Ways of Attending by Iain McGilchrist - my notes and summary

  • Fanstastic book on the how and why our two hemispheres interact.
  • The right hemisphere is able to experience the whole, each part in its full uniqueness.
  • The left hemisphere sees the parts and puts them into categories. This is essential for manipulation of the world.
  • The left hemisphere is smart and loud. The right hemisphere is wise.


“The right hemisphere is better at making connections between things: it tends to see things whole, whereas the left hemisphere sees the parts.”

“The left hemisphere tends to see things more in the abstract, the right hemisphere sees them more embedded in the real-world context in which they occur. As a corollary, the right hemisphere seems better able to appreciate actually existing things in all their uniqueness, while the left hemisphere schematises and generalises things into categories.”

“There is a mass of evidence that the left hemisphere is better attuned to tools and to whatever is inanimate, mechanical, machine-like, and which it itself has made: such things are understandable in their own terms, because they were put together by it, piece by piece, and they are ideally suited to this kind of understanding. In contrast, the right hemisphere is adapted to dealing with living things, which are flexible, organic, constantly changing, and which it has not made.”

“The right hemisphere alone appears to be able to appreciate the organic wholeness of a flowing structure that changes over time, as in fact all living things are; and, indeed, almost all aspects of the appreciation of time are in the right hemisphere. By contrast, the left hemisphere sees time as a succession of points and sees flow as a succession of static moments,”

“the majority of our emotional life depends on the right hemisphere.”

“Only the right hemisphere has a whole-body image; the left hemisphere sees the body as an assemblage of parts and as if it were an object in space alongside other objects, rather than a mode of existence. For the right hemisphere, we live the body; for the left, we live in it, rather as we drive a car.”

“Deductive reasoning, many kinds of mathematical procedures and problem-solving, and the phenomenon of sudden insight into the nature of a complex construct seem to be underwritten by the right hemisphere – in fact, by areas that cognitive science tells us are also involved in the “processing” of emotion.”

“the left hemisphere is over-optimistic and unrealistically positive in its self-appraisal; it is in denial about its short-comings, unreasonably certain that it understands things of which it has little knowledge, and disinclined to change its mind.”

“the right hemisphere sees more but is far more inclined to self-doubt, is more uncertain of what it knows – and it has no voice, since the motor speech centre (though, importantly, not all of language) lies in the left hemisphere.”

“If all things flow and one can never step into the same river twice – Heraclitus’s phrase is, I believe, a brilliant evocation of the core reality of the right hemisphere’s world – one will always be taken unawares by experience: since nothing is ever being repeated, nothing can ever be known. We have to find a way of fixing it as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow. Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being.”

“In the one, that of the right hemisphere, we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, always unique, beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other, that of the left hemisphere, we “experience” our experience in a special way: a “re-presented” version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power.”

“Above I suggested that we have developed language not for communication, not even for thinking, but to enable a certain type of functional manipulation of the world. Language is like the general’s map at HQ: a representation of the world. It is no longer present, but literally “re-presented” after the fact. What it delivers is a useful fiction.”

“the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other: to whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. It is deeply attracted to, and given life by, the relationship, the betweenness, that exists with this Other. By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful – but also curiously impotent, because it is ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself.”

“Careful analysis of the relationship between speech and gesture shows that both thought and its expression actually originate in the right hemisphere, not in the left.”

“What the left hemisphere offers is, then, a valuable but intermediate process, one of “unpacking” what is there and handing it back to the right hemisphere, where it can once again be integrated into the experiential whole, much as the painstaking fragmentation and analysis of a sonata in practice is reintegrated by the pianist in performance at a level where he or she must no longer be aware of it.”

“That, at any rate, is how the two should work together: the emissary reporting back to the master, who alone can see the broader picture.”

“The left and right hemispheres of the brain play a vital, pivotal role in all this because they mediate and deliver — indeed embody — two discrete and distinct modes of attention.”

“And it has three great advantages. First, it has control of the voice and the means of argument: the three Ls – language, logic and linearity – are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control. It is like being the Berlusconi of the brain: a political heavyweight who has control of the media. Of course we tend to listen more to what it has to say.”

“What would it look like if the left hemisphere came to be the sole purveyor of our reality? First of all, the whole picture would be unattainable: the world would become a heap of bits. Its only meaning would come through its capacity to be used. More narrowly focused attention would lead to an increasing specialisation and technicalising of knowledge. This, in turn, would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in its turn, would seem more “real” than what one might call wisdom, which would seem too nebulous, something never to be grasped. Knowledge that has come through experience, and the practical acquisition of embodied skill, would become suspect, appearing either a threat or simply incomprehensible. It would be replaced by tokens or representations – formal systems, to be evidenced by paper qualifications.”

“It also turned out that the right hemisphere had a capacity the left hemisphere lacked for understanding the implicit, for appreciating uniqueness, for the embodied rather than the purely conceptual, for the ambiguous rather than the certain.”

“The problem is that we generally look at the brain as having “functions”, and if you do that, sure enough, those functions are shared by both hemispheres. But if you look, not at what the brain does, as if it were just a machine, but at how – in the sense of “in what manner” – it does it, as if it were part of a living person, some very important differences start to emerge, and a picture begins to take shape that tells us some astonishing things about ourselves and our world.”

“So I am not going to argue anything as facile as that the left hemisphere is “mistaken” in what it sees or what it values. It is not: but its vision is necessarily limited. The problem comes with its unawareness of that fact.”

“Being able to represent the world artificially – to map it conceptually, substituting tokens for things, like the general’s map at army HQ – enables us to have an overall strategy; and this is what language achieves. But it inhibits us from being there, in the experiential world.”

“So for humans the need to have both ways of understanding the world, and yet keeping them apart, is paramount.”

“What is the left-hemisphere expansion in apes for, then? It has to do with their capacity to form concepts, in order the better to manipulate the world. And so it is in humans, where it is also related to our capacity for language and, literally, to manipulation with the right hand.”

Written on May 23, 2024

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