Sense of self & the hemispheres

  • Sense of self & the hemispheres

    Posted by Whit Blauvelt on July 27, 2023 at 4:19 pm

    If your sense of self is strictly tied to “the inner voice,” it’s easy to see how this can lead to a runaway dominance of the left-hemisphere, insofar as it is for most of us most capable of supporting it: Simply take what you “hear” yourself “thinking,” expect what you might “hear” next (the same as we run ahead with our expectations when listening to others, and the same as large-language models in AI run ahead from a prompt) … and then treat your self-expectation of what your “inner voice” would say next as, well, really yourself. And repeat. This both short-circuits the mind, and does so in a way which accentuates the role of the left hemisphere in controlling the self.

    This does not, though, mean that shifting to a more whole and balanced use of the mind must be the inverse of this, an aversion to the use of language in thought. If we’re seeking wholeness, not division, then division of the hemispheres from each other, and silencing either one (relatively) is not that. What then might a sense of self which does neither identifies with “the inner voice” in a short-circuiting way nor disowns the better fruits of language be like?

    Mike Todd replied 10 months, 3 weeks ago 3 Members · 10 Replies
  • 10 Replies
  • Lucy Fleetwood

    July 29, 2023 at 8:56 am

    spacious 🙂

    It was interesting when I did what you suggested in the first paragraph, my heart had a reaction, like a little electricity that didn’t feel nice.

  • Mike Todd

    July 30, 2023 at 6:32 am

    Hi Whit,

    I believe that your question pertains to the distinctions between an egoic and a nonegoic sense of self. Much has been written about that, and I’d rather not paraphrase teachers whose erudition and eloquence far exceed my own.

    However, with respect to the interpenetration of language and the sense of self, the following may afford some leverage: the relationship between one’s inner ideolect (phonemic imagery as well as non-verbal narrative) and one’s sense of self appears to be bidirectional; as such, the ways in which one frames or attends to language may influence the ways in which one perceives and relates to oneself.

    I believe that by carefully attending to symbolic, mythical and metaphorical framing in language as such, one can begin to develop an analogous sense of self, in which the constraints imposed by egoic foregrounding gradually fall away. This sort of linguistic framing is exemplified in great poetry and in the founding texts of many, especially Eastern and indigenous, spiritual traditions.

    Of course, all this is just a roundabout way of saying that the sense of self about which you enquire is very likely a corollary of “getting spiritual”, an aspect of which is attending to spiritual writings RH-style.

  • Whit Blauvelt

    August 4, 2023 at 3:11 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Yes, what you say is very much my own experience. I am wondering whether what we might call “McGilchrist’s syndrome” — the approximation of a schizophrenic mentality under cultural influences — may follow from specific shifts in encultured framings of “inner speech.” Freud of course, in The Ego and the Id, has his diagram of the left hemisphere wearing as a hat it’s facility with speech, which in his view establishes it as the seat of the ego.

    The notion that we should control ourselves with, or are controlled by, the “inner voice” goes back at least to Augustine. Yet there’s an absurdity in that notion, a positing of a homunculus, which was suspect long before Ryle. As an ancient Chinese philosopher said, “No self in self!” The corollary of this is “No other in self.” The framing in which one is either talking to or listening to oneself is unnecessary for verbally-enhanced consideration, which can generally be as well done in imagining prospective speech, rather than viewing it as present in some special way more real than the presence of, say, an imagined dragon.

    But the difference is we aren’t likely to view ourselves as under command of an imagined dragon, while we do often (in our current culture) view ourselves as if our will were resident in Freud’s hat of speech, nested atop the left hemisphere.


  • Whit Blauvelt

    August 4, 2023 at 7:20 pm


    A further thought on what you have as “one’s inner ideolect (phonemic imagery as well as non-verbal narrative)”: Russell Hurlburt’s research an UNLV, where subjects describe their inner experience at random times denoted by beepers they carry, presents the claim that many people experience “unsymbolized thinking” (see, beyond any “narrative” instantiated in symbolic strings.

    This might raise the issue of whether the gist of thought consists essentially of imagery of any sort (phonemic included), or whether “symbolized thinking” is essentially translation of gist, whose core medium is non-narrative. Granted, we of any intellectual bent make quite a constant habit of translation — if such it is — and as Hurlburt notes most philosophers have great trouble imagining unsymbolized thought to be even possible.

    Many mystic traditions claim great wisdom in silence. Might that “silence” be full of unsymbolized thought? Further, might it be more accessible from a right hemisphere perspective?


    • Mike Todd

      August 5, 2023 at 5:16 am

      Hi Whit,

      This could – and I hope it will – turn into a fruitful exploration. However, as with any exchange of ideas, there’s always a risk of talking past one another, so I’d like to forestall that, if possible, by offering a tentative framing, which I’d be more than happy for you to tweak and rearrange as seems appropriate; provided we end up with a shared set of referents, I believe we can begin to spelunk the rabbit hole. (And, of course, we acknowledge that dividing reality with arbitrary definitions and categories is a means to an end, unfolding with a view to enfolding.)

      If one accepts the premises that reality is both inherently processual and inherently relational, and that all experience is inherently mental (comprising thoughts, affective and sensational feelings, and perceptions), then all subjectively realised, i.e. conscious, mentation may be considered narrative, in the sense that conscious mentation is an account of the dynamic between the knower and the known, between “that which experiences” and “that which is experienced”, even in anomalous cases, such as nondual awareness (NDA) or minimal phenomenal experience (MPE), in which, despite there being neither overt subject nor overt object, there is still some shade of experience, requiring knower and known, as evidenced by the fact that seasoned meditators and other contemplatives are able to recall vague details of such.

      If the above proposition appears amenable, then conscious mentation can be categorised in terms of symbolic and asymbolic narrative; and symbols themselves can be loosely categorised with respect to a spectrum of opacity, ranging from opaque symbolism, such as the language of a typical legal document, through translucent symbolism, such as the language of poetry and spiritual texts, as well as imagery in the forms of natural phenomena and the visual arts, to more or less transparent symbolism, such as sublime music and liminal encounters in which the numinous is foregrounded.

      The above spectrum of symbolic opacity invites a multilayered view of reality, comprising nested spheres of increasing symbolic translucence supervening on an ineffable core, the singular Ground, which, on this view, may be approached directly only when the knower transcends symbols entirely, as in mystical experiences (e.g. NDA, MPE, etc.).

      What I’d like to suggest is, with the advent of scientific materialism as a current admitted into the stream of cultural thought, we began in earnest to flatten reality – we became flat-earthers – such that the outermost opaque symbolic sphere came to be seen as the plenum of reality, and its substrates in the inner and outer worlds, the egoic self and matter, respectively, came to be elevated, almost deified, in the cultural mindset. This appears borne out by the fact that the default metaphysic of the average Joe nowadays, at least in the West, is substance dualism: the egoic self is fundamentally real; matter is fundamentally real.

      The above is, admittedly, an oversimplification: as you noted, referring to Augustine, the threads of thought which twined to form substance dualism existed long before, and continue to exist in the wake of, Descartes, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution etc.; and translucent symbols, as vehicles of knowledge, haven’t been wholly discarded, although they have been overwhelmingly relegated, and with them have gone various principles which accord with a multilayered reality, notably: correspondence (as above, so below); recurrence (fractality); and, less obviously, the coincidentia oppositorum and its ramifications, hormesis and enantiodromia.

      Now, “McGilchrist Syndrome” – this can be seen as resulting from the near deification of opaque symbolism mentioned above, wherein symbolic manipulation (the work of the intellect) becomes an end in itself detached from any grounding in deeper layers of reality, as evinced in the hyperrational, bizarre but internally-consistent, mentation of schizophrenics. Much could also be said, along the same lines, with respect to AI (LLM) and symbolic manipulation, as foreshadowed by Searle’s Chinese Room. And when it comes to “control and the inner voice”, again this seems to me an example of symbolic manipulation as an end in itself. (Dragons, thankfully, are impressive enough as to retain their mythic, symbolic, character, and as such appear larger than life.)

      Manipulation, manipulation – isn’t that the MO of the LH?

      Thanks for sharing Hulburt’s research. I’m still digesting it – putting insomnia to good use. I believe I’m familiar with the phenomenon of “unsymbolized thinking”, often in relation to mundane matters. For example, I’ll open the fridge, and, accompanying the perception of it being rather bare, I’ll “think” to myself, without any inner speech or imagery, “I really need to get down to the grocers today”. The contents of the thought – as well as its emotional nuance, which is observed rather than felt – are implicitly and immediately known, without the thought itself taking any explicit form.

      I wonder how this relates to, or compares with, intuition. I also wonder whether Hulburt’s research debunks my proposal that “unsymbolized thinking” is manifest only when approaching the Ground; i.e., what does it have to do with surveying one’s empty fridge? Perhaps, even in such mundane moments, we are able access reality, or “truths” thereof (which may be questions as often as answers) without any mediation.

      Finally, as a parting gift – or a parting shot; take your pick – I’d like to suggest that the spectrum of symbolic opacity I mentioned, from opaque to transparent, segueing into the asymbolic, corresponds with a spectrum of left-to-right hemisphere involvement, which I believe accords with your musing about “silence”.

      It’s almost coffee-time.

      • Whit Blauvelt

        August 6, 2023 at 5:21 pm

        Wow, great reply. I’ll accept your broad use of the “narrative” metaphor. For the contrary argument against consciousness as narrativity, I much like Galen Strawson’s work — but what he’s objecting to looks to be a narrower connotation for the term, focused on our public languages.

        Where you speak of the poles of egoic self as matter as seen as fundamentally real, yes our culture (at least as I find it in myself) elides identity with the world. Robert Hunter’s challenge to “remember that you are the eyes of the world” was about as counter to our dominant culture as can be. The various “spiritual” traditions that would have us be off elsewhere in prayer or meditation, rather than fully present in our senses in this one, would have consciousness off in its own reservation, heaven elsewhere, never at hand.

        Okay, so I’m looking at a tree — richly metaphorical (“true” and “tree” are said to share a root). To even see it as a tree is prospective. Would it be fair to call the anticipation of “treeness” in the perception a “narrative” as in your use? All the things I can imagine of a tree — which make it true that I’m seeing a tree (that I might climb it, that I can cut wood from it, that it will produce seeds….) — can be formed into stories. So there’s at least implicitly potential narrativity in the recognition of anything; and recognition does seem essential to consciousness, even if it’s just a meditator’s recognition of a “pure conscious event,” as you point out.

        In his books, McGilchrist shows appreciation for certain strands of art, of (German) philosophy, of music, and older Christian ceremony. But what speaks louder to some of us is his taking residence on the Isle of Skye. Many sages have pursued the sublime in nature, their stories say. McGilchrist certainly shares the fear that our culture has turned too far from nature, so will see it destroyed, as this summer’s weather presages. But his diagnosis of our cultural drift, and signs of decline, leaves open the question of whether there’s more direct and specific treatment which might be invented for this, or whether the best we might do is “building an ark for the anthropocene,” as the Blue Aeroplanes sing.

        What is the range of potentially curative formulas here, if such exist at all? Can we further sharpen the diagnosis, even beyond Iain’s magesterial work, to better find such formulations? Might it have something to do with moving ourselves beyond the conventions of the “I-narrative” (ego) and the “thing-narrative” (dead matter)? How might we center in, rather than just fleetingly obtain, an “eyes of the world” perspective, and the narratives which flower from that tree?


        • Mike Todd

          August 8, 2023 at 12:07 am

          Hi Whit,

          Just hedge-hopping – this week is chock-full of family engagements and other unavoidables.

          As I understand it, Strawson’s focus is on what could be called meta-narrative, circumscribing conceptual/psychological stories used to structure and lend meaning to one’s entire sense of self. My proposal concerns a far more granular kind of narrative – the ways we implicitly make sense of and relate to perceptions especially and other conscious mentation, which in turn influence the ways we come to make sense of and relate to ourselves. (With the caveat that the arrow of influence is bidirectional.)

          In any event, I’ll refresh my understanding of Strawson nearer the weekend, just to make sure he hasn’t already debunked me.

          I also need to refresh my understanding of the main theories in the philosophy of perception, again to make sure that I haven’t already been debunked, and also to verify that I haven’t merely repackaged an established theory. (Cherry-picking ideas is nothing to be ashamed of; wholesale theft, on the other hand…)

          • Whit Blauvelt

            August 8, 2023 at 5:03 pm


            Much appreciate your engagement, both here and with this whole mess of ideas. Somewhat randomly, I just read Nathaniel Barrett’s article, “Facing Up to the Problem of Affect,” in last year’s Nov.-Dec. Journal of Consciousness Studies. He doesn’t touch on narrative, but emphasizes how affect has been nearly totally ignored in theories of consciousness, especially those focused on “information.” This reminds me of a study from around 1970, where those with left-hemisphere damage that limited verbal comprehension were far better, in watching a video, at knowing whether a speaker was lying. (Sorry I totally lack the reference for that.) If what we say is LH, the spirit in which we say it may be RH.

            In your spectrum of narrative types, from the most explicit to the most subtle (if I’m reading that roughly right), what’s the place or relationship of affect? I suspect that Barrett’s narrower case, against discounting of the possibility that affect is a core value of consciousness rather than a peripheral concern, may be true more broadly when narrative is taken as primarily as the information content of symbolic strings, ignoring the melodies and harmonies of those strings’ vibrations.

            To quote Ed Sander’s favorite Plato line, “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” Much of what McGilchrist objects to for instance in the drift of tone in scientific articles looks much like the flattening of affect in psychiatric cases, perhaps.

            Hope all’s well with those family obligations.


            • Mike Todd

              August 9, 2023 at 5:29 am

              Hello again.

              On my view, affect is integral to narrative, and I intend to use your example of “looking at a tree” to give some flavour of the range of narratives possible, including their emotional nuances, by which they are valenced.

              I admire, though take some issue with, Mark Solms thesis, described in The Hidden Spring, in which he writes:

              The simplest forms of feeling – hunger, thirst, sleepiness, muscle fatigue, nausea, coldness, urinary urgency, the need to defecate and the like – might not seem like affects, but that is what they are. What distinguishes affective states from other mental states is that they are hedonically valenced: they feel ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This is how affective sensations such as hunger and thirst differ from sensory ones like vision and hearing. Sight and sound do not possess intrinsic value – but feelings do.

              What I’ll be suggesting is that narrative can, though needn’t always, lend extrinsic value to sight and sound, and so forth: it’s a layer of meaning atop purely phenomenal conscious mentation – which is not to say, a la Solms, that p-consciousness itself lacks all meaning.

              No doubt you’ll recognise a fair bit of phenomenology in what I say. Perhaps where I depart from that is with respect to what I see as the unavoidably symbolic nature of narrative, including even such ostensibly prosaic narratives such as formal, functional and scientific accounts. I imagine you may be familiar with Vaihinger’s Philosophy of “As If”, which is essentially what got me started on all of this.

              There’s an intriguing quote near the end of the video linked below, which I believe speaks of the same multilayered reality I mentioned a couple of comments ago:

              We think more than we can say. We feel more than we can think. We live more than we can feel. And there’s much else besides.

              Back at the weekend.


            • Mike Todd

              August 23, 2023 at 1:57 am

              Hi Whit (and whoever else might be looking in),

              It may take me some time to expand on this. Life has taken a sharp turn off-piste with respect to both my parents: my waking hours are spoken for. I also want to double-check that I have something new to say, however minor it may be. Finally, I want to feel convinced that I’m not, as Jordan Peterson ironically put it, guilty of low-resolution thinking.

              All the best for now.

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