The change has to come from within you: a conversation with Iain McGilchrist

While chairing the RSA event with Jordan Peterson on January 16th (currently over 130,000 views) I was grateful to Iain McGilchrist for making time to speak with Jordan for Perspectiva (more on that soon) and we managed to squeeze in a short interview of our own too (see below). The exchange features an outline of Iain’s famous book, what he’s working on now, and what his ideas means for people who care about acting effectively in the world.
Iain McGilchrist is a Psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary. That book is ostensibly about neuroscience and cultural history but really it’s about attention – the point is less that we have two different hemispheres whose relationship shapes historical processes. The point is rather that we attend to the world in two completely different ways, and that our unified consciousness is a kind of illusion – an illusion that serves us well when the hemispheres are in balance, but one we need to understand better when, like now, they are not.
We are – individually and collectively – what we attend to and how we attend to it. Our attention is the intimate and precious resource that shapes who we think we are, what we think is going on, and what feels important at any given time.
Perspectiva’s Paying Attention initiative is about the personal and ethical and spiritual importance of attention in a world where attention is a market opportunity in the digital economy and a campaigning opportunity for political interest groups. Our propensity to look and click and scroll in the process of directing our attention is the frontline in how our world is rendered and reproduced.
There are lots of good theorists of attention out there, including James Williams whose book on attention will be out soon; Matthew Crawford, who argues that we need a new ‘attentional commons’ to recognise that attention is a public good to be understood and cultivated and not a private resource to be plundered. Much of the mindfulness phenomenon is also about waking up to the value of proactive conscious attentiveness. In all cases the point is to respond to the world more deliberately, in a world that is clamouring for your automatic attention to further ends that may not be your own.
I doubt, however, that anybody understands attention quite as well from so many vantage points as Iain. In 2012, while founding the RSA Social Brain Centre, I chose to begin by understanding the public relevance of Iain’s work with a dialogue and workshop leading to the report: Divided Brain, Divided World: why the best part of us struggles to be heard.
This process was rewarding but also exacting and led to some soul searching. In Iain’s work the connection between the brain and society is always implicit, but it is also always mediated by many other factors including epistemology (how we know) phenomenology (how we experience) and ethics (how we value).
On a personal level, as someone hunting for foundations and touchstones to make sense of complex collective challenges it was important to viscerally experience that neuroscience is not the best place to look. The brain as such rarely provides anything resembling an axiom for a normative question about who we are and what we should do. However, it doesn’t follow at all that there is no value in knowing what is happening in the brain, and more precisely, how what is happening is experienced. Knowing that psychological and social phenomena have a biological basis is deeply valuable, even if the biological basis doesn’t really tell you what the point of life is or how we should address social challenges.
At that end of that process I wrote a post clarifying where I felt we had ended up, with four challenging questions including: Can you believe the brain is fundamental without being a reductionist? Iain is more than up to answering that kind of question, and is now moving on to even bigger questions relating to what his thinking means for time, space, causation, personhood, God, and other such trifles.
The highlight of the video for me is towards the end where I ask – in effect – why proper understanding matters. Iain’s point is both simple and profound, namely that that change in perspective has to come from within oneself, not be imposed from outside. This point reminded me of a distinction made by the educationalist Matthew Lipman in the context of children learning to think, but the point applies more broadly:
“Meanings cannot be dispensed. They cannot be given or handed out (to children). Meanings must be acquired; they are capta, not data. We have to learn how to establish the conditions and opportunities that will enable (children), with their natural curiosity and appetite for meaning, to seize upon the appropriate clues and make sense of things for themselves… Something must be done to enable (children) to acquire meaning for themselves. They will not acquire such meaning merely by learning the contents of (adult) knowledge. They must be taught to think and, in particular, to think for themselves.”
(Philosophy in the Classroom, 2nd edition. Lipman, Sharp and Oscanyan. Temple Press, 1980, p13)
This idea is a key feature of our Human Growth initiative and indirectly also our Beyond Activism initiative – we grow in perspective throughout the lifespan and we only really understand in terms of our ‘capta’ – in terms of our capacity to make it our own. In Iain’s case the insight is especially profound given the erudition it is built upon.

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