Encounter in the Wild from an LH/RH Perspective

  • Encounter in the Wild from an LH/RH Perspective

    Posted by Jeff Verge on September 14, 2022 at 1:51 am

    I had a recent close encounter with a Grizzly Bear. With so many erudite discussions of Dr. McGilchrist’s work taking place, I thought I would take a different tack and explore a more primal use of our divided brains: dangerous encounters in the wild, once far more common than today. As the event unfolded, I attended in a way that wouldn’t have been possible before. At times I consciously used the “non-duality of duality and non-duality” to help navigate the experience, which lasted a few hours from first sighting to becoming close enough that the bear and I were communicating almost entirely with our bodies, silently and in sync, each of us attending respectfully to our right hemispheres and avoiding direct eye contact.

    This re-presentation leans on Iain’s description of our consciousness as a continually shifting “between-ness” of LH and RH attention modes. (Between-ness in relationship, by the way, I believe was expressed in ancient times with a reverence for the number “3”, however I digress.) By necessity the re-creation is simplified, for example by referencing momentary impressions as “LH” or “RH”, when as above it’s always a singular between-ness. Another simplification is using words for impressions of the RH, which are crude translations at best, or using words at all for what was almost entirely a wordless experience. There are likely more distortions, however beyond some poetic license with word selection and focusing on key moments, it’s as faithful to the original experience as I can possibly be.

    I’ll take it for granted that you are already convinced of the veracity and importance of what Iain has uncovered. Iain’s argument is a net, and if it’s possible to show fraying at a few of the nodes, it doesn’t change the fact that there is still a working net. This is a re-presentation of an experience which I consciously attended to in this specific way, as an enhanced tool of survival. I deliberately used my knowledge of our singular consciousness, able to make use of 2 different kinds of attention, so I could make the best use of each of them, individually and together.


    In the last week of August 2022 I was on 3-day solo hike in the Canadian Rockies, an hour’s drive from Banff. Mid-afternoon on the first day, a third of the way up a steep mountain with just under a mile of elevation gain, I spotted a Grizzly and cub a hundred yards below, the way I’d just come up. They were digging, and then momma had something in her mouth and the cub was running her in circles trying to take it from her. They were playing! After the initial stab of fear it was a bit comforting to see they were happy bears and not hungry bears, although any thoughts I had about turning around and going back down were immediately vanquished.

    Up until then, my RH was engaged with the mountain views, the silence and the fresh air, along with my increasingly aching legs and shoulders. My LH was engaged with picking each step since I was coming up a little-known alternate route, steeper, grassier, and pathless. At 2/3 elevation, the stony and treed path of the west face meets the south face I was on, and a person (or a bear!) can traverse from one side of the mountain to the other. I didn’t know it yet, but this milestone point is where we would have our encounter a few hours hence.

    First spotting occurred while resting and looking down the way I came:

    RH swinging over to LH: That’s interesting. Oh! Those are bears! Oh shit, they’re grizzlies, a momma and big cub! LH: situation analysis?

    LH: They’re busy in a berry patch, far enough away down a steep slope I’m in no immediate danger. There’s an updraft and they can’t smell me or the sandwiches. Good call me paying extra for the good bear spray, which I can get to within seconds if needed. It’s got a 30 foot range and the air is pretty still. The spray has 7 seconds in total. I go 3 seconds with the first shot and assess, then there is a second shot of 3 seconds and a final burst up close if needed. Remember to save some for the third shot in case the first two don’t deter. I want to maintain or increase our distance. I don’t know how fast they could bound up the slope if they chose to. Rest is over, time to climb faster than we have been.

    RH: Our legs are shot. They’ve been shot for hours and every step is torture. How are we going to go faster?

    LH: This is survival now. Leave it to me. I don’t feel this body or the passage of time and I’ll drag it up myself if I have to.

    It might sound contrived, but I did think to use my knowledge of LH/RH differences to help me here. I didn’t think it out in words like above, but I did consciously lean on the LH to keep climbing in spite of straining muscles, which I’m certain gave me a boost. (A reductionist might propose it was adrenaline that gave me the boost, to which I would counter that the adrenaline release was regulated by my emotional response, which was, “concerned”.) I have little memory of the next few hours, except for frequently looking over my shoulder and one time I stopped to rest, halfway to the milestone point.

    I sat for around 5 minutes and didn’t see the bears. Then I spotted them.

    RH: Oh! They’re the same distance away! They’re in a different berry patch. They’re coming up behind us, matching our pace! Situation assessment?

    LH: Keep going. Same pace. I’m close enough now I know I can make it. They’re still busy feeding and not paying attention to me. Soon I’ll be above their berry patches and maybe they’ll turn around and go back down.

    I got to the south/west transverse point to take a major rest and change into warmer clothes, for the final 1/3 push to the top. I had doubled the distance between me and the bears and had eyes on them.

    RH: 200 yards. Situation assessment?

    LH: Two options: Stay here and hope they turn around, or climb up the scree where they’ll never go. If I stay here and they do come up, they’ll come this way because that’s the only way to get to anywhere useful for them. However they’re farther away now and they might not. Sun will be going down soon.

    RH: Legs are shot. Need to rest. Need warmer clothes on soon. Hey! The bears have moved up to the next berry patch. Now they’re the same distance as before. There’s another small berry patch halfway between them and us, if they do keep coming up.

    LH: OK, since I’m staying here I’ll determine the most defensible spot. As it happens, it’s the high ground right above us, 25 feet up a 60 degree slope of small rocks. There’s a knee high rock to sit on and assist with defence if needed. There’s only one way up, from directly below. This spot won’t stop a grizzly but it will slow down a charge and better my chances at getting good shots off. In case of attack I’d have to hold this ground as there’s not much further up to go and no more big rocks to get behind.

    RH: Body says drink water, change clothes and rest up.

    LH: Roger.

    I had my shoes off, one pant leg on, and the contents of my backpack strewn around when I noticed the bears were on the move again. I finished getting my pants on as they got to the last berry patch. They didn’t stop.

    RH: Situation! This is real. The bears are coming up and will cross our path. 50 yards and closing steady.

    LH: I need to get the shoes on. Otherwise mobility will be limited, painful and very uncertain. I have time. I’ll yell at them to make sure they know I’m here. I won’t be able to hide, but at least I can make sure it’s not a surprise encounter.

    RH: They heard us, although they don’t seem terribly impressed or frightened. They are not taking our suggestion to turn around and go back down.

    LH: Alright, I’ve got the high ground, a defensive rock, and am ready with the spray. Once I get the shoes on, then it’s just waiting to see what happens. Back over to [not I].

    RH: Roger. Max perceptual aperture.

    I got one shoe on and tied, and then I only had time to slip on the right shoe untied.

    LH: Good enough. Won’t matter about the shoelace.

    RH: 20 yards. We are ‘in the zone’, perfectly calm, perfectly alert.

    LH: I’m standing up. They already know I’m here, so best to look as big as possible. The high ground will help with that perception. Being in the zone is all kinds of excellent – if I have to take a shot I won’t hesitate or miss.

    RH: 10 yards. Momma is a zen master. She’s walking nonchalantly, not looking at us directly. I can feel her without even trying. She’s relaxed, power harnessed by grace. We are in communion with a common spirit. Our body and her body are in direct communication, and I‘ve never been so sure of anything.

    LH: That’s good. Standing by.

    RH: 5 yards. Our body is very aware that she has us on her radar, but she’s still not making eye contact and she’s still not feeling aggressive. She’s showing us the same respect we’re showing her. The cub is not in sight any more, it’s just momma and us.

    LH: Good that she’s relaxed. She’s attending with her RH. I’ll continue to do same, keeping her in close peripheral vision but avoiding direct eye contact. I want her to know I’m watching closely and without fear, but have no intention to attack unprovoked.

    RH: 0 yards. She’s right below. Still not looking at us. Oh! She let out a loud snort, almost of surprise.

    LH: She’s directly downwind now. Hadn’t thought about that. She can smell me, and she can smell the food. What did she mean with the snort?

    RH: All kinds of things, hard to reduce to words. It was a snort of surprise – perhaps that we smell so funky and suddenly there’s delicious food only a few steps away. It was also a greeting of sorts, acknowledging our presence. It was an inquisitive sound too, asking who we are. She’s still in open RH mode. Still keeping her head down and still not making eye contact.

    LH: I don’t want to make a sound because that will telegraph I am far less powerful. I don’t want to make a move because that could trigger an unexpected response. I’ll remain still. A few more seconds and she’ll be on her way down the other side of the mountain.

    RH: 1 yard past. Shit. She slowed her pace to half and is slowly turning her head toward us. I can feel her activating her LH, zooming to about 15% and climbing. She did not like our non-response, and now she’s considering whether she wants to continue zooming in. I feel it percolating in her like a question. Her movement was very subtle, very graceful, very measured. She’s challenging us about the food, looking just to the left of us, exactly where the food is. Are we bluffing? Will we defend our food? Is there anything stopping her from walking right up and taking it? Somehow I feel we are both attending to the food now as much as each other. Our body is telling her body that the food is mine.

    LH: Yes, she’s demanding a response. I’ll match the escalation. In a movement intended to be equally subtle, graceful and measured, I’ll sweep out my right foot half a step, putting the lower body in fighting stance. This puts me right behind the rock in the optimal defence position. Zooming in similarly but still not making eye contact. Bear spray at the ready but not raised or pointed at her – that’ll be the next escalation if she keeps turning her head and/or stops moving. The next split second might decide how this encounter is going to go.

    RH: 2 yards. She liked the move. We earned her respect. She’s turning her head away and resuming her pace. She let out a loud sniff, not at all like the snort. I interpret it as a bunch of things including: I feel you. It’s rude not to acknowledge a greeting. OK then, I was just checking about the food. I’m not going to zoom in or escalate. Resuming RH attention. Also: Hurry along [my cub], you’re falling behind. This creature isn’t going to hurt you, nothing to be frightened of.

    LH: The cub. I still haven’t seen it. This isn’t over until it passes too.

    RH: 5 yards. A second sniff, like the first. Momma wants the cub to step it up. She’s gone around the corner and is no longer in sight. She doesn’t intend to come back.

    LH: That will change if the cub starts something.

    RH: There’s the cub. So skittish. It’s giving us a wide berth. It just saw its mother give us a pass and it wants nothing to do with us. More frightened than curious, not even coming in close for a sniff, the way momma did.

    LH: It’s over. I’ll tie the other shoe and pack the bag. I’ll get up that scree before it gets dark, in case momma decides to come back later. This was a decent tactical spot for a brief encounter, but it’s steep, lacks withdrawal options, and is no place to camp.

    RH: Momma and cub are heading down a ridge. Moving fast. 75 yards already.

    LH: That doesn’t mean they won’t be back. I can’t stay here. I want to get a ¼ mile of scree below me before it gets dark.


    And that was that. Had I never heard of Dr. McGilchrist, I expect the encounter would have gone much the same. However, it was fascinating to be able to attend in this way. Early on, I was able to tell my left hemisphere to take over and haul my aching legs up the mountain, detached from my body’s protests and the passage of time. Later, during the 1-2 seconds when the encounter might have escalated, I was intuitively and bodily aware that momma bear was shifting from RH mode to LH mode. When she started to zoom in on the smell of my food and consider it might be there for the taking, I understood my aim was to halt the zooming in process, because that’s when things get unpredictable.

    From the moment I first saw the bears I was aware of my 2 modes of attention sync’ing up and working together, to maximize my odds of avoiding a conflict. I was able to lean on the LH for all its good for. I believe that understanding the workings of both mine and the bear’s consciousness deepened my sense of agency, putting me more solidly “in the zone”, as it were, where my reactions to whatever happened would be as good as I could possibly make them.

    The next day I made the summit. I am not conditioned for mountain hiking, so at times I’d been having second thoughts. Looking back though, from the moment I finished, I remember my entire 3 days on the mountain in a magical, mystical haze. I gather that at least some of my memory of this primeval experience is bound in its RH aspect, giving it that sense of the sacred.

    Jeff Verge replied 1 year, 3 months ago 5 Members · 14 Replies
  • 14 Replies
  • Tom Huntington

    September 18, 2022 at 7:15 pm

    Wow @Jeff Thank you, thank you, for sharing your experience👏 So glad you were so skilled at staying in balance with yourself and living to share your experience. I’m inspired by your story.

    Now that you’ve shared the story with your analysis of The Hemisphere Hypothesis with us, I encourage you to keep telling the story with your RH/LH learning . . . maybe even at some Open Mike story telling venues 😁 Even if you live in a place where there are none, there are now many more venues online, thanks to the Covid Pandemic.


    • Don Salmon

      September 24, 2022 at 3:01 pm

      Hi folks,

      I love this group – the more we focus on attention and experience, the more real-world applications we’ll find.

      The first time I was aware of the intuition/analysis distinction (I prefer the psychological to neurological terms – I’m assuming, of course, folks realize intuition = RH and analysis = LH) was as a teenager.

      I had started improvising/composing music when I was 11, but did not start formal study until I was 17. My teacher had me write a fugue. I was pretty good at the technical stuff, but when I tried to put it together into a composition, it sounded dull as dishwater.

      If I ignored technique, and just improvised something sort of fugue-sounding, it sounded very pretty but the structure was almost entirely absent.

      I remember struggling with this for months, and one day it just happened by itself. The music flowed, the intuition was powerful, AND the structure was precise. I could not replicate this at will, but it has stayed with me lo these many years, and I realize just about in any moment of the day, it’s possible to step back BEYOND BOTH intuition and analysis to that place of quiet Being (God, if you wish) from where intuition and analysis can flow effortlessly.

      not that it’s easy, just that it’s possible.

      • Peter Barus

        January 5, 2023 at 2:50 am

        Don, this reminded me of an interview with Phillip Glass that stunned me.

        Nadia Boulanger had taught Glass about the relationship of technique and style. It happened when she assigned him an exercise in harmony. He followed all the rules of voicing, and constructed the passage correctly. Still she shook her head. “But Mademoiselle Boulanger, every note is correct,” he protested. “I know,” she replied, “But it is still wrong.”

        Ancient Zen masters nod approvingly. Correct, but still wrong!

        It was then, Glass said, that he understood what she was teaching him. “Before you can have a style, you have to have technique,” he recalled. “It is the only basis for choice, otherwise you just have a series of accidents.” But it’s more than the sum of its parts: not a question of attaining a voice through technique. “It’s getting rid of the thing,” he explained.

        Reading “The Matter With Things,” there’s an astonishing passage about beauty being the supreme measure of any great achievement, whether philosophical, mathematical, scientific, literary, or artistic.

  • Peter Barus

    December 5, 2022 at 4:54 pm

    I haven’t met a grizzly, and hope to miss that experience, thank you! But I imagine you would not trade it for anything.

    The following is an excerpt from a book I wrote in the context of Japanese martial arts (Matters of Life and Death: Essays in Budo). I’m adding it here as it seems to fit the topic. However, it was written in 2013, long before I knew about Dr. McGilchrist’s amazing work. So it’s in the context of the triune brain and the idea of the fight-or-flight response.

    In the hemispheric lateralization context it seems to me that we are unlikely to be able to put words to events seen from the right-brain perspective except as a kind of after-action report. In my present work, a book about–well, the title is “Surviving Extinction at the Dawn of the Attention Age”–I’m finding it very difficult to deal with what is generally called the conclusion. Iain’s work has been most helpful in this regard, in that at least I may suspect it isn’t merely the onset of dementia. At any rate, here’s my example:

    I once found a baby raccoon in the snow, half its face bristling with porcupine quills. It would die unless they were removed. I had extracted quills from dogs; what did I have to fear from this cute little ball of fluff? Seeing myself as a compassionate being, I decided to capture the tiny creature. I managed to corner it, and moved in – and it launched itself at me with teeth bared, hissing loudly, every hair standing on end! I lost all sense of proportion. My skin seemed to shrink all at once, and before I knew it I had retreated a good ten feet, heart pounding, gasping for breath. My physical reaction would have been more appropriate had it been a charging bear, although we are advised, here in bear country, to stand our ground when it comes to charging bears. I doubt whether I will have any say in the matter. My endocrine system will probably take over.

    On another occasion my mid-brain triggered the “fight” response. I was not expecting a fight; I wasn’t even in a bad neighborhood. I was at work outdoors when a rifle bullet buried itself in a piece of timber near my head. Then I heard shots. When I understood what this was – but not what it meant, apparently – I flew into a rage and ran in the direction of the shooter, shouting something about his ancestry, never thinking about taking cover. I was sure I could see the tracks of the bullets cutting through the tall grasses, inches to the right and left. I had no sense of danger. When the man saw me running toward him, he dropped the weapon and threw his hands up. He had been adjusting the sights on his deer rifle.

    This was not bravery, any more than my retreat from a baby animal was cowardice. The lizard-brain reacts instantly. Other parts of the brain explain what happened later, most likely inventing a heroic story. A charging baby raccoon got the flight response and I back-pedaled before I knew it. Flying bullets elicited the opposite response, and I charged just as thoughtlessly.

    • Jeff Verge

      January 4, 2023 at 7:51 pm

      That’s really interesting. I expect part of the baby raccoon response was surprise, whereas for the bullet you were reacting to something that had already happened? There’s something primal about a frightened, hissing animal. I was lucky my bear was relaxed with a contented belly, otherwise who knows?

      I”m curious if you had any sense of hemisphere shifting, especially when you confronted the gun owner. When it happens to me I’m quite aware of it (and now that Iain has shed some light I understand it better). For example, when I first spotted the bears I was very conscious of sliding from RH mode into LH mode, and narrowing focus as I tried to figure out what I was looking at. Did you have an intense awareness of zooming in hard, and the rest of the world falling away?

  • Peter Barus

    January 5, 2023 at 2:24 am

    It’s well to remember that memory is memory, not the event itself. Hard to say anything definitive. If I understand this, any experience I can remember in language is probably going to be LH, as RH doesn’t speak.

    Fun to speculate… Maybe getting startled is RH, and passes (If there’s time) to LH for interpretation and cataloguing.

    Now it’s already a memory (Shooting? At me!? Better get me with the next one, #%&?!)

    Or, perhaps it passes back to RH and is resolved.

    If I had to guess, it seems plausible that in one case, LH decided to go after the shooter, doing a blow-by-blow running commentary; with the raccoon there was no memory of how I moved ten feet back, but it was over, and LH had dropped it at the first feral hiss. The flight response (faster than LH) seems to have worked.

    Imagine: a trained martial artist encounters a purse-snatcher. Mildly surprising, but not a new experience, so she doesn’t break stride (LH has gone through the techniques thousands of times and isn’t interested). RH, which stored all that training in “muscle-memory” and has no need for LH to figure anything out, moves her body just the precise inch that leaves the mugger grabbing air.

    An untrained person would not see the assault coming (RH), or would react (LH) with typical ineffectiveness. Like I did with the shooter. Or get lucky.

    It’s always lucky if you don’t get shot, or bitten by a wounded animal, or eaten alive by a bear.

    • Jeff Verge

      January 9, 2023 at 9:10 pm

      Yes about memory of experience and its inherent distortions, and then narrowing things down even more into words. As well, it’s a convincing argument that we have to trust in experience as it presences to us, the view from somewhere.

      I thought of a way to explain what I’m thinking of and wondering if others experience too, when I speak of a sense of zooming-in, as RH cedes control in order to zoom in on something. In film it’s called the contra zoom. I had a vague sense it was a Hitchcock innovation so I looked it up and yes it’s also called the Vertigo shot. The lens zooms in while the camera pulls back. I’ve known it other times in different circumstances, but it’s what I experienced most vividly when I first spotted the bears – it was dawning on me that I’d just been where they were not that long ago, and furthermore there were two times earlier I was resting somewhat hidden, and a close-up surprise encounter could have easily happened.

      What I remember most is how intensely analog the experience was, stretching a second or two at most into a beginning state, transition, and altered state, like going down a zipline in my mind, as the threat assessment processes ramped up. That it’s a common movie technique makes me think others know exactly how that feels – to zoom in and pull out at the same time.

      For your story, it could have begun in the moment between sensing that something happened, and it dawning on you that it’s a bullet that could have killed you? Just thinking out loud. Curious how common an awareness of this transition state is. One possibility is that I had the luxury of time to coolly assess my situation, whereas in both your cases everything is happening immediately.

  • Peter Barus

    January 9, 2023 at 11:56 pm

    I can say that I was totally without any cool assessment of my situation in every case. Had I been trained in dealing with charging critters, or flying bullets, my training probably would have taken over. These stories are clearly the LH talking after the fact, and putting a little spin on things. When something happens that we’ve trained for, the stories don’t seem to matter much.

    • Jeff Verge

      January 10, 2023 at 5:35 pm

      I’ll end here agreeing with you mostly but not quite about memory and story.

      Completely agree that memory is always a distorted reconstruction, but it’s a representation of something real, something at least partially stored in the body. I have to make a conscious effort to remember the totality of my experience, because if I didn’t the story has a way of replacing the memory over time. I’m with you on that and that the level of experience will change how it presences, but where I disagree is thinking it’s the only thing.

      One can always reduce – memory isn’t real, stories don’t matter – but that’s the old dead hand of the left hemisphere. If I had been trained for bear encounters I may have had a different experience, perhaps more grizzled and less intense, but I’d still have a story.

      • Peter Barus

        January 10, 2023 at 10:54 pm

        I’m finding this conversation quite clarifying, thanks for staying with it. Without this thread we have been sharing, I’m not sure any of this would have occurred to me.

        I suspect memory is a synthesis of the narrative and background (L & H), but it is all representation and a memory of a bullet is not the bullet. The moment anything happens, it is gone, and the representation is all we have. And maybe all we ever have. So memory is as real as it ever gets, and certainly does matter if anything does.

        I’m intrigued by the notion that the two participate in synthesizing any complicated series of actions, so that even with constant feedback and adjustment to circumstances, familiar functions don’t require a lot of attention. I’m thinking of performance, for example, when technique, once perfected to a degree, is completely discarded, and one becomes a human being (as distinct from a human doing).

        I can attest that at such moments performing is as easy and thoughtless as breathing. And afterwards it is nearly impossible to remember.

        A friend of mine, a student of Lakota medicine, says that fear, such as may arise in an encounter with a bear, is an opportunity to practice a virtue, such as generosity. Perhaps the bear has many mouths to feed, and needs your body, so you make the offer. This doesn’t require you to get eaten, it’s just acknowledging our relationship to life. Maybe an upbringing in that cultural context would qualify as bear training.

        In the heat of the moment, LH might struggle to keep up with events. And certain default reactions are available, such as fight, flight, freeze, flock, etc. Or, the situation being other than life-threatening, but still a cognitive overload, one might break into helpless laughter. In some Japanese martial arts, this is a well-known phenomenon known as the “aiki giggle.” It certainly clears the mind.

        • Jeff Verge

          January 12, 2023 at 2:52 am

          Yes wholeheartedly agree, this is clarifying. I am learning new things about my experience, new connections and so on. You touch on a lot of thoughts, I’ll try to hit a few.

          I expect you’re right about synthesis. It’s coming on 5 months since my encounter, and ever since I started telling the story, and especially putting this RH/LH version here, I find I have to work to reacquire my sense memory of it. The told version struggles to replace the memory, and to become the memory, even though the told version leaves out quite a lot. But there was so much more going on, it’s as if I have to access my body’s sense memories rather than my mind’s reconstructions to even glimpse any part of the totality. I have no science to back it up, but I’d suggest that bodily aspects of memory reveal themselves as closer to the original experience than do mental reconstructions of that same experience.

          One thing I left out of my story, I was conscious of wanting to remember everything, by being as fully in the moment as I could be. I didn’t want to film it, I wanted it burned-in to my memory. And I was surprised by how much of a body experience it was, which I still use as a check against my more mental representations and pictorial memories. Not sure if that helps, just putting it out there.

          I’m a huge admirer of Indigenous ways of knowing, so I thought about how I would put it to your friend of Lakota medicine. I think I had the opportunity to practice respect and communication. I had so much respect for her, as if she was more than just a bear, she was an emissary of the entire forest, which I’d just spent the whole day soaking in. I passed on her first attempt to communicate with sound, but she wasn’t having it and switched to body language, with which I was able to communicate with her. Feeling that connection with her and earning her respect was amazing. I hope I always remember, inasmuch as that’s ever possible.

          Something else I left out of the story. When I first got to the place where we’d meet, I thanked the bears out loud for forcing me up the mountain. This was my third and last ever attempt to get to the top, and they made it easier by cutting off my retreat. Then after they passed I thanked her silently for that intimate moment of respectful connection, and a memory with shamanist echoes in deep time to carry on my ascent to a clear night of stargazing. So to round it out I’ll call it all virtues of gratitude, respect and communication.

          I think about my sandwiches too, from the bear’s perspective. They could be the most amazing smell she ever knew. They were seriously delicious, and even more so after defending them.

  • Whit Blauvelt

    March 30, 2023 at 4:11 pm


    You quote both hemispheres. Yet per McGilchrist only LH has fully command of syntax, while RH’s more capable with finding the poetically-appropriate word, but not with the assembly into sentences and paragraphs. I’ve long been convinced by Jerry Fodor’s work that the language of thought cannot be our public languages. If so, then even the LH perspective, as we know it in the form of the public-language “I” (Freud’s “ego”) is translation of the actual language of thought. I’ve also long favored Rudolph Arnheim’s claim for “visual thinking” — that the visuo-spatial is primary, and anything with language secondary to the core of our thought. But then factor in McGilchrist’s evidences for hemispheric specialization, and the blended picture could be of LH being more language-like, more “literal,” at both language-of-thought level and the surface public language, and RH being more visuo-spatial at every level. In either case, what’s brought to the conscious surface entails translation; but what’s brought to verbal discussion as here, in non-poetic terms at remove from metaphor, requires more of it by the time it’s expressed in our discussions.

    Of course, we are as a species good at telling stories of talking bears and the like, facile at translating into public speech. What I’d like to ask: As you recount your experience, does it feel like you’re doing more translation, more story-telling, on the RH side than on the LH?

    • Don Salmon

      April 4, 2023 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Whit:

      A suggestion. Iain hasn’t really done any research – or much thinking – about how to relate his findings to practical matters.

      Les Fehmi used hemispheric research – VERY much along the lines of what Iain writes about – for 50+ years to help people with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and relationship problems AND to help with athletic skills.

      It rarely works out in practice to divide LH and RH so neatly. Fehmi spoke of 4 major modes of attention:

      Narrow detached

      Wide detached

      Narrow immersed

      Wide immersed

      Detached TENDS to be (not always) LH dominant, and immersed more RH. But in practice there’s dozens of variations and it takes a subtle level of experience to discern what is going on, which we aren’t even close to having the imaging technology to correlate with brain processes.

      If you want something to start with, just notice the difference between being caught up in a mental narrative and “coming to your sense.”

      Getting lost in the stories of our mind almost always involves a kind of partially detached, disconnected state of attention, whereas shifting attention to sensory experience frequently if not always gives more of a sense of immersion.

      The key is – don’t think about this. Look. When you “get it,” it’s so incredibly obvious you can’t imagine how it was ever confusing.

      But don’t complicate it either.

      1. Catch the detached way you’re attending to experience when you’ve just come out of being lost in thought.

      2. notice the difference from detachment to immersion when you suddenly pay attention to sounds in the environment. It’s SO striking when you get how different it is.

      For one thing, among many others, you’ll understand what it is about attention that leads us to believe in physicalism or materialism, and you’ll also see how it affects political orientation, as well as fundamentalist religion vs yogic or mystical religion. It affects our relationship to people, to music, nature, science, sports, entertainment, everything.

    • Jeff Verge

      April 4, 2023 at 9:54 pm

      Hello Whit, thanks for the challenging question. Up front, I’ll say I have no answer. I simply don’t know. Your comment is well-timed though. I am near to finishing a longer, fiction-adjacent version which reads in more detail of that afternoon, employing poetic device and metaphor while not once mentioning brains or hemispheres or The Matter With Things. It just so happens this incident and subsequent recounting from last year has been very fresh in my mind lately as I sculpt this more expanded “public language” version. This, I expect, is the reason my response to you is ten times longer than it need be.

      Your question collapses to an either/or binary, which is one reason it’s difficult to answer. However, since that’s the least intriguing aspect of it I’ll carry on. I have no answer, but I can speak to what I would say are not the answers. The general arc I will follow is this: What I wish to point to is a sense of embodied cognition, prior to either language of thought or of visual thinking. Were I a musician I would perhaps have better tools with which to translate, but alas.

      Do I feel more in my RH or my LH as I recount? Difficult to say. It does occur to me that if someone had a gun to my head right now I might be a lot more able to put my finger on the pulse of each hemisphere, so to speak, as I did when I found myself alone on a hill with two grizzlies. Not being facetious or facile here, I think that’s probably the case. I simply don’t have that same heightened sense of focal bifurcation in a laboratory setting, at home in front of a compter, typing away at a keybard.

      I think it a framing error to reduce my singular experience or its numerous recountings into an either/or of language-of-thought versus visual-thinking. I don’t perceive either as primary, so for me the enduring words vs. pictures debate seems unreal. I have many fragments of visual memory/re-creation from that day last summer, but no intracranial film reel of the event as a whole I can run. More recently I noticed, at an early stage of trying to divine your intent, that fragmentary snippets of possible words and phrases winked in and out of my consciousness, though nothing I could grasp or remember, as in a lucid dream but with words. Going back to this grizzly encounter, only my memory of feeling (or is it my feeling of memory?) during the hours-long unfolding holds any sense of continuity for me. View-from-nowhere theories of cognition, detached from embodiment and emotion, seem entirely beside the point in this real life situation. I’ll circle back to this near the end, because I think it’s important.

      Because I’m crafting a new version of the journey, I’ll refrain from rereading now what I wrote six months ago. (I don’t want to contaminate my memory, however corrupt it may be already.) I do recall addressing the talking bears and the talking RH in the preamble, sufficiently I believe. If memory serves I said, “…crude translations at best.” Here I will extend the observation to include the LH, with a detail I left out of the written version: Prior to the first sighting I had been climbing for hours, everything hurt, and my LH monkey mind was looping nonstop that I didn’t have to kill myself like this, I can stargaze just fine down by the lake, and I should really just turn around and go back down, sparing myself a lot of future pain. I slept little the night before (in my car…) and my monkey mind was having its way with me, clamouring nonstop. I was able to ignore it but I wasn’t able to silence it, if that makes sense. However: at first sighting the LH got real quiet, real fast, and lined up in its proper place, awaiting orders and information and providing analysis. My point here is that not only were there in reality no talking bears and no talking RH, there wasn’t even a talking LH after the spotting.

      Contrasting before versus after of the LH chatter is stark. The before part is comparable to a horsefly buzzing around your head, all day long, never landing. And after: Silence, against the backdrop of the most exquisite silence of the mountains. I cut this part out because the wordy buzzing in my head was just noise that had no impact on the LH/RH version of the story. It’s brought back in the pending “fiction” version. Am I more in my RH or my LH as I recount the differing results of dozens of these kinds of decisions? No way I can know.

      Another example of a detail cut for purpose but being brought back: It was hearing how weak and croaky my voice was the two times I spoke out loud that led me to be silent later on, when the bear first attempted to communicate with sound. I had made the conscious decision earlier, because my normal voice was unavailable at that altitude after 6 or 7 hours of marching uphill, the last few under duress. Am I more in my LH or RH as I conceive and execute this re-recounting? No way for me to say.

      But there’s still much I could say about it. Another aspect of your comment is that I could approach it with any number of ways to answer. And then, whichever approach I choose leads to any number of specific answers, depending on where I am in the creative process, what is the angle, what is the medium, who is the audience … etcetera. As I put in the intro to Beyond Theory, I’ve told this story many times now in person but I only put the LH/RH written-down aspect of it here, because no one outside of McGilchrist readers would understand a word of it. This LH/RH version is a very stripped-down, very thin recounting of the encounter. I cut out everything not directly related to LH/RH, because that was what I was highlighting in this particular version. Was I more in my LH or RH each time I told the story? Was I more in my LH or RH when I was writing the LH/RH version? How about the first draft? The fifth? Again I don’t know but I suspect it’s changing all the time, and that it transcends either/or.

      More generally, in the longer version to follow I hint at more of the <sacred> under cover of fiction. I bring in metaphor and poetic device in a way not relevant to the narrow LH/RH recounting. Between you, me and Channel McGilchrist, all the parts that will seem most fantastical are straight-up veridical translations, and only the trivial bits are made up. I assign even more words to the bear that didn’t talk, in order to translate something of my embodied cognition in that moment after she and I connected, intensely, at around ten yards. Then for the critical decision point when she got interested in my sandwiches, I retain the translation I originally assigned to her body language, because I found no better words to express my impression of what I felt percolating in her, as she began zeroing in on my food. Do I feel more in my LH or my RH when I’m doing these particular recountings? I have no idea. However, I will say that this will be my first ever attempt to write for a general public, and I disagree that it’s facile to write about “talking bears and the like.” It’s actually really hard. I challenge you to write a compelling story about “talking bears and the like”. Perhaps it’s easy for some but not for me – my first attempt at fiction is hardly fiction at all.

      Here I’ll summarize two more aspects of background returning to the next version, which altered how the experience presenced itself to me. 1: At first sighting, I had a moment I can only describe as feeling like two ziplines going in opposite directions. Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Vertigo shot – he didn’t just “make that up”, I now know it’s a translation of a lived experience. Apart from the close encounter, my most vivid memory of the day was of zooming in, intently and intensely, as it dawned on me what I was looking at; that I had just been there not that long ago; and that there were two times before they could have easily surprised me, when I was resting hidden from the glaring sun. In that same moment I felt my RH wrench wide open, striving to know everything knowable about the situation suddenly at hand, heightened alert status activated. One early thought was (I’m translating here … ), “Amazing! I can feel, right now, both types of attention in a heightened state of awareness. I have a rare opportunity to observe the divided brain in the wild.” And so I did. I paid attention and noticed how my two minds were oscillating between narrow and open focus, reverberatively. 2: From the start, I committed myself to remembering and retaining as much of the experience as I possibly could. This was unlike a spoken word recording or a film reel visual capture, it was more like the etching of a subsonic, seismic phonograph. I experienced much of the event as a body sense, and while I have fragments of visual memory and fragments of sound (“almost wordless” – my few words out loud and the bear’s few sounds) I perceive it to be my embodied cognition that anchors all the other, more fleeting, memories. Some of my visual memories (i.e. visual re-creations) have been flat out mistaken. I wrote that I first saw them in a berry patch, but later I was looking through the few photos I got to take and that wasn’t quite right. They were beside the patch when I took the photo. But I trust more implicitly, and submit without proof, that the memory etched into my embodied cognition is more resonant of what I actually experienced.

      A digressive reflection: Another thing about my experience is that I’d been preparing for it all my life. This was not some everyday bear sighting, which are marvelous in themselves and of which I’ve known a few. This was a long duration, then very close and intense, encounter between two apex predators who were well-fed, relaxed, mutually wary, and mutually curious. (For contrast, I’ll reveal now that on the descent I encountered a massive male black bear, maybe 30 yards away, bigger than the grizzly even, but it took off in fright when it heard me coming, tap-tap-tapping my ski poles as I walked through an area with limited visibility. These types of encounter are common and hardly worth recounting. This is left out of the next version.) I’ve been immersing myself in forest to uncover my true nature for over forty years. For over thirty years I carry a deep appreciation for the unwritten ways of what Toynbee calls our pre-civilizational ancestors, and for at least that much time I deeply feel there is what the Greeks called the world spirit. All this went into my openness, to the idea, that I might be able to get inside her head to monitor and influence her emotional state, just as tens of thousands of years of shamans have done before. Lo and behold, I know what I experienced, and no form of reductionism will convince me I’m deluded or that it’s all just a mentalized re-creation after the fact. The word shaman did not cross my mind until long after it was over (thank you Professor Vervaeke…) but it’s the right word, because I know of no better word to describe it. It strikes me that the world is full of people who would have met that bear and experienced none of the awe and wonder and echo aspects, because their modern mind would simply not have conceived or been open to it. Others might have drowned in their own internally-generated fear instead of reaching out empathically to feel what she was feeling. A seasoned park ranger might have shrugged off the incident, missing out on the awe for yet another reason. Me? I went to the mountain to renew my sacred absorption with nature, and the mountain did more than oblige.

      I couldn’t choose between language of thought or visual thinking. To the former, there was how unusually silent the whole afternoon was, with little or no word-thinking as I held my attention to sustained lookout while marching. As recounted above, the LH monkey mind shut right up when things got serious and the RH took over. To the latter, my retained sense is of how non-visual the peak experience was. Twilight was falling, and she appeared to my sight as a hulking, monochrome shadow against a background of grey rock, also in shadow. After one glance at 20 yards I held her in close peripheral vision, because I felt sure that to look at her directly would break the spell, disrupting the flow of information we were each onboarding about the other. I’m certain I “saw” more of her precisely because I kept her in sidelight, trusting my more embodied, holistic sense. Anima Mundi – That’s how I knew her. Is that LH or RH out front as I recount this part of the story? How could I choose? I do bring out more of the mystical/sacred/timeless aspect in the fiction-adjacent version, which some will recognize as real and others will dismiss as insufficiently scientistic, according to their lights.

      Thanks for prompting me to explore this experience further and sharpen my understanding, just as I am revisiting that day and expanding a written story version. As I recount variations in different forms, fitted to different purposes, it all takes on a sense of becoming again. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment yet it continues to reverberate. RH->LH->RH->

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