On 25th-27th October, with Maria Ana Neves we will be a part of a team of co-creators who help to make and open The Thinking Hotel in a beautiful gallery space in Stoke Newington, and this has stimulated me to think about the nature and breadth and range of what thinking is, could be, should try to be…
I will publish details and how to make a reservation at The Thinking Hotel once we know them.
For now, I hope these articles provide some nourishment to your own thinking this week…
by KELTON REID
You may know that we often include articles from Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, and so we were very happy to find this recent interview with this “reader who writes”…
If you aren’t familiar with the writing of Maria Popova, prolific author of the “discovery engine for interestingness” known as Brain Pickings, you’ve been missing out on some of the most fascinating and heady publishing on the web.
Here are some of the things she said about thinking, learning and creativity in this interview:
I’m not an expert and I aspire never to be one. As Frank Lloyd Wright rightly put it, “An expert is a man who has stopped thinking because ‘he knows.’” Brain Pickings began as my record of what I was learning, and it remains a record of what I continue to learn – the writing is just the vehicle for recording, for making sense.
That said, one thing I’ve honed over the years – in part by countless hours of reading and in part because I suspect it’s how my brain is wired – is drawing connections between things, often things not immediately or obviously related, spanning different disciplines and time periods. I wouldn’t call that “expertise” so much as obsession – it’s something that gives me enormous joy and stimulation, so I do it a great deal, but I don’t know if that constitutes expertise.
…Because Brain Pickings is simply a record of my own curiosity, of my personal journey into what matters in the world and why, it’s hard to quantify how much of my life is “research” – in fact, I feel like all of it is.
…we tend to conflate “research” with search, which is always driven by looking for something you already know you’re interested in; but I think the richest “research” is driven by discovery, that intersection of curiosity and serendipity that lets you expand your intellectual and creative comfort zone beyond what you already knew you were looking for.
…It’s hard to retreat into a quiet corner of your own mind when you feel demanded of. So I tend to write later in the day now, often well into the night, when email is quiet. The dark, too, is somehow grounding – I’ve always found lucubrating strangely meditative, like a bubble of light that envelops you and silences the rest of the world.
[Creativity is] the ability to connect the seemingly unconnected and meld existing knowledge into new insight about some element of how the world works. That’s practical creativity. Then there’s moral creativity: To apply that skill towards some kind of wisdom on how the world ought to work.
What makes a writer great?
The same thing that makes a human great: Curiosity without ego, and generosity of spirit. No amount of talent is worth anything without kindness.
…There’s nothing like being tossed into necessity to help you figure out who you are and what matters most in life – necessity may be the mother of invention, but it’s even more so the fairy godmother of self-invention.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
Not having relinquished the hope that happiness is possible. Waking up excited to do what I do. Going to bed satisfied with what I have done.
What’s your biggest aggravation at the moment…?
We’ve created a culture that fetishises the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.
Our presentism bias – anchored in the belief that if it isn’t at the top of Google, it doesn’t matter, and if it isn’t Googleable at all, it doesn’t exist – perpetuates our arrogance that no one has ever grappled with the issues we’re grappling with. Which of course is tragically untrue.
Can you see both the older woman looking down and the younger woman looking to left in this picture?
Robert Kegan’s theory of adult meaning-making has influenced theory and practice internationally across multiple disciplines. In a special RSA event, he considers: is it really possible to grow beyond the psychological independence of the “self-authoring mind,” so often seen as the zenith of adult development?
What does it take to think and act in an intelligent way? Many of us would say it’s simply a matter of raw brainpower…
But there’s much more to the story. Other factors—like motivation, effective learning and problem-solving strategies, and a well-designed physical and psychological environment in which to do our thinking—also matter, a lot. As does interpersonal awareness and sensitivity…
Situational factors exert their influence in so many ways, but today, inspired by a recent research finding, I want to focus on one in particular: how a mastery of situation can actually make us smarter as we get older. In the current issue of the journal Psychological Science, researchers report that older people (over 65) showed less variability in their cognitive performance across 100 days of testing than did younger people aged 20 to 31.
Why? The older adults’ greater consistency “is due to learned strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level, as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood,” notes one of the scientists, Florian Schmiedek of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Germany. A colleague of Schmiedek’s, Axel Börsch-Supan, adds that his research shows that older workers are more productive and reliable, and less likely to make serious errors, than are their younger colleagues.
There are other ways that our mental powers grow as we get older. It’s true that as we age, the brain’s processing speed begins to slow, and memory may sometimes slip, says Margaret Gatz, PhD, professor of psychology, gerontology, and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. But researchers have recently made some surprising discoveries about what’s really happening in our heads as we age: “We are identifying ways in which older minds hold their own against younger ones and even surpass them,” Gatz says. Here, ten such ways:
1. Your hemispheres sync up.
…Brain scans show that while young people often use only one side for a specific task, middle-aged and older adults are more likely to activate both hemispheres at once—a pattern known as bilateralization. By involving both sides, older people bring the full spectrum of the brain’s power to bear, allowing them to make more fruitful connections among the disparate parts of a problem or situation.
2. Your brain never stops growing.
…it’s now clear that we not only hang on to our neurons—we grow new ones, too. Throughout a person’s lifetime, the brain is continually reshaping itself in response to what it learns. Even something as silly as a clown trick, like learning to juggle, or learning to play a musical instrument can alter its structure…
3. Your reasoning and problem-solving skills get sharper.
This is evident not only in laboratory studies but also in examinations of choices made in real life. For example, according to a study, …the middle-aged make smarter money decisions than their younger counterparts…
4. You can focus on the upside.
Our outlook grows rosier as we get older, as demonstrated by a study published last year in the journal Psychology and Aging. …With the passage of time, the study subjects reported more positive well-being and greater emotional stability…
5. Your people skills are constantly improving.
Mature adults understand themselves well—and they also understand other people, research shows. In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology in 2007, older and younger adults were presented with a series of hypothetical everyday problems …The older adults were especially good at solving such interpersonal dilemmas—often by choosing a path that skirted direct conflict. “As we get older, our social intelligence keeps expanding,” explains Gatz. “We get better at sizing up people, at understanding how relationships work—and at not getting into an argument unless we mean to.”
6. Your priorities become clearer.
“Studies of the way adults perceive time suggest that we become increasingly aware that our years on this Earth are limited,” notes Michael Marsiske, PhD, …an expert on aging. “This awareness helps explain the choices that older adults tend to make: to spend time with a smaller, tighter circle of friends and family, to pay more attention to good news than to bad news, and to seek out positive encounters and avoid negative ones.”
7. You’re always adding to your knowledge and abilities.
There are some kinds of information we learn and never forget. Take vocabulary: Studies show that we keep adding new words to our repertoire as we age, giving us ever richer and more subtle ways to express ourselves. Job-related knowledge also continues to accumulate, meaning we keep getting better and better at what we do.
8. You can see the big picture.
As we age, we’re better able to take the measure of a situation. An experiment published in the journal Neuron in 2005 provided a very literal demonstration of this ability: Psychologist Allison Sekuler, …found that young brains seem to be better at focusing on details to the exclusion of their surroundings, and more mature brains are able to take in the whole scene.
9. You gain control of your emotions.
While young people ride a roller coaster of happiness and sadness, excitement and disappointment, older adults are able to maintain a more even keel. In a study published in 2009, psychologist Vasiliki Orgeta …concluded that older adults (between ages 61 and 81) had more clarity about their feelings, made better use of strategies to regulate their emotions, and had a higher degree of control over their emotional impulses.
10. You become an instant expert, even in new situations.
As the brain encounters new experiences, it develops schemas—mental frameworks that allow us to recognize and respond to similar circumstances when we come upon them again. By midlife we’ve accumulated a stockpile of schemas that help give us our bearings even in novel situations. We just know what to do—and this sense of effortless mastery flows from the reservoir of experience we’ve built up over time. In fact, we have a name for this ability to draw on deep knowledge of the past while accommodating what comes up in the present: It’s called wisdom.
The bestselling author of Thinking, Fast and Slow talks about overcoming the cognitive biases and errors that can affect decision-making…
VICTORIA CRAW BUSINESS EDITOR
SLOW down. Do less. You’ll actually be more productive.
That’s the advice of cognitive psychologist Dr Stephen McKenzie, who said the way most of us spend our workdays amid a barrage of emails, tweets and meetings, while wolfing down lunch in front of a screen is leading to an “epidemic of mindlessness” that is ruining our ability to think.
“We rush around often from one mistake to another. Mindfulness is about connecting with one thing at a time, rather than doing six things at once,” he said.
Dr Mckenzie advocates being mindful at work – a concept that involves giving your full attention to the task at hand before moving on to the next thing.
“It’s very simple. It’s being able to give our full attention to what we want to give it to rather than being distracted by our thoughts …. It’s being connected with reality,” he said.
Below are Dr McKenzie’s seven tips (the optimum number for your brain to remember) which if practised daily, should have you shredding that to-do list in no time.
1. Know your limits
One of the main reasons people can get stressed at work is trying to be all things to all people…
2. Treat each day as new
Dr McKenzie said the first few seconds after you wake up each morning, before you smash your alarm clock and bury your head under the pillow, is the optimum state you should try and hold on to throughout the day.
A good tip is to try and treat colleagues as if you’re meeting them for the first time – without any preconceived ideas about who is difficult to work with or what might cause a problem…
3. Think about what you’re doing
…”We mistake busyness for productivity,” Dr McKenzie said. “We think if we have all these things happening we’ll be more productive but we’re actually doing less. The multi-tasking that’s become fashionable is about doing lots of things badly rather than one thing well.”
He said it’s crucial to focus on the task in front of you, whether it’s eating your breakfast or typing an email…
4. Take your time
Although it might seem like you’re working slower, taking your time to pause between activities is the perfect chance to mentally switch gears and make things more productive in the long run.
Dr McKenzie said when people are stressed they tend to have “a shallow way of perceiving things”, which doesn’t help when it comes to tasks that require creative thinking or deep thought.
He said the best thing to do is break between jobs, whether it’s to get a drink, take a walk or a few deep breaths to shake out the cobwebs…
5. Do something for someone else
“Service is almost as unfashionable these days as lard, but if we do things for others it means that we’re expanding our personal lives,” Dr McKenzie said. Listening to other people’s ideas, rather than telling them what they want to hear can also be a great way to build better relationships with colleagues…
6. Question your reasons for doing things
…it’s a good idea every now and then to challenge your own beliefs in order to understand other perspectives.
“Try starting the day practising being reasonable rather than reactive, and a great way to start this is by really tuning into the people or whomever who we start the day with – this will help us realise that life is more reasonable when we’re mindful enough to realise that people have reasons for what they do.”
7. Have a sense of wonder
While years working in a corporate environment is enough to kill the sense of childlike wonder in most workers, Dr McKenzie said remembering to smell the roses will help improve productivity.
…Three-year-olds are naturally mindful because they aren’t jaded by life, and we can all remember and therefore return to this state of full aliveness, simply by fully connecting with what is,” he said.
By Kathy Graham
…The hippocampus is also a cognitive map, coding one’s location in space. Spatial mapping is especially critical to London taxi drivers, who must decide the quickest route to a passenger’s destination immediately, without looking at a map, consulting a GPS system, or asking a controller by radio or cellphone. Brain imaging shows their hippocampi to be enlarged relative to those of London bus drivers, who follow fixed routes.
Even rats pass the great hippopotamus test. Recordings from so-called place cells in their hippocampi code where the rat is located in an environment such as a maze. But even when the rat is out of the maze, and either asleep or otherwise motionless, place cells are often active in fast “ripples,” sweeping out trajectories in the maze. These trajectories need not correspond to trajectories the animal actually took while it was in the maze. Sometimes they are the reverse of an actual trajectory, and sometimes they correspond to trajectories the rat never actually took. The rat, it seems, is mind wandering.
Mind wandering in humans, though, no doubt includes elements other than places. We construct episodes that include things, actions, emotions, people—even Jeanie with the light brown hair. We even wander into the minds of others. Mind wandering is the source of stories, imaginary tales of heroism, love, and death. Language itself may have evolved precisely so we could share the wandering of our minds.
This is an extract from the talk, Mind Wandering Corballis gave at Brain Day 2013.
by Sam Spurlin
In the time you’ve read this sentence, your brain has processed about 200 “bits” of information. Your brain can handle roughly 100 bits of information per second which then become part of your awareness. Following a conversation between two people takes about that much bandwidth (have you ever noticed how hard it is to follow three or more people talking at the same time?)…
That sounds like a huge number, right? However, we’re talking about the entirety of your experiences as a human being being encapsulated in one simple number. Every emotion, thought, sensation, and conversation you’ll ever have is included in that number and the way you’ve allocated those 150 billion bits of attention over the course of your life will make up the entirety of who you were and what you accomplished.
Suddenly, 150 billion doesn’t seem so big…
For some, productivity is about fiddling with new tools or shaving seconds off an ultimately meaningless task. It can be fun to read about others’ productivity hacks and try them in our own workflows. But really, thinking about productivity means coming back to those 150 billion bits that make up who you are and who you will be.
It becomes less about tips and tricks and more about making sure you’re allocating the most scarce resource in the universe, your attention, in ways that most closely align with who you are and what impact you want to have on the world. It’s about eliminating the unnecessary tasks and demands that are eating away at your 150 billion bits so you can focus on something that helps another person or creates a little more beauty in the world or solves an important problem or makes you feel like you’re on this planet to do something worthwhile.
“Being productive” isn’t about getting more work done. It’s about making sure those 150 billion bits are spent as wisely as possible…
When you are asked to present your best thinking hat, do you proceed to inquire: “Which one”?
Then you are by no means an absolute stranger to what is commonly known as the Six Thinking Hats.
This unique technique, popularly used as parallel thinking to improve creativity, was first introduced by Edward de Bono, for initiating and sustaining creative thinking both in individuals as well as groups meetings.
So, are you interested in figuring out how this fancy named Six Thinking Hats technique can be implemented at work? …
When a participant puts on a specific colored hat, they start thinking in a manner that reflects the color represented by that specific hat and acts accordingly. So, what is it that each one of these colored hats stands for?
White Hat: This hat stands for information. It implies that when a participant wears this hat, they start thinking in facts and data terms, which also implies stops thinking at all. They ‘reflect’ on information only.
Red Hat: This hat stands for feelings and intuition. Participants who adorn this hat have to simply keep their mind open and let their feelings freely flow. ..
Black Hat: This hat stands for caution. Participants who adorn this hat have to look underneath everything that is discussed.
Yellow Hat: This hat stands for positivism. Participants who adorn this hat have to look at the positive side of everything discussed.
Green Hat: This hat stands for creativity. Participants who adorn this hat must think creatively as well as innovatively. They have to produce never-before kind of ideas about everything discussed.
Blue Hat: This hat is used by the facilitator or moderator. Participants who adorn this hat have to look at the picture as a whole.
Hence, you select the hats which are required for a particular part of your thinking process…
The spaces we occupy shape who we are and how we behave. This has serious consequences for our psychological well-being and creative performance. Given that many of us spend years working in the same room, or even at the same desk, it makes sense to organize and optimize that space in the most beneficial ways possible.
…Based on recent psychology and neuroscience findings, here are some simple and effective steps you can take once to improve your productivity for years:
Take ownership of your workspace
The simple act of making your own decisions about how to organize your workspace has an empowering effect and has been linked with improved productivity.
Craig Knight, Director of the Identity Realization workplace consultancy, showed this in a 2010 study with Alex Haslam involving 47 office workers in London. Those workers given the opportunity to arrange a small office with as many or few plants and pictures as they wanted were up to 32 percent more productive than others not given this control. They also identified more with their employer, a sign of increased commitment to the team effort and increased efficiency…
Choose rounded furniture and arrange it wisely
If you have the luxury of designing your own workspace, consider choosing a layout and furniture that is curved and rounded rather than sharp and straight-edged. Creating this environment has been linked with positive emotions, which is known to be beneficial for creativity and productivity…
This contrast between straight edges and curves also extends to the way we arrange our furniture. Apparently, King Arthur was on to something: sitting in circles provokes a collective mindset, whereas sitting in straight lines triggers feelings of individuality – something worth thinking about at your next meeting if you want to encourage team cohesion…
Take advantage of colour, light and space
…For instance, exposure to both blue and green has been shown to enhance performance on tasks that require generating new ideas. However, the colour red has been linked with superior performance on tasks involving attention to detail. Another study out this year showed that a dimmer environment fostered superior creativity in terms of idea generation, probably because it encourages a feeling of freedom. On the other hand, brighter light levels were more conducive to analytical and evaluative thinking…
Make use of plants and windows
If you only do one thing to optimize your workspace, invest in a green plant or two. Research has repeatedly shown that the presence of office plants has a range of benefits including helping workers recover from demanding activities and lowering stress levels. As a bonus, there’s also evidence that plants can reduce office pollution levels.
Another feature of an optimized office is a window with a view, preferably of a natural landscape. This is because a glance at the hills or a lake recharges your mind. Obviously a view of nature isn’t possible for many people who work in cities, but even in an urban situation, a view of trees or intricate architecture have both been linked with restorative benefits. If you can’t negotiate a desk with a view, [a visit to a park] will revitalise your mind and compensate for your lack of a view.
The benefits of a messy desk
There’s a lot of pressure these days to be organized. How are you supposed to get your work done if you can’t even find a clear space on your desk to roll a mouse or place a plant? But new research suggests Einstein may have been onto something when he opined: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft, imagines what might be possible if organisations really began to think differently about the power of technological and social change to transform the way we do business.
Here is an extract from what Coplin says in this talk with the things I would especially highlight:
A study released last year in the U.S. said 71% people are not happy in their work … and technology is a large part of the problem…
The first proposition is that the world around us has completely changed BUT … we’ve reached this place the plateau of mediocrity … You still use a keyboard, you still use a mouse The way you use these devices has not changed in fifty years. You’re still doing email, you still writing work process documents, you’re doing spreadsheets presentations…
If we cannot evolve, if we change the way we think about the jobs we are doing, the tasks that we have, we’re always going to be constrained…
My proposition about consumerisation is that we’re about to enter a second generation that’s not about devices anymore, but about services … this is about changing business processes. We’re already seeing examples … What’s underneath all of this is a genuinely new process of collaboration … When you are using something like Facebook or Twitter you are using a fundamentally different culture of collaboration. You are saying, pretty much everything I do by default is open except for the bits I choose to keep private. Contrast that to the standard of culture inside most organisations. It’s completely inverted: everything I do is closed unless I specifically say I’m going to share this. The change in that is absolutely profound…
We’re in a world where productivity, that thing that we’ve been chasing for hundreds of years, is fast becoming the problem … We spend our days answering email … batting things back and forward. We’ve forgotten that that’s not everything about work … When was the time you actually stopped and to think creatively: ‘how could we do things differently?’ We don’t do that because we’re too busy being busy…
But it doesn’t stop there. In fact really the biggest challenge that we face is more about our office space than it is about the tools that we use within them.. For the average knowledge worker you don’t have to be in a specific place at a specific time… There’a different way where you think of work as an activity rather than a destination… choosing the location of where you want to be. It’s also about you taking control of how you work and how you use the tools that are in front of you… Where we used to talk about the work-life balance and we used to think really binary – I’m at work; I am at home – the reality of today’s society, the reality of what technology affords you the choice of is that you can feather those things. And it’s really up to us as a culture, as a society, to see if we’re up to making that choice… And so based on the tasks I have to do today, where is the best place for me to work…?
And trust is crucial. Trust works on many levels. We found that … the biggest issue of people working outside the office is not between the employer and the employee, it amongst the employees themselves: “I can’t see Dave. I wonder if he’s really working? I wonder how his patio’s coming on.” But we also showed that people who weren’t working in the office, they carried around this sense of guilt: “I’m not in the office. They’re going to be thinking I’m working on my patio.” So they end up over-compensating. They end up sending more emails, making more phone calls in an attempt to be more visible, destroying the advantages of working away from the office. So for most organisations it about this really hard thing. It’s about having the confidence to let go. It’s about empowering the people that you work with the confidence to choose the best place to work, the best tools to use… That’s a really scary place for most organisations to be…
Some ideas to give you some ways to change your thinking about what you do inside your organisation…
I challenge you, like the DVLA. to think what you’ve got in your organisations that you don’t need to do any more…?
The other part of this is trying to get yourself to think really differently about potential outcomes. We’re constrained by our past experience. Everything that happens to us colours what we think about the future, how we think the future’s going to play out. But kids think differently… don’t just get constrained by your past experiences, think about a different world…
Envisioning is crucial because it’s about that human focus, it’s about “there’s a different way that we could do this.” And if you think about that different way, then the technology will follow that goal, rather than it being just this iterative thing of we do the same thing but just slightly better…
The other thing is the arrogance of the present… “why would I ever need more bandwidth than I have now!” … And if you can’t envision any other future world, then you can’t measure the value of any future innovation… You can’t avoid the arrogance of the present, but you can recognise that it will come up and try and think differently about what might happen… We need to think how can we use our technology to get us further…
If we’re going to do this we’ve got to educate people to really think differently about technology, and not just kids, everybody. We need to live in a world that thinks about skills not tools… What we should be doing is teaching people how to communicate properly, and critical thinking…
And we have to remember that the organisation’s role in this…is seeing the big picture… The focus becomes on process itself, we’ve lost touch with the outcomes of the organisation. We forget to take stock, to take a step back and think about what is it that we’re actually trying to do here?…
And that’s the final key…it’s all about us. It’s all about people, it’s about the individual, it’s about being empowered…to think about what is it that I could contribute to my organisation to help them achieve that outcome…
If you do those things then I think you’re in a great place to re-imagine the way your organisation works…
Even the best leaders make mistakes. Now, there’s a way to prevent bad decisions from happening — via mobile app.
The Management Thinking Mistakes app wants to help decision makers avoid making mistakes in thinking by providing a misconception-debunking tool that can guide them in the right direction.
To help users steer clear of thinking traps, the Management Thinking Mistakes app aims to prevent mistakes before they occur. Using a crowdsourced collection of the most common thinking mistakes, users can learn to recognize common fallacies, biases and effects that can result in poor decision-making. By providing context-specific thinking mistakes, uses are able to find relevant information to help them properly evaluate situations.
“Thinking mistakes are defects in our thinking process that weaken our aim to find the best solutions,” said developers WiB Solutions in a press release. “By learning to recognize common fallacies, biases and effects, we can avoid these mistakes in the context of meetings or decision making. At the same time, we can also learn to recognize the thinking mistakes when used by others.”
The Management Thinking Mistakes app is available to download for free at the Apple App Store. The app will also be used at Harvard University in the fall semester…
There are numbers all around us. They are in every word we speak or write, and in the passage of time. Everything in our world has a numeric foundation, but most of us don’t see those numbers. It’s different for Daniel Tammet. He’s a savant with synesthesia, a condition that allows him to see beyond simple numerals — he experiences them.
“Every number has its own colour so the number 1 is like a shining light from a lantern. The number two is more like a flowing, darker purple, violet color. Three is green, and after 10 what happens is I see the colours but the individual digits contribute their own colors, so I am seeing a blend of those primary colors. And when I recited the number pi, I would see the colors as a landscape, full of textures and emotions, and it would blend together like a kind of story, or poem, that I could recite to those who were listening to me.”
5,040 “is a highly divisible number. You can take any number of the first digits 2, and 3 and 4 … and so on and 5,040 divides evenly into them. It also divides into 12, and so in Plato’s imagination, the perfect society would divide into 12 … According to this figure, everything would be divided evenly. There would be no war, there would be no discord, and of course this idea is extremely attractively to our ears today. Ears that hear too often news of wars and famine and misery. And, at the same time, I think we’re, all of us, wise enough to realise Plato was perhaps a little bit naive as well … There are things that we cannot calculate … There is always an element of humanity that escapes mathematics, that escapes numbers as well.”
Q&A with Iain McGilchrist
by Margaret Emory
How many times have you been told, “Oh you’re such a left-brain person,” meaning you think logically, are good with numbers, very analytical and so on? And upon hearing that summation, you long for the right brain’s creative, intuitive, artistic complements. Why can’t they be part of the equation, you wonder.
We used to believe the two parts of the brain work in harmony, but according to London psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, there’s a definite shift in our modern culture which favors left-brain dominance—and it’s something we ought to watch out for and correct. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009), McGilchrist discusses the hemispheres and their different “personalities,” and then shows a sweeping dissertation on the history of Western civilization as seen from the context of the divided brain…
I think an aspect of being a conscious being is that you are aware that you can become powerful by manipulation. Other creatures, of course, are competing and manipulating, but they’re probably not aware of the fact that this is a way of becoming powerful—that it seems to work well for a lot of the things that one does as one grows a civilisation …One creates these things that seem to make life simpler, easier and better and make you more powerful. It’s enticing, and you can soon begin to think that everything works like this. Everything in your world seems to break down into a lot of machines that we’ve created.
While this is a very interesting way of looking at things, it’s basically a practical tool for getting ahead. It’s not really a very good instrument for … finding out actually what the world is and how we know about it. It can lead us to narrow down the way we think about things to a merely rationalistic set of propositions, a series of algorithms…
One of the interesting elements that comes out in research into the “personalities” or the “takes” of the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere thinks it knows it all, and as a result is extremely optimistic. It overvalues its own ability. It takes us away from the presence of things in all their rich complexity to a useful representation—that representation is always much simpler. And an awful lot is lost in it.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need to simplify. For example, if you’re designing a building or if you’re fighting a campaign, you need a map, a scheme. You don’t really need all the richness of what would be there in the real world. But I’m afraid that that representation moves into a world where we have the ability constantly to interact with the world only as a representation, over a screen. Even Facebook and social networking may look like you have suddenly have loads of friends, but what it may actually do is take you away from your real-life friends so that your life is more crowded and there’s less time, actually, to be aware peacefully of the world around you and to interact socially—a word that used to mean “with your fellow creatures.” …
People often ask me, “what can we do about this?” I think they’re rather hoping I’ll give them a list of bullet points—“The 12 Things You Need”—like a best-selling paperback. That is really a perfect example of the left hemisphere. “Okay. Fix it by having a little plan. We do this, we do that, and bingo!”
But in fact, what I have tried to convey throughout the entire book is that the world, as it is, has its own shape, value, meaning and so on, and that we crowd it out with our own plans, thoughts and beliefs, which are going to be narrow. A wise thing to do would be not to do certain things. Another theme of my book is that negation is creative. That by having less of something, more comes into being. So actually what we need to do is not create a world. We need to stop doing lots of things and allow the wonderful thing that is already there to evolve, to give it room to grow. That’s also true of a single human mind…
We are now understanding the benefits of mindfulness, which is officially recommended by the British body NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence).
The essence of mindfulness is clearing your mind of all the stuff that’s going on in there and stopping you from experiencing life. You’re so busy feeling bad about the past you can’t change and chasing after a future you can’t predict, instead of actually being alive in the moment. That is really the essence of mindfulness. Recent research shows that mindfulness engages wide networks in the right hemisphere, and the EEG studies show that there is a more balancing of the two hemispheres in those who are meditating.
So I think meditation and not doing things, making space in your life and switching off your machines, being present in the moment and practicing mindfulness would be a way to start…
The cognitive processing model is mechanistic and sees us like a complicated heating system with valves and pumps and thermostats that switch things on and off. But one of the interesting things about the hemispheres is that the right hemisphere seems to be better able to take into its vision the information that is coming to it from what was always called the lower parts of the brain, the more ancient parts of the brain, and indeed, from the body.
The difficulty with the cognitive model is that we think of the brain as a computer, and we think of memory as something like a data bank. Memory, of course, is not at all like that. It’s part of the human’s whole world and is distributed in the body. In a way, you can say that the very muscles have memory. Memory is not something that is unchanging. It is contextual—and that’s a weakness of it in some ways, but it’s also very much the strength of it.
We now know that even something like the heart actually communicates with the brain and gives as much information back to the brain—in fact, possibly more—than the brain gives to the heart. Anyone who suffers from depression will know that you have this terribly heavy oppressive feeling in the center of your chest. The things that you feel in your body are of course experienced through the brain, but they then are seen and experienced phenomenologically in the body. Our bodies and our brains can’t be separated in that way.
So although cognitive science is a very useful thing, I think it ought to learn less from the Cartesian tradition of philosophy and more from the phenomenological tradition of philosophy, particularly from the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, who is probably the single most important philosopher of the last century for those who are interested in the relationship between mind and the body…
For all of these stories and more see our Happiness At Work collection…