Reply To: Psychotherapy with LH patients

  • Mike Todd

    June 17, 2023 at 3:04 pm

    Hi Lucy,

    I was alerted to your comment by Don’s well-considered reply. Regarding the connection between the RH and spiritual awareness, I take the view, which I believe Dr. McGilchrist advocates, that the RH is necessary though not sufficient to spiritual awareness (which, of course, entails the corollary that the LH is also necessary though not sufficient). As Dr. McGilchrist has variously repeated, we need both hemispheres, albeit in different ways and to different degrees.

    I hope you won’t mind if I share a snippet of a recent conversation I had with my best friend, which may provide some raw materials enabling you to answer your own questions.

    “My view, which I’ve pressed on you many times now, is that consciousness is fundamental and that it comprises “that which experiences” along with “that which is experienced”.

    There are many ways of looking at this life which reify “that which is experienced”, including scientific materialism on one side of the cultural divide and fundamentalist religion on the other. As polarised as these views are, they are nevertheless aligned in promoting division over unity, and this aspect of their nature can be seen in the dispositions of their adherents towards those with opposing views (think, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, the Taliban and the Republican Party).

    However, there are also views which reify “that which experiences”, including Advaita Vedanta and some schools of Buddhism. While it’s almost always the case that their adherents, in contrast to those of divisory world views, embrace rather than attack those who disagree with them, there is nevertheless a very real danger of renunciation, whereby adherents go the way of the ascetic, effectively devaluing all that appears material, including their own bodies and even the natural world.

    The following article, which may be of interest further down the road, describes this latter danger:

    While I accept that “that which experiences” (consciousness in itself) has primacy over “that which is experienced” (the world, others, the self, and anything else that comes to mind), that primacy is akin to the primacy of soil over flower: it’s a mistake to value one over the other; they must both be seen and valued for what they are, as versified in “Hyla Brook”, an attitude redolent in the title of another poem I recently shared: “The Harmony of Difference and Equality”, which has been more formally referred to as “the unity of division and unity”.

    One outcome of this view and corresponding attitude is that our reality may (fortuitously) come to be seen as a never-ending cycle of evolution, comprising nascence, unfolding and enfolding (RH, LH, RH), or in the language of flowers, germination, flowering and decay – bearing in mind that the third arc of the flower’s cycle serves to enrich that which nurtured its nature. This cycle repeats endlessly, as, within and between lives. This is the essence of the most fruitful world views (in my opinion): philosophical Daoism and Soto Zen. Advaita Vedanta, because it counters the majority inclination towards reifying either the material world or the immaterial self, is also a fruitful world view (once again, in my opinion): it affirms the reality and primacy of foundational consciousness, and, provided that one avoids interpreting this as a call to renounce the world as it appears to us, it also affirms that the immanent is no less sacred than the transcendent. (After all, Advaita Vedanta unequivocally states that all is Brahman).


    There are two prevailing responses to nightmares and nightmare situations: the first response is escape, which I believe is embodied, in quite different ways, in the world views of scientific materialism and fundamentalist religion (more on that later); the second response is confrontation, which I believe is embodied, again in quite different ways, in the approaches of postmodernism and certain spiritual traditions (more on that later, too).

    Before I get into all that, it may be helpful to provide some framing. The hemispheric hypothesis put forward by Dr. McGilchrist is based on an evolutionary theory which posits that the way in which the left hemisphere (LH) attends to the world is an adaptation conducive to acquiring food, whereas the way in which the right hemisphere (RH) attends to the world is, among other things, an adaptation conducive to not being acquired as food: both are necessary for survival. The LH way of paying attention facilitates honing in on food, taking hold of it and appropriately taking it apart; the RH way of paying attention facilitates detecting and escaping from whatever sees *you* as food – and much more.

    These two ways have been labelled, respectively, “approach” and “avoidance” – terms used, with an intriguing degree of overlap, in both biology and psychology. It’s tempting to equate “approach” with “confrontation” and “avoidance” with “escape” – it certainly looks that way prima facie – but I believe the truth is more nuanced.
    Scientific materialism and fundamentalist religion both see divided aspects of reality, the material world and the immaterial self, respectively, as manifestations of ultimate truth. In effect, they take one side of the coin and say, “this is the whole coin”. Each is a form of escape, a turning away from the flip side of the coin. But it’s more than just a turning away. This is evident in the scorn scientific materialists pour on religion, spirituality and any talk of consciousness that questions its basis in a material brain; and equally in the demeaning, prudish and ultimately destructive views of the hyper-religious on “brute nature” and the human body.

    Clearly, then, escape of this sort isn’t merely avoidance, since it involves also approaching what has been avoided in order to attack it and take it apart. In fact, the rabidity of those on either side of the cultural divide suggests that a desire to attack is their overriding motivation, to which avoidance is merely ancillary. As such, this kind of escape is indicative of RH (avoidance) subservient to LH (approach/attack/divide), which is, according to Dr. McGilchrist, and I concur, a back-to-front, inside-out, topsy-turvy way of thinking, feeling and living.
    Postmodernism and certain spiritual traditions accept that we must account for the realities of both sides of the coin, which upon reflection turn out to be the realities of the outer and inner worlds, including but not limited to, the apparent meaninglessness of an outer world composed of insentient matter and the apparent meaningfulness of an inner world composed of sentient mind: biology vs. psychology, if you will – admittedly, an oversimplification.

    Postmodernism confronts this dichotomy, often but not always, by denying the meaningfulness of the inner world, and this can be seen in the writings of many modern continental and American thinkers and in movements such as Dadaism, absurdism and nihilism. Undermining meaningfulness, I would suggest, is not only tantamount to reifying “that which is experienced” (of which the escapists are guilty), it’s also potentially self-destructive, as borne out in the sadly shortened lives of Woolf, Plath and others like them.

    Rather than reverting to denial, certain spiritual traditions confront this dichotomy, through introspection and contemplation of the inner world, by affirming the meaningfulness of the outer world. As you probably know, this is my approach, and I believe it is unparalleled, because the inner world – according to both contemporary science and ancient tradition – actually contains the outer world (“that which is experienced”) as well as something available only to introspection and contemplation: “that which experiences”. This luminous centre of contemplation is, as I see it, the body of the coin, hiding, as nature is wont, behind its outer faces, which are, in effect, undulations of the body impressed upon itself.

    Confrontation of the postmodern and spiritual kinds embodies what Frost had in mind when he said, “the best way out is through”. However, a further consideration is appropriate in order to understand the essential difference between the postmodern approach and that of certain spiritual traditions. Saying “the best way out is through” invites a question: “through what?” – or more pointedly: “where are we?”. The answer to this question reflects how we perceive reality: in the case of postmodernism, we are in a world composed of dead, insentient particles, out of which the living, sentient complexity of outer and inner worlds somehow emerges; in the case of certain spiritual traditions, we are in a world that is fundamentally alive, sentient and whole, which somehow self-divides (like a cell), unfolds (like a flower) and individuates (like a mind) – only to eventually enfold back into the whole – again, RH, LH, RH.

    Both postmodern and spiritual confrontations of reality can be seen as LH (approach) subservient to RH (embrace, another RH “function”) – the natural order, at least according to the hemispheric hypothesis, contrasting with the escapist approach. However, the postmodern approach ultimately embraces “nothing” – and that way madness lies – whereas the approach of certain spiritual traditions embraces “everything”, which promotes sanity and, consequently, liberation from nightmares and nightmare situations.

    Frost addressed the question “where are we?” with characteristic ambiguity in The Wood-Pile, which, in a clear nod to the outer/inner dichotomy mentioned above, begins: “Out walking in”.

    The Wood-Pile

    Out walking in the frozen swamp one gray day,
    I paused and said, ‘I will turn back from here.
    No, I will go on farther—and we shall see.’
    The hard snow held me, save where now and then
    One foot went through. The view was all in lines
    Straight up and down of tall slim trees
    Too much alike to mark or name a place by
    So as to say for certain I was here
    Or somewhere else: I was just far from home.
    A small bird flew before me. He was careful
    To put a tree between us when he lighted,
    And say no word to tell me who he was
    Who was so foolish as to think what he thought.
    He thought that I was after him for a feather—
    The white one in his tail; like one who takes
    Everything said as personal to himself.
    One flight out sideways would have undeceived him.
    And then there was a pile of wood for which
    I forgot him and let his little fear
    Carry him off the way I might have gone,
    Without so much as wishing him good-night.
    He went behind it to make his last stand.
    It was a cord of maple, cut and split
    And piled—and measured, four by four by eight.
    And not another like it could I see.
    No runner tracks in this year’s snow looped near it.
    And it was older sure than this year’s cutting,
    Or even last year’s or the year’s before.
    The wood was gray and the bark warping off it
    And the pile somewhat sunken. Clematis
    Had wound strings round and round it like a bundle.
    What held it though on one side was a tree
    Still growing, and on one a stake and prop,
    These latter about to fall. I thought that only
    Someone who lived in turning to fresh tasks
    Could so forget his handiwork on which
    He spent himself, the labor of his ax,
    And leave it there far from a useful fireplace
    To warm the frozen swamp as best it could
    With the slow smokeless burning of decay.”