Iain McGilchrist’s film “The Divided Brain” was released last week.
The film one half of your brain doesn’t want you to see.
An hour and a quarter of anyone’s time well spent.
[Full disclosure: I have written positively about McGilchrist’s work before, and contributed to crowdfunding of the film project.]
“The halves of our brain have forgotten who’s in charge – neither. The right brain appreciates why it needs to collaborate with the left, but the left has forgotten why it needs the right. And this is a “western” mental illness.”
The story itself is in two parts.
Firstly, the uncontroversial clinical-psychiatric and neurological-scientific fact that our brains have evolved in two distinct hemispheres to give us the ability to manipulate and integrate two distinct views of the world at any one time.
And, secondly, the more speculative but nevertheless convincing aspect that co-evolution of brain and culture has become skewed towards left-brain behaviour dominating to the detriment of our “western” society.
Given the plasticity of our brains, our minds and our culture, the hope and motive is that by better appreciating the latter we can learn to correct the problem. The film starts with some background on McGilchrist’s career in English Literature academia before retraining and practicing in medicine and clinical psychiatry.
Considering the second main theme first, there has been a wealth of literature on differences between western and eastern thought and how the west is in danger of missing a trick. Charles Freeman’s “Closing of the Western Mind” would be the 21st Century archetype (if not the best) and many will know the anti-western-technology beats and spiritual boom of the 2nd half of the 20th Century exemplified by Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “Lila”. But Pirsig himself was reading Northrop, James and Kant and there is a long tradition in analysing the differences since the enlightenment and the rediscovery of eastern philosophies. The blurring of where differences experienced are psychologically subjective and/or objectively real has also infected much woolly thinking into popular understanding of post relativity and quantum theory in the new physics.
Linking the east-west thinking aspect to the left-right brain aspect is of course speculative and based on strong intuitions and much subjective evidence. But after pop-psychology and pop-science led to both halves of the story languishing as toxic topics for serious scientific study, the film pulls together proper research work on both. Early portions of the film address unpicking reality from popular culture.
The comparative Eastern and Western thinking scientific studies of Dr Li Jun Ji in Canada are very striking even though presented very briefly. Like Pirsig, McGilchrist also presents aboriginal-American / first-nation perspectives, in this case in dialogue with Dr Leroy Little Bear of the Blackfoot nation. And of course once we get into spiritual, holistic takes on the greater relational unity of humans in the environment, more science-minded viewers will feel uncomfortable. This is of course part of the point. Many of us have lost the ability to appreciate or find the language to incorporate such thinking into our everyday rationality.
The first premise – understanding the fact, and the reason why, brains have evolved hemispherically in animals and humans – will be much clearer to most of the sceptical scientific viewing audience. As I said, this aspect is scientifically uncontroversial.
Two of the neuro-scientists, Michael Gazzaniga and Onur Güntürkün and neuro-clinician Jürg Kesselring provide a good deal of the evidence supporting the first premise and the fact that it really is uncontroversial even if new to the audience. Again there is an even greater body of work out there on split-brain and asymmetrically damaged brains in humans and animals in formal science and popular science writing. Full marks to McGilchrist and to the writing and editorial team for not including the ubiquitous Phineas Gage case, which has become a meme in its own right, but the likes of Ramchandran and Sacks are recommended reads for the curious who are not yet sure how non-contentious this material is. The former is in fact among the credits. There’s also a large section on the experience of Jill Bolte-Taylor whose TED Talk fame precedes the re-telling within McGilchrist’s story.
An excellent editorial decision, given their scientific day-jobs, that Gazzaniga and Güntürkün are both given space to voice their doubts about the speculative relation between the uncontroversial science and wider human cultural ills. That heavy lifting is left to McGilchrist and his other witnesses. Great contributions on this from John Cleese, Rowan Williams and Jonathan Rowson to keep us connected to wider relevance beyond the drier science. Fascinating that economics is again the field where scientific modelling bumps into its awkward relationship with psychological reality.
A well conceived and executed film, cinematically as well as editorially. The pace works well and it is watchable as a standalone piece of work – even if, as I say, the more orthodox scientific types find themselves increasingly uncomfortable towards the end. Mission accomplished in that case.
And it seems hardly necessary to add that the subject matter content is very important. It may be uncontroversial that there really are left-right brain behaviour differences, but to appreciate that misunderstanding of our response to this could be leading humanity to extinction is as big as it gets.
An hour and a quarter of anyone’s time well spent.