A cold morning, this Friday, but to be expected in early January. Frost lies heavy on the roof tops up and down my road. I awoke early, turned on the gas furnace in the living room, and went back to sleep for another hour to let the heat emanate throughout the house. It has been my custom quite often to lie in bed for maybe 15 or 20 minutes and think about what I shall add into my journal for that day. If I am inspired enough, and uninterrupted while making my first cup of coffee, I can usually make it back to the keyboard beside my bed, and get some of those more sleepy thoughts loaded into the journal. This morning my mind flow was interrupted enough in the kitchen by a stack of dirty dishes that required my help, such that very little of my awakening thoughts can be recalled.
I did more reading yesterday from McGilchrist’s Master and Emissary, a massive book that details much about the anatomy and physiology of the human brain. I wonder at why such a thorough description of how it functions, but I am no scientist, and I think the book is intended as a scientific treatise. I felt clumsy, clueless, uninformed about this three-pound sack of jelly I lug around inside of my skull all the time. The words and ideas seemed so contrary to my daily life and thinking, and yet, curiously, that is exactly what they are about: my daily life and my style and process of thinking. So with fear and trepidation I wandered through Part One of the book and completed that part yesterday. I’m just now on the brink of Part Two.
If I don’t sit and read a book and stay with the author closely as I go along, I tend to let a book drift away from me. If I set it down for more than, say, three or four days, unless it is arranged episodically, I will tend to stay away even longer, until its gravitational pull has completely escaped me. I hope that this will not happen with this book. Shorter book are not a problem. It’s the bigger ones that are a dangerous challenge to my attention.
I bandied back and forth yesterday with my sister, via email, about some of the key ideas I have absorbed. McGilchrist is careful and astute enough to know that a simple two-column list of differences between a brain’s right half and left half, will alienate his scientific crowd, although the simplification might delight his more recreational readers. He worked on this book for twenty years, however, and is not about to give away it’s heart and intent in a simple, easily recognizable shopping list of cranial attributes. I would be taking some of the inspiration out of the text myself if I were to do that.
If I were to try to explain what all I have garnered from Part One of this book, however, I would probably do just that; give a brief description of the differences between left and right. Apparently, according to McGilcghrist, this was a popular, pop-psychology thing to do in the 1960s through 1980s. The tendency to simplify and codify how the brain worked made for much wide reading and understanding, but at a very low level of comprehension of how the brain really works, and why it is configured the way it is. I had heard some of this myself, such that a person is right-brained or left-brained, and that one is anal and mechanical, while the other is peace-loving and poetically tranquil. Politics of the times, I suppose, causes people to make such broad and grand distinctions. It would be easy for a political pundit to say, for example, that conservative political thinkers are left brain, while liberals are right-brained. McGilchrist would probably retort that we would then be talking politics, and making generalizations about people, rather than peering into the world of cognitive science. We all share the same brain structure and functionality–at least, that is what I think I have learned from reading Part One of his book.
If I were to look for another pattern, or metaphor, for understanding this division between right and left brain, I would move more to the spiritual implications of how the brain works. In fact, from what I have seen of McGilchrist’s lectures on Youtube, and from what I have intuited from Part One of his book, this is more-or-less the road map that he would like for us to follow. A simple overview statement might be something like this: the right brain perceives the more spiritual nature of life and the universe, then hands over that understanding to the left brain for further understanding and analysis; the left brain can then systematize or codify that spiritual perception in a way that it can more easily digest the new information and file it away conveniently into a file cabinet in the mind, and then pass a sort of book report or summary or condensed Reader’s Digest version of the initial spiritual experience back to the right brain; the right brain must continue to look beyond the inputs from the left brain if it wants to continue to see life in a spiritual manner, as the left brain does nothing more than kill the spirit.
At any rate, some of what I think I have learned from reading the book so far. I see some of the ideas in here as things that could spark more journal entries in the future, a new pattern, I suppose, for how to piece together and tell the story of my own life. But I am hopeful that I would not let my own writing and living be taken over by own left brain, so that my real life gets systematized into becoming a thing rather than a process or flow. Indeed, this is what some of the Amazon reviewers infer in their reviews of this book: that it removes the sense of flow and turns it into a hard-wired science. I think that is what many religious people want to do, including myself. Show me the magic formula I must follow so that I too may see and know God.
The inspiration for keeping a journal, at least for me, is to sort of talk myself around the left brain. That thief that wants to steal my life! The journal should help me, through talking to myself, left brain talking to right brain–right brain being my true self–let me capture enough of the true, experienced right brain perception of life, before it gets completely mangled in the machinery of the left brain. Poetry, music, philosophy, painting–all the arts were once meant to do this–capture the essence of right-brain understanding, but our modern age, I think McGilchrist will explain in Part Two–has forgotten or disavowed right-brain understanding, thinking that it is illogical or has no true understanding of life. So we have, instead of right-brain art, left-brain art, which has no beauty, no flow, no awe, but rather looks and sounds like machinery, this further killing the human spirit. The killing began centuries ago. McGilchrist will describe, I believe, how the slow and torturous murder of the human spirit was instituted into our culture.
When I first started keeping a journal, I was inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, when I learned that he admonished Thoreau for not keeping one. I took that to heart and began keeping one myself. What one should put into a journal has been a pervasive mystery for me. I studied the journals of others, primarily Thoreau’s, but others as well, but now I think I understand that what Emerson was saying was that we need to keep right-brain activity alive, keep that living flow going, and journaling helps with that process. I will be curious to see if McGilchrist touches on this matter in his book. How do ignorant peasants such as myself keep their right brain working and alive, when he left brain just wants to dominate and kill?