A ray of light in the Isles of Orkney

P1120381The Stones of Stenness, Orkney

Visiting Orkney – the islands just off John O’ Goats at the northern tip of Scotland – a few days ago, we were entranced, as every visitor is, by the 5,000 year old archeological sites. Older than most of the pyramids, twice as old as Homer and ancient Greece, these stone structures that you walk around all over the place are evidence of a society of amazing sophistication.

One of the most notable features of the surviving artifacts is that, like Stonehenge 700 miles to the south (much nearer home for us) some of them are lined up accurately with the solar solstices. Stonehenge is aligned with the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, but it is on the shortest that the sun shines right down the length of the entrance tunnel of Maeshowe in Orkney so that it illuminates the opposite wall of the chamber deep inside the mound.

MaeshoweMaeshowe. Entrance only by guided tour, and photography inside not allowed

The natural thing is to be amazed at the cleverness of people who could work out this sort of thing and line up their buildings accordingly. But I suddenly had a flash of insight into how it might actually be done which I would like to try out here. I don’t for a moment imagine the idea is original, but it was certainly new to me, and it has interested a few people I have described it to. So here goes:

By far the most important variable in the life of people living in far Northern latitudes (and also for anyone living in far Southern latitudes if there were any) is the extreme variation in day length that occurs with the seasons. In tropical latitudes, of course, the day length is unchanged throughout the year, but in Orkney last week it was still light at 11pm and in the depth of winter the opposite must apply, making it dark for all but a few hours of each day.

So, imagine some Orkadian Einstein hitting on the idea of sticking a marker in the ground to line up something like a distant tree with the point on the horizon where the sun is setting. The next day (s)he finds that the marker has to be moved a little to the left, and again the next day. And so on, day after day. But sooner or later there comes a point where the movement stops and the markers begin to move back. That point is obviously going to be significant. So he sticks a bigger and more permanent marker there.

That would be interesting enough merely as a sign that the worst is past and from now on the days will get longer, but imagine if our proto-Einstein then leaves his/her markers until the following year and finds that the sun turns the corner in exactly the same place that year as well, And then the next year. And then the next. Surely the significance of this alignment with the horizon would be far greater, and far more god-like, to someone who had no understanding of how or why it happened that way, than to people like us to whom the explanation is commonplace.

Looking at it like that I felt I had some understanding of why people living in those conditions, particularly those in Northern latitudes, would have placed such enormous significance on these alignments in their traditions and in their ceremonies. But at the same time I could also see that setting up the precise alignment would be a much simpler process than I had previously thought. Contrary to what I had always supposed it could be entirety empirical and done without the slightest understanding and without the need for any calculation or astronomy whatsoever. You just put in bigger stones to mark your alignment and build your temple, or whatever, round them.

On the other hand, the fact that the alignment still holds true 5,000 years later does still strike me as awe-inspiring and slightly god-like.


Sunset over the sea to Skye – and the Cuillin mountains

The Divided Brain… Iain McGilchrist

After reading Iain McGilchrist‘s extended essay The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning I was trying to summarise what it said, it being itself a summary of his great book The Master and His Emissary , to daughter Becky on the ‘phone. Here is more or less what I found myself saying:
When you look at a brain, not just a human brain but any animal brain, the most striking thing about it is that it is separated into two halves. When you look more closely you find that the connection between the two halves (the corpus callosum), deep inside, is surprisingly small in size. And when you look closer still, using sophisticated techniques of modern science, you find that 80% of the messages passing though this connection are inhibitory. On the face of it this is very strange. It seems that the two halves of the brain, the seat of what seems, self-evidently, to be a unified self, are being carefully kept apart.
McGilchrist pointed out another strange thing in The Master and His Emissary: People who have had their hemispheres completely separated, as is sometimes done as a desperate remedy for intractable epilepsy, are not greatly incapacitated as a result. He asks “why ever not?”.
He further points out that the two halves of the brain, when closely compared, are not mirror images of one another, but are actually quite different in both shape and internal structure.
His explanation for this profound division of the brain is that there are two ways of modelling the world, both necessary, but completely different from one another. And one half of the brain is adapted to do it one way, and the other the other. We need both, but most of the time they must be kept separate. This is because they are completely different kinds of things – or different kinds of models.
But how can we describe this difference between these kinds of modelling? Shall we say that one brain (the right) is touchy-feely, instinctive, direct experience, while the other is measured, analysed, codified, processed? Perhaps. But the idea that I found myself repeating to Becky was simpler: one (the left this time) is the map and the other is the territory. Which ties in with the old adage: ‘the map is not the territory‘. The two are not the same, not even when they appear to be. I see this as important in the modern world because the more sophisticated the ‘map’ becomes the stronger the illusion that it actually is the territory.
Another idea of mine is that the right brain model is analogue (like a vinyl record) and the left digital (like a CD) – again entirely different in kind, but all-too-easily producing the illusion of being exactly the same. But I would like to know what McGilchrist thinks of that.
That is what I said to Becky, but McGilchrist also  goes on to show that these two different ways of modelling the world are reflected in different ways of organising society and deciding its priorities. That both are necessary, but that the society we are living in at the moment leans far too much towards the left-brain model.
Of the myriad aspects of life to which this analysis is applicable, I am currently preoccupied with the difference between living according to the rules and living according to something beyond the rules. I see here an explanation for how reasonable people are currently disagreeing violently over the question of whether it is right to avoid paying tax by means of clever manipulation of ‘the rules’. In this case the violence of the disagreement arises from the fact that each party sees it as self-evident that his or her approach is correct. I would go as far as to say that people who spend a lot of time playing sport are used to seeing the clever manipulation of rules as self-evidently virtuous. And that links with a visceral distaste I feel for the current tendency to describe people engaged in human activities as ‘players’. So, while the terms of such arguments appear to be the same, in fact they are so different that they cannot be meaningfully compared. They ought to be kept separate, in two carefully divided halves of comprehension, but here they clash with a terrible thunder.