residue of unconquered nature in us, just as it is also the matrix of our unborn future.”

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      Missing mikemcd 😥

    • Scott Preston says :

      That’s another illuminating insight by way of McGilchrist. Mumford’s “Megamachine” (akin to Blake’s “Urizen”) would seem to have its roots in the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere mode of attention and the inhibition or impairment of the mode of attention of the right hemisphere. McGilchrist notes, also (but without reference to Mumford) that contemporary culture and society has a lot of characteristics associated with schizophrenia and autism — an imbalance between left and right hemisphere modes of attention.

  10. Scott Preston says :

    Nietzsche’s distinction between Apollonian and Dionysian modes of consciousness (and between the “rational” and “intuitive”) seems to find its neurological correlates in McGilchrist’s thesis about the divided brain. That’s valuable to appreciate in order to come to a more faithful understanding of Nietzsche’s overall philosophy (plus his further distinction between the “Self” and the “Ego” natures).

  11. Scott Preston says :

    If you read Einstein’s quotes in light of Iain McGilchrist’s findings in neurology, they become even more brilliant and provide insight into the source of Einstein’s particular genius — that he relied more on “the Master” mode of attention rather than the “Emissary” mode, in McGilchrist’s terms. That even reflects Einstein’s noted remark that intellect makes a good servant but a poor master, and (relatedly) the imagination is more to be valued than knowledge.

  12. TheOakofNormal says :

    As I steadily make my way through McGilchrist’s book, I keep thinking to myself this is what is going on in the current political landscape, the human brain at war with itself. Both sides are certainly in their deficient modes, but what they initially were supposed to be and at their best at times (rarely), it’s not hard to see the Left as the right brain and Right as the left brain. The book is mostly a take down of the ladder, as Scott has mentioned, but when functioning correctly they are both necessary and one can only wonder when thinking about these ideas how in the world to get the human brain functioning properly again at large. Certainly Evolution didn’t just hit a “dead end”?!

    • Scott Preston says :

      McGilchrist’s comparison of the shared characteristics of Late Modern Society and schizophrenia seems sound, although I think he might overwork that comparison at times. Well, we’ve always suspected that it was a “Mad, Mad World”, but now I think we know why and how it is so. — basically the problem of “hemineglect”.

      In reflecting on the brain and consciousness that is functioning optimally (or “effectively” as Gebser would put it) the image of a Lorenz Attractor came to mind. Whether or not there’s a connection between optimum brain functioning and the Attractor, it is a good symbol for it.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I find it helpful to reflect on it in terms of “the global brain” attempting to bring its Ajna into balance. No “dead end” is necessarily implied. I just hope we don’t get stuck there. While we are there, the list of applicable metaphors ranges far beyond “left” and “right” hemispheres — yin and yang, masculine and feminine, and the list goes on and on. It’s all a bit too dualistic from my perspective, but perhaps necessarily so for the time being.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Duality is inherent in things. It’s just not the finality. But without that duality, there would be no paradox, which points to the deeper unity within the duality or the plurality. Even Buddhism recognises this, with its discernment between “Ultimate Truth” and “Relative Truth” — a duality, but yet a paradox. A certain tension of the contraries is necessary for anything to be and to exist at all, a reality also recognised by Blake.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      I kept expecting someone to pounce on McGilchrist’s insights and run with idea that they justify the war cry, “tear down the patriarchy!” I’m sure someone has, but Anja Beerepoot (for one) writes in more holistic terms of “balanced feminism.”

      Wholeness, an inner partnership, is possible when human qualities, now usually designated as masculine or feminine, are seen as part of the spectrum for everyone. In the male world, intellectual development (rational thinking, data-based information, objectivity, the realm of the mind) is fostered and rewarded; emotional development (feeling, intuition, aesthetic appreciation, subjectivity, the real of the heart), usually not. When both are important, both sides of the personality develop and both hemispheres of the brain are used.

    • davidm58 says :

      Yes, and I’m guessing most of us reading this are likely to be more left of center, politically. So it’s easier for us to see how the Right is the left brain in the current political landscape. But as you say, “both sides are certainly in their deficient modes.”

      So, how can we take this info and introspect into our own deficiency? Edgar Morin was able to do this.

      “Drake (2002) writes that Morin was ‘one of the few PCF (French Communist Party) intellectuals who refused to blindly follow the Party line’ (p. 70) Exploring such phenomena as self-deception, cognitive dissonance, groupthink, and authoritarian/totalitarian thinking and behavior in himself and in “the party,” we find another theme that will run through all of Morin’s future work. In his 7 Complex Lessons in Education for the Future (Morin, 2001), a document Morin wrote at the request of UNESCO, the first lesson is about self-deception and combating “error and illusion.” How is it that we let ourselves literally become possessed by ideas, by the party, by our “faith,” by our “cause,” even by what we believe to be “science?”

      …We normally assume that we have ideas; however, it became clear to Morin that ideas can also have us – literally possess us. Human beings can literally be possessed by ideologies and belief systems, whether on the left or the right, whether in science or religion. Henceforth, Morin’s effort will be to develop a form of thinking – and of being in the world – that is always self-reflective and self-critical, always open and creative, always eager to challenge the fundamental assumptions underlying a system of thought.”

      – Alfonso Montouri, Foreword to Edgar Morin’s book “On Complexity.”

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        We were conversing a while back about how it is that “original” thoughts occur to us whereas unoriginal(?) thoughts are the kinds of thoughts we just kind of reach into our conditional baggage and pull out when the need arises.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        the Right is the left brain

        That’s a notion that I tend to dismiss. Authoritarianism is obviously not the exclusive province of the so-called “political right.”

        It may be an imperfect map, but the “political compass” nonetheless remains useful as a referent, imho.

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