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19 January 2022updated 22 Jan 2022 8:29pm

The brain delusion: Why order does not lead to excellence

Ian McGilchrist‘s The Matter With Things shows that success is the result of creative thinking and intuition, not scientific systems.

By Ed Smith

Crikey, quite an undertaking this. Iain McGilchrist’s new book The Matter with Things – Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World, while anchored in neuroscience, expands quickly into a treatise on philosophy, the scientific method, intuition, creativity, truth, reason and the rise and fall of civilisation itself. After 800 pages of volume one, you are directed to volume two. Imagine batting all day against 95 miles per hour bowlers on a bouncy cricket pitch, getting through to the close of play, and being told to grab a quick ice-bath then get back out there under the hot sun again tomorrow. Confession: this reader is taking time out for a quick intellectual recharge before padding up for volume two (though return I will).

One strand of the book is an attack on narrow and over-specialised thinking which lacks real-world relevance, so perhaps there is no need for me to apologise for a lack of expertise in neuroscience. But any reading of this immensely broad and ambitious work can only be personal and selective. No reader could relate to all the themes (poetry one minute, schizophrenia the next) with anything approaching even-handedness. It’s a book with a single big idea, explored in numerous different contexts, and everyone will connect more fully with some parts than others. In my own case, the book led to many reflections on sport, even though it’s one of the few spheres of human endeavour that McGilchrist doesn’t much explore (even he can’t do absolutely everything).

Building on his previous book The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist interrogates the distinction between the brain’s left hemisphere (LH) and its right hemisphere (RH). He urges us to trust the RH, which perceives the whole, and defer less to the LH, which lasers in on details but tends to devitalise things. The RH’s “purpose is to help us to understand, rather than manipulate the world: to see the whole and how we relate to it”. In the RH “all is flowing and changing, provisional, and complexly interconnected with everything else”.

In contrast, the LH has “got a long way on its reputation as the bright one”, but its speed is derived from the failure to account for ambiguity and uncertainty. The LH has “an excess of confidence and a lack of insight”. It gets angry when things aren’t as neat as it wants them to be.

McGilchrist dismisses the perception of the LH as “cool” and “rational” and the RH as “emotional”:

The right frontal cortex is essential to emotional understanding, it is also the seat of inhibitory control over emotional arousal … Being emotionally savvy doesn’t mean that one is at the beck and call of emotions – rather, the reverse.

That’s why the most emotionally gifted people can appear to be the least “emotional”: they perceive the emotional dimension of a context so quickly and deftly that they rarely get into an angry tangle about their dealings with the world.

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So it’s a game of two halves, but we know where the referee stands. Indeed, by page 371, when we are informed that the LH is “unreliable in just about every way that matters”, if it were a boxing match, LH’s cornerman would surely have thrown in the towel and shouted: “Stop the fight!”

The narrative builds with example after example, which are often drawn from the testimonies or descriptions of patients who’ve suffered damage to either LH or RH, and analysis of how the imbalance affected their feelings and behaviour. Along the way, McGilchrist has plenty to say to his intellectual critics, enough to persuade this amateur reader that there is some disagreement about his thesis among neuroscientists. Yet the great success of the book is just how besides-the-point the “scientific consensus” feels. McGilchrist is as much philosopher as neuroscientist, and his philosophical sweep benefits from – but doesn’t wholly depend upon – the insights he’s derived from studying the brain.

It doesn’t particularly matter if you see the LH-RH formulation as partly metaphorical (McGilchrist doesn’t; I do). It would be tempting to say that the book seems more wise than it feels strictly true. But that observation, by failing to concede that wisdom could be ranked higher than “truth”, would be a classic example of the kind of flawed “left hemisphere thinking” that McGilchrist decries throughout the book.

McGilchrist rails against the idea that humans are suboptimal machines and celebrates the things that only humans can do: intuition, insight, creativity and judgement. Conversely, almost nothing of value can be turned into simply “running” the system without creativity.

My experience of elite sport supports that argument: without insight, “process” and “methodology” don’t hold much value. Insight is the first domino. It is the quality that the greatest coaches and strategists possess, above everything else. They see the game in an original way, allowing them to perceive – in ways that others cannot – how winning happens. In this respect, they are like poets and scientists: they apprehend the game more clearly and form a superior understanding. Often their insights are bound up with making surprising connections or seeing analogies that other miss. “The creative mind,” in Jacob Bronowski’s phrase, “is a mind that looks for unexpected likenesses.”

It’s ironic that so much time is wasted studying the “motivational tactics” of great sports leaders (invariably personal and impossible to imitate), which entirely misses what’s actually inspiring and motivating about them: their gift of apprehension, the clarity of their insights, the freshness of their vision. A great coach might or might not be articulate; but they are certain to have a philosophical talent for seeing through to the essence of the game.

McGilchrist’s arguments have implications for how organisations which claim to pursue excellence –  whether businesses, schools, universities or hospitals – should perceive and arrange themselves. He argues in favour of wide-ranging thinkers who have the imagination to apprehend what’s needed, and then the perspective to know which levers and methods are best suited to bringing the project to fruition. Instead of trying to turn life into a machine, adapt your thinking and approach to life.

The primacy of insight and perspective also explains why organisational charts – designed so that accountants can apportion salaries and bureaucrats can file “appraisals” – are not only often fantastical but counterproductive. By encouraging a delusion of mechanistic order, they cut against creativity and genuine collaboration.

“The idea of a Gestalt is central to this book,” McGilchrist writes, “by it I mean the form of a whole that cannot be reduced to parts without the loss of something essential to its nature.” This idea is also highly relevant to team sport. A team must and can only be a collective and living whole. The whole is always different from the sum of its parts. That is true even in sports which (superficially) appear to be a series of independent events, such as cricket and baseball, as well as sports which have intrinsic flow, such as football and rugby. (It is a myth, as the cliché has it, that cricket is “a team game played by individuals”. It is, in fact, an individual game played by teams.)

McGilchrist attacks the notion that a collective endeavour can be chopped up, the elements polished separately, and then subsequently reassembled into a superior whole. He sees it as inappropriate in the human sphere. Indeed, it isn’t even true for machines. Russell Ackoff, the American systems thinker, asked his students to imagine a lecture hall filled with the best component parts drawn from every car manufacturer (the best brakes, the best suspension and so on). If all the best bits were then assembled, would it create the best single car? Of course not. The way a car fits together is, to a significant degree, the majority of what a car manufacturer does.

McGilchrist puts it like this: “I suggest that relationships are primary, more foundational than the things related: that the relationships don’t just ‘connect’ pre-existing things, but modify what we mean by the ‘things’.” In this context, I don’t think McGilchrist is using “relationships” to mean “how people get along with one another socially”. He means “how they relate to each other fundamentally in the creation of the whole”. This connects with the point made by Juanma Lillo – the mentor of Manchester City’s manager, Pep Guardiola, and who is now assistant manager at the football club – when he warned against criticising players without appreciating the context: “My mentality is interaction and relation. If you say, ‘Let’s evaluate the right-back,’ I say, ‘But who is alongside him? Who is in front of him? Nearest to him?’” (Lillo also said, “You can’t take an arm of Rafael Nadal and train it separately.”)

Of course, everyone wants to believe that success can be turned into a system – because a system can be copied and profitably “scaled up”. But there are no systems which can deliver success without intelligent steering by good thinkers. Good process can certainly filter out errors (which is very useful) but it cannot yield insights.

Further, and this theme runs throughout the book, insight and creativity can only be controlled and willed up to a certain point (even among people who have the talent). Believing there is a complete process for creativity is fundamentally anti-creative. “Brainstorming is practically the antithesis of creativity,” McGilchrist argues, which is reassuring if you feel looming despair every time someone picks up a marker pen in front of a whiteboard and says “let’s brainstorm”.

In its exploration of creative (and effective) thinking, The Matter With Things connects with Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile, John Kay’s Obliquity, Mervyn King and John Kay’s Radical Uncertainty and David Epstein’s Range. One shared theme is how ultra-professionalism often ends up serving the system, not the true goal. To be effective at improving actual performance, leaders and executives (whether they are CEOs, vice-chancellors or principals) have to fight incredibly hard against the system that purportedly exists to create the conditions for excellence. That’s why, alongside McGilchrist’s other wide-ranging chapter titles (“Perception”, “Judgement”, “Creativity”) there is scope for one more abstract noun which supports many of the others: bravery.

There is certainly great audacity in McGilchrist’s prose style, which is sometimes Wagnerian. You become familiar with formulations along the lines of “The West is wrong to…” and “Science must take this into account…” not to mention the occasional “civilisation depends on…” But it’s hard to see how huge generalisations could have been avoided, partly because the kind of ideas – or supra-rational insights – under review are more often addressed by poets and composers than writers of closely argued non-fiction.

For McGilchrist, you wonder if there are any big ideas left for him to grapple with. In contrast with such majestic authorial ambition, your reviewer must admit that he finished the book with a rather smaller question: how long is needed for intellectual rest and rehab before he’s in decent enough shape to take on volume two?

Ed Smith is director of the Institute of Sports Humanities, University of Buckingham, and former national selector for the England cricket team

The Matter with Things, Volume I and Volume II
Iain McGilchrist
Perspectiva, 1,500pp, £89.95

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This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party