Reply To: Encounter in the Wild from an LH/RH Perspective

  • 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->