Inhibitory neurons at play between L+R prefrontal cortex

  • Don Salmon

    April 27, 2023 at 9:41 pm

    Hi Whit:

    I read the article and if I’m understanding it correctly, it underscores a point I’ve been making since I read TMAHE over 10 years ago.

    While it’s helpful to have these theoretical discussions in which we talk as if there’s some precise delineation between left and right hemispheres, my understanding is that in practice, we have absolutely no idea in any moment what is going on in terms of relative activity in each hemisphere.

    I think it’s much much more powerful to learn to discern the differences in attention that are occurring moment to moment.

    This is particularly interesting to me because cognitive flexibility was the main theme of my doctoral dissertation.

    In the mid 1990s, I did clinical work, teaching people with chronic pain how to use mindfulness to reduce pain. My subjective assessment of how people did was that almost 2/3 weren’t actually being mindful at all; they were just using mindfulness techniques to develop muscle relaxation.

    Which, of course, is great, but I know that if they understood mindfulness it would be more powerful. So the hypothesis I developed was, the sign that people were actually being mindful was the their mindset shifted, which reflected a significant level of cognitive flexibility. My general estimate was about 33% of people actually had sufficient cognitive flexibility to use mindfulness to reduce pain.

    My specific hypothesis for the research was that pain reduction would be directly proportional to the level of cognitive flexibility (ie more flexibility, more pain reduction).

    I (and my advisors!) were quite impressed to see that in fact, in the experiment, about 30% of research subjects demonstrated sufficient cognitive flexibility to make a significant reduction in pain, and in fact, flexibility was indeed proportional to the level of cognitive flexibility.

    Now, you don’t need any brain scans to see this. Les Fehmi, a physiological psychologist, taught people to modify their attention, and over 50 years used this with great success to reduce depression, anxiety, chronic pain, relationship problems, and to train competitive athletes (including those at the Olympic level) to improve their skills.

    In real life, attention is INCREDIBLY complex, and in any moment, you’re using a very very multi-layered level of different kinds of attention, some of which you can correlate with the hemispheres, but for the most part, you’re using not just the whole brain at each moment, but the entire nervous system, and in reality, the consciousness associated with all the trillions of cells in the body (and dare I say, the consciousness outside the body as well>))

    • Whit Blauvelt

      April 28, 2023 at 3:26 pm


      What jumps out to me in this research is the centrality of the inhibitory neurons. McGilchrist mentions in his books that the corpus callosum has more such connections between the hemispheres than it does excitatory. (It’s unclear from the write up here whether these long neuronal connections are through the corpus callosum, more more direct; but that’s not central to the finding.) So to learn, we need to break from habit. Evidently either hemisphere’s “executive” frontal lobes will continue on the path of habit unless the other hemisphere jumps in to inhibit it. (Frustratingly the authors aren’t differentiating hemispheres, at least in their gloss here.)

      Mindfulness, too, is at least in part learning to inhibit habituated responses, so as to look more freshly at the world. To stay on the path of mindfulness, then, may require either hemisphere to regularly inhibit the other’s tendency to settle into habit. McGilchrist argues that the RH is far better monitor of the LH that vice versa; but perhaps this inhibitory potential is potent in both directions?

      Much as I find the suggestion of “free won’t,” which follows from Libet’s claims, generally overdone, the research reported here does suggest something similar — that inhibition of one hemisphere’s “executive function” at appropriate occasions is a key to our freedom and response ability to newness in the world.

      • Don Salmon

        April 28, 2023 at 3:53 pm

        Hi Whit:

        I guess I have to fall back again on my preference for experience over neuroscience.

        I think the examination of brain functions is interesting, and perhaps in our modern world necessary, but there’s two crucial points.

        1. Rick Hansen, who may have started the modern craze for neuroscience and mindfulness, wrote in the intro for Buddha’s Brain, “You don’t have to know ANYTHING about neuroscience to practice mindfulness. He kind of tentatively added that it won’t necessarily help you practice mindfulness to know anything about the brain. I’ve personally used neuroscience references a LOT in teaching mindfulness, not because it helps practice, but because it gives people more faith that it works.

        2. At present, we have no technology, no means, to even have a clue what a person is thinking or feeling except by asking them. That’s how all neuroscience research is done. we don’t even know for sure if a person under anesthesia is conscious.

        So in regard to what is happening in the brain, it’s interesting but as far as I can see from 4+ decades of practice, it not only not helps but can get in the way.

        Mindfulness in PRACTICE is SO much more complicated than the inhibitory processes you describe.

        To give one example I’ve had to deal with a lot, take the default mode. For over 10 years, the reporting on this emphasizes that in the default mode (when we’re not focused on any particular task) our mind tends to focus on the negative – a result of our evolutionary history and the need to be on the lookout for physical danger.

        But recently people have been protesting – no, mind wandering is wonderful and the basis of much creativity.

        So then people say, “Well, mindfulness may be good for some things, but mind wandering is good also.”

        ARGHHH!1 This is such a profound misunderstanding of mindfulness AND creativity.

        I prefer Les Fehmi’s language. Rather than ever talking about “mindfulness’ (which, by the way, in the way it’s almost universally taught nowadays, doesn’t exist in Buddhist texts!!) he speaks of open focus

        In open focus attention, you can choose to engage in any number of different ways of attending. And these ways are combined in so many different ways, it’s a virtual impossibility that ANY brain description could capture the subtlety of it.

        Since nobody has determined whether the brain produces consciousness or simply receives and transmits it, if it turns out what we call the “brain” is nothing more than an image in a universal consciousness, obviously, our experience is going to be infinitely richer than anything that occurs in this one particular localized image referred to as “brain” or “body.”

        • Whit Blauvelt

          May 2, 2023 at 8:27 pm


          I’m in no way suggesting that inhibitory neurons are some simple explanation in themselves, just that they are part of one. My own approach to mindfulness has much to do with reading a lot of Krishnamurti as a teen — an emphasis on keeping consciously aware. The paradox is that maximizing awareness is not simply a matter of concentration, but also requires relaxing back into the awareness we already have. This, if McGilchrist’s ascription to the hemispheres is correct, is itself a leaning towards the RH perspective, as the RH is according to him more richly aware of our surroundings on an ongoing basis. The “absent minded professor,” on the other hand, lost in verbalized thoughts, should be more LH, obviously.

          Yet there’s also a state, epitomized by McGilchrist’s hero Wordsworth perhaps, where awareness is integrated — where we’re both intensely experiencing awareness of the our present scene, and are clearly engaged in abstract, verbalized thoughts which are consonant with, even informed by metaphors from, clear present awareness. That’s what some of us experience with great music, great landscapes — an awareness where, whatever the inhibition of one mode by another, the modes are active in mutually-supporting ways.

          It’s one thing to become skilled enough at mindfulness to ease suffering. Perhaps, for many Buddhists, this is enough. But it’s another to become skilled enough at mind tuning to achieve our positive creative potentials, across the range of arts and sciences, as well as personal and social relations.

          There are different modes of consciousness, appropriate to different circumstances. But there may be principles of tuning which apply for playing consciousness well in any of those modes. So we may be shifting between task mode and default mode, that is between tight focus and daydreaming (neither of which I find depressing); and we may be shifting between LH and RH led activities; but there’s something to handling those modal transitions well which goes beyond simply preferring one to another. In Western music we use “tempered” tuning, which enables switching between modes and keys while still sounding in tune. Is there then a mindfulness which is beyond simple preference for RH over LH orientation, or task mode to default mode, or visual over verbal thinking, but rather enables us to range across modes, and play in each of them relatively well?

          • Don Salmon

            May 3, 2023 at 3:16 pm

            Hi Whit:

            Maybe you can help me out.

            You asked at the end if there’s a way of mindfulness, or attention, that combines all these ways.

            I’m having trouble figuring out why my writing doesn’t come across. I wrote:

            “In open focus attention, you can choose to engage in any number of different ways of attending. “

            <font face=”inherit”>This is exactly what you’re talking about. Les Fehmi wrote about and, unlike Iain, </font>actually<font face=”inherit”> taught people this process for over half a century. He conducted research on the </font>practices<font face=”inherit”> also – again, as </font>opposed<font face=”inherit”> to Iain who is wonderful and all that, but has little if any experience (I don’t know what he </font>does in his psychiatric practice, but I haven’t seen him mention this anywhere) applying these practices. Fehmi had thousands of patients, and trained Olympic athletes as well. People were cured of virtually every kind of physical pain syndrome, of severe depression and anxiety, of trauma, relationship problems, and improved all kinds of athletic skills.

            But why focus only on the cortex?

            That “awareness” (even Krishnamurti accepted this) is not “in’ the brain, but the brain and body are in awareness (as is the entire universe and all possible universes.

            So we start with Awareness (Sat Chit Ananda)

            Awareness obviously is associated with an Intelligence (the Logos, reflected in laws of nature, instinct in animals, intelligence in humans yet far beyond all of that) which manifests through the human mind, as analytic, selective, separative, detached attention, and immersed, global intuitive attention, manifesting in any particular moment in an infinite variety of ways, which can be surfed or navigated via Open Focus or what mindfulness was originally intended to be, far from the pop mindfulness of the past 50 years).

            And then there’s emotion, instinct, impulse, of an almost infinite variety, and volition- at the instinctive, emotional, mental, and “supramental” levels.

            That’s a minimum for a remotely adequate psychology – one that goes far far beyond these categorical RH/LH distinctions.

            I spent 5 years writing a book about the yogic psychology of Sri Aurobindo, who himself brought together several thousand years of Vedic/Vedantic psychology as well as a vast trove of Western literature and philosophy (gleaned from his years as a star student in Greek and Latin at Cambridge). the psychology described in that book is infinitely more complex than what I touched on above, and simply using LH and RH categories can’t begin to capture this.

            Then we get to neuroscience. I’mm sorry I’m probably prejudiced as a psychologist. I took 2 years of neuropsychology and I didn’t find anything useful from a practical standpoint (neuropsychological testing is actually as good or better than any of our brain-studying instruments in determining various kinds of tumors, strokes, etc but as far as understanding the psyche, almost useless – similarly, I fear, with neuroscience. Iain gets his insights from well being insightful, and then seeing correlations in neuroscience literature)

            Oh well, I’m dashing this off in the midst of a busy day so i’m probably not doing well at all in getting across my point. But this stuff has been known for millennia. Regarding your idea about Buddhism, the entire Mahayana and in particular, the Tantric Buddhist schools, are all about reaching a level of mental, emotional and physical perfection which is thought impossible by our modern “scientists/engineers/technicians,” who look at patterns without any clue as to how they come about and think they’ve explained the universe!

            • Whit Blauvelt

              May 3, 2023 at 6:27 pm


              Thanks for the Les Femhi reference. His name is new to me. Aside from Buddhist practices, and Ram Dass’s “be here now” approach, I’m also familiar with Ellen Langer’s work at Harvard. And I’m particularly taken by several specific suggestions from Chuang Tzu along these lines. I’m not only convinced there are varieties of mindfulness which work, but focus on my own variant thereof on my daily constitutional walks in the forest. It works well for me.

              Granting all that, I don’t see why you’re encouraging us to simply ignore further work in extending and integrating McGilchrist’s hemispheric hypothesis. Where I’m finding it particularly useful and challenging is in the implicit suggestion that, in addition to the unconscious-conscious threshold, there is also a threshold between the hemispheres. That’s to say, in our typical understanding of “the unconscious,” we may conflate conscious contents arising from the true unconscious, as it were from beneath consciousness, with contents as it were coming across from the less verbal side of the brain.

              We can, of course, take an effective medicine without understanding the chemistry and physiology of it. We can practice effective mindfulness likewise without knowing how it is really working. But to develop new medicines, new practices, digging into the underlying reality is essential. I’m not dismissing mindfulness — quite the opposite; but it would be wrong to dismiss all the evidences McGilchrist has assembled too. Isn’t our deep respect for his work why we’re here?

  • Lucy Fleetwood

    April 28, 2023 at 7:31 am

    Hi Don,

    This is so interesting. In relation to your last paragraph can you recommend some reading so that I might understand more?


    • Don Salmon

      April 28, 2023 at 1:23 pm

      Hi Lucy,

      I’ll do one better. If you like, you’re welcome to take our courses for free. Write me at

      Our courses on effortless mindfulness and effortless sleep are all based on this understanding of attention (and awareness) – I daresay you might even get some new insights on the doshas and their relationship to the gunas!

      Take a look at the 2d video (the lower one) on this page: http://www.RememberToBe.Life where I go into the different modes of the brain, and how this relates to different kinds of attention. I don’t mention hemispheres, but you’re welcome to ask here if you’re interested.

      To me, this is by far the most important thing related to Iain’s work. Like Mihalyi Czikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who has researched flow experience for over 50 years, Iain has touched on the key to the survival of civilization, but he’s not very good at offering practices.

      Here’s 3 people who have done so:

      1. Loch Kelly. His “glimpse” practices – basically, simplified versions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen practices from Tibetan Buddhism – are excellent. his first book was not written to well, and you can get all you need from his 2nd: “The Way of Effortless Mindfulness.”

      2. Culadasa, aka former neuroscience professor John Yates. In his book, “The Illumined Mind,” there’s a section near the beginning where he teaches how to shift attention from “selective attention” to “peripheral awareness.” The book is INCREDIBLY complex and I only mention it to show that others are working with this. I will say – meditators who practiced 20-30 years went to him and within a month or two, were experiencing long stretches of complete mental silence (NO verbal thoughts). I can attest – as this was happening to me more and more when I discovered Culadasa in 2016 – his practice works. But you can do the same with Loch’s practices or the next guy, Les Fehmi:

      3. Dr. Les Fehmi. He was (deceased in 2019) a psychophysiologist who since the early 1970s, studied hemispheric relations, but unlike Iain, his interest was almost entirely practical.

      He noted 4 basic types of attention

      Detached narrow, and detached wide attention (tending to be associated with the LH

      Immersed narrow and immersed wide (RH). Both of these are related to the flow experience.

      But most of all, and this relates to what I said about how, in experience, you can’t really isolate one thing as “LH” and the other as “RH – Fehmi taught Open Focus, which is a state of deep integration of the entire brain (subcortical as well as the cortical hemispheres).

      You can learn to shift into Open Focus (which is what we mean in the video on the Remember To Be site by “experiential mode”) and from there, you can make a choice as to how to attend. You don’t really choose in a LH fashion, by analyzing. You learn to surf the world of experience.

      IN any moment, I’d be hard pressed to say “I’m in a LH mode or RH mode.”

      But you get a feel for an emphasis – you’re more focused, or your attention is wide. You’re more immersed or detached, and it changes from moment to moment.

      Fascinating stuff. Be sure to write at if you’d like to take the courses for free.

      • Don Salmon

        April 28, 2023 at 1:24 pm

        By the way, Lucy, when I discovered Culadasa’s book, I wrote to him and asked if he heard of Iain’s work, since I thought they were addressing the same thing.

        He wrote back to say he had just discovered TMAHE the week before.


  • Don Salmon

    May 3, 2023 at 6:52 pm

    Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. I think McGilchrist has written 2 of the most essential, important books of the 21st century. So don’t think I’m putting down his work.

    I’m talking about practice, which, unless you can point to any place in his 4000 or so pages and countless videos that suggests otherwise, he doesn’t address at all (except to half heartedly mention “mindfulness” without giving any direction at all)

    Now this is really cool – you have suggestions in this latest comment for how neurological understanding can inform practice. Let’s take a look (remember – to date, Rick hansen has steadfastly admitted that there’s NOTHING in all of neuroscience you need to know to practice, learn, etc. And Rick is a neuropsychologist who has been teaching practice for well over 20 years)

    You write:

    in addition to the unconscious-conscious threshold, there is also a threshold between the hemispheres. That’s to say, in our typical understanding of “the unconscious,” we may conflate conscious contents arising from the true unconscious, as it were from beneath consciousness, with contents as it were coming across from the less verbal side of the brain.


    Ok, so let’s look at what psychologists know about this, and I’m going to include psychology from India. Let’s see if neuroscience adds anything.

    “The unconscious-conscious threshold.”

    Right away – if everything exists in Consciousness (and there’s no empirical evidence that even hints otherwise) there can’t be anything that’s actually “unconscious.” A better term of mental-consciousness and submental-consciousness.

    Now, is there any neuroscientific data that helps us understand this? In fact, you can’t tell from virtually any examination of the brain if consciousness is even present, so as far as any kind of mental/submental threshold, you can only know this from direct observation.

    From over a century of parapsychological investigation, replicated thousands of times, we know that it’s possible to shift to a state of consciousness where it is possible to step out of our ordinary mental consciousness to be directly aware of submental phenomena. Yogis refer to this as prana, the Chinese as chi, indigenous populations speak of “mana” and many other terms. Meanwhile, the neuroscientists – 95% of them – refuse to even accept parapsychological data and insist that the universe is dead, unconscious. So here we get no help from neuroscience at all.

    Now you speak of another axis – left/right hemisphere vs upper brain/lower brain (mental consciousness and submental consciousness).

    What happens when you examine these phenomena through direct observation rather than simply looking at neuroscientific studies (and remember, where does virtually ALL psychological data come from in neuroscience experiments – by asking individuals what they’re thinking and feeling. And the vast majority of subjects in neuroscience experiments are usually completely untrained in introspection – this is why Alan Wallace has neuroscientific experiments with people who have meditated 10 hours a day for 9 months first!)?

    This distinction between LH – psychologically, detached, selective attention and RH – psychologically, immersed global attention – has been described in virtually all contemplative literature, Christian, Vedantic, Buddhist, etc. Even Iain acknowledges this is not new. He says the neuroscience connection is helpful for modern skeptics, but it’s not at all new. That’s not a judgment just a fact. The astonishing observations in his books are from his intuition, not from the specific neurological experiments.

    So, in direct introspection, one learns to distinguish:

    A vast, non spatial, non temporal reality which is transcendent to the physical universe,

    An intuitive knowing, global, immersed

    A selective, analytic, detached attention

    Pranic/or submental instinctive energies

    A sense of a “separate me” which creates the illusion of a world of dead objects and dissociated subjects.

    A separate me which is not a single “me” at all but a collection of subpersonalities often at odds with each other

    an innermost center of consciousness which evolves through the ages, expressing through different physical bodies.

    A non-spatial, non temporal individuated Self which expresses through that innermost center and which is distorted in expression through the egoic dominated mind, heart, energy and body, but which can learn to express fully leading to a profoundly transformed mind body.

    Broad, universal fields of pranic consciousness, pervading the universe

    Broad universal fields of mental consciousness, pervading the universe

    Broad universal fields of intelligence beyond the mind, guiding all the forces in the universe.

    All of that from direct observation, none of it even remotely revealed by studying the physical brain.

    Once again, I’m not criticizing or judging Iain at all by saying this. In fact, HE SAYS ESSENTIALLY THE SAME THING.

    To get back to your specific point, in practice – whatever one thinks in theory – when you look at the utter, multi-layered complexity of your moment to moment experience, you’ll find infinitely varying mixtures of intuitive/analytic attention along with mental/submental consciousness, interacting with universal planes of consciousness all related to the non-spatial, non-mental infinite, eternal consciousness transcendent to all universes as well as the cosmic intelligence guiding it all.

    It’s certainly interesting to see some neurological correlations – but at the moment, we’re not even remotely approaching any IDEAS as to how to solve the hard problem of consciousness. We can’t even tell WHAT a person is thinking or feeling or attending to without asking them.

    It’s great, it’s fascinating, but I just want to be careful that we see it in perspective.

    • Don Salmon

      May 3, 2023 at 6:56 pm

      TLDR (too long didn’t read)

      Whit, if my post seemed impossibly long (and absurdly occult or yogic)

      Here’s a much easier question:

      The two things you mention – conscious unconscious threshold, LH/RH threshold, and distinguishing what comes from what:

      Tell me specifically, in a very concrete situation, how this would inform practice – and how it would do so in a way that direct yogic observation couldn’t.

      So for example, you’re driving your car and someone cuts you off. You were in a great mood just the moment before and now your mind is busy coming up with strategies to “get back” at the person who cut you off.

      What does the neuroscience add that helps you understand AND deal with the anger coming up?

    • Whit Blauvelt

      May 4, 2023 at 5:08 pm


      I began studying consciousness in the ’50s. When I was 4 years old I liked to sit in a dark closet and observe the mind with the senses stilled. Then in college in the ’70s I spent a year in a coordinated studies program on consciousness which prominently considered Sperry’s work.

      You say “Right away – if everything exists in Consciousness (and there’s no
      empirical evidence that even hints otherwise) there can’t be anything
      that’s actually ‘unconscious.’ A better term of mental-consciousness
      and submental-consciousness.” That’s a big “if.” Yes, in The Matter … McGilchrist somewhat favors that stance in the latter chapters; and Deepak Chopra has made it popular of late. But I find it obvious there are things in consciousness that are not in the world (e.g. unicorns), and things in the world which are not in consciousness (e.g. unobserved quantum fluctuations in ’empty’ space).

      In any case my long, particular interest is talk in mind, with a background which also includes studies in Buddhism and poetics. McGilchrist’s summary of the differences in how the hemispheres anchor linguistic capabilities is of obvious interest here. One way to approach the disharmony many of us experience between hemispheric capabilities is to use meditative techniques to quiet talk in mind. But that’s like solving the disharmony in a choir by asking the person singing out of key to shut up. Better to help that person learn to sing in harmony. My focus in on ways to get the “emissary” in tune, to sing with the “master.”

      In any case, I’m quite happy if you read my use of “unconscious” to mean your “submental-consciousness.” I have no notion what it would mean if the world contained “non-mental consciousness” as well as “mental-consciousness,” yet it’s entirely plausible that what from our waking point of view is “unconscious” may be in some way conscious within itself.

      • Don Salmon

        May 4, 2023 at 5:22 pm

        Ah, getting close to my favorite topic of the moment.

        You write: But I find it obvious there are… things in the world which are not in consciousness (e.g. unobserved quantum fluctuations in ’empty’ space).”

        If you don’t mind a bit more on this topic

        I fully understand, given our modern assumptions, why this ‘seems” obvious.

        But just assume for the moment (this is not just Chopra and McGilchrist but virtually all contemplative traditions. You can quibble over whether Tao has any relation to “Consciousness” but I don’t think you can find any writings of Taoist contemplatives that say otherwise. Similarly with arguments about Sunyata. Meanwhile, Chit- the Sanskrit for Consciousness, is infinitely beyond what almost all modern scientists and philosopher mean by “consciousness” as some sort of brain function.

        So, assume for the moment that the contemplative traditions understand something about the universe that scientists don’t, and what we call the “universe” exists within consciousness.

        Can you conceive of ANY scientific experiment that would provide any evidence for what you think of as obvious, that would contradict the Taoist, neo-Confucian, Vedantic, etc sages?

        Please don’t immediately dismiss this as word games. I’d like you to really contemplate this deeply (using both hemispheres, if you need a neurological reference:>)).

        Think about it, and think about if there is no such experiment, what it says about our modern mentality that something so profoundly at odds with the entire world contemplative tradition seems so “obvious” (and by the way, any contemplative could tell you why it seems to obvious – this is not entirely a modern phenomenon)

  • Don Salmon

    May 3, 2023 at 7:09 pm

    Whit, I’m going to give you one more piece of background that might help make clear my own view.

    I started studying the brain in the early 70s; it was around the time I started meditating. i was working as a profession musician and had not gone to psych grad school yet.

    There were hemispheric theories that – despite Iain’s constant protestations – WERE exactly the same, psychologically, as what he is now proposing. The RH = emotion and LH = logic were NOT what the scientists doing good work were doing.

    And as interesting as that was (I found the correlated descriptions in ancient Indian philosophy of far more practical use) I found Ernest Rossi’s studies of the brain and circadian rhythms and trance states – drawing on the work of 19th century psychiatrist Pierre Janet, who many now acknowledge as having a far more profound view of the psyche than Freud or most of his followers, or even Jung!) far more interesting.

    Yet try as I could, I could never find anything in the brain studies that were useful for practice.

    In the late 1990s, toward the end of my grad school studies, I was taking classes and attending seminars in neuropsychology, going to labs and seeing people actually working on brains (I mean, dissecting brains in the lab) and talking with friends in neurofeedback who were INSISTING that this was the way to go.

    I’ve never found any literature showing neurofeedback to be fundamentally more effective than somatic therapies without any machinery. Similarly with biofeedback.

    Fast forward a few years later, I was never personally that impressed with Rick Hansen’s writings, but I was totally blown away by Dan Siegel’s interpersonal neurobiology. Unlike Iain, Dan has books full of very concrete practices associated with the brain. Now, I didn’t think this through very carefully, and soon enough I began including Dan’s practices in my workshops (pain management, general mindfulness and more).

    By this time I was also working as a professional psychologist, often including neuropsychological testing in my evaluations (I’d get people with various forms of brain injury, dementia, etc). Now, over time, my students would challenge me and ask why they had to learn about the amygdala, vagus nerve, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the cortical subcortical difference (there’s your conscious subconscious threshold)

    And you know what? I never really had an answer for them. I asked others who were including neurological facts, and they would end up saying (as I STILL do) that enormous numbers of people just FEEL like you’re talking about something real when you talk about the brain. Hence, the title of our effortless mindfulness course, “Train Your Brain, Change Your Life.”

    But I’ve gone from using anywhere from 10-20 neurological terms to talking about:

    “The prefrontal cortex”

    “The autonomic nervous system”


    oh, “neural pathways.”

    Now, there’s absolutely nothing about them that are NECESSARY for practice. But I know for certain, that the people who come to me for help dealing with habits, just consider it more scientific and more valid if I tell them that by bringing a neutral attention to the desire for sweets, they’re weakening the neural pathways associated with that craving, instead of saying, “well, you know, if you observe the craving in a neutral manner, it will weaken.”

    It’s not even the same thing – because “craving” refers to a multi-layered experience, and “neural pathways” is really a limited, one dimensional image. Really, the neurological language has a placebo effect, and i would even go as far to claim, that’s really the value of Iain’s work. he’s talking to a world that still doesn’t quite believe in psychology, so when you give them the placebo tablet of neurological language, they believe in it and then it has real psychological and physical effects.

    You know, i would go even one step farther. I’ve asked every psychologist, therapist, psychology professor I’ve met – “tell me just ONE thing that psychological science has discovered that was not known in contemplative literatures.”

    One of the most common is the idea that modern psychology discovered developmental theory. Ken Wilber is one of the biggest promoters of this theory.

    And it’s just not true. If you read the Tantric literature, you can find a complex developmental theory the likes of which nothing in the past 200 years of neuroscience and psychology has even come close to.

    And I still like being a psychologist and still appreciate psychological research. It’s just good to see what place it has in the larger scheme of things. I mean, we have physical sciences for which there is absolutely no explanation for anything. nothing. We have no idea how laws of nature come about, what “forces” actually are, what “matter” is, anything. Science as practiced in the last several centuries simply is a highly developed form of engineering, it’s not a means of understanding anything.

  • Rodney Marsh

    May 4, 2023 at 12:57 am

    Thanks Whit

    The personal background and experience helps a lot….

    I have been a lifetime Christian Pastor and Minister in the Uniting Church in Australia (A Congregational, Presbyterian and Methodist Union). I completed a Science and Economics degree, then I spent six years studying theology, religion, intro philosophy and pastoral studies – the pastoral stuff was very Rogers.

    I have not read widely in Psychology or Neurology, but I did read and attempt to apply Siegal’s wheelin my role as a school Chaplain. He, at least in his inter-personal ‘theory of mind’ seems to be approaching mysticism. However, I think “too complicated” for an approach that will work. To heal the self all LH concepts (‘self’ & ‘no self’) must be left behind if you wish to bathe in the Heraclitus’ healing river. I myself, gained far more personal healing from a poet with whom Siegal worked – John O’Donahue (‘To Bless the Space between Us’).

    For me, the important practical import of the two hemisphere hypothesis, lies in the necessity to still/inhibit the LH in order for the RH’s silent consciousness to be (not to become ‘conscious’ to the grasping of the LH but just to be). There is no ‘self’ in the RH only pure consciousness (in which the no-self participates). Hence, ALL of the Wisdom traditions the no-self and the self are united as one in the ’nothingness’ and ’emptiness’ of ’union with God’, ‘enlightenment’ and ’pure consciousness’. There is the healing waiting for us to return home to our RH attention. To guide patients to “Heal thyself” is the privilege of a psych (I think). Note what Iain says about applying his book in the last YouTube interview on the Epilogue.

    • Don Salmon

      May 4, 2023 at 2:51 am

      Hi Rodney (Don here – not sure if it was clear, that was my comment on Dan Siegel, and yes I agree MUCH too complex:>))

      But I want to make sure I let you know – I read your full paper of the education of the heart. Incredibly sweet and beautiful.

      I have so many questions don’t know where to start.

      But I do have one based on what you just wrote. You wrote of what I understand to be the integration of the Self and not-Self. You also write in your paper quite freely (and eloquently, I think) of God.

      So here’s the question:

      Not in terms of teaching others, but for yourself – after obviously having read many of the greatest mystics, saints, sages, etc – was there anything specifically in your own prayer practice that was new for you – I mean in terms of practice, not in terms of interesting information about the brain – that occurred when reading McGilchrist?

      People think I’m criticizing or judging him when I speak like this, I’m not. I recall reading Haridas Chauduri, in a book I think he wrote either in the late 1950s or early 1960s, making exactly the same distinctions that McGilchrist does. There was a column of 2 modes of thought, with about 20 correlated terms, at least half of which are the primary terms that McGilchrist uses to describe the hemispheres. So perhaps I was just already familiar with all this when I came across his work in 2010?

      NOw, I was spectacularly enthusiastic, not because it was anything new for me personally, or because I thought it would make a difference in terms of practice. But I was wondrous about the fact that this gave folks an opportunity to hear about something of fundamental importance that they simply wouldn’t accept coming from Chaudhuri.

      You know, you quoted AJ Grayling critiquing McGilchrist, saying neuroscience is just not finely grained enough for the conclusions he makes. I remember this as a review that was quite negative of the hemisphere theory.

      I wondered, “My gosh, do I actually agree with Grayling?”

      Then I realized, yes, but with the opposite conclusion. Grayling rejects McGilchrist’s view of the different modes of attention because neuroscience, he says, doesn’t support it. I ACCEPT Mcgilchrist’s view of the modes of attention because it is obvious to me he has the intuitive capacity to see it, just as Chaudhuri did 60 or so years ago, just as the Upanishads, Gita, Vedas, and countless other contemplative texts describe it similarly.

      What I don’t think is that the hemispheres alone account for the realization of God or the Self. I think that realization is infinitely beyond anything we know about the hemispheres, but also, I just don’t see even in McGilchrist’s concluding chapters more than a very distant glimpse of certain aspects of the beginning of the path to that Realization.

      • Rodney Marsh

        May 4, 2023 at 11:49 pm

        Hi again Don

        Your question has been like an earworm!

        How has the ‘hemispheric’ world view changed my walking the dog? …listening to music? …eating? …meditating?

        The answer is the same ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’ – I take all I am with me into the present moment – I have no choice – I don’t like lots of the memories, plans, views (hemispheric or not) attitudes, emotions, body pains, but I have no choice – I carry all of me body-mind-relationships (Augustine used the traditional division – memory, understanding & will – to describe our mind) with me at all times, everywhere I go, for that is who I am. So in a sense ‘technique’ (right, left or religious or otherwise) are irrelevant. BUT the none of ‘me’ that I take into the present moment (because it is time-bound etc) so meditation becomes for me a (sometimes frustrating) dispossession of me by turning up and being where I am, who I am.

        I could not turn up and be present to my life if I wasn’t using the agency of my LH, but no LH agency can participate in the flow of being in the present moment of my life. My being (‘me’) is participating in the flow of the present moment and meditation, walking, music, being a part of Nature etc. etc. All matter is holy because it participates in this flow of being. The gift to humans is that we can dispose ourselves and become aware of our place in the flow of life.

        ‘Techniques to balance the hemispheres’ appears on the surface to me to be a LH trap into which we must not fall. To add Iain’s view of who I/the world is and how I/the world work to the list of control mechanisms for life would be a giant betrayal – though that is how I fear many will react to it!

        God’s name given to Moses (YWH) means ‘I will be who I will be’ indicating that it is not possible to control God.

        • Rodney Marsh

          May 5, 2023 at 12:02 am

          I meant the “I” of me is time-bound (LH) not the present moment (RH)

        • Rodney Marsh

          May 6, 2023 at 5:38 am

          a few more points….

          1. I can take nothing of my scant knowledge of the hemisphere hypothesis into my practice of silence and stillness. Like everything, it must be decreated, but since it is part of the flow of my life. Yet, what is ‘given up’ of our life is, however, restored in full, nothing is lost. Much more is gained that cannot be discovered without the first self being lost. This mystical insight is surely of cruicial importance in psychology.

          2. Upon observing my meditation practices there are two other ‘hemispheric’ practices I use: – I rest my right (LH) open hand in my open left hand (RH) in representation that it is now time for the LH to rest and assure it that is being safely supported by the RH – I pay (not always, but often) attention to my breathing in a chiastic way: in breath with attention to the RHS of my body and LHS of my brain and in the out breath switch attention to the LHS of my body and the RHS of my brain. I tried the Yogic bi nostril breathing and without blocking one side of my nose with my finger (just using attention) – this goes: out (RHS) in (LHS) out (LHS) in (RHS) out (RHS) but I found it difficult and switched to my own version.

          3. The relevance of neuroscience for psychological practice…. I remember reading pre- McGilchrist Marilynne Robinson in ‘The Givenness of Things’ in her chapter on Humanism of how a non-scientific neurology has removed the humanity from humanism. “Nothing can account for the reductionist tendencies among neuroscientists except a lack of rigor and consistency, a a loyalty to conclusions that a prior to evidence and argument, and an indifference to science as a while.”….. “One might reasonably suspect that the large and costly machines that do the imaging are very crude tools whose main virtue is that they provide the kind of data their uses desire and no more.” etc. etc. devastating critique!

          • Don Salmon

            May 6, 2023 at 12:59 pm

            Hi Rodney:

            Very nice, sweet and at times, deeply poetic. I feel more of your deep pastoral self coming through:

            “What is ‘given up’ of our life is, however, restored in full, nothing is lost.” (we have to lose our life to save it)

            Yes, I have gotten much from McGilchrist’s writings, and more important to me, it feels like he is playing a crucial role in the shift in consciousness structure occurring now.

            Thank you! (might be time to shift this to a different discussion thread:>))

  • Rodney Marsh

    May 4, 2023 at 12:12 pm

    I’m sorry Don, but I am not familiar with Chaudhuri. I do however agree that A C Grayling could be right about Iain’s conclusions from his neurological research going beyond the neurological evidence. But Iain does that with good reason. It is stupid to base a civilisation on one half of the brain and thinking that any activity or belief that cannot be proven justified by Science or Reason has no valid basis. Who lives like that? No one. So Grayling also could be wrong. Grayling doesn’t respect the conclusion of Master – Emmisary because he does not accept any conclusions based on 2 of the 4 of McGs ways of knowing. He does not allows intuition and imagination as valid bases in gaining true knowledge. Grayling is going to have to do better than just an affirmation of error by McG. He must encounter and rebut Iain’s arguments on why Science and Reason are limited and why Intutition and Imagination can be included in evidence for reality. What Iain says, I think, is right, at least it affirms the intuitions (and beliefs) I hold about the nature of what is and because it explains my experience. Scientism (Naturalism) view that allows only the so called ‘objective’ ‘view from nowhere’ must be rejected. It is pure magic (with absolutely no evidence) to affirm that being and consciousness arise from matter.

    Your question:

    Not in terms of teaching others, but for yourself – after obviously having read many of the greatest mystics, saints, sages, etc – was there anything specifically in your own prayer practice that was new for you – I mean in terms of practice, not in terms of interesting information about the brain – that occurred when reading McGilchrist?

    There is a Buddhist story I heard about a farmer who purchased land. He wanted to grow vegetables. He dug one well. Dry! Then another, then another etc, until his whole land was pockmarked with wells. In despair, he sold the land. The new own chose one well and went deeper. Water! He farmed successfully. So, if you don’t strike water- keep digging where you are – don’t fall for the next fad. Even the Dali Lama discouraged Westerners from becoming Buddhists. He instead recommended that they dig deeper in their own tradition.

    My Answer to your specific: ‘Yes’… my life has been deeply affect by McG in so many ways, BUT also ‘No’.

    The ‘No’ answer:

    1. My actual practice has not changed at all! …. twice daily 30 min.

    2. The LH ego in me wants to say what I am doing differently, but these are techniques and not the Tao. If I try to speak the Tao (which I cannot anyway) I stain the Logos. So to the adiaphera (things indifferent, not required – which is everything since pure prayer (meditation) is simple and simplifying – just being in, with).

    3.Here’s a few things that have been affected by what Iain says. At the end of my meditation period I recite some traditional Christian prayers. I heard a poet say that poems (in order to be understood) need to be spoken out loud and learned by heart. I think that repetition of phrases give the LH something to pay attention to whilst still allowing the RH to be open. As with the mantra I find that if I am distracted by thought I miss my place in the prayers, so in that way it is an active extension of silent meditation.

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