Attentiveness

In the 1990s, when I worked in geriatric care, one of the strangest encounters we had was with patients who had suffered a stroke. Often it had happened long before, and the chances of reversing the symptoms were long gone. When I learned that I was receiving a new patient or resident on my ward, it was important for me to know which side was paralyzed and to what extent. This had to do with care needs, because we found that those paralyzed on the left side often had problems with speech but had integrated their paralyzed side into their lives, while those paralyzed on the right side had the symptom of “neglect” and were often much more limited because their left side “no longer belonged to them,” as one resident told us.

At that time, I developed sample care plans for my staff to simplify care planning and ensure that nothing was forgotten. In developing the care plan for residents with stroke, I found that the entire topic was far more complex than I had learned in my training or was presented in the textbooks that were available to us. Where the complexity was outlined, my staff often had difficulty translating that knowledge into their care planning or distinguishing between the theory and the case at hand, which was my motivation to find a way to facilitate that process. At the time, I was kind of a novelty, which a visiting psychiatrist told me at one of our educational meetings, and we developed a kind of friendship that lasted as long as I worked in that area.

Since then, a series of books by Iain McGilchrist has been published, in which the complexity of the affliction by a stroke, and far further implications of the working of the brain hemispheres have been investigated. I list the books below. In Ways of Attending, McGilchrist writes, “Attention may sound a bit boring, but it isn’t at all. It is not just another “cognitive function” — it is actually nothing less than the way in which we relate to the world.” In his new book, The Matter With Things, he adds to this by having a chapter on attention, in which he illustrates this point in the larger context.

What I didn’t understand in the 1990s was that the people we were dealing with had a much bigger problem than we could imagine. Those who were “in denial” about their left side actually had no concept of the left side anymore in many cases, and it wasn’t just a matter of turning a plate so the occupant could keep eating – as long as the left side of the plate wasn’t in sight, it didn’t exist. This was evident by the apparent inability to cope with this limitation and to turn the plate itself, because by the next meal the experience of the previous one had disappeared. McGilchrist goes to great lengths to demonstrate this phenomenon with numerous examples recorded in medical journals.

The reason I mention this in my blog, aside from recommending the books to people who want to better understand how we relate to our world, is that McGilchrist points out that such a strange phenomenon is not limited to nursing home residents or patients in a medical setting. We experience many people throughout our lives who exhibit strange inabilities to relate to the world in which we would not immediately see some form of pathology at work. In many ways, this is another example of why we need to be patient with our fellow man, and I hope we can experience the same patience and get to the bottom of our differences.

If there is a crisis at present, then it is surely illustrated by an inability of some to come to terms with reality. I experience many people who, as I do as well, tend to block out aspects of the world that aren’t compatible with our worldview. It isn’t just the religious or political extremist who does this, but we all have a blind spot. There are various systems that try to enable us to overcome these blind spots, whether the Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs personality types, which are useful in at least giving us a different perspective. A simpler way is in communication with other people who have a different perspective, if we can accept the possible conflicts that can occur. But at the bottom of the whole issue is the question of how we attend to the world.

The term “mindfulness” has been bandied about a lot in the last twenty years. I discovered it in 2002 when I took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. The term mindfulness comes from Buddhist teachings, where it has greater significance than in the medical field and is part of a body of doctrine. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books pick up on this aspect, teaching us to be mindful of the world and to manage the “normal catastrophe” we call life and reduce stress. The method has been extended to other particular areas of stress, not just the normal stress we can feel under pressure. I think this is valuable, but I think the implications Iain McGilchrist makes in his books are equally important, because he points out that we have the ability to relate to the world in a broader sense, but we seem to narrow our perspective and lose the big picture.

The review of the newest book on Amazon is perhaps something with which I can close this issue and recommend the book to all who are interested.

“Is the world essentially inert and mechanical – nothing but a collection of things for us to use? Are we ourselves nothing but the playthings of chance, embroiled in a war of all against all? Why, indeed, are we engaged in destroying everything that is valuable to us?

In his international bestseller, The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist demonstrated that each brain hemisphere provides us with a radically different ‘take’ on the world, and used this insight to deliver a fresh understanding of the main turning points in the history of Western civilisation.

Twice before, in ancient Greece and Rome, the perception that evolved in the left hemisphere, which empowered us to manipulate the world, had ultimately come to eclipse the much more sophisticated take of the right hemisphere, which enabled us to understand it.

On each occasion this heralded the collapse of a civilisation. And now it was happening for a third, and possibly last, time.

In this landmark new book, Iain McGilchrist addresses some of the oldest and hardest questions humanity faces – ones that, however, have a practical urgency for all of us today.

Who are we? What is the world?

How can we understand consciousness, matter, space and time?

Is the cosmos without purpose or value?

Can we really neglect the sacred and divine?

In doing so, he argues that we have become enslaved to an account of things dominated by the brain’s left hemisphere, one that blinds us to an awe-inspiring reality that is all around us, had we but eyes to see it.

He suggests that in order to understand ourselves and the world we need science and intuition, reason and imagination, not just one or two; that they are in any case far from being in conflict; and that the brain’s right hemisphere plays the most important part in each.

And he shows us how to recognise the ‘signature’ of the left hemisphere in our thinking, so as to avoid making decisions that bring disaster in their wake. Following the paths of cutting-edge neurology, philosophy and physics, he reveals how each leads us to a similar vision of the world, one that is both profound and beautiful – and happens to be in line with the deepest traditions of human wisdom.

It is a vision that returns the world to life, and us to a better way of living in it: one we must embrace if we are to survive.”

Iain McGilchrist’s books include The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (Perspectiva), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale UP), The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning: Why Are We So Unhappy? (Yale UP), and Ways of Attending (Routledge).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.