Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Divided Brain - Dr. Iain McGilchrist, Bloody Sunday Events

Ways To Subscribe
Dr. Iain McGilchrist
Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Dr. Iain McGilchrist's will talk on "The Divided Brain, Humanities & AI" at NDSU, Jan 24, 11am. Engage in discussions led by Dr. Michael Robinson and Dr. Todd Pringle. Explore University of Mary events on Bloody Sunday, featuring a colloquium, convocation with Senator Sean Cleary, a historical lecture, and diverse activities.

Highlights of Dr. McGilchrist interview:

  1. Understanding the Divided Brain: Dr. Iain McGilchrist delves into the impact of brain hemispheres on human behavior, focusing on the dominance of the left hemisphere and its consequences on our perception and actions.
  2. Cultural Variations: The discussion extends to how different cultures approach and experience these brain dynamics, highlighting the unique challenges posed by Western culture's current mindset and its global influence.
  3. Brain as Not a Computer: Dr. McGilchrist challenges the common comparison of the brain to a computer, emphasizing the complexity and uniqueness of human cognition that goes beyond computational models.
  4. AI's Influence: The interview explores concerns about the evolving role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its potential to reshape human behavior, posing questions about the impact on jobs, communication, and societal control.
  5. Cultural Degradation: The conversation touches upon the degradation of important values like truth, goodness, and beauty in contemporary society, raising awareness about the need to reassess our priorities.
  6. Solutions and Recommendations: Dr. McGilchrist suggests practical steps for individuals, including mindfulness meditation, embracing diverse perspectives, practicing mediation, reconnecting with nature, and appreciating art and music to foster a more balanced and meaningful life.
  7. Attention as a Moral Act: The interview concludes with a powerful message about the moral significance of attention, urging individuals to reclaim their attention from constant distractions and fragmented focus for a more peaceful and connected existence.

Transcript of the interview:

Welcome to Main Street on Prairie Public, I'm Craig Blumenshine.

Dr. Ian McGilchrist will be speaking on the topic of the divided brain, the humanities and AI on Wednesday, January 24th, from 11am to noon at room 230 in Minard Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University. And that discussion will also be available via Zoom.

The panel will be led by Dr. Michael Robinson. He's a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University and Dr. Todd Pringle, who has a PhD in materials nanotechnology and is also a PhD candidate in psychology at NDSU. But Dr. McGilchrist now, he joins us from Scotland. Welcome. Welcome to Main Street.

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Thanks very much, Craig. Delighted.

Main Street

I want to summarize what I perceive your discussion is going to be about and utilize that then as an introduction to talk about this fascinating topic. I believe Dr. McGilchrist that you express concern about humanity's engagement in self-destructive behaviors, encompassing intellectual, moral and physical aspects, and that the central argument revolves around the dominance of the value of power aligning with the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which seeks to control and manipulate rather than understand. Am I getting that layman's introduction somewhat correct, Dr. McGilchrist?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Yes, it's fair. But I mean, the point is, it's the left hemisphere, not the left and right. That is the problem here.

The left hemisphere has evolved in all the species we know to be the one that gets stuff and grabs stuff and manipulates stuff. And that is its raison d'etre. That is what it's there for.

And the right hemisphere, meanwhile, is looking out for everything else. So it's kind of important. And I believe that in our society, we have allowed the rather crude, less intelligent, less imaginative left hemisphere to dominate the picture.

And that's one of the reasons we're on a path to destruction, in my view.

Main Street

To the layman, Dr. McGilchrist, who are listening today, what inspired you to explore the topic of brain hemispheres and their cultural impact?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, you can imagine I was advised not to because there was a period in the 60s and 70s when people were enthusiastic about this. And then later in the 20th century, piece by piece of research suggested that, in fact, both hemispheres involved in everything. And all that really shows us is that we'd answer the question what the difference is wrongly.

In other words, it's not true that the left is a little bit boring, but highly dependable, rational, linguistic. And the right hemisphere is a little bit given to going off on a creative thing and not dependable and a bit emotional. This is not what it's about.

Main Street

We've all been told that, Dr. McGilchrist.

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

I know you have. And I want you all to completely forget it. But the point is that having given the wrong answer to the question is not a reason for not trying to give the right answer. And so I've spent 30 years trying to arrive at a conclusion about that.

And what effectively I've found is that it's to do with these two kinds of attention, which are, you know, of evolutionary high importance. So in order to get food, you need to pose a kind of targeted, narrow beam attention to some little thing to get it. But to see the rest of the picture, including to see predators, while you're getting your lunch, you don't want to become somebody else's, then you need another part of the brain that's doing just the opposite, looking out for the whole picture in a sustained, broad, open, vigilant way.

And this gives rise to two kind of worlds. One is one in which we think we understand it all. It's all made up of little bits.

We put them together, we make machines, and that's how the world is. In fact, machines are very, very unusual. Probably the only machines in the cosmos are just right around here.

Almost everything else is not mechanical. And we now know that the universe is not a Newtonian mechanism. In fact, mechanisms are no way of trying to understand ourselves, our brains, the world, or what we're doing here.

And I think what has happened is that we've gone into a state where we no longer value things unless we can exploit them. That's about the only kind of thing we think they're good for. The natural world, a heap of resource.

Animals and so on, if we make them extinct, it doesn't really matter as long as we can get rich. Indigenous peoples who could teach us some kind of a wisdom, tough on them, their habitat is going to be mined, logged, blown up, or whatever it is. And we just live in this world in which it's get, get, get.

And there's a hell of a lot more to life than that. And people may be cynical about that, but I'm a psychiatrist, and I can tell you that people are not happier when they've made a lot of money and got a lot of power. They're usually rather stressed, anxious, paranoid people.

And I can also tell you, because we've got evidence going back to about a hundred years, that when we ask people in the thirties, forties, fifties, and so on, young people, how content they were, how happy they were, how positive they were, they were much more so in the past. So we think we've created progress, but actually what we've created is something really regrettable. We're all unhappier now than we were, despite being much richer.

Main Street

I'm going to ask you perhaps what the potential solutions to that issue might be in a moment. But first, is your research universal? Does it apply to all cultures in the world?

Is it evolved differently, for instance, here in Western culture versus more remote Indigenous peoples?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Very much so.

You're absolutely right. So, in fact, we're rather unusual, very unusual. Although I think it may be that very grand cultures, when they achieved, when they overreached themselves and became immoderately great, they may have run into the same problems we're running into now.

But at the moment, unfortunately, we're exporting our toxic culture to everybody else in the world. When I say toxic culture, I'm not jumping on the bandwagon of slagging off what the West has achieved. Western civilization is great.

We've achieved many, many wonderful things. But right now we've gone into a sort of arrogant phase in which we think we know everything, we understand everything, but our understanding is actually very small. And you may know that there's a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which means the less you understand, the more you think you know it all.

And that's rather what the left hemisphere is like. It knows literally less, is less intelligent than the right hemisphere, which may surprise people, but it is. And at the same time, it thinks it knows everything.

Main Street

I have to ask you something about your research before we continue on that made this layman go, holy smokes. You talk about being able to shut off either the left hemisphere or the right hemisphere of the brain and then study first. Wow.

And second, what did you learn?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, wow is right. In the past, we tended to have to rely on what are called experiments of nature where somebody had a blow to the head or a stroke or a tumor until there was this split brain operation that was pioneered in California, Caltech in the 60s, which was transformative for people with intractable epilepsy. And then we could inquire of one hemisphere at a time.

But now we have something called transcranial magnetic stimulation with which you can enhance or suppress an area of cortex for a period of say 20 minutes. And you can see what happens. So absolutely.

Wow. Yeah. And what you find is that there are quite different, uh, if you like, I mean, it's putting it rather crudely, but personalities to the two hemispheres, one of them doesn't understand anything that's not completely explicit.

So jokes are lost on it. It takes them seriously. Poetry – it doesn’t understand that at all.

Um, myths, music, not interested in, this is the left hemisphere. It is, it is at home reading something like the operating manual for a dishwasher, but it's not too keen on the rest. That's a gross exaggeration, but it's just to help people see what's going on there.

So you've got, you've got this slightly nerdy, um, if you like somewhat autistic kind of left hemisphere and the right hemisphere is actually much more grounded. The left hemisphere gets quickly off into delusions. I'm not the only person who has observed this, that in fact, most of the delusional syndromes that people may know a little about in psychiatry, such as schizophrenia and so on, but also the whole lot of them following head injuries, they practically all involve a damage to the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere has taken over.

Main Street

And it really doesn't have to do with lessened inhibition. Dr. McGilchrist, is that what that's about?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, what happens is that if you let the left hemisphere go on its own, there's nothing there to balance it. And the right hemisphere is much more down to earth and much more reliable. Contrary to the mythology about the left hemisphere.

The left hemisphere is quickly angry. It's self-righteous, somewhat narcissistic. Um, it's somewhat immoral and it's just quite different from the world we would like to be acquainted with in which people understood one another were kinder to one another and saw a broader picture.

I mean, this is all extremely, anybody who’s a neuroscientist listening to this will, uh, recognize that I'm giving a very, um, sketchy caricature here, but there's truth in it.

Main Street

You have compared your brain to our, our brains, brains in general to computers. What are your conclusions?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, yes, I mean, I fight a battle against the comparison of our brains to computers. Um, because I think it's an easy mistake to make. We have, as I say, we've created machines and we think therefore that we can understand everything else by likening it to the machine.

And in fact, the only way in which we understand something is by comparing it to something else that we think we know. And the left hemisphere thinks it understands computers because it makes them, but there's a far, far greater complexity to the brain and not just complexity that might be overcome in the course of time. We are not machines.

We are not abstract cognitive machines. We have bodies, we have emotions, we have a moral sense, we have imagination, we have intuition, we know we're going to die, we suffer, we help one another. This is nothing like what a machine is.

And this completely changes what a human life is. And if you like the left hemisphere's way of thinking is what we have externalized in AI. It's procedural, it's serial, and it's explicit.

But the right hemisphere's thinking is none of these things. It's implicit, it's not serial, and it's strictly non-computable. It can't be computed because there’s nothing there that you can easily go “this is it”.

This is precisely what we've got. We can then build on, get this and so on. It's to do with something coming into focus, which is drawn partly from imagination and partly from previous knowledge.

And that is something that cannot be computed.

Main Street

We're enjoying our conversation with Dr. Ian McGilchrist. He'll be speaking on the topic of the divided brain, the humanities and AI on Wednesday, January 24th, from 11 a.m. to noon at room 230 in Minard Hall on the campus of North Dakota State University. Dr. McGilchrist, how should you and I perceive AI as it's evolving?

What should we think about?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, I think it would be wrong to dismiss it altogether, but it would also be rather foolish not to realize the potential for harm. I mean, at the very simplest level, interacting more with machines changes us in undesirable ways. So I think not so much that the worry is that machines will become like humans, they can't.

But the worry is that humans will become more like machines. And I think I can see that in the way they talk, in the way they think, the language they use, and the things that they are attracted to. So that's one problem.

I mean, there just are so many. I gave a speech, the opening speech to the World Forum on AI in Amsterdam about a year ago, and I laid out a lot of my worries there. But, I mean, on the simple level, what are we going to do with people if computers really take over their jobs?

But they're not going to. What I have found is that although we've become clever at making computers do some really extraordinary things, like create this kind of zombie that looks like a real human being, I mean, of course, it isn't like a real human being, but it may look very clever. But on the everyday level, our lives are constantly being degraded by AI.

So something that 10 years ago would have taken a five-minute phone call to a real human being now takes a whole morning in which one goes round and round in loops that have not been properly thought through on the internet and degrades my time and my imagination and my life. Everybody is finding this. Everybody I talk to, of whatever age, they just find they spend more and more time frustrated trying to negotiate an artificial, not intelligent system, just an information processing system.

There's nothing intelligent about it. And that is something that I worry about, especially if it gets ripped large. I worry about the ways in which it will make possible a totalitarian control and monitoring by governments that we've never seen the like of before.

And it would be very naive to think that all governments are going to be benign or indeed are benign. Where do we stop on this? There's so many things I could fill an hour with that worry me about where AI is taking us.

How will we know what was real in a court of law? How will we know whether a student has really understood anything at all? If they can get a chat GPT to give them a rather banal but reasonable account of an area in whatever it is they're studying.

We have no idea where this is going to lead us.

Main Street

Let me ask you this, Dr. McGilchrist, and it goes back to an earlier question I think that I had about different cultures. How does exposure to things like music and art reflect on the workings of our cerebral hemispheres and thus our understanding of the world? And thus, are those who appreciate music and art more fully?

Do their brains develop differently?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

It's a good question and an interesting one. For most of us, to understand music and appreciate music, we need the right hemisphere and the left contributes relatively little. Certainly for most of us, melody and harmony and even complex rhythms are better understood by the right hemisphere.

The only thing the left hemisphere contributes for most of us is simple rhythm. But we know that professionals are atypical. So professional artists, professional composers, professional anything will use their brains in a slightly different way from most of us because they spend more time in a realm of abstract scrutiny of what it is they're doing.

Therefore, they're able to and need to use a more theoretically detached kind of way of engaging as well as the way that their right hemisphere would make possible. So these things that require implicit meaning, I mean, how do you decode a piece of music? You simply can't.

I can tell you that it means everything to me. But if you ask me, what does it mean? Of course, I can't say.

I can't put it into words. No computer could understand what it is I'm talking about any more than it could understand what I mean if I say, my wife means everything to me. Well, what does she mean?

Tell me. There's kinds of meaning that are not like that. And so those things are important.

And another one is proximity to the natural world. So when we're in the natural world, and actually paying attention to it rather than nervously checking our phones, all kinds of things happen to us that are beneficial psychologically, physically, and put us in touch with something that, again, is hard to articulate in language, but incredibly valuable and important.

Main Street

Dr. McGilchrist, earlier, I told you I would ask you about your potential solutions. We began this interview by talking about that you express a concern about humanity's engagement in self-destructive behaviors. So how can we get better?

What's the recommendation here?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, the first recommendation is that we actually see what it is that we're doing, because I think a lot of people don't understand the full picture. They just think we're doing fine. We're just doing great.

And then suddenly somebody tells us, damn, the weather's changing, or somebody reports the seas are poisoned. Somebody told me they're cutting down forests. It's going to affect the atmosphere.

So we think it's just little technical slip ups. But the important point is it’s not. It's about the fact that we don't have the foggiest idea what a human being is, what the natural world is, and how we relate anymore.

And this is partly because we've been estranged from our communities, from tradition, from nature, from all the things that used to give us an understanding of the world that was passed down. And instead, we're sitting kind of like a goldfish in a goldfish bowl somewhere in a city, trying to make sense of all this stuff that's going on around us. So I think the first thing to do is to realize what it is we're missing, because when we see what it is we're missing, we are more likely to reimport it into our lives.

I'm a psychiatrist, first and foremost. And I know that I often can tell the first time I meet somebody what it is they need to do. But if I tell them that the first time I meet them, they won't do it.

They won't believe me, because they’d probably have thought of it themselves, and started doing it. They need to get to the point where they see it for themselves. So if you're asking me for like the six things we must do before breakfast in order to save this situation, you're really repeating the left hemisphere's mistake, which is to think, yeah, a little fix here, a little fix there.

But that would be like putting a plaster on a cancer. We need to eradicate this cancer from the root. And the cancer is the way in which we think, this reductionist, materialist way in which we think about ourselves and the world.

We are not best understood this way. In fact, this is an intellectually far too simple, morally bankrupt, and imaginatively sterile way of viewing our situation in the cosmos.

Main Street

You're going to have a group of students listening to your Every Word on Wednesday. What is it that you want them to take away?

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, I want them above all to understand what I'm saying to you, that we've lost an awful lot, an awful lot of stuff's gone out of our life. But because of the way things are presented to us by big business and the government, we're not aware of what it is we're losing as fast as we're losing. So to become aware of it, and to begin to cultivate the very things that might bring it back into their lives, but to refocus where it is they think they're going with their lives, with their careers, what are they going to do?

Are they just going to go out there and make as much money as possible? Or are they going to try and help bring about good things, beautiful things in the world, true things? All these important values – goodness, beauty, and truth, which guided us for 2000 years – we may not always have been good at following them, but at least they were what we pretended that we needed and what we aimed for: in my lifetime – I've seen all these important values degraded. Nobody seems to know what truth is anymore, or goodness, or beauty.

So I want them to wake up and think, heck, let's have a think, how can we think differently? I bet you do want me to ask to give some sort of practical pieces of advice. And one of them is mindfulness meditation.

I mean, it's no big surprise in that, and I know it's slightly overhyped, but it's incredibly useful as a first point, because the whole idea of that is to stop your left hemisphere that thinks it knows it all chattering, and to be there for the first time with the world, and then let it speak to you, not always imposing your will on it. So that's a very good first step. I think we ought to practice seeing both sides of a question.

So I think all children in school should be made to make the strongest case they can for a certain point of view, and then follow it by making the strongest case they can for the opposite point of view. I think that we should all learn how to mediate between people. The world would be a much kinder, wiser, and more productive, interestingly, place if we didn't spend so much time infighting with one another, denigrating one another, misunderstanding one another.

So those are some of the things I would love, and I'd like to see people, yes, think that it's not a bad use of time just to stop and listen to a very great or beautiful piece of music, to reacquaint themselves with the poetry that perhaps they once liked, and explore it a bit further. On my website, actually, during lockdown, I read 365 days of poetry, and they're all there on my website. So if people are interested, they can just tune in and listen to some of the poems that have meant a lot to me.

But it's these sort of things, I think, and spending more time perhaps in nature, getting out of the car, and actually walking, and being still, simply being still, not always having to look at something, watch something, attend to something. The fragmentation of our attention is very serious, because I believe attention is a moral act. It creates the world we live in.

How we attend changes altogether what we find in the world. If you attend in a certain way, you will find just a heap of stuff. If you attend in another, you'll find something rich, revivifying, and worth exploring.

So to have your attention constantly grabbed by social media, advertising, and so on, is a crime. Really, we need to switch it off, and become more peaceful, be more one with nature, and with ourselves. So there you go.

That's the homily.

Main Street

It's a wonderful homily, and I hope people can pause for just a moment and give that some very serious thought. Dr. Ian McGilchrist, he'll be on a panel with Dr. Michael Robinson, and also Dr. Todd Pringle on Wednesday, January 24th, at North Dakota State University. It begins at 11 a.m. at room 230, if you want to visit in person at Minard Hall on the NDSU campus, or you can attend via Zoom. Dr. McGilchrist, your recent book is The Matter with Things, Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Thank you so much for joining us on Main Street.

Dr. Iain McGilchrist

Well, thank you, Craig. It's been great.

Main Street

More Main Street's ahead. Stay with us.

NOTE: This transcript was generated by AI and there may be errors. The official record of the show is the audio.