There is a beautiful idea developed by psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist in his book The Master and his Emissary that in the brain, the difference between left and right hemisphere would exist, but not in the current popular version of an opposition between reason and emotion. Rather more would it be a dialogue between the right hemisphere being devoted to a broad vision of reality, that is based on experiential memory – the Master -, and the left hemisphere being sent to task for a more narrow service – the Emissary.
Example taken on a bird getting to crumbs on the ground, the left hemisphere would be the part of the brain focused on the eating and its object, though the right hemisphere would be keeping an eye on a broader picture – whether some danger or friend would come out from a bush behind.
Normally, circulation and dialogue would occur continually between those two worlds of existence : the right hemisphere being the incarnate sense of reality, of implicit meaning and limitations, the left being more aware of the maintaining of a coherent internal functioning.
Yet, McGilchrist shows that for instance, people who suffered from a right hemisphere stroke would become deprived from the sense of limitation as well as from those of implicit meaning, empathy and connection to a broader reality – including spirituality, mindfulness and the Arts. Then, would only remain one more narrow sense of what is given as reality in a closer perspective – this picture of a monkey is in fact a porcupine because it is written on the paper.
We could also interpret the right hemisphere as being responding to the new, on the look out for what is coming from the periphery, and the left categorising what is already perceived as known, already set for (Elkhonon Goldberg, 2009) – further out, a difference between what is present and what is re-presented, present ‘a second time’, judged on, alien from experiential reality.
This difference between the two hemispheres would exist amongst the other animal species, according to McGilchrist. One difference made with the human species would be the development of the frontal lobe, which function is to inhibit the responses and create a distance. Obviously, we are much interested in that in our theoretical work.
This little text is designed to be an introduction to our work, that would try to formalise the main ideas, concepts and tools that we are trying to precise about anthropogenesis and the conditions of possibility for the birth of the human mind’s structures.
The main idea is that we can observe three paradoxes to explain the existence and development of this capacity to create distance – to delay or lag neural responses, to use neurbiologist Gerald M. Edelman’s terms1 – or to demonopolise attention, if we borrow from philosopher Etienne Bimbenet’s expression explored in his book L’animal que je ne suis plus.
One first paradox is a sensorimotor one (in a permissive vision of the mind as incarnate put forward by neurobiologist Francisco Varela and his concept of enaction) : the gazed hand. In primates’ sensorimotor system, the hands are determined by their grasping function. They are implicitly and phylogenically defined by the objects they grasp, giving meaning to their connection to the outside world, the dialogue between the senses and the motor functions, by the fact they are grasping or not, active or unable to act. In a short neural circuit activity, they are the mean to respond to the sollicitations of their environment – as well as they pertain to its constant recreation.
But, as the pre-human species grew up as a biped species with arms long enough – not kangaroo arms – to have their hands waving in the air and grasping nothing, something odd may have occurred. If I am looking closely at my hand(s), as if it could be one other object I would like to grasp, can I grasp it with the very hand that uses to help me grasp for ?
In fact, no. There is a paradox, that the hand can’t be at the same time the object I intend to go for and the mean to go for it. Yet it appears to me that the hand is a mean for something, and maybe it can lead me to something more.
Anyway out of this, this situation of paradox, this moment of fascination for my own hand being paradoxical because it can’t be two different things – me and not me, the aim and the action to it. It can’t be two different moments at the same time, then a delay and a lag occurs in the response I would have immediately given to the sollicitation from my reality.
If I could have, I would have immediately grasped my hand with itself. If I could have doubled my hand, I would have created a second one to grasp it. But as I can’t, I find myself blocked, temporarily, in a no way out situation. I have to decide whether I will stay in the fascination of my hand or get out of it and step out back to reality.
Yet I have suddenly had the sense of potential action I could derive from a short-term response to my environment up to a delayed and planned middle-term action where the I , the sense of the me, self-consciousness is involved. I have just happened to double my mind’s activity and landscape of possibilities : hermeneutics is born.
That is where we connect with the second paradox, which is the paradox of the word me in language, involving a psychoanalytical as much as the sensorimotor view. Memory in language is always bringing an outside point of view – Jacques Lacan’s third party. If I say me to someone, I am using a memory of a relational demonstration – I am pointing myself out to someone else according to the rule of demonstration. I have to get out of myself to show my self to someone else for a common understanding of what I am. The third party here is connected to the moral and social imperative to be known and predictable to the others, in order to maintain social order.
Then, when I say me to someone else, my attention can’t be entirely in touch with the reality it aims at at the same time I try to involve another person into this reality. Derouting the sense of myself – the non-communicable part of the self, according to psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott’s term2 – because of the neccesity to bring the other one into my self’s reality is a symbolic paradox as well as it is a sensorimotor paradox : I can’t produce the matter of the world me, to actually say it and be attentive to the reality it aims at at the same time. Once I say it, it is not there, it is outside of me in the world that I share with others, taken into account. I can’t be the arrow and the tree in one single moment.
Synchronicity would always be a problem and a mystical issue.
The third paradox is adjacent to the others. There is a stream of conscious we maintain in our daily life because we mostly can’t express our thoughts out loud in the presence of others. One major part of our work is to dig out the intimate connections between morals and violence.
According to hermeneutic philosopher Paul Ricœur, ‘because there is the violence, there is the morals’3 ; however we would add that because there is the restraint of the morals, there is the violence, which is a contained aggression. Aggression – in a large interpretation of the energy of the body toward its environment, pointed out by founding ethologist Konrad Lorenz – being part of the living and necessarily urgent to express by any mean.
The social necessity to create rules to prevent aggressive behaviour to harm others and damage collective integrity is inaugurating a symbolic social order through ritualised patterned conducts. By maintaining the conscious stream of voices in our mind, we are maintaining the memory of the others that reminds us we have to keep going on in a sound social conduct.
The bonds of moral debt created since our childhood, when we learn what objects we are able to break, to use and symbolically or physically destruct among those that we are forbidden to, those bonds are actively maintained during our life.
These inhibitions we learn to keep on ourselves through our progressive formation to the social life are creating a world of meaning and a network of possibilities (or impossibilities) to action. Hence it is deeply connected to the way manual sensorimotor mastering through technics may have created a world of meaning in our prehistory : there is a me because the delay has created a peculiar sense of me being alien – what is not alien in my empty hand, the absence of an alien substance that would have given the meaning of my grasping hand, is a mirrored self. As well, there are objects in the world that are not so different from me and my hand(s) because they are, in fact, quite existing in the same way.
Both my hand(s) and the objects in the world may be willing to be assimilated to an extended vision of who and what I am. My environment and my self are somehow one bit a part of the same experience where I create the meaning.
The third paradox is in this context the difficulty to break with the continuous flow of the stream of conscious’s many voices – those imprints, to borrow another one of Lorenz’s concepts, taken up later by psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s theory of attachment. Whatever we can’t do anymore in the physical world of society’s rules, we have to move to imagination and its overvoicing from memory.
If we take up from the idea of the frontal lobe creating the distance necessary for the reading, for the analysing of reality, for the long-term delayed action, there is a right-hemisphere kind of attention kept awake on our surroundings. While it does, another part of attention is overvoicing it, to keep on standing up in a socially patterned and ritualised behaviour and a long-learned conduct. In the meantime, it is deriving bodily energy and personal aggression from a sheer brutal and physical expression to a creative, middle or long-term symbolical one.
It is a paradox that silence of the mind means unpredictability though we stand still and the world around us seems more free. However, morals’ teaching is about the fear of hurting someone or being hurt – ‘you won’t do onto others what you would hate to be done onto you’, the Golden Rule of morals.
The questions of power and social hierarchy came into play as our societies grew and developed since the origins from unsound fundations and mystical often fearsom visions of reality. Here, anthropological studies should give us relevant leads.
As for the method, our work is located in a crossway between disciplines from different fields, and it is as speculative as it is based on a creative, artistic and psychoanalytic experience. As musicologist John Blacking asked with his question ‘How musical is man ?’, revisiting the concept of entropy, and thanks to Ellen Dissanayake’s work on neuroæsthetics and her concept of artification, we are less afraid to reappropriate our relation to natural and manufactured technological objects, to our own creativity as human beings.
As well, there is the relevant question of the place of most of those daily objects according to the neccessity we have to systematically occupy our hands, that has been thoroughly investigated in by psychoanalyst Darian Leader. All that in the body seems to want to mean something and tell it to us should be listened to with great interest and care.
We are mainly inviting here the fields of psychoanalysis, neurobiology, hermeneutics and ethology to weave a network of cooperation and solidarity to the understanding of our origins, what makes us special amongst the animal species. As we are doing that, we want to remember Varela’s idea that we are not seperated at a catastrophic extent from them.
Varela’s proscriptive vision – contrarily to computationist and neo-darwinist’s prescriptive vision of evolution – is allowing us to focus more on what makes us closer to the other species than on the differences. This way, it might allow us to discrimate evolution’s turning point articulation and bring to it a conceptual key, with a keen ecological and political eye.
This key to formalise the possible conditions of possibility to the birth of the human mind is believed to be viable enough with this theory of those three paradoxes. But it is merely an opening door. We wish that further on, the next step of this investigation would involve more than one mind and more than one isolated point of view.
We have all a body-based experience, and we all live on the same planet. So we should stop letting time flow out from our hands and start taking sides for the living, against the self-destructiveness of neoliberal, power-phantasied and other aggressive, morbid and cynical ideologies ; then help recreating networks of cooperation and solidarity inside of our human societies altogether, for our one only very common and ultimate good.
1In Gerlad M. Edelman, The Remembered Present : A Biological Theory of Consciousness, 1989.
2In the continuation of his work on The Capacity to Be Alone, 1958/1964.
3In Paul Ricœur, Écrits et conférences 2. Herméneutique, texts assembled and annotated by Daniel Frey and Nicola Stricker, p.74, Éditions du Seuil, coll. La couleur des idées, 2010.
© Clémence Ortega Douville