January 4

The cold of the evening before has slackened off some. I slept without being interrupted by a chill in the middle of the night. Today, while making my first morning cup of coffee, I peek out the kitchen window, up the valley, and see that the sky has become grayed over night. A warming trend is now with us.

Yesterday I took a long swim at noon, 52 laps in the 25-yard pool, or 1300 yards, which is about three quarters of a mile. The pills I take for high blood pressure seem to only marginally work for me, so I am trying to build up my swimming endurance, to a mile’s worth of laps when I go, in hopes that I can swim away the pressure that wants to build inside of me. The doctor says that we cannot feel any symptoms from high blood pressure, but I have such a good imagination that I can easily see myself popping somewhere that is vital to me.

My reading of McGilchrist continues. Now that I am quite a bit deeper into Part Two of his book, I can see that his real mission is not in describing the physical anatomy of the human brain, but in commenting on the culture of western civilization. I find this more interesting, because I am familiar, from college years, with many of the writers and literary, cultural and religious movements, he describes. I also have been watching some of his youtube presentations when my eyes are too tired to keep up the heavy reading pace. He admits in one place, perhaps it was an online printed article or interview with him, that Part One of his book is excessive in its description of the human brain. He seems to say that he had at first considered this lengthy description to be a metaphor for what would follow, but it got “out of hand”.

The metaphor of this detailed description of the human brain bringing insight into the understanding of the relationship between right and left brain just went too far. The weightiness of the material in Part One made this seem so important in understanding the rest of his theory and exposition of western civilization, but I think 10 pages, rather than a 100, or whatever the actual count, would have sufficed–perhaps even less. I know that he is trying to appeal to a scientific audience, and trying to impress them with scientific evidence for this theories, but in Part Two, I don’t see much heavy reliance on the amount of material I had to read through in Part One. The whole flow is somewhat lop-sided, asymmetrical.

But the detailed description of the brain in Part One did make me curious and aware of what goes on inside my own skull all the time, so that I have a strong visual image–not a static image, but an animated one–of the processes secretly always flowing inside my own three pounds of neural jelly. And maybe that is important to understand, or to intuit.

Left brain is master of language, and is a control freak that wishes to always dominate right brain. This trend has always been with us, as individuals from the day we are born, to societies as they develop and civilize. Left brains conquer, divide, dominate, destroy, rule and solidify, but they deny thinking that is less than concrete, deny emotional or empathic life, and would prefer to make human beings into machines or robots. This is the essence of Part Two, but painted with marvelous detail and example, so that I am quite clear about the intent and meaning of his book. It’s a very good left-brain account of the destruction or the pacification of the usefulness of the right brain in human affairs. It describes how the left brain continues to create a world that is nearly lifeless.

I am not far enough along in Part Two to see any suggested solutions, but can guess it has to do with learning how to see for one’s self, to become an individual, rather than allow a mindless culture to have influence on our lives. That would mean looking for right-brain authenticity in how we live, probably through the arts–music, poetry, architecture, painting, sculpture, cinema, which covers most of the bases for us in how we create and express our deeper side.

The outlook he develops reminds me somewhat of Amiel, who is always evaluating the cultural trends of his day and age, comparing them with his understanding of Christianity, and always dwelling in a melancholic longing for what has been lost as civilization progresses forward into some new and unknown territory. For McGilchrist, moving forward is good. Staying locked into ancient thinking can be not so good. Ancient values that were worthy of our adoption have mostly been overtaken by left-brain thinking. Amiel would say such things, but in a different way, a different perspective on what it is that moves and motivates us.

McGilchrist talks about a Renaissance pope, Pope Pius II, who understood and employed the values of the Renaissance. The value of the individual was first coming into the culture at his time, after having been forgotten for a thousand years or more. To celebrate this new understanding and to work some with the ideas, this pope kept a journal or memoir, in which he wrote about himself:

It was the sweet season of early spring. All the hills about Siena were smiling in their vesture of foliage and flowers, and luxuriant crops were growing up in the fields. The Sienese country immediately around the city is indescribably lovely with its gently sloping hills, planted with cultivated trees or vines or ploughed for grain, overlooking delightful valleys green with pasture land or sown fields, and watered by never-failing streams. There are also thick forests planted by nature or man where birds sing most sweetly and on every hill the citizens of Siena have built splendid country seats … Through this region the Pope traveled in happy mood …

I suppose I have that longing for the lost past that Amiel evokes in his journal. This modern culture doesn’t speak much to me. I am amazed by the high-tech gadgetry, somewhat, but it seems that it is designed to make the world even more left brain than it already was. One of the key indicators, per McGilchrist, of right brain thinking, is the ability to understand and appreciate metaphor. The high tech culture seems to want to copy or mimic human-like qualities, rather than explore the qualities we already possess that make us human. I suppose I visit the wrong pages of the internet too frequently. Instead of reading about the high-tech gadgetry coming out of Silicon Valley–if not the whole world–I should instead be reading more of the latest literary theories behind Ovid’s Metamorphoses, of which I just bought a copy yesterday.

There is no conquering the left-brain world. It has its own will, which is much stronger than the will of the right brain. But the right brain does have a will, and I can learn better how to listen to it, ask it to “lead my song”, as Ovid would implore:

My soul is wrought to sing of forms transformed
to bodies new and strange! Immortal Gods
inspire my heart, for ye have changed yourselves
and all things you have changed! Oh lead my song
in smooth and measured strains, from olden days
when earth began to this completed time!

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