Expanding Awareness

Unleashing the right hemisphere

By Michael Ashcroft | 4 min read

I'm working my way through The Master And His Emissary, written by Iain McGilchrist, which I expect one day will be considered one of the most important books of all time.

You may know that the brain is lateralised into two hemispheres, left and right. This has unfortunately become co-opted by a bunch of corporate training-style nonsense, like "the left brain is for science and the right brain is for art". Unless you've read any of McGilchrist's work, it might be wise to consider everything you think you know about the hemispheres to be wrong.

So why do we have two clearly separated hemispheres? It comes down not to what the hemispheres do, but how they do it.

Consider the paradox faced by most animals in the wild. They need to eat, which means they need to be able to identify and track things they can eat. At the same time it is clearly important that they avoid being eaten themselves by whatever might be hunting them.

These represent two fundamentally different ways of attending to the world that need to exist at the same time. And so it is that the left hemisphere is responsible for the narrow attention required to track prey, while the right hemisphere is responsible for the broad, open awareness required to be able to notice a predator. Each hemisphere is responsible for these distinct ways of attending.

The left hemisphere isolates objects from their context, seeing everything in terms of utility and capacity to be manipulated, in the sense that we can 'use' them to meet some end. The right hand, which is organised by the left hemisphere, is the object-grasping hand for most people.

The right hemisphere attends to everything all that once, including the relationships between things and the flow of time. It sees the big picture and understands that everything exists in context. To the right hemisphere the world just 'is'.

Both of these ways of attending are vital and need to be fully integrated, but there is a sense in which they seem to compete. The corpus callosum, which is a brain structure that mediates connection between the hemispheres, appears to be mainly inhibitory in nature, such that each can stop the other hemisphere from interfering with what they're doing.

But here's where things get interesting. The two hemispheres need to find ways of co-operating, but it seems that the left hemisphere doesn't know or care much for the functions of the right hemisphere and thinks it can do everything itself. On the other hand, the right hemisphere seems to take a somewhat wiser perspective, recognising that both are required in an integrated way.

What this means it that the left hemisphere tries to involve itself in activities for which it is not at all well suited. It has forgotten that, while it does indeed do critically important things, its ways are not the only ways. The left hemisphere, in fact, needs to be subservient to the right hemisphere, but in today's culture that has been forgotten and the right hemisphere has been 'hijacked' by the left, leading to a left hemisphere dominant lens on the world.

In fact, that's where the title "The Master and His Emissary" comes from:

Excerpt from The Master And His Emissary

If you've been following my ideas around Alexander Technique for a while, much of this may sound quite familiar.

I talk about the capacity to train the skill of expanding our awareness, to notice things that could be noticed. I point out that attention moves around within awareness and that strange, interesting and valuable things can happen when we're able to play with this expansion.

So here's my working hypothesis. Alexander Technique is in fact a direct method to access the right hemisphere, or rather to overcome left hemisphere hijack, and to then re-establish appropriate relationship between the two hemispheres.

If this is true then the implications are astonishing, though for reasons that are best discussed another time (it's a 600+ page book, after all).

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