Tool's Lateralus: an Exegesis

  • Tool's Lateralus: an Exegesis

    Posted by Matt Dorsey on October 15, 2022 at 5:24 pm

    Tool happens to be my favorite rock band of all time, and ‘Lateralus’ happens to be my favorite rock album of all time.

    It’s a deeply moving, highly technical album that’s as alchemical as it is mathematical. Much of it is based on the fibonacci sequence, there are titillating polyrhythms throughout, and there are potentially many layers of meaning encoded within its lyrics.

    I’m going to give my interpretation in a follow-up so that you can experience it yourself first and make up your own mind without being unduly influenced by my interpretation.

    Many if not most of the lyrics seem to directly reflect the differences between the hemispheres, even if this was not the conscious intent of their singer.

    You’ll see what I mean when you watch it. This is a MUST SEE.

    Shannon McCarthy replied 1 year, 5 months ago 3 Members · 3 Replies
  • 3 Replies
  • Matt Dorsey

    October 15, 2022 at 8:46 pm

    Lateralus, an Exegesis


    Black then white are all I see in my infancy

    The left hemisphere is far more black and white in its thinking than the right, relying primarily on either/or, without also having access to both/and, which is the right hemisphere’s domain.

    This kind of rigid, binary thinking is a hallmark of the kind of naive, overly simplistic thought processes of children.

    Red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me

    Lets me see

    As below so above and beyond, I imagine

    Drawn beyond the lines of reason


    The appearance of color, which is of a far higher order of complexity than monochrome sight, is essentially another way of saying ‘shades of grey’; perhaps red and yellow are referring to some kind of (alchemical) fire, but it’s of course unclear.

    As mentioned, this work is deeply alchemical, hence the ‘as above so below’. Other songs have multiple references to alchemy as well. Maynard (Tool’s singer) is clearly describing a process of growth / transformation, perhaps with respect to inter-hemispheric balance.

    The reference to imagination speaks for itself.

    It’s unclear why he inverted this famous alchemical saying, but regardless, it’s clear that this sort of fractal style of thinking, with which one can recognize patterns that persist at different scales—from the cosmic to the subatomic to the psychic—is more reminiscent of the integrated way of seeing reality of the right hemisphere.

    If we take ‘reason’ to mean ‘the limited rationality of the left hemisphere’, then this statement could be seen as further evidence that these lyrics represent a shift from relatively immature left-hemisphere-only ‘infancy’ (described in the first set of lyrics) to a more right hemisphere integrated approach.

    Push the envelope, watch it bend

    Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind


    Aside from the obvious meaning of pushing a boundary, bending an envelope is the act of taking something linear and making it curved

    The left hemisphere, which is consummately analytical, has a difficult time connecting in a personal, experiential way with the body (Cartesian dualism being the perfect example, as noted in Iain’s work).

    People with right hemisphere damage (but almost never left) are prone to various pathologies in which they will even disavow their own body parts or do not perceive the body as a whole (anorexia nervosa, schizophrenia, RH stroke with hemineglect, asomatagnosia, somatoparaphrenia, etc)

    Embodiment is a function of the right hemisphere. Excessive thinking and analysis (thinking in a linear, language-based way) is evidence that one is in a left hemisphere dominant state, and thus would have less access to the body image and the sensation of embodiment.

    Withering my intuition, missing opportunities and I must

    Feed my will to feel my moment, drawing way outside the lines


    Obviously, what we call ‘intuition’ is more associated with the right hemisphere, as we’re not consciously aware of its ‘translinguistic’ way of ‘thinking’ and understanding.

    With ‘missing opportunities’, there’s a sense of remorse for spending too much time in the left hemisphere dominant state, and thus missing out on the richness that the right hemisphere’s intuitions can provide. Perhaps spending too much time on the extreme of left hemisphere dominance has withered his connection to intuitive thought.

    ‘I must Feed my will to feel my moment’ might suggest that he is attempting to increase his motivation to experience life through the right hemisphere, which allows one to feel more deeply and to be in the moment as it presences.

    Lines = linearity = left hemisphere. The idea of breaking the rules and operating on intuition is very much a right hemisphere way of doing business.

    The left hemisphere is of course much more concerned with staying within the boundaries and following the rules of the artificial model that it’s engaging with.


    Black then white are all I see in my infancy

    Red and yellow then came to be, reaching out to me

    Lets me see

    There is so much more

    And beckons me to look through to these infinite possibilities

    As below so above and beyond, I imagine

    Drawn outside the lines of reason

    Push the envelope, watch it bend

    Over thinking, over analyzing separates the body from the mind

    Withering my intuition leaving opportunities behind

    Feed my will to feel this moment

    Urging me to cross the line

    Reaching out to embrace the random

    Reaching out to embrace whatever may come

    Except for these last two lines and a few other phrases, this part is basically a recapitulation of previous lyrics with small modifications.

    The right hemisphere of course embraces whatever may come. It remains open to new information, to new discoveries, to ‘the random’ (which in this sense may mean more unexpected by the left hemisphere’s predictive algorithms / modeling than literally random).

    In a sense, embracing is the opposite of grasping. Grasping connotes ownership and utility. Embracing suggests a kind of open receptivity, or ‘active passivity’, as Dr. McGilchrist puts it.

    And speaking of embracing:


    I embrace my desire to

    I embrace my desire to

    Feel the rhythm, to feel connected

    Enough to step aside and weep like a widow

    To feel inspired

    To fathom the power

    To witness the beauty

    To bathe in the fountain

    To swing on the spiral

    To swing on the spiral to

    Swing on the spiral

    Of our divinity

    And still be a human

    With my feet upon the ground I lose myself

    Between the sounds and open wide to suck it in

    I feel it move across my skin

    I’m reaching up and reaching out

    I’m reaching for the random or whatever will bewilder me

    Whatever will bewilder me

    The sentiment here is so obviously stemming from the right hemisphere that it’s almost silly to comment.

    Feeling connected, feeling beauty, weeping like a widow (sadness, longing / grief): these are all classically right hemisphere.

    Opening wide = receptivity (to whatever will bewilder him, implying totally new information that does not match the left hemisphere’s map)

    Is this part of the song describing a kind of breakthrough, in which one has come fully back into the world of the right hemisphere?

    Read the next section for comments on the spiral imagery


    And following our will and wind we may just go where no one’s been

    We’ll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one’s been

    Spiral out, keep going

    Spiral out, keep going

    Spiral out, keep going

    Spiral out, keep going

    Iain has referred to the spiral as a symbol of the integration of the hemispheres many times.

    Because the left hemisphere is far more linear, it could be symbolized by a straight line, whereas the right hemisphere is more embedded in the curved nature of reality, and thus could be seen as a circle.

    The circle / Ouroboros is also a symbol of the unification of opposites / Jung’s Enantiodromia. When you take a pole with two opposites and then curve it in on itself, then the opposites overlap and become unified.

    The right hemisphere is tolerant of both/and reasoning, and understands paradox and how opposites can actually be the same in certain important ways.

    When you view a spiral from one axis, the linear progression is emphasized. When you view a spiral from another, the circularity is emphasized.

    Understanding of higher order mathematics is also of course more in the domain of the right hemisphere. The Fibonacci sequence (which certainly required the perspective of the right hemisphere to discover) is encoded into this album in multiple ways. The cadence with which the singer delivers some of the lyrics is based on it.

    Lastly, going “where no one’s been” of course means that it’s uncharted territory and thus there’s no map to orient the left hemisphere.


    A few last comments:

    I’ve been listening to this album for 22 years and at no point since I heard it for the first time has it not been my favorite rock album of all time. I have a deep and highly personal, even spiritual connection to it. You can thus see why this discovery, enabled by immersing myself in Iain’s work, excites me beyond words.

    According to Dr. McGilchrist, polyrhythms and odd time signatures are more attended to by the right hemisphere; as mentioned, this album is replete with them. It’s extremely rare for a band this famous to use these kinds of rhythms this extensively. Show me a band this famous and I’ll show you a bunch of people who are terrified to step out of 4/4.

    There are a few other songs on the album whose lyrics are worth paying attention to with respect to lateralization. I may comment on these later.

    Did Maynard consciously intend these meanings? Is he concerned with the hemispheres of the brain?

    Or perhaps these are all just intuitively delivered through his right hemisphere? Who knows. The fact that the album, and the song, are both called ‘Lateralus’ is uncanny, though.

    Lastly, could ‘Lateralus’ mean ‘Lateral Us’, as in ‘we are lateralized’? Something to ponder.

  • Jeff Verge

    October 16, 2022 at 9:20 pm

    Thank you for sharing Matt. Very thoughtful. I’m not familiar with Tool specifically, but I am aware they enjoy legendary status and a sizeable devoted fan base. In considering your question about the name “Lateralus”, and noting the time frame, could it be that the songwriter does have hemispheres in mind – but that it’s closer to the conventional version of hemisphere differences that Iain made obsolete?

    A snatch of song lyric from 1995 – Monster Magnet: Dopes to Infinity (A recurring theme it seems…) Up until this morning I thought the lyric was:

    You can break the world and be creative now

    You can kiss the right side of your brain

    (Today I learned that it’s not “break”, it’s “rape”, but this is the way I always heard it and as is sometimes the case I like my version better.)

    Lateralus made me think of someone trapped in their left hemisphere cage, but being painfully aware that they’re trapped and desiring to break free.

    I’ll put this song from 2015 up in case you might like it. As you thought to do, I’ll put my take on it below so you can listen first with no preconceptions.


    If Lateralus is the view from the LH, then this I think is the view from the other side. It has no words except what I hear as “Holy holy holy…” and then something unintelligible. To me it sounds like a conjuring. The music conjures a portal for the LH to escape itself into the larger world of imagination and spirit.

    Another song that comes to mind is Dream of Waking Up from 2020. It makes me think of similar themes.

    Half the city was still asleep

    as you slipped inside.

    Every border we’d break down

    Every night get lost

    And they’re jealous of our dreams

  • Shannon McCarthy

    February 15, 2023 at 7:44 pm

    Hi Matt!

    I was excited to see your post with an Alex Grey painting. I like to go see him at the Chapel of the Sacred Mirrors in New York. And he makes the images for Tool! Yes I agree their work is incredible. Schism is my favorite!

    Maynard, because he is a creative genius, has to know well how to move out of black and white thinking and into the surety of the human experience. I agree that the lyrics you shared convey it so beautifully.

    It sounds like the journey of the westernized adult to me, as opposed to the childhood to adulthood journey. There’s a little joke about how three year olds are all “little philosophers” because they ask such extraordinary questions. I spend time with 3-5 year olds each weekend, and they stun me with the depth and nuance of their thoughts.

    Great to read your thoughts about Tool and excited to see Alex Grey’s work here. Do you like his paintings?

    🙂 Shannon

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