Ten years ago I wrote an article for Scientific American called “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity”. In that article, I presented an exciting new approach in neuroscience called the network approach that looks at how large-scale brain networks interact with each other to produce creativity, and I noted that these brain structures recruit areas in both the left and right hemisphere. In other words, creativity is not exclusively a right-brain phenomena.
Fast forward to 2023, the Institute of Art and Ideas asks me if they can repost the article. That’s all they ask me. Of course I give them permission. They published it, titling it “The right-left brain hemisphere split isn’t true”. Pretty contentious title, but not my title.
Next thing I know, I see a response from Dr. McGilchrist on their website called “The right brain is essential to creativity” where he vociferously replied to my post. Oh man, I unintentionally triggered him! I had no idea the good folks at the Insitute of Arts and Ideas were going to ask him to reply to that article, especially considering that post was not a criticism whatsoever of Iain’s careful work. It was more a response I wrote to the pop psych notion that creativity is only a right-brain phenomena.
Anyway, long story short: I reach out to Iain and explained the situation to him and we had a good laugh about the situation. We were unknowingly forced into a boxing ring and we don’t even want to box with each other. Our correspondence quickly became friendly, and we started sharing each other’s work with each other. I decided it would make sense to have the conversation in public so invited him on my podcast, and here we are.
I’ve greatly enjoyed going down the rabbit hole of reading Dr. McGilchrist’s work and was pleased to see just how many areas of overlap we have in regards to fascinations, including our attempts to understand the nature of intelligence, creativity and even sacred & transcendent experiences.
This conversation is very rich and I think brings clarity to some important issues in the field of psychology and cognitive neuroscience.
So without further ado, I bring you Dr. McGilchrist.
Iian: [00:00:00] There is a kind of thinking that we have prioritized over all other kinds of thinking, because I believe of one simple thing, it helps us manipulate the world, but it doesn’t necessarily help us understand it. I usually say, the right hemisphere helps us understand the world, the left only to manipulate.
Scott: Today we welcome psychiatrist and author Ian McGilchrist to the show. Wow, what an episode. I’ve greatly enjoyed going down the rabbit hole of reading Dr. McGilchrist’s work. and was pleased to see just how many areas of overlap we have in regards to our fascinations. Including our attempts to understand the nature of intelligence, creativity, and even sacred and transcendent experiences.
This conversation is very rich and meaningful, and I think brings clarity to some important issues in the fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience. So without further ado, I bring you Dr. Ian McGilchrist. Ian McGilchrist, [00:01:00] wow, it’s so, it’s such an honor to have you on the Psychology Podcast.
Iian: Well, it’s just a delight to be here.
Thank you for asking
Scott: me. We have so many areas of mutual interest as I realize more and more as I go down the rabbit hole. Uh, that is your large body of work. I think to myself, wow, I want to talk to him about that. Well, I want to talk to him about that. Well, I want to talk to him about that. Uh, but I, I always like to find out the genesis of people’s work and their ideas.
And I, I did kind of go. the rabbit hole of your of your life. Um, and, uh, you really are hard to fit into any particular box. That is very true. Um, you’ve said that before and that is true. Yes. You start off in literature and the humanities. Is that correct?
Iian: Yes. I’ve always been equally attracted to science and the humanities.
And at school I started in science and specialized later in humanities. Then I went to Oxford to do philosophy and theology. Ended up reading literary studies, English literature mainly. And, [00:02:00] uh, and then I got a fellowship, which allowed me to range back into philosophy, which has always been my big interest.
Scott: so where were you in your life in 1982 when you published your book against criticism, which I read, by the way, in preparation for this? Yes, because I see lots of linkages with your current work.
Iian: That’s unbelievable. That’s so I don’t think any of my interviewers has ever done that.
Scott: No, I bet they haven’t.
I wanted to step up. I wanted to step up.
Iian: Apart from anything else, it’s extremely difficult to find a copy of the book anymore. And people say, why don’t you republish it? And I guess one day I will, but I just didn’t want it to come out. And then people go, have you seen the latest thing Ian McGilchrist wrote?
And it’s something I wrote in my twenties. So I wrote it between the ages. Twenty two to twenty seven or something like that. And, uh, I was twenty eight, twenty nine when the book came out, yeah.
Scott: I can’t [00:03:00] help but notice, uh, linkages between things you wrote in there and, um, and things you wrote even in your most recent book.
You know, going up to, uh, the matter with things. You say in against, I’m quoting you from Against Criticism in 1982. You ready for this? Yeah, okay. You might not remember this. You might not remember this. You say. The understanding of any one thing requires an understanding of the whole of which it is a part.
Hmm. Hmm. Now, look, that seems to capture a lot of, um, of your interest in the left and right brain sort of asymmetry,
Iian: right? It, it does. I mean, it led there by a very, you know, circuitous path. But then I believe that somewhere I use this image of, you know, climbing the mountain, you have to go round and round before you get to the top.
You can’t just go straight up. And, um, I just see this as being a very important issue throughout. And at school, I already thought, you know, somehow the, the whole is not the same as the sum of the parts. [00:04:00] And, you know, uh, wise guys would say to me, Okay, so what’s this extra something, then, that you put in?
And I didn’t think of saying, then, it’s not that something needs to be put in. It’s that something has been taken out in the process of disassembling it. If you disassemble anything, it’s lost its structure, and the structure, the form, may be the meaning. In a piece of music, it’s very obvious, but also in poetry.
Scott: Yeah. And I love that you bring in gestalt psychology. That was a major principle of gestalt psychology is the idea that perception, perception is, is greater than the sum of the parts. And, uh, and you know, while we have this, uh, divided brain, we do have the corpus callosum that tries to give us some sort of gestalt perception.
Iian: Yes. Yes. I mean, you can imagine one of the things that, uh, I had to deal with early on when I found more and more. interesting themes that had been my interest before I [00:05:00] studied medicine, because I came to medicine, started studying at the age of 28. So, and in this country, that’s unusual. That’s like 10 years too old.
And, uh, my, my colleagues, you know, fresh out of school go, Oh, I was so brave of you to do this. Like, you know, one foot in the grave, but I knew what they meant. It’s a very, very long haul and, um, took me 14 years. to get to be a consultant psychiatrist. So, um, yeah, why am I telling you that? I mean, just that when I got interested in hemisphere difference and in my medical training, I started asking myself questions and these were often prompted by clinical phenomena.
Um, I, the thing I had to face down was that everybody said don’t touch this topic. Everybody knows it’s been debunked. It’s just prop psychology. It’s all etc, etc. Now, the fact is that yes, almost everything that was said back in the day was wrong, but it doesn’t mean that. There is [00:06:00] no difference, and I wanted to know what that difference was.
The sure as hell is difference, and it’s just knowing what that difference is. So I get frustrated. And this is how we first met, was that you publish a piece saying, you know, uh, right and left hemispheres, this is all, uh, you know, junk, which is. Which is true. The old, the old stuff.
Iian: okay, but roughly I paraphrase, but, but, um, I wanted to, to, I just so want people to get beyond this because there’s such an interesting, I believe.
Um, path to, to learn about, about genuine differences between the two hemispheres. Absolutely.
Scott: Um, let’s double click there a second on how our paths crossed, so that our, our audience can understand. I was put in an arena to debate when I didn’t, uh, sign up for it.
I was, I [00:07:00] was, I was tricked. I was tricked to go in, in a, in a boxing ring. Um, in my, uh, original article ten years ago. Ten years ago, in Scientific American, um, was, did not mention your name whatsoever, and it was not directed at you whatsoever, it was directed at, uh, Pop, uh, Crap, you know, uh, and, and then, and then they, they put it as though, like, Ian responds to me, it’s like, wait a minute, I never, was, uh, saying anything about Ian.
I love his work. Um, so, um, it’s, uh, it’s just fascinating how these things happen and, uh, but here
Iian: we are. Yeah. Well, to be honest, I was set up in just the same way. Um, I, it was like, but Scott says this about what you’re writing about, what do you think, you know? So, uh, anyway, there we are. Um, the great thing is as so often something you don’t think is good leads to something that is, and this is an example.
Scott: it really is an example. It really gave me a great opportunity to go [00:08:00] down this very deep rabbit hole that is your work and life. And I, I, I spent my whole vacation in Santa Barbara, um, uh, reading your work. That was my vacation. Wow. Um, yeah, yeah, yeah. But, but it, but I must say it’s very, very rich.
It’s very, uh, At moments, profound and, um, and in line with a lot of, uh, my own sort of, uh, deep interests in, in, uh, intuition and imagination and intelligence. So these, these are three words we’re going to talk about a lot today. Uh, let’s just, let’s just, uh, you know, let’s have like a conversation, not like a formal interview, but, you know, conversation.
Just, like, stepping back a moment for our listeners who haven’t read all the million pages you’ve written. Like, I have. No, I’m joking. I haven’t read all million. But, um, can you just explain to our listeners? I’ve read a lot. It is a lot. [00:09:00] Can you explain to our listeners a little bit how you see the major characteristic differences between, um, left hemisphere
Iian: and right hemisphere?
Yeah, sure. I think the fundamental difference is, and people have puzzled about why the brain should be divided, you know, it seems like, When you think about it, a strange thing that an organ that it exists to make connections and derives its power from making connections should be divided. Why should it be asymmetrical?
You know, if it just needed more space, why didn’t it expand symmetrically? Um, and why is the corpus callosum involved in a great deal of inhibition of information as well as, um, facilitation of, Uh, information. So, you know, these are unanswered questions. And one way of approaching this is through what I believe is the most coherent evolutionary explanation of why this should be.
It’s because all living creatures have to solve the problem of [00:10:00] Essentially, how to eat without being eaten in order to get stuff, either food or a tool or a twig to build a nest or whatever it is to manipulate the world to help us survive. We need to be able to pay in a minutely scrupulous. Um, attention to a detail of something so that we can quickly and precisely get it.
But if it’s the only kind of attention you pay, you don’t survive, because you also need, at the same time, which is a very difficult trick, to pay, to pay a completely different kind of attention to the world, which is wide open, and sustained, and broad, and cohesive, and integrating, and vigilant. And the only way that actually you can do this is by having two sufficiently separate, uh, neuronal masses that they can attend to the world in two different ways at the same time.
And, and what these two kinds of attention, the very narrowly focused targeted attention, something you already know you want to get [00:11:00] and grab, and the broad open attention that is agnostic about what it may find is interested to see what there is going on around. The difference is that they create two phenomenological worlds.
I just want to say, I don’t think you’ll find a neurologist anywhere who would deny that the hemispheres attend in different ways. This is fundamental, you know, and you see it when somebody has a right hemisphere stroke, they get this pathological narrowing of the window of attention. But equally, attention is pretty important, and it took me a while to see this, that attention isn’t just another cognitive function.
Attention is how we construct the world we experience, the phenomenological world. How we attend and what we attend to, or choose not to, changes. what we see the world to be and what we find there. And so what these two worlds look like in a very brief sketch is the world of the left hemisphere, [00:12:00] unsurprisingly, consists of little pieces of stuff that we already know what it is.
Um, it’s familiar, it’s isolated, it’s static so that we can quickly grab it and pick it up. Um, it’s taken out of context, it’s explicit, it’s abstract. It’s general in nature, um, and effectively inanimate. And the right hemisphere, you see, is a quite different world in which nothing is ultimately certain.
Things have degrees of familiarity, but as Ramachandran says, it’s the anomaly detector and the, the devil’s advocate. It’s the one that goes, it could be something else. So it never sees anything as finally certain or finally separate from anything else. Everything is connected, nor is it static. It’s flowing and changing all the time.
It takes in the implicit. That means that in terms of human. Psychology, it is the right hemisphere [00:13:00] more than the left that enables us to read between the lines, to see the meaning of what is not being said as well as what is being said, to realize the implicit meaning in things like metaphors, poetry, irony.
which can completely reverse the meaning of a statement, um, or sarcasm, uh, but also, uh, you know, poetry, drama, narrative, music, all these things. So, all that relies on a meaning that cannot necessarily be simply put into words that, you know, make the sort of sense that you’d get from reading a science textbook.
Um, And this world is basically an animate world and, and you know, people think I’m just saying that in some kind of, um, metaphorical way, but I’m not. If you, if you, using TMS, if you, if you suppress the right hemisphere, people will see things And people that they would normally consider to be alive as [00:14:00] not no longer alive.
They would see them as mechanical or zombie like, whereas if you suppress the left hemisphere, they may see things that ordinarily they would think of as inanimate, as having animosity, like the sun moving across the sky. So it is very interesting, these differences. And there are two, I just sign off with these two little things that separate the way the two hemispheres work.
One is that one of these hemispheres, namely the right, is involved in producing the very presence of something. And it’s so quickly in our minds becomes a representation of that thing that we often are not aware of this. It’s only when we begin meditating or doing um, mindfulness, or, uh, lost in thought in front of a work of art, or a beautiful landscape, or whatever, that we, we notice something that is actually kind of really there, the sense of being there, not being off in your head, commenting [00:15:00] on it, and turning it, oh yeah, I’ve got it, it’s a picturesque landscape, yeah, I know about those, but instead actually just being there, and feeling the landscape.
So, in the right hemisphere, you’ve got what Heidegger would call presencing. of the world. In the left, you’ve got representation of the world. And the other thing, which is just fun, is that the left hemisphere is ridiculously over optimistic. I mean, it’s so in denial about anything bad. that a person with a right hemisphere stroke who’s got a paralyzed left side of the body will completely deny there’s anything wrong with it.
Even though they can’t move it, they’ll say, there, I just moved it. I mean, it is so bad. Whereas the right hemisphere is slightly on the downside about itself, where the left hemisphere has extreme high self esteem, the right hemisphere has sort of kind of slightly lower self esteem, but it’s more realistic.
It’s closer to reality.
Scott: Well, they say depressed people are more realistic than not depressed people. Exactly, [00:16:00] exactly, exactly. Now, you said so many things that I want to respond to. Let me start with the last thing you, the last thing you mentioned. Now, there is this really fascinating work by Richard Davidson and colleagues showing that the left hemisphere is the seat of happiness.
You know, to put in pop. Language. But, um, this relates very much to what you’re talking about right now. It seems to be that there is a correlation between left hemisphere activation and happiness, or feeling a general sense of well being, and things of that nature. Um, do you think that contributes to a richer, sort of more fully alive experience, even if it’s not necessarily
It’s a very good question, and I think the answer is yes. Um, so I think, um, One has to distinguish between the sort of cheerfulness and sort of brute happiness, which almost anybody can have if, if they just don’t think too much or feel too much. [00:17:00] And the kind of connectivity that comes from, from leading, you know, leading a fulfilling life in which one is inevitably involved in the suffering of the world and in existential questions.
But there’s no doubt that to be involved in that, although superficially it seems to be something negative, is actually the way in which we grow, I think, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. So I, the answer to your question is basically
Scott: yes, I, you know, I, I agree and I, I feel like I want to map.
Let’s try to map our both of our research programs because I think they’re very consistent, not at all like it was presented in that.
It’s actually, it’s actually, uh, our work is actually really consistent, really consistent. We should co [00:18:00] author an article together for them and really shock them.
Iian: That would be great. That would be good.
Scott: It would really shock them. Um, but, um. Because I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m, I’m obsessed with the default mode brain network because I think that network offers us the core of human experience of what it means to be really human.
And I think you’re obsessed with the right hemisphere. Because. Of the same, for the same reason. I could be wrong. I could be wrong, but I think that, um, so I, I went in and I looked deeper into our pub, our, for instance, our nature paper, looking at the different brain networks across creative time. And I looked, I reexamined it and I noticed that there were preferential, preferential, um, right hemisphere activations in the default mode network.
When we talked about the default mode network, It was right hemisphere preferentially. Now, we didn’t, uh, originally set out to test that, so don’t quote me [00:19:00] on that as a statistically significant effect, because that wasn’t our, you know, we didn’t have the methodology to specifically, but I, but I noticed a trend.
I think that, um, in a lot of ways, just, um, at a more higher level conceptual level, I think me and you really feel as though a lot of, um, our discussions, um, about human cognition and the brain, um, really focuses on this kind of abstract intelligence. And leaves out the experiential, um, what it means to really, uh, be, uh, and feel a human, the quality of humanity, um, and the richness of humanity.
So, I’m going to take a pause there, but do you generally in the main agree with it that both of us are actually quite aligned in
Iian: that way. I’m sure we are. The thing is that there is a kind of thinking that we have prioritized over all other kinds of thinking because I believe of [00:20:00] one simple thing, it helps us manipulate the world, but it doesn’t necessarily help us understand it.
And if you want a kind of crude soundbite, I usually say the right hemisphere helps us understand the world, the left only to manipulate it. And I suppose What we’re both trying to do is to say that there’s far, far more going on in our brains than the bit that we’re aware of. And, you know, uh, somebody somewhere, and I, you know, I quote it largely because it’s so hilarious, um, with deadpan precision says 99.
44 percent of all, um, that we are at some level aware of is not in our center of our consciousness. And so, you know, it’s that other bit that is so fascinating. And I think intuition, imagination, these things are very, very important. But I would also say that doesn’t for me, and I’m sure it doesn’t for you mean.
Any [00:21:00] disrespect to either science or reason. My work is based very largely on both, particularly on being able to reason, I hope. Um, but it’s just that they can’t deal with everything. I mean, there are certain things that are not irrational, but they’re just not rational. Like music. It’s super irrational.
It’s beyond the reach of reason and so forth. Yeah. Oh
Scott: boy, I, I, I, this might be a big stretch, but um, in your 1982 book Against Criticism, you, uh, You actually, the main point of that book is that you, um, disparage analytical criticism. Um, so any form of criticism that’s based on absolutes, and you have a quote where you say, The only application of abstraction, um, is the rejection of abstraction.
You actually reject abstract intelligence as the predominant view of criticism in that book. It just seems so linked. It just seems so linked to your modern day thinking. Am I, is that too much of a stretch? Am I being crazy here in [00:22:00] my connection?
Iian: Not at all. No, no. I mean, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, of course, what it doesn’t mean is that I think there’s no value in analysis.
And in fact, Oddly enough, I use analysis, um, for example, in the part of the book where I discuss words with, I do a lot of stuff based on the frequency of certain expressions and so on, which is analytic, but I suppose I’m always worried by, um, a process that ends in analysis because it’s just taken everything apart and it’s just lost the structure, the form, the implicit.
And what I realized about, um, works of art is that they must remain implicit in just the way that a joke must remain implicit. Once you’ve explained it, it no longer has any power. It just falls completely flat. And the difficulty is that if you paraphrase a poem, there’s only so many things that people are going to write poems about, you know, the tragedy of love, you know, the, the, the, [00:23:00] the awareness of mortality, whatever it may be, but, but, and if you do this process of just analyzing what that, you come up with the same, you know, handful of dust, basically.
You’ve just destroyed something that could, you know, move you more than anything you’ve ever read and speak to you deeply in your soul. And you’ve just turned it into a heap of trite. And so what I was really saying is it’s the decontextualizing and the making explicit of what needs to remain implicit that it is the danger and that so much depends on context.
Context changes everything.
Scott: Let’s take a step back a second. Can we, can we talk about, actually not to take a step back, let’s jump into the fray of the field of human intelligence for a moment. This is, this is, uh, where I started my career. Um, do you, have you ever heard of the, the psychometrician at Cambridge, Nicholas McIntosh?
Does that name ring a bell at all? Yes. [00:24:00] Yes, it does. He was my mentor, uh, studying IQ and intelligence. And in fact, you and him, if I close my eyes, he’s, he’s from Scotland. Uh, if I close my eyes, you, you actually sound, you guys sound similar. But anyway, that might be like
Iian: something, something. Now,
Scott: even the cadence of speaking, he’s very careful and deliberate about the way he speaks.
I always appreciated that. And I. I appreciate that about you. Um, so, um, if we, if we look at the rich, uh, research on intelligence and IQ, a big part of my dissertation was my annoyance at our, um, and even the field of psychology’s obsessive focus on abstract intelligence, um, as measured by like, uh, Raven’s advanced progressive matrices test.
So I, I, I thought to myself, Okay. And this is my theory of dual process intelligence, so I developed a theory of dual process intelligence that argues that we should just call that explicit intelligence, but we have a [00:25:00] whole rich, vibrant, implicit intelligence and found a zero correlation between that capacity and IQ.
Iian: Well, that’s interesting. Yeah. I mean, obviously, you know, far more about this than I do, although I, I wrote about, um, I have a chapter on each of emotional and social intelligence and cognitive intelligence, roughly speaking, IQ. Yeah. I, I would have thought, or what I have found from my research in the area, but correct me if I’m wrong, is that a lot of the Important intelligence of scientists and mathematicians, as much as artists, comes from an intuitive ability, that if they don’t, if they lack the intuitive ability, they can plod on, uh, in science, um, you know, holding down a good job and being [00:26:00] respected and so on, but they’re not going to really be those high flying ones that make the important, uh, breakthroughs.
Uh, when you come to look at their experience, and I take a lot of them in the book. Uh, in the matter with things and look at their storage. I mean, there’s just so many times in which it becomes clear that they are guided by, by intuition, by gestalt forms, by even a sense of the beauty of what they’re discovering.
More than they are by simply following a sort of. analytic, um, procedural way of thinking. So I think it’s, I would have thought that it was a sign of high intelligence, whichever way you work, that people who, I mean, I often say that people who use their intuitions well are people who know how to reason well.
And people who reason well are people who have good intuitions. So I think you need them both. I’m rather sorry to hear that you found that intuitive intelligence, if that’s really what we’re talking about, [00:27:00] was not related to intelligence, because my strong hunch is that it is. And I think I quote some, quote some, um, research that suggests that it is, in fact, yeah.
Scott: Yeah, no, no, there’s a 0. 5 correlation for short between the, uh, the personality to mean openness to experience and, uh, IQ tests. So that is true in the, in the main, um, but that is only a 0. 5 correlation. And what you find is these things can break, break out often in various fascinating ways when you do, you know, regression, you control for one for the other.
You know, so you’re, you’re, you’re, you’re right. We’re talking about different levels of analysis. Um, but also, we didn’t have any Einsteins in our sample. And I think it’s interesting to think through. And I think that’s the point you’re making. You, you argue this in your chapter. Your very long chapter on creativity.
You, you argue there might be something really fundamentally and qualitatively different between, not just quantitatively, but qualitatively, between [00:28:00] those who are fundamentally, uh, Reorganizing a whole domain, a whole field of knowledge, um, and, uh, they might bring their intuition more to bear than, you know, when we talk about creative achievement in the general population is all I’m talking about.
Iian: interesting. Yes, absolutely right. I mean, what I wanted to draw attention to is that when you come to look at creativity research, carefully, and what you find is that different patterns of activation are associated with different, two things, different levels of creativity, so the very highly creative use their brains differently from the only moderately creative or the not very creative at all.
And the other thing is that The patterns you’re looking for must be tested for by something that is truly creative and often in research because it’s so hard to set up [00:29:00] a situation in which people are going to be creative, um, and because it’s so It’s easier to measure lots of other proxies for it.
What you often end up with is not really asking them to do a profoundly creative thing, but instead, um, to do something rather more pedestrian. And this muddies the waters, I think, because what seems to be clear is that when the, when the task is highly creative and when the person is highly creative, there is this very strong Um, effects of right hemisphere preponderance, but it can become reversed as you go down.
So that people who are not so creatively gifted, um, tend to use a sort of second best mode, which is a more analytic approach to do it with a sort of rationalistic thing. Well, let’s try this and so on. And I would quote Anas Fard, who’s a mathematician on her research on mathematicians. She interviewed many mathematicians and also tested Children.
that were either [00:30:00] mathematically gifted or not, and she noticed that they approach problems in two different ways. The real mathematicians, the gifted mathematicians, um, described always this sense of, um, not knowing until an aha moment came, and then they, and those aha moments were more right than the less gifted who plodded along an analytic path and felt Uh, a different thing that they were getting closer and warmer as they went along the path.
But, unfortunately, often the conclusions they came to were not as good as those who had, um, been able to do this in a more intuitive way.
Scott: So, I think one maybe useful way of approaching this is to realize, you know, so the, the, the, the personality domain openness to experience has various components to it.
Um, you have intellectual curiosity, which we found. Out predicted IQ when it came to creative achievement. So it, so I’m not saying the intellect was, was not important, but it was important to distinguish between IQ [00:31:00] test performance and intellectual curiosity. Those two things were only correlated 0.50.
So you, there could be people who. Ace IQ tests, but don’t have a shred of intellectual curiosity or intellectual openness. And, uh, and that’s possible. And then vice versa, it’s possible to, um, to have very low IQ and be very intellectually curious. So that was one important distinction we wanted to make.
Um, but in the openness domain, you also have openness to fantasy and imagination. Um, which is, um, you know, there are plenty of people who score sky high in IQ tests, but aren’t particularly imaginative, um, or, or have a proneness to imagination or even care about it or daydream. They’re not big daydreamers.
Um, and then there’s openness to, to aesthetics. Which is like openness to beauty and the arts, um, and then there’s openness to emotions, you know, which is a real deep openness to your emotional world. So I think these, it’s important in this discussion to, to kind of break, you can have a weight and construct at the top.
But I think these, these [00:32:00] specific sub factors, um, can break apart in very interesting ways. Maybe the, the, uh, shall we say true geniuses? I don’t know, that’s a terrible phrase. Uh, it’s, it sounds like a controversial phrase to say there are true geniuses and there are faker geniuses. But maybe the, the, the, the extraordinarily creative, let’s say that.
Uh, humans of our species, um, I would have thought they are really good at, uh, integrating all these various ways of being, uh, or, or even if not integrating, uh, experimenting with them. So let me step back and see what you
Iian: think of that. Yeah. Yes. I mean, immediately thinking of this from a perspective of hemisphere theory, um, one of the distinctions between the hemispheres is that the right hemisphere It seems to be able to use what the left hemisphere knows as well and take it into account.
But the left hemisphere doesn’t seem equivalently capable of taking into account what the right hemisphere knows. And it’s also possible for [00:33:00] the right hemisphere, under certain circumstances, to apply local attention just as effectively as the left hemisphere. But it’s not possible for the right, sorry, the left hemisphere to apply global attention as effectively as the right.
And I, I talk about that in the book. So in the, the sense of bringing these things together, it probably is going to be the right hemisphere that’s better at doing them. But I also found, to cut a very long story short, that Emotional and social intelligence, no surprise, is more associated with right hemisphere function, and that’s pretty much non controversial.
But what is controversial is my discovery, quite contrary to anything I had previously assumed, that the right hemisphere is also more important for IQ. And I’m not really surprised because a lot of it is to do with things like pattern recognition. I mean, it’s a long time since I [00:34:00] did an IQ test. I don’t think I’ve done one since I was 11, but I think there were things where you had to see What a series implied by looking at shapes and seeing which one was the odd one out or what was coming next and so on.
That seems to me very, um, gestalt and right hemisphere sort of orientated. I might be wrong. Can I push back
Scott: on that for a second? Yes. Um, because, uh, All the, all the most recent data I’ve seen on general intelligence when you look at the common variance across various subtests, because if you do look at IQ subtests that are more visually loaded than verbal loaded, yes, you do find more right hemisphere activation.
But actually, the common variance, general intelligence is more left brain activated. And I think there’s, that’s replicated among enough studies now where it’s, Actually, IQ test performance in, in terms of the common variance, you know, uh, generalizing across, uh, content, um, [00:35:00] does tend to be left brain oriented because it isn’t involved in abstraction and, and really involved in that kind of, uh, logical reasoning.
That’s what the, the, the most recent research does show actually. Well,
Iian: I’d be interested in that, but I wonder if it might, I don’t know how it was determined, but, um, there are problems, as I point out that, um, when you look at what’s active in a brain when it’s, say, doing an IQ test or something, it’s probably going to be loaded towards the left hemisphere, um, partly because the only way that one can often test things is going to involve some degree of articulation or verbalizing, and that is going to automatically bring in the left hemisphere.
But also that when one is looking at any kind of [00:36:00] faculty, I like to bring together measurements in intact humans with what we know about, um, bits of the brain that are insulted. A stroke, a tumor, an injury. And what is really, really striking is that when you compare people who prior to one of these events had an IQ measured and after the event their IQ was measured again, where there are substantial drops, the injury was almost always in the right hemisphere, not in the left.
I mean, that’s based on the study of 156 individuals who had that data and had an intervening injury. Now, I know you You can argue the pros and cons of deficit literature, but you can also argue the pros and cons of every kind of imaging literature, and I think that bringing into the picture the deficit literature is quite [00:37:00] important.
Scott: I agree. We can bring in the deficit literature and give you and give a complete counterexample to what you just said, though, and that’s within the savant literature. Um, I have been, uh, deep friends with a man called Daryl Treffert, who, uh, may he rest in peace, passed away recently. He, um, he was the, uh, scientific advisor to the movie Rain Man.
And he spent his whole life studying savants. And what you find with savants is that they have, they tend to have very low IQs. So this is actually a counter example to what you’re talking about. They tend to have very low IQs, but they tend to. display an extraordinary, um, talent or ability that seems to become unlocked when you are more right hemisphere focused.
Again, I think suggesting a, a important distinction between the kind of left hemisphere IQ logical abstractive performance necessary to score high in IQ test and the type of intelligence that is unlocked by the right [00:38:00] hemisphere, I, I just think it’s important to recognize that. The intelligence of the construct seems to be richer and deeper than, than just IQ test kind of Raven’s kind of performance.
Iian: I of course agree with that, but I’m not sure that I would accept that that somehow contradicts what I was saying, because one of the other things I’m well aware of is that most cases of Savant syndrome come on after some, I mean, they can sometimes congenital, but, but. But in the cases where the blow, the injury is often to the left hemisphere, and that releases the right hemisphere to be, as it were, more intelligent in certain ways.
And so I’m not sure that is a counterexample, and I’d just like to mention the research done by Snyder, is it Alan Snyder? Yeah, Alan
Scott: Snyder, yeah, the nine dot problem.
Iian: The nine dot problem. And you know, [00:39:00] this is amazing because I know you know all of this, but what his research appears to show, which is the nine dot problem, which is extremely difficult for anyone in the normal circumstances to be able to solve within the time of the test allotted.
Um, it was unsolvable by people who had, uh, um, uh, left hemisphere activity augmented and their right hemisphere activity suppressed, um, but was solved by four, a staggering 40 percent of those who had their right hemisphere activity augmented and their left hemisphere activity suppressed. This is, of course, using transcranial magnetic stimulation.
So anyway, I’ll just throw that into the pot.
Scott: No, it’s great. It’s great. You’re saying, and I agree with it, and, and what your examples show, is that a lot of IQ test batteries, they, they miss out on creative insights. They’re not met, that’s not what they’re measuring, you know? There’s a lot of cognitive [00:40:00] processes relating to creativity and imagination and insight and metaphor and, um, and, uh, and, and frame shifting that the right hemisphere contributes to that is not tapped into by measures of general intelligence.
Iian: Well, it is. And, you know, one of the things that we need drastically in this world is to stop mistrusting our intuitions all over the place. There are armies of psychologists making a fat living out of going around telling organizations that they shouldn’t trust their intuitions. But actually, a lot of the mess we’re in now is because we’ve consistently failed to honor our intuitions for a rather long time.
And, um, it, it If we actually did respect our intuitions, they’re fallible, of course, but then so is merely looking at the world logically and fallible at times, but it’s not a reason for not using it because intuition, you can bring together subtly various strands of thought and [00:41:00] reasoning and experience and so on and come to a conclusion, which is subtler than anything that would happen if you linearly argued.
Scott: I love that. Yeah, I’m right there with you. And, uh, there is a tyranny of, of, of language, you know, that the left hemisphere contributes to with, with creative thinking, because I’ve seen some really cool research showing that the right hemisphere is important for accessing non dominant meanings of words and unusual associations.
And, and, and the whole idea of, the whole idea of remote associations. Test called the remote associations test and the left hemisphere gets in the way of that. Because when I say how many uses are of a brick or there, if I say, you know, how many, what’s the use of a table, you know, your left hemisphere wants to give you kind of the most obvious answer, you know, and, and if you can just get rid of that, then you can access a whole depth of, of unusual associations.
Iian: remote associations are certainly a part of creativity, though not obviously the full story. [00:42:00] And, and as you know, the right hemisphere is much better at making these imaginatively remote associations. Yeah,
Scott: it’s so, you know, mapping on the network approach to the left brain, right brain approach. Um, it’s, it’s, I, I, you’ve got me thinking about it in a, such a deeper way than I ever have before, how these These two, they’re just different levels of analysis.
They’re not, uh, they’re both probably saying the same thing. They’re just different levels of analysis. You know, I’ve been, I’ve been arguing against the tyranny of the executive attention network, where you’ve been arguing against the tyranny of the left hemisphere. But conceptually, I feel like we’re both bothered by the
Iian: same thing.
I think that that’s right. Yeah. No, no, there’s a lot of overlap.
Scott: Here we go. You ready for this question? What is truth? What is truth? No, no, but, um, and that’s a cheeky question, but, um, you know, I think that you, you kind of, uh, your work [00:43:00] really does raise a lot of metaphysical questions, uh, about, about the nature of reality. Um, and which half of the brain is really seeing, uh, reality clearer than the other.
Iian: Yes. Well, the, the, what is truth question, which was first famously asked by Pontius Pilate, have a go, uh, in the book, because I raised a lot of metaphysical questions. And of course, I don’t claim to have answered them. Only a fool would do that. But I do at least address them. And I do actually have, I’m bold enough to have a chapter called, What is Truth?
And what I suggest is that, like everything else, um, this is differently seen in the two hemispheres, that the the left hemisphere prefers a vision of truth and acts as though truth is to be found, um, by seeing it as a thing that is at the end of a path, that if you take the steps to it, you will eventually reach it, um, and that that truth is single [00:44:00] and pure.
and will be the same for everybody when they get there. And while I’m very, very much opposed to the postmodern position that there are no truths, they’re just whatever we choose to believe. No, no, no, no, no. But on the other hand, I think the other vision, that truth is just pure and simple and clear and out there, is also wrong.
And what I suggest is that it comes out of an encounter. And that what we experience is always something that is partly given to us and partly us giving to it. And in this encounter, there is always a two way process that alters both us and what it is we’re encountering. So there is a truth, which is more like being true to something, being true to an ideal, being true to a person, being true to your, your wife, your husband, your partner, whatever.
But these, uh Another way of thinking about truth that is an allegiance where you cannot prove it But you can get very [00:45:00] close to knowing that this is really more right than whatever the alternative to this might might be
Scott: Well, I I love that and and link it to roll maze work on human existence as an encounter with the world and and creativity as an act of putting something into existence that has never existed before Um, you know, there is reality, but there’s also creation, you know, like of something that didn’t exist a moment before, you know, and you can do that.
You Ian can do that. We
Iian: all do it all the time. All the time. All the time. And this brings us to imagination. I make a distinction, which is not original to me at all, um, between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy is something that is like dressing up reality in a way that’s cute. It’s like you haven’t really transformed it.
You’ve just taken something and you’ve put on a pretty dress, you’ve taken an [00:46:00] aristocrat and you’ve dressed him in a shepherd’s, uh, cloak and given him a crook and he plays for an hour or so. And that is fantasy. But imagination is It’s quite, quite different. It’s looking at something that you think you already know until its strangeness appears to you and you enter into it with your, your whole imaginative faculty, which is your, brings parts of your emotional life, your intellectual life and so on into it.
And words, you know, describe being in the presence of a mountain or just a rock or a waterfall or whatever. sort of seeing it for the first time, and that is the power of the imagination. Now what Coleridge did in brief was to make a distinction which when I was studying him in my 20s I thought was pedantic and slightly forgettable, but I now realize this is profound between what he calls primary imagination and secondary imagination.
Secondary imagination is what we’ve [00:47:00] been talking about with artists and creativity in that. very, um, you know, clear sense. But primary imagination, which was before it and, you know, supportive of secondary imagination, was the business we do all the time in bringing into being the phenomenological world.
So all the time, second by second, I am in dialogue with whatever it is that Exists apart from me, and out of that dialogue comes something that partly I created, but I, but it only works if I am true to the thing that I’m really, truly trying to see. So it is this encounter that gets closer to truth, and it is brought about by imagination.
So where fantasy leads us into falsehood, imagination is the only path into truth, and it’s something we’re doing all the time. Wow. So
Scott: fantasy is putting lipstick on a pig, is what you’re saying. In essence, that’s what you’re saying. [00:48:00] But, um, okay. So, you know, I, let’s talk about the link between mental illness and creativity for a second, because there is an interesting, there is an interesting connection here.
And you have a very interesting take on schizophrenia, um, as, um, essentially you can’t do anything but. Engage your rationality to make sense of the world in a sense that’s that’s the almost kind of an opposite of how a lot of people think of schizophrenia as being totally in the realm of
Iian: Delusion. Yes, but it is it is in the realm of delusion But just using, using reason only to approach life will lead you to delusion, as GK Chesterton said, you know, the madman is not the person who has lost his reason, but the person who’s lost everything but his reason, you know, because think about it.
You know, if I’m sitting in this room and I hear a voice, I look around the room and I can’t see anybody, but the voice is there, I think, [00:49:00] okay, so it must be the next door neighbor putting a trumpet up to the wall and sending me messages, or it’s coming through that socket on the wall over there. This is how they think, because it’s a kind of reasoning, but it’s reasoning on a basis of completely misunderstanding the world.
And this is what happens when the left hemisphere goes off on one. And, and suppresses what the right hemisphere can see.
Scott: Well, I’m trying to map on the way I’ve been thinking about it with the way that you’re thinking about it. You know, I think of it from a network perspective. You, you tend to find that, um, that I often joke in my talks about this.
I say, when you look at the brains of schizophrenic patients and you look at the brains of highly creative people, you notice no difference between the brains. And I say, just kidding. Then the audience laughs. But anyway, um, but, but you actually do notice some similarities and that’s in the default mode network functioning.
Um, when you compare the brains of schizophrenic patients versus creative, uh, highly creative people, you do notice that they have a very overactive [00:50:00] default mode network. Um, but there, the difference between the two populations. is that there is higher executive functioning among the highly creative people than the ones we put in a mental institution.
But I think that, that I think a lot of people we put in a mental institution have a lot of potential for immense creativity. I say it’s important to be able to, uh, be daring enough to dip your toes into the sea of madness, but you must be tethered to a rope that can pull you back to the shore. of
That’s true. That’s very good. I like that. And you know, my, my next book, book one, if, if I’m spared. I thought
Scott: you said this one was your last book, The Matter of Things. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Iian: Well, if I’m spared or if you’re all spared, uh, it, um, is, is a book on the art of schizophrenic subjects. I have had a fascination with this.
Um, going back 30 years [00:51:00] because I, I, I, um, I was a consultant at the Bethlehem and Maudsley Hospital in London, which the old Bethlehem goes back to the 14th century at least. And, um, it has a museum. of amazing works of art done by patients, particularly interesting are the ones by schizophrenic subjects.
And I’ve, you know, I’ve collected ones of my own patients and studied it, but you’re dead right. They have this capacity, particularly for that kind of creativity. Some of it is, is just bizarre. Um, I don’t know that any of it is profound, actually. I, I don’t think that’s really the point, but what it is, it’s often very telling.
It tells you something about their world, and I think it’s just fascinating getting into that world. So
Scott: fascinating, you know, and yeah, a lot of it is our word salads and, um, and things, but, but a lot of our most creative thoughts. You know, arise from that unconscious, uh, [00:52:00] word, you know, bizarre dreamlike states.
Right. Um, I actually sent, uh, a portion of your book to my, my colleague, Colin Young, who had argued and he had had a, he had a theory that, um, during sleep we have dopamine production to the default mode network. Um, that causes us to, uh, have a rich, uh, imagination. Um, but then I, I saw your work, uh, I saw what you, you cited, uh, that the right, that while we’re sleeping, the right hemisphere is more active, and, um, he argued that dopamine is projected to the right hemisphere during sleep, is what he argued, and anyway, I linked that to what you were arguing.
How very interesting. About sleep, a sleep like state. And it makes me think that, you know, really creative people during their wakeful hours are able to enter more of a dream like state with consciousness there as well.
Iian: Yes, absolutely. And you know, Coming back to what you’ve just said a minute ago, it’s about being tethered enough.
You know, [00:53:00] the trouble is that most of the time it is really word salad and it’s not poetry. But if you take the example of Blake, I mean, Blake was almost certainly, I mean, nowadays he would be diagnosable. Poor man. Um, and he’d be on, um, I don’t know, a Lanzapine or something. But the thing is that he saw, you know, an angel in a tree in Peckham Rye.
He saw God looking in at the, the window, uh, the landing window in his house. He saw the ghost of a flea. So he, he was clearly in another realm. Um, but he was also very tethered in, in his humanity. And so what happens is you get this utterly amazing poetry, which, um, is, well, you know, one of the great achievements of English literature.
And some of it is a little dotty, I agree, but some of it is just [00:54:00] outright genius, no question. And it’s interesting that Christopher Smart, who was an 18th century poet who was very clearly schizophrenic, he did write some very interesting poetry. It’s, um, some of it was set to music by Benjamin Britten.
But, um, so anyway, sorry, off the point there. Not off the point. Maybe nothing’s off the point. No,
Scott: no, that’s the point. That’s the point. That’s the point that you just summarized. You just summarized everything by saying nothing’s off the point. You know, the people, people who have low latent inhibition, meaning they are able to entertain associations between things that don’t Seem obviously relevant to a goal, um, tend to be higher in creative achievement.
They’re able to even entertain things. Absolutely. That so that’s part of your genius, sir. Yeah. , that’s part of your genius. Thank you. Thank you. Bringing together, you know, all of these different areas of your life that you’ve been interested [00:55:00] in
Iian: when it comes to being pulled many different directions. Um, and I just have seen patterns that cohere.
And that’s, that’s all I’ve tried to articulate.
Scott: Let’s end this interview talking about the sacred. Um, the, the right hemisphere seems to be able to see the interconnectedness of, of all things in a way that left hemisphere kind of inhibits. Um, and, and that really does get, does get us into the realm of the sacred and into the realm of, um, peak experiences and profound, um, the most profound experiences of human existence, which you don’t need to be on drugs to, to see.
But drugs help. Certain drugs help with that.
Iian: No, I gather they do help some people, yeah. You know, I had grave misgivings about writing a chapter on the sense of the sacred, but it is actually the longest chapter in the book, in the last substantive chapter. And it’s been pointed out to me by many people that it also could be a book on its own.
But it cost me a lot of [00:56:00] concern and hard work and tearing my hair and revising because I wanted to be. I wanted above all to do justice to something I think is very deep and that I think we’re in danger of losing this answer the sacred and I think it’s very, very important that we rediscover it. I mean, people might say, well, we’ve got more pressing things to do, like, you know, uh, what we do about climate change and so on.
Of course, these are. infinitely important, but actually we could solve these problems and not be a wit better if we remained the, I think, spiritually desolate people that we’ve become, selfish, obsessed with, with power and wealth and neglectful of the things that really, really matter, which are, um, oneness with others, oneness with nature and oneness with the, the sacred or [00:57:00] divine or whatever you’d like to call it.
So yes, I did. stick my neck out and write about that. But in terms of hemispheres, what has occurred to me is that, um, the dominance of the left hemisphere, both as an actual measurable thing in the EEG, that in the normal waking state, most people are just slightly more. predominantly active in the left hemisphere than the right, um, and of course the left hemisphere tends to dominate the right when given a chance to do so.
But not only that, but in our culture, as I argue in the second half of, um, the Master and his Emissary, we’ve, we’ve moved towards a culture which has, seems to have lost, um, whatever it is the right hemisphere can put us in touch with. But if you think about it, the left hemisphere wants something that is certain, that is out there and known, that is familiar, and what we’re talking about here is the exact opposite, something that is never fully known.
But it’s [00:58:00] knowable in the sense that you can deeply sense something. It’s like a work of art. You can never fully know it, but you were attracted by it. And you know, there’s something real there. And, you know, so it’s quite different. And it’s, it’s, it’s asking you to suspend judgment, suspend the need for proof, the need for certainty, because there just are things that are not.
um, susceptible to this analysis. And if you don’t understand that, then in a way I can’t really help you. But it just seems the right hemisphere is much more able to attune itself to these things than the left. And for what it’s worth, the neuroimaging suggests that most of the things that open us to that kind of a world, including mindfulness, meditation, and so on.
These things have effects in both hemispheres that you can’t just reduce it to one thing. But overall, the preponderance of the effects [00:59:00] seem to be served by and to nourish the right hemisphere more than the left. Right. I
Scott: think it’s important to note that that the both the left hemisphere functions, the right hemisphere functions, they have their both have their benefits and disadvantages.
I wouldn’t want to live. I wouldn’t want to live 24 7 in either hemisphere. The exclusion
Iian: of the other. No, I mean, the left hemisphere is essential, but as a, as a servant, that’s the important thing. If asked to do a job, it can do it, but if it thinks it knows everything, which it doesn’t, then it becomes
Scott: a problem.
No, that’s right. The point, the point you’re making is that the, the, there’s, there are some things that, that some of those profound human experiences can only come through direct experience and uh, an opening, an opening to, uh, to an encounter with, with the world.
Iian: That’s it. And it’s, you know, that quote of Einstein’s, whether he ever said it or not, I don’t know, but the rational mind is a [01:00:00] useful servant.
The intuitive mind is a precious gift. We live in a world which honors the servant but has forgotten the gift. Whether or not he put it in those words, I don’t know, but it certainly is. In keeping with many things he said about his own creative experiences in science.
Scott: I’m going to end this whole interview today by quoting, uh, the famous Ian McGilchrist.
Okay. Are you ready? Are you ready? And I hope I got, I hope I get this quote right. I hope I get this quote right. Um, our talent for division. For seeing the parts is of staggering importance, second only to our capacity to transcend it in order to see the whole. And, uh, it was a real profound experience having this conversation with you today, Ian.
And I, um, I hope we, uh, I think that, that, uh, the, the people that force us to debate, I told them, uh, we’re going to have a podcast chat and I think they’re going to publish our podcast chat. So I’m happy with that. Really?
Iian: Fabulous. I think so. That’s great. [01:01:00] Yeah. No, it’s been lovely being here and talking with you.
I feel we could go on for hours and hours, but sometimes a little is as good as a lot. And it’s been nice. I feel I’ve made an intellectual friend here. So thank you very
Scott: much. Likewise. Well, let’s just say to be continued then.
Iian: Okay. Very good.