Category Archives: Thinking about thinking

A tribute to Robert M. Pirsig

This is a photograph of author and philosopher Robert M. Pirsig taken by Ian Glendinning at Chester, England on 7th July 2005

Talking in some depth about things that seem important – by J A R Willis


This article appeared in the December 2000 issue of Medical Humanities in the series Medicine through the Novel.  It is repeated here as a tribute to one of my greatest inspirations – Robert M. Pirsig – who died two days ago (24 April 2017)


‘Unless you are fond of hollering you don’t make great conversations on a running cycle. Instead you spend your time being aware of things and meditating on them. On sights and sounds, on the mood of the weather and things remembered, on the machine and the countryside you’re in, thinking about things at great leisure and length without being hurried and without feeling that you are losing time.’ (p 17 of 416)

The gentle voice is incredibly familiar, heard now for the third time, a voice that seems to have got itself into my deepest being. Continue reading A tribute to Robert M. Pirsig

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.

The surprising payoff while learning a big part for a play

I am nine weeks out from playing the part of Prospero in Alton Fringe Theatre‘s production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. And I want to write about the surprising fact that learning a part like this is far from being the miserable slog that most people expect it to be. And, even more surprising, that it is possible for someone like me, who was particularly bad at memorizing almost anything at school, to do it at all !

Years ago Edward de Bono, he who coined the expression lateral thinking, pointed out that surprise is a sure sign that you have spotted something which conflicts with your existing picture of how the world is. And – assuming your observation is correct, as I have no doubt in this case it is – it must mean there is something in your understanding of the world that you need to change. So here we go:

Of course these are beautiful words, and supremely worth studying and getting to know.  But I keep getting the feeling that there is more to it than that. There is this positive pleasure you get when you run through, preferably out loud, something that you have got established, perfectly, in your mind. The buzz of knowing it is right, and exactly right, is just as real as the buzz that keeps you solving crossword clues (or trying to) or getting a game of patience to come out. It is as though we are hard-wired with a reward mechanism for accurate recall of surprisingly long texts. And the only reason this fact is surprising is that, in our modern, literate culture, this is an ability we hardly ever use, except when some of us are mad enough to land ourselves with a big part in a play.

But in an ancestral, pre-literate culture, such as prevailed during all but the last, infinitesimal proportion of humanity’s evolution, the accurate memorizing of lore of all kinds – stories, poems, ballads, not to mention travel routes – must have been a vital part of our intellectual equipment. So it is not really surprising that we find we are good at this sort of thing when we allow ourselves to try. Or that we get a physical reward for doing it well. Because it stands to reason that until the modern era this was a human need which was  just as vital for our success as a species as others for which nature has bequeathed us the built-in payoffs we know so well.

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
and ye that on the sands with printless foot
do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
when he comes back…

That was from memory, I promise.  And I did get the wonderful payoff as I typed those words. I promise that as well. Three and a half of my 600 lines.  I’ve just checked the passage, from Act 5 Scene 1 in our script, and I did get it exactly right, punctuation and all.   I don’t know about you, but I still find that surprising.

PS  If you like this sort of thinking about thinking there’s lots of it in my first book, The Paradox of Progress