Snowden and McGilchrist


Last couple of days – Sarah Freiesleben – “Shaping Human Centered Progress” – posted a recommendation on LinkedIn for the thinking of Iain McGilchrist (of whom I’m a big fan, as you know) and it drew a lot of flak in reaction to the old left-right-brained-people suggestion (though of course she never actually said that). Dave Snowden (of whom I’m also a big fan since 2003) responded typically robustly against “that left/right brain nonsense – a simplistic dichotomy” – and the dialogue developed to some kind of sensible but disjointed concensus, with people including myself giving opinions.

So, today she posted an update (which also included an implied criticism of Dave’s attitude – and in his inimitable style, he let her have it again!)

Anyway, the valuable content:

Yesterday I wrote a post where I referred to the in-depth work that Dr Iain McGilchrist has done in explaining the various ways in which the brain’s hemispheres process information. I used this reference to make a point about how being able to navigate #complex and #complicated situations is already baked into the #humanexperience, but we seem to be devaluing it.

It attracted a lot of attention while I was out camping and enjoying the wonderful nature of Denmark, and I do not have time to respond to all the comments individually. But I want to take a moment to add some clarity based on the general categories of comments I have read.

Firstly, the modern science around this is not about people being right-brained or left-brained, like we used to think in the 80s. Nor can we categorically say that music, art, or math come from certain halves. That work has been debunked. But we should not mistake the old, now disproven science, with the compelling modern science around (sometimes competing) hemispheric behaviors, and be curious about its implications in relation to understanding and bringing awareness to how we engage in sensemaking.

Next, I wrote a concluding comment about how we need to use both hemispheres at work and some seem to have taken this literally. I want to clarify that leaving one behind is indeed not possible. People are always using their whole brains. But what I wanted to convey with the metaphor is that we value the style of thinking that is associated with the right hemisphere increasingly less in our world and this is a major problem.

The more we glorify quantifying and creating algorithms for everything, the less we seem to be able to find contextual truths that lead to possibilities. And since we are all, always thinking contextually, but becoming less aware of contextual truths existing and having value, we are perhaps unconsciously creating static polarities that eventually serve no real context at all.

Finally, to those who suggest that my post and Iain’s work are creating a dichotomy, I would like to highlight the crucial importance of noticing the differences and similarities between things as a tool to preserve and invite nuance back into situations. Dichotomies are similar but different in that they look at differences with an either/or perspective; nuance generally notices differences and aims to connect on them by noticing “differences that make a difference”. And nuance is of critical importance to evolution, as we often forget that symbiosis is a key part of it.

I hope this has made it more clear. I am always happy to engage in mutual learning in context with people who enjoy constructive dialogue, as time allows. I learn a lot from engaging in the LI community. Your comments and feedback help me know where to take more time to explain and this is a case where much care is clearly required.

(Link to original post.)

My response in support of the original post and the general response:

Fascinating. I’ve written a lot about McGilchrist and as you say, we need to recognise true complexity and be very careful suggesting some “competing” dichotomy when we’re really talking about collaborative interactions (which I guess you already knew – even being careful with the words it’s easy to mislead over the complex subtleties).
My starter for ten –

And Dave’s responses:

Please, not that left/right brain nonsense. McGilchrist says a lot of sensible things but creating a simplistic dichotomy as the explanation doesn’t cut it any more.

(Some things he finds sensible) some of his views on the spatialisation of time, his disputes on free will and some aspects of his views on religion.

(And) no one denies that there are different hemispheres. What is being challenged is the validity of the conclusions that McGilchrist draws from that. That challenge also links with his wider failure to move beyond a cognitive framing.

Reductionism is problematic when people assume that the qualities of the whole are explained by the properties of the parts. There is nothing wrong with breaking things up. My view is that McGilchrist commits the reductionist error and worse he only uses a partial and non contextual account of the parts and further doesn’t take sufficient account of the relationships between those parts and other ‘parts’ and relationships he ignores.

And my response to Dave’s initial position position:

Dave Snowden – Not many things I’d disagree with you on Dave. Obviously, anyone who sees “a simplistic dichotomy” in McGilchrist’s view is in error – that’s debunked old left-right-brained-people bullshit – but surely it’s undeniable that the (divided) brain and its interconnectivity are evolved to be that way? (You make that point in another thread.)

As to what McGilchrist is actually claiming – I’ve already written a lot about both his and Mark Solms’ work – I might pick-up your specific comments in this thread and respond in a separate blog post. (Have you written any critique of McGilchrist elsewhere?)

[He hasn’t – even though I did share a McGilchrist question with him last time out 😉 ]

So this is the start of that piece.

(Basically I think Sarah has it about right and Dave is the kind of influential person we need to get on board with the intended subtle realities here.)


6 thoughts on “Snowden and McGilchrist”

  1. Snowden hasn’t read TMWT – he says he’s ‘read a couple of papers’! So I think we can leave it there. My one comment is that IM isn’t so much talking about different forms of “cognitive processing” – the brain seems more diverse than that – so much as different forms of attention. It’s the emphasis on attention that seems lacking in much of the commentary. I would love to find some decent academic discussion of TMWT, there doesn’t seem to be a lot, perhaps it is too soon.

  2. Some partial quotation there Ian but all good. The wider issue is the cognitive framing of the issue (as I said several times and people ignored) which doesn’t take account of the wider scaffolding of decision making and consciousness into the social abs physical environment. And whether you like it or not it is presented constantly by Ian as a duality. I would normally leave this sort of stuff alone but Sarah chose to link it to my work so I made my position clear.

    Otherwise to Sam: I’ve read Master and Emissary when it came out and I’ve watched and attended several talks as well as reading the papers he broadcast to try and say why he wasn’t advocating what I and others think he is. I also have the latest two online book abs I e dipped in and out of it. I can also give Sam a long list of books about consciousness and decision making I’m pretty sure he hasn’t read which also inform my view.

  3. Hi Sam, Thanks for the comment.
    I see Dave has also responded. (More there.)

    I agree “attention” (and “the sacred”) has become the moral focus (several posts on dialogues with Rowson etc.)

    But the argumentation is about information processing – both cognitive and affective – and how our brain (systems) architecture leads to multiple world views that support different kinds of attention.


  4. Hi Dave, thanks for engaging. The multi-threading nature of LinkedIn dialogues makes it hard to pick-up everything, but always happy to add in anything important I missed, including your comment here.

    Several specifics I do want to respond to Iain’s “duality” here and (eg) his “reductionism” and the “divided brain” itself in your LI comment …
    I do actually believe you’re missing something – or we’re misunderstanding each other.

    I don’t think we need debate who’s read the most books on brains and minds – just that if we are going to be critical, specific references help.

    For Sam’s benefit – Dave is another HTLGI regular, …. and I’ve quoted him quoting Pirsig from ZMM before …. so although his style is “robust”, dialogue is worthwhile – and the only source of progress in my experience 🙂

  5. Having commented on McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary at my own site, I feel compelled to add my own summary of the present controversy (from “The Divided Review, Part III–It Had All Been a Metaphor”):

    “Thus the value of this book is not in what it tells us about brain dysfunctions, or the relationship between our brain hemispheres, but in what it observes about our ways of knowing and their influence on our culture and way of life—in which respect, I must emphasize, it has inestimable value. It is a very important book. Unfortunately, the focus on brain hemispheres and the master-emissary relationship, while it provides a helpful and admittedly intriguing metaphor, dominates the presentation in a way that can distract.”

  6. Hi AJ, dead right.
    That “Master and Emissary” metaphor has outlived its initial usefulness.
    Like all metaphors it has limited value and once dominant / reified as short-hand for McGilchrist – it may be responsible for Dave’s “duality” accusation (?), part of what I’m intending to put in the post.

    Not two different “things” (people / beings) doing the knowing independently, but a dynamic blend of two different (possible) views.

    And yes (two / dynamically integrated) ways of knowing (ways of attending, as Sam put it) – individually AND collectively / socially / culturally.
    Fascinating – your thoughts appreciated as ever.

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