The Creative Brain With Dr Iain McGilchrist – #334
My guest today says that in order to understand ourselves and the world we need science and intuition, reason and imagination. Dr. Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, neuroscience researcher, philosopher, and literary scholar. He is a Quondam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an Associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and a former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital, London. He is the author of a number of books but is best known for The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. In his latest book The Matter With Things he argues that we have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us.
Artificial Intelligence Generated Transcript
Below is a machine-generated transcript and therefore the transcript may contain errors.
Dr Iain McGilchrist 1:00
No, thanks very much, James, great to be here.
James Taylor 1:02
So this is a big book. And I cannot imagine the amount of research that went in to this book, I often think with a book you see about such a small amount and all the researchers can hidden under the water. So during during the research to the book, what what kind of surprised you about the relationship between the right and left hemispheres of the brain that you maybe hadn’t thought about before?
Relationship Between The Right And Left Hemispheres
Dr Iain McGilchrist 1:26
Well, I mean, it’s been a long process of about 30 years starting from, you know what everybody thought they knew about the brain hemispheres, which turns out to be entirely wrong. So in a way, the whole story is a bit of a surprise to me. I didn’t approach it with any preconceptions. But what was staggering you interesting to me, coming from a background of the philosophy of literature and how we misunderstand poetry, was that the three most important thing is that we we do to a poem, when we take it apart in a seminar room, as we make the ad, make the thing that’s completely embodied abstract, we make the thing that is unique general, and we make the thing that is implicit or explicit, and in doing so we destroy it. And it was some years after I’d left that and trained in medicine that I discovered, one day that actually one of the most important things to know about the right hemisphere, which doesn’t speak is that it understands implicit meaning it sees the unique case, and it is more in touch with the body, the left hemisphere, which is the one that does the talking, it tends to generalize the unique tends to disembodied, whatever it’s looking at, and makes explicit what needs to remain implicit. What I mean by that is like, it’s like explaining a joke. Once you’ve paraphrased a poem, it falls completely flat. So it was fascinating that what I’ve been experiencing was, my speaking hemisphere wasn’t able to say the things that my other hemisphere was picking up about this poetry. And so this was a absolute eureka moment for me when I heard about this lecture in 1990, I think, yeah,
James Taylor 3:10
another kind of key thing you talk about in the book as well, which I guess relates to this idea of a, of a synthesis or a simple symbiosis is this idea of Gestalt. For those who are, you know, sending word that gets used, used a lot, but maybe doesn’t, don’t get unless they think can fully support is when you are talking about Gestalt in the book? How do you How are you thinking that in relation to kind of what’s going on in the brain during various different kinds of activities, and then we’ll come in and get into the creative side of things as well?
Dr Iain McGilchrist 3:42
Well, the idea of rationality is very important in creativity, both in the arts and in science. And what we mean by a gestalt is a shape or form, that cannot be decomposed into parts without losing something very important about it. So in another way of saying what happens with a poem is that if it’s success, it creates a whole form. And then when you come along and pick bits out of it, and analyze it, you’ve lost it. So the tendency to analyze is very valuable. But it’s second to the tendency to see the whole which is absolutely crucial.
James Taylor 4:21
Because this is definitely takes a position. This used to be against a kind of a reductionist view of the world. This is this idea that we’re just a sense of bundles of senses and a universe of material things. And in the book, you actually use an example an analogy of a Mozart quintet to kind of explain your thinking, this idea that, that a piece of music only comes into being each time a mind, I think you said with all its history and preconceptions actually encounters it. So that kind of starts to kind of build on the idea, can you so can you explain what you mean by that?
Dr Iain McGilchrist 5:01
As I was trying to distance myself from two polarized views that tend to be much touted these days. One is that reality is something that science finds just out there. And it’s completely separate from the business of knowing. So the knower and the knowing don’t affect it at all. It’s just sort of inert and out there, and it’s our job to find out what it is. And the other view, which is the sort of postmodern view, which has prevailed quite a lot in the academy, when it comes to the humanities is this idea that we make it all up effectively, there is no objective reality. Now, I wanted to suggest that neither of these is true, there is a something that’s separate from us, and we need to know it. But it also is altered in the process of our knowing it to some extent, I mean, not out of all proportion, because otherwise, we wouldn’t find that most people who’ve been equipping themselves to get to know something like a performance of the G minor quintet largely agree about it then all all over the place, hearing completely different things and feeling and thinking different things. So there is a common core to our experience. But it is always an experience. That’s the crucial thing. It is what I call an encounter. So everything that exists, in short, is an encounter is not a thing out there. It’s more of a feeling in here, it’s an encounter.
James Taylor 6:26
And there’s that word of art I’ve encountered as I was reading the book, and I was you’re kind of helping a layperson, like myself understand what’s kind of going on, and doing different things, including parts of the creative process when the left and right hemisphere of the brain. And the thing that kind of kept coming back to the time and time again, is, This almost looks a little bit like a creative peer, you know, we sometimes you know, think about creative pairs, you know, Jobs and Wozniak, Pierre Marie Curie, Lennon and McCartney, is the brain just another type of creative pair?
The Creative Process Of The Brain
Dr Iain McGilchrist 6:59
Well, I do believe that there is this kind of, to and fro between elements that are not actually wholly distinct, but complement one another. And the brain is like that, we wouldn’t be better off without the left hemisphere. But we certainly wouldn’t be better off without the right hemisphere. They’re not quite equal. One of them is the one that sees the whole picture. That’s the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere does some work on behalf of the right hemisphere, more like a personal computer doesn’t really understand what it’s dealing with. But it deals with it very fast and efficiently. As long as it’s completely routine, when it gets to be non routine. It doesn’t work with it. Now, you can imagine that in creativity, there’s a whole host of things that are very important. And that won’t happen in the left hemispheres view of things because it sees everything is first of all familiar already. It’s one of those I know it, I put it in that little category over there. That’s the pigeonhole. Got it. Whereas when it’s something creative, that’s coming into being, it’s a process of a gradual revealing of something, not a kind of making up like putting a piece and another piece, like you make a motorcycle, but the coming into being of something as a whole as a shell in the mind. And if you’re if your brain is constantly saying, oh, yeah, I got it, it’s one of those is quite familiar to me, you will never be able to find anything truly new. Now what we do know. And you know, I’m not talking figuratively, I’m talking Absolutely, really, any kind of new experience in any modality. It’s the right hemisphere, which first has a sense of it, then the left hemisphere takes it and plays about with it in an analytic way, then the right hemisphere takes that back, this is what should happen. And then you get a new hole. And the analogy I use, which people find helpful is like playing a piece of music. So to begin with, you’re attracted to it as a whole, you hear it and think, yeah, that’s marvelous. It’s so powerful, I want to know how to play that. And then when you try to play it, you need to take it apart, and you need to practice one or two of the bars over and over again, because the fingering is difficult or whatever. And so that’s fine. And you know something about the musical theory, you can see, oh, yes, this is where we go back to the tonic. But when you actually go out on stage and perform, you must forget all of that. It was useful at one stage, but it’s not useful now, if you see what I mean. So it’s not that there was a problem in doing the analysis. It’s only a problem if you end with the analysis. And that seems to me what’s happened we’ve taken the universe apart, and not surprisingly, have no idea how to put it together again, because we’re trying to use this mechanistic, manipulative part of the brain.
James Taylor 9:51
And you see something in the book which is, which I have a lot of kind of sympathy for as well where people often think about, you know, creating Have a tea as or doing anything kind of creative about problem-solving. And certainly, most creative people I know, definitely don’t go into it thinking that they’re looking to solve a problem. That’s not really what they’re as much kind of vaguer and vaguer than that, I guess. And in the book, you talk about this, what the kind of brain is having this kind of interchanges to images left in this right, this interplay that’s kind of going on, I think it might be useful for we’ve talked a lot on the show before about the creative process. But there are different stages of the creative process. And there are different ways of seeing it. But you know, essentially, let’s say that there’s a preparation stage, the incubation stage, the insight, or I think you’ve got into the illumination, stage valuation, or verification, and finally, the elaboration stage. So those states that, let’s say, a creative process, whether that’s writing a piece of music, or working on a book, or coming up with an idea for a startup, what is going on with the brain, if I if I went onto an under an EEG, at each of these stages, I guess if it was clear, and as linear as that, which is obviously it’s not what’s happening there, or it or it’s actually the not really so useful because it’s not
Dr Iain McGilchrist 11:15
really well, you can set people creative tasks that can be measured in the lab. And that’s where I say, but usually, the proxies that are used for being creative are not really like what most of us mean about creating something that’s more like, as I say, problem-solving. But there is a lot of literature, which I refer to in, I’ve actually put it in one of the appendices to volume one of the book, which shows that during the process of creating something at the incubation phase, we’re going backward and forwards from either hemisphere, but at the moment of illumination, this is very heavily dependent on on the right hemisphere, not the left. So there’s a long period of preparation, which may take months or years, very often years. And that’s a matter of carrying out certain procedures and researching and so on rather late right then becomes the incubation which is a period when you let it go from your conscious mind and allow things to it’s almost like the preparation of some marvelous wine, it’s got to ferment, you know, and it’s got to do it stuff for a while, the incubation has got to go on outside the glare of the left hemispheres. bright spotlight, it tends to spotlight something just a very small part of the picture. But really all the hard work is going on unknown to the person who’s doing it at an unconscious level and very largely in the right hemisphere. Because the right hemisphere is able to make broader connections, it’s more able to sit with something that’s not well defined is always ambivalent, and I’m not sure what it’s going to be, but I’m not going to abandon it. It’s something there, I can feel it. That process is much better served by the right hemisphere, the left hemisphere is Come on, what is it? Is it a darker? Is it a rabbit? You know, please, so that doesn’t help us. And also this business of being open to something new that the right hemisphere is better at that? It Ramachandran calls it the devil’s advocate, because when you think oh, yes, it’s that thing that’s very familiar with the right hemisphere is ghost, no, but it might not be it might be something really interesting and important, which is quite different from what you think you already know. So in all these things, being able to suspend judgment to be open to something new, to deal with the ambivalently ambiguous for a long period until that shape comes into the mind, the right hemisphere is better at this. And when the moment of illumination comes, we know very strongly that that is associated with activity in the right Superior Temporal sulcus. And in the right amygdala,
James Taylor 14:06
and what in the book, obviously, you focus so much on what’s the physical nature of the brain about what’s kind of going on the brain, but it’s something I kept thinking about and kind of asking pondering to myself as I was reading is what is the role of, of the place you know that you know, the Roman genius loci that place themselves can have their own creative genius, and you’re writing this book, let’s say up in the beautiful island of sky up there? What role has the place have in all of this isn’t just simply an actor that is kind of a useful walk-on the part that has maybe that point of incubation it’s kind of useful because maybe spurs you to think about something or or or doesn’t have any space it is it really just what’s going on in the brain.
Dr Iain McGilchrist 14:56
We’re living the place does play a part. I certainly feel that way. Because what you need when you’re pondering a long-term creative project is to have quite a lot of peace for one thing, not being bombarded with stimuli. Because if your attention is constantly fragmented, it’s very, very hard to deal with what we’re trying to deal with. Also, you don’t want people putting you on the spot and saying, I have to have this answer by three o’clock on Friday, it because these things just don’t respect that at all. So stories of great scientific discoveries and great maths discoveries, just as the great artists creations show that there is, you know, that one needs a certain piece, really an environment in which one can, you know, the environment here is very risks receptive to me, and I am to it, there’s a kind of sounds perhaps rather odd or pretentious, but what I’m really saying is that there is a dialogue, as I say, an encounter, which is an important thing, because it routes you in the world, if I’m in a sort of very harsh sort of box in a city. Somehow, I feel disconnected from the world and from what it might be telling me. Whereas here, surrounded by the words that the sky, the hills or water, the sea, this is something different.
James Taylor 16:22
It might be I think there’s a number of years ago, there was two studies came out. One was from the University of Berlin, I think there was University of British Columbia, where looked at how colors affect our creativity. And the both studies I think, came out of seeing the color that was very good for activating that part of the of the brain that and this is a while since I kind of read this was was the color green. And this is one of the reasons we often get our best ideas when we’re out in nature, seeing the color green, and I was about to tell that to a couple of people yesterday, I was actually in a major I was speaking in Saudi Arabia yesterday, where it’s like, is red is the color everywhere, because this may not go down too well. So I may or may not tell this this story. But have you heard things like that? I mean, is that is something is it? Or is it? Is it still not? You don’t think fully proven? How things like colors? I mean, I’m thinking nothing’s that you know, the worldwide words that you hear about now as well.
Dr Iain McGilchrist 17:18
No, I think that probably plays a very small part, it might be that actually, it’s not that nature is good for us, because the color green is there. But we respond to the color green because it is the color of nature, it’s probably more important than natural surroundings than anything, and green may just remind us of that, or it is a it’s a peaceable color. And it’s the opposite in a way of the effect of red, which is to put one on the left and to make 110, since to be prepared for anger and aggression. So of course, none of that is remotely helpful. What one needs is to be in this peaceful state. So I think the colors blue and green probably are helpful. But you know, I wouldn’t want to reduce creativity to a culture of baby
James Taylor 18:04
abuse in the book, there’s a really fascinating section about the impact of people that have different stages of dementia, or have had strokes, actors, or not basically, directors, artists, and how that has an effect on their creativity, what do you find, when you kind of looked at the impact of things like dementia stroke, on people’s creativity, what was kind of going on in the brain as a result?
The impact of dementia and stroke, on people’s creativity
Dr Iain McGilchrist 18:29
Well, I do look in some detail at what happens to artists who’ve had strokes. And what is very clear, is that it’s very damaging if the right hemisphere is affected. So if there is a stroke or a tumor, or as you say, occasionally dementia can affect one hemisphere much more than another. There are relatively predictable consequences. The moral character of the person, their capacity for empathy, their cognition, all these things do change. But the thing that’s important for the topic of creativity, is that it seems to be the, you know, damage to the right hemisphere is very difficult to compensate for, but damage to the left hemisphere can leave people relatively unaffected, or even in some cases, it’s claimed, rather more creative than they were before. Then there’s a very nice case of a professor, Professor F. We don’t know his name, who was studied. And he had a right hemisphere stroke and began to see all kinds of things all the life he’d been unable to understand. And people who knew him said, it’s wonderful. He’s so much more human. He’s so much kinder he has. So there’s a whole lot of our humanity that is very much dependent on what the right hemisphere is able to give to us a capacity for empathy is one. This business of creativity is Very important, determined by whether the right hemisphere is working or not. And what’s interesting about that is just imagine, if you have a left hemisphere stroke, and I’m saying it, it very rarely seems to damage the knife has the capacity to create. Imagine if they’re a painter, they’ve had a left hemisphere stroke and a right hand, the hand that all life has learned how to paint or draw is affected, they’ve got to learn to paint or draw with the left hand. I mean, I can’t do that. But often, within months, they’re able to do this. And so despite the massive disadvantages of the left hemisphere stroke, in that they can’t express themselves in language so well, and that they can’t use the right hand so well, nonetheless, their artistic productions are at least as great. And this includes poets. So you know, as I say, this is an extraordinary outcome, because people wouldn’t expect it to be that way around.
James Taylor 21:00
Talking about poetry, there was the I was at the Nobel Prize museum a few years ago in Stockholm. And there’s an exhibit there to hear to Mala that the German poet. And it had these little fragments of bits of paper, that she would cut things you’d cut out and bits newspaper, and you can put it in a draw it the same way that David berry used to do as well, in order to if he got she got stuck on a line, she would pull a bit of paper and use it as a prompt to visually to spark her kind of creativity. And you had a conversation recently, I heard with them with Philip Pullman, a really fascinating conversation, and he almost does something a little bit similar, you can develop this little trick. The trick is mind by imagining a word that to come in, is that something that you find you do, or in terms of finding other things to kind of spark to maybe move you out of a fixed way of thinking about something just to kind of like, just be a little bit of a nudge?
Dr Iain McGilchrist 21:56
Absolutely. And I don’t write very few much of at all, but occasionally, phrases and words come to me and I do write them down because in fact, old news, create a lot of his poems out of collocations of words that he just found attractive and written. But yes, I do resonate with that. I thought you were going to talk about Thomas trance termo, who is, I think, a Nobel Prize winning Swedish poet, who had a left hemisphere stroke, but nonetheless went on to write fantastic poetry, which is, which is interesting, because as I say, the left hemisphere doesn’t do all of language by any means some very important parts of language are served by the right hemisphere. But speaking for most people who are right handed is in the left hemisphere,
James Taylor 22:46
does poetry change they’ve become more abstracts or in style became,
Dr. Iain McGilchrist 22:51
is it always been rather terse and Telugu Matic in style. And that aspect was probably accentuated by the stroke? Yeah, the poems are judged to be at least as good as his pre stroke poems, if not better. And it was long after he’d had the stroke that he received the Nobel Prize, he’d written a lot more in the intermediary phase. And that these extraordinary cases of composers, I mean, it’s a little known fact that both Handel and Bach had left hemisphere strokes at some point in their lives from which they made recovery. And Handel was still in the recovery from a left hemisphere stroke when he wrote the Messiah. So you can imagine, but there are cases of composers who had a left hemisphere stroke and went on to write far, far greater and better music than they had before. I’m not sure I’d say that’s true of handling bargains, you know, their work both before and after, it was great, but the preponderance of the evidence is that, you know, the right hemisphere is the important one for, for these aspects of creativity is kind of a nuisance. You know, I’d have paid good money for it to attend out differently, because, you know, one of the only things that people always said about the right hemisphere that was correct, is that it’s more creative. And it’s kind of embarrassing to have to say that after really going into it, you know, for decades, I have to agree that this is the case, because in many other respects, things are the other way around, you know, the left hand moves is not down to earth and reliable. It’s not an emotional I mean, one of the emotions that most strongly lateralized is is anger and it right left realizes the left hemisphere is also not reliable aid. Often, it’s more likely to be subjected to delusions and indeed hallucinations than the right hemisphere by a considerable factor about three or four For one, so it’s not dependable. It’s not boring. It’s actually a bit of a lunatic. And the leftovers on its own is not good judging reality. The right hemisphere is the one that grounds us in reality and reports to us on the depths and the complexity of, of what we’re seeing.
James Taylor 25:18
It reminds me a little bit that that phrase, when he talks about whiskey, I know you’re in a part of the world with very good whiskey, where they talk about whiskey, great whiskey. This is complex, not complicated, I think is the phrase complex, not only rigid, which I love is a phrase. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. And I highly encourage people to go and get this i I’m gonna go now into your back catalogue with the master and emissary, because Because everyone’s I think a lot of people probably have heard about that book first, and then come into this, I’m gonna go back the other way. I’m gonna I’m gonna go in reverse order to read your work in where’s the best place for people to learn more about some of the other projects you’re working on? I know you’ve been doing speaking tours recently as well, where should they go and find out? Everything you’re up to just now.
Dr Iain McGilchrist 26:02
Yeah, there’s a website, channel McGilchrist. There’s an enormous amount of information. And there’s also a lot of videos and talks on it. That’s free. If you really want more, you can become a member and you can join forums and you get invited to ask me questions, which I answer live several times a year. So you can you get more material. If you’re a member, you don’t have to be at all you can just go there and browse for free. That’s where you find out what I’m up to. Yes.
James Taylor 26:34
Fantastic. Well, the matter with things wonderful book is out now. Dr. Ian McGilchrist, thank you so much for coming on the Super creativity podcast.
Dr Iain McGilchrist 26:43
Thank you very much, James.
James Taylor 26:46
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