The Divided Brain and the Search For Meaning

I read a blog post yesterday that referred to a book that I had started to read a few months ago but had stopped due to the heavy nature of its subject matter. The book was called “The Master and His Emissary”  by Iain McGilchrist.

I decided to try and reread the book following the recommendation of the blog’s author and found that McGilchrist had written a short e-book called “The Divided Brain and The Search For Meaning”. where he effectively summarises his book in simpler language as a sort of introduction to his magnum opus.

At the huge cost of 99p I electronically purchased this book and spent a useful few hours reading it. The book presents McGilchrist’s arguments about the importance to the development and decline of western civilisation of left cerebral hemisphere dominance.

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He examines the evidence that he had collected over a twenty year period in writing his original book  about the significant differences of the two cerebral hemispheres. These two hemispheres are asymmetrical and in evolutionary terms could only have developed to oversee different main jobs. (McGilchrist though goes into great detail to debunk the “Split Mind” theory made  popular in the 1970’s by Roger Sperry and others. The hemispheres do tasks collectively but have a broader specialisation).

In evolutionary terms McGilchrist explains how the development of different-tasked hemispheres of the brain came about by giving an example of a bird. The bird needs to focus on his small grains of food in the midst of dirt and grit but at the same time if his concentration is specific to that action alone he may become some other creature’s lunch! There is therefore a need for specific attention and a roaming “broad” attention that works at the same time.

Thus we have the right hemisphere that thinks in pictures, not language, that has an all-encompassing approach to examining the environment and there is the left hemisphere that is about specifics, language, logic and end result.

The ability of the left hemisphere to abstract is a great strength but also a huge weakness according to McGilchrist. He finishes his excellent short e-book with a concern that our western society has gone far too far down the road of left-hemisphere dominance by concentrating on end-result to the detriment of the bigger picture. A great example would be the massive mining of the world’s resources causing pollution. climate change and (in the past) massive health damage.

I am fascinated by the ideas that McGilchrist puts forward. He himself is a remarkable intellectual having studied literature originally and then become a doctor so that he could become a psychiatrist!

To get a really good visual and linguistic appreciation of some of his ideas I would ask you to watch the short RSA video below. Read the e-book and, if you’re brave, attempt the big book!

Brexit: Mission Impossible?

As Britain is about to “trigger” Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

 

To start off with | What is Article 50?

  • Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon gives any EU member the right to quit unilaterally, and outlines the procedure for doing so
  • There was no way to legally leave the EU before the Treaty was signed in 2007
  • It gives the leaving country two years to negotiate an exit deal
  • Once set in motion, it cannot be stopped except by unanimous consent of all member states
  • Any deal must be approved by a “qualified majority” of EU member states and can be vetoed by the European Parliament

I have emphasised the key point of Article 50, which is that the process of withdrawal is supposed to happen in two years. Now  two years would seem a long time to negotiate a withdrawal from any organisation. But the European Union is no ordinary organisation.

We are not splitting up a company, having a domestic divorce or even seeing a change of political administration. Since Britain became a member of the E.E.C. in 1970 (later to become the European Union following the 1993 Maastricht Treaty), we have become one of  the largest and most important players in a significant political, economic and legal entity that affects many aspects of our everyday lives.

The splitting up from this Union is therefore an incredibly complicated process. As I have outlined above it has to take into consideration political agreement, new trade treaties with what has become our most important trading partner and the need to change a significant proportion of our laws relating to working conditions, education and habitation as well as right to social security and other benefits to EU nationals living and working in Britain and the rights of our fellow citizens working and living in EU countries.

The key point here is that all this has to be settled (according to the wording of Article 50, which was , as it happens, drafted by by Scottish cross-bench peer and former diplomat Lord Kerr of Kinlochard) in two years!

I read an article (online) from the Financial Times that I think does a brilliant job in trying to explain the minefield that Britain is about to enter after we “trigger” the clause this Wednesday (29th March). It is titled:

Brexit: everything you need to know about Article 50

I would strongly recommend anyone to read it if they are seeking some light in the smog that surrounds this crucial issue.

We are about to start what could be the most significant change in the history of my country in my lifetime and indeed since the ending of the Second World War. I saw an interesting debate from the London School of Economics on YouTube the other day about Brexit following the triggering of article 50. One of the speakers gave two possible scenarios for what might happen over the next two years.

(1) We get an agreement about trade, rights of EU and British nationals and are able to set up a smooth exit that is mutually agreeable to both Britain and the EU.

(2) The whole thing ends in no agreement and Britain is essentially cast adrift with huge problems about trade deals, the rights of our planes to land in the E.C. and facing the exit of valuable workers from the EU from our economy.

The F.T. article included a brilliant little video entitled “Brexit: Mission Impossible?”. It is to be hoped that we do not drift towards the realisation of the second scenario outlined by the L.S.E. professor for our sakes and most significantly for the sakes of our children and their descendants for many years to come!

 

Listening to each other

In the distant past people would sit around a fire and listen intently to the person telling a long story.

Writing hadn’t been invented yet but language had. People enjoyed listening to stories that could be fictitious or some recollection about a hunt or a journey to explore new worlds (probably just up the road by modern standards!).

People loved the mythologies that was a collective invention by the group or tribe and would embellish stories that could be passed on from one generation to the next. These stories fed the imaginations but also served as a kind of glue that allowed a group to create a common culture. They  defined morality and created the heroes that represented  the standards and ambitions of the group.

I remember my father once gave me a beautiful book about “cavemen” that had a superb illustration of a raging fire with men sitting around it with awed looks on their faces as the Shaman or Chief told his tale.

The thing that was also obvious from the picture was that everyone around the circle was listening intently. Every word would be heard and they would be able to later recall much of the story to their friends and family who were not present.

The ability to listen was a key skill in passing on stories and all the attendant social, political and moral attitudes that defined the group. Listening was not something that just developed. It would have been honed from childhood by parents and carers talking to children and “educating” them into the groups ways.

It seems to me that the key skill of listening carefully to others has declined appreciably in our modern society. This stems in so many ways from early childhood where parents seem less and less to read or tell stories to their offspring. Nowadays many children watch the television or play video games until they are told to switch off and go to bed.

As a teacher for many years I noticed how “listening skills” were often lacking. Children could not follow instructions, they missed key points of explanation and would even have problems in listening to each other in small groups or paired work.

In the wider society we seem to have the same problem. I often listen to “Question Time” on Radio 5 on a Thursday evening. The questions are asked and the panel seems to have their own opinions based on their political positions (right, left or centre) but very rarely do you have a panellist agreeing to something that someone has just said. It often turns into a collection of political statements reflecting personal prejudices.

I thought of this today when I read a Facebook entry by an American cousin who is a doctor. He was asked to attend a meeting in Washington D.C. of physicians from across the country to discuss the forthcoming Republican Bill to change/reform the Obama Healthcare Act.

My cousin is a registered Democrat who has no love of the current President. He stated though that he had read the bill carefully and that there were parts of it that actually corrected some of the parts of the Obama Act that made good sense to him.

He stated that it was important to read, to discuss and most importantly to listen to arguments from both the Republicans and the Democrats and to be prepared to compromise, change what needed to changed and leave what makes sense.

Unfortunately his words are likely to be drowned in the sound of biased political rhetoric that constitutes political discussion both sides of the Atlantic these days.

We desperately need to learn again the ancient skills of our forebears, to listen intently and discuss from what has been said rather than from our entrenched positions.

Haim Ginott, the Israeli Philosopher and Teacher once said that in a classroom discussion the person who speaks next should have to explain the last speaker’s points before they spoke. This is to prove one thing, that they were listening! I think maybe panellists on Question Time, Members of the U.S. Congress and indeed all of us, might have far better discussions and maybe meeting of minds if they did the same!

We desperately need to relearn how to really listen to each other.

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Hidden figures: The fight for race and gender equality

A couple of days ago, I gave my wife an idea for one of her entries for her Facebook Friendship Group. I suggested that she gave the members of the group the chance to suggest what film or films had really impressed them in the last year. I thought that recommendations would be useful to other members to look up or go and see these films.

I suggested “Lion”, the film about a young Indian boy who travelled over 1000 miles in a train and finished up in a Mumbai orphanage and was later adopted by a Tasmanian couple. Suggestions from the others were Viceroys House, Hacksaw Ridge, Fences and Hidden Figures.

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The last in the list sounded interesting to me so I looked it up. It was based on the true story of young black female human “computers” who worked for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (N.A.C.A.). It was based upon the book “Hidden Figures” by Margot Lee Shetterly.

In the book Shetterly documents the lives of a little known but significant contribution that these women made to the American space project. One woman in particular played a significant part in working out the key mathematical information needed to get the first successful manned rocket flight up and back safely and contributed to  Apollo 11’s  first landing by man on the Moon and the successful rescue of the Apollo 13 flight. Her name is Katherine Johnson and her story in itself is inspiring.

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Now the fact that Johnson was born in the American South in 1918 meant a number of things. Her early precocity in being able to read and showing signs of brilliance in mathematics was not going to get her the chance to get any form of education beyond 8th grade. College for a black woman was almost unknown.

Her father took the unusual step of backing his children (she had 3 siblings) and drove 120 miles to find a black college that his daughter could continue her education in. Even after she graduated there were few opportunities for gifted female mathematicians in the segregated and racist American South.

She was fortunate in getting a position at the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton Virginia. She was one of a large number of female “computers”, who in the days before electronic computers, would spend all day and every day number crunching huge amounts of data. The black “computers” were housed in what was called the “West Building” which had inferior facilities (including toilets) and they were not allowed to go into the main (whites only) building where the main research was going on in support of missile and space technology.

Katherine proved herself to be more than just a number cruncher. She had a superb mathematical mind and was able to assist NACA and later N.A.S.A. (The National Aeronautics and Space Administration) as it became, to do significant calculations about flightpaths and re-entry points that made potentially disastrous flights into the space triumphs that we witnessed in the 1960’s.

In the film, which, like all Hollywood versions of true stories, tends to put glamour and gloss over everyday struggles, the problems that Katherine and her colleagues faced in overcoming prejudice because they were black and female is well depicted. They were often excluded from attending meetings, they were not allowed to see so-called “confidential” information and they had to face the day-to-day problems of acceptance by their colleagues.

My interest in this story is based upon my amazement that in the face of prejudice on two fronts (gender and race) these women managed to continue their studies and prove to succeeding generations that women can be good mathematicians and that black people are no different from any other race in their ability to make a major contribution to this world.

The sadness of it all is that there are still so many young black and Latino children in deprived areas of America who face problems in getting a proper education and whose ability to make the contribution that their talents fit them for is cut off. What other contributions would we have seen in our world if the barriers and walls of prejudice were not erected? Katherine is not a one-off she is an example of what could be.

Slaves to technology

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My wife recently posted a video on her Facebook group that was entitled “Have we become slaves to technology?”.

The picture above is one of a number of chilling cartoons depicted in the video. One of the  biggest changes of our “always online” society is that people actually go to bed with their mobile phone on and waiting next to them, because you never know how important that email or text can be that arrives at 3 O’ Clock in the morning!

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Old and young are now living their lives around the technology. In the pictures above we see why there is so much concern about the lack of physical exercise that can have real implications to our health. I loved the depiction of the man become rooted to his armchair as he uses his remote to flick through the numerous channels transmitting 24 hour mediocrity.

The other photo of the child in the park alone with his football whilst all around him are children sitting on benches texting or using Twitter or Facebook, is particularly worrying. We live in times where childhood obesity has become a national concern and yet we seem powerless to prevent the decline in children’s active participation in physical activities, particularly after the age of 10.

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The daily commute in the bus or train has given us scenes such as the cartoon above. Everyone is on their tablet or phone and is immersed in their silo of continuous communication. They seem unaware of who is sitting next to them, they are switched off from their own immediate reality and are only aware of their virtual existence. This is exemplified brilliantly in the cartoon below where we live inside the prisons of our own mobile phones!

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Even eating our meals has become a process of having to have the phone, laptop or tablet open whilst we eat whatever is on our plate ignoring our own partner who is similarly immersed in the net and both are totally unconcerned about the food they are actually eating.

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Perhaps the most worrying thing to me is exemplified in this next cartoon. It shows the death of literature, killed by the tweets, the texts, the Facebook entries and the Instagram’s (each nail in the coffin bears the ubiquitous symbols of the new media titans).

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The question that the video asked was “Are we becoming slaves to technology?” This last cartoon I think answers that question.

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The key importance of women’s rights 2017

On November 6th 2012, I wrote a blog post entitled “The Key Importance of Women’s Rights”.

In the post I stated the following:

“Throughout the world, women are treated unequally in respect of men. There are horrible examples of where they are forced into early marriage, have children too young and eventually have to sell their bodies in order to survive. Many of them get Aids and untold numbers suffer from physical problems relating to childbirth or rape.”

Here we are over 4 years later, on International Women’s Day, 2017 and the same words largely apply. In the last four years there have been examples of a horrible gang rape of a young student in India, of women’s continued exploitation in third world sweat factories and the fact that women’s pay still does not come near to equality with men’s pay. In Ireland, as I write there is a huge debate about abortion rights for women that is an ongoing one that has left many young, pregnant Irish women to flee to the U.K. in order to get a chance to have a say on their own future.

Today’s Google has a banner link to a search for the International “”Women’s Day. Here is a photo of the top part of the search:

 

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At the top of the page was a long line of women’s photos. These are all women who have done remarkable things in their lifetime. I looked a cross the list and, with the exception of Miriam Makeba, Ada Lovelace and Sally Ride, I had not heard of any of them.

Women, despite the obvious problems of lack of opportunity for education and overcoming the indifference or downright hostility of men, have been able make huge contributions to our world.

One woman who was known for her looks and her notoriety as a film actress was actually a brilliant inventor, who was able to influence the world of electronic communication and indeed set up the basis of the wireless world that we all inhabit today. She was Hedy Lemarr.

Looking at the Wikipedia link above you will see that the article spends a lot of time telling about the fact that she was a beautiful “pin up girl” who made some  Hollywood films and lived a life that we would nowadays call a “celebrity”. There is one paragraph about her invention, along with George Antheil of a device for changing electronic signals that was originally developed for finding torpedoes but would eventually form the basis of satellite and bluetooth technology.

Lemarr is now lauded as one of the inventors of our modern world but in her own lifetime she was seen by many as just an object, a pin-up, someone to be looked at and dreamed about but not as a brilliant inventor who had a major contribution to make to our world.

It seems so sad to me that we still spend so much time treating women as objects. We want them to fit some ideal of size and looks and are somehow frightened by their abilities. It has never been easy to be a highly intelligent woman in a man’s world, look at the examples of Georges Sand and George Eliot, who along with the Bronte sisters, had to give themselves a male name in order to have any chance to get a readership in a male dominated world.

But Lemarr, Sand and Eliot were successes. They were at least able to develop their potential and make a contribution to the world. What I always wonder about is the women who have lived and died as mothers, factory hands, child-producing machines who had within them so much that they could have given to the world if they would only have been given the chance.

On this International Women’s Day, I feel that the best thing that we can hope for is that I can be able to repeat this post in a few years time and say, there have been developments and 50 percent of the world’s population are now able to develop their potential without fear of exploitation, degradation, mutilation. That they are able to have body shapes that reflect their wants and not other people’s desires and that they are given equal opportunity to men in every walk of life.

Between La La Land and reality

 

The embarrassing mix-up for the award of Best Film at the Oscars last week in some ways represents the current situation of the United States itself.

The award was initially given to “La La Land” which is a completely escapist film that harks back to the escapist films of Busby Berkeley in the 1930’s. Then, as now, Hollywood deemed that the unemployed, the dispossessed, the angry masses needed to escape into a world of music, glamour, dance and catchy music. Give them a romance and a struggle by a pretty girl to get to the top in some Broadway show, sing and dance with a handsome leading man and let the camera play around with as many different ways as possible of getting sequined ladies opening umbrellas or kicking their legs.

It was geometric in result and even now fascinating to look at, but a million miles away from the lives that the film-watchers would walk back out into after they left the cinema.

The world they walked into had been pitched into near total collapse and mass unemployment by the gambling of the New York Stock Exchange (Wall Street) in 1929. In 2007 the World saw the beginning of what has become known as the “Global Financial Crisis”. Again, the gambling of stockbrokers and financiers caused a near melt-down of the world’s largest economy (U.S.A.) and subsequent problems for most of the countries in the world.

La La Land

“La La Land”, when it opened, received almost unanimous praise from the film critics. It seemed that they were carried away with the film’s obvious homage to the past, the Busby Berkeley type dancing and singing on a Los Angeles highway, using car roofs as a stage, the “Singing In The Rain” type scenes as the two forlorn lovers walked the streets of an almost deserted city and sang to each other in a similarly deserted park. The use of Jazz (the popular musical form of the 1930’s and 40’s) as the male hero’s obsession.

Like the Berkeley musicals of the 1930’s the cinema-goers would be walking out to a very different world when they left their “Movie House” in some “Rust Belt” town that had seen its factories closed and fall into ruins and where many of the young people survived without a job or from their basic pay job at some restaurant or in a supermarket.

“La La Land” was a very different film to “Moonlight” which was the film that actually won the Best Picture Oscar after the initial chaos of getting the wrong cast and filmmakers to go up on stage and even start to make their acceptance speeches!

In “Moonlight” we are into the life of Chiron, the small, sensitive bullied son of a single crack-cocaine addict mother living in a tough Latino-Black area of Miami Florida. It traces Chiron’s life from a young bullied boy, through to his teenage years and finally his drift into being a drug dealer as a young, confused and mentally bruised adult.

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We see the realities of life as one of the underclass in modern U.S.A. It does not hide us from the anger, the degradation, the poverty, the crime, the addiction to drugs as a way out of a living hell. It is what I have always called a “hedge backwards” film in that it has the effect on your mind of having had a harsh physical work out, such as being dragged through a hedge backwards.

Going into a cinema to see this film would be like taking the harsh world outside in with you to our Rust Belt film-goer. It is not an easy watch, it makes you uncomfortable as it lays down a harsh slice of real life for you to see and think about. But, to my mind, it is all the better for acknowledging the realities of life in the U.S. (and many other countries) today.

It was a trailblazing film in that it was written by, directed and starred predominantly black actors (or Latino ones). Following the last two years where no black actor, writer or film had been nominated for any sort of Oscar, it could be seen as Hollywood’s attempt to even-up things from a publicity point-of-view.

I think that, if it were only seen in that light, then it would be a real shame. Is it the best film ever made? No. Is it the best acted? No. But, in my opinion, it is light years better than “La La Land”.

On a personal note, I would have given the best Film Oscar to “Lion”.

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This was a real life story about a young Indian boy who finishes up on a train that takes him nearly 1000 miles across India to the teeming city of Mumbai where he mixes in to the street urchin life until he is rescued by an orphanage that eventually gets him adopted by a childless couple in Tasmania, Australia.

The boy grows up to be a very sensible and accomplished man who has an obsession with finding his real mother in India. Through the help of “Google Earth” and much painstaking research, he eventually manages to track the village where he was born.

The cinematography was brilliant, the acting was superb and it had a feel-good ending, that was not made up but really happened! Something for the rust-belt cinema-goer to feel pleased about when they emerge into their reality.