I have been puzzled ever since I was introduced to McGilchrist’s divided-brain-model as to what determined which hemisphere would dominate at any moment. That is a different question than asking which one was dominant over a long time. The second relates to the overall character of individual behaviors, as well as the general character of institutional behaviors, from the smallest, like families to the largest, that of societies as a whole. My own work echoes McGilchrist’s finding that modern, industrial societies act as if they have a collective left-brain that has dominates the cognitive domain. My path, however, to this conclusion followed a different path.

My early work, Sustainability by Design, led to the same general conclusions that I offered in my last book but couched in different terms. Earlier, I wrote about the need to restore the primal caring aspect of human existence, or, using a phrase from Erich Fromm, choosing being over having. One way to get there is, I noted, to induce presencing, the bringing forth of a consciousness of the immediate world context. I also argued for the use of pragmatic (adaptive) approaches to the design and operation of institutions. Overall, I claimed that sustainability-as-flourishing requires a change of norms and beliefs at the level of societal and its smaller nested institutional cultures. Now, I know that all of these finding are consistent with and can be generated from the divided-brain-model.

My last book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World, is essentially a marriage of those earlier thoughts with McGilchrist’s divided-brain-model. The model helped elucidate a more precise meaning of flourishing and a broader set of tools to use to restore the dominance of the right hemisphere. But now the plot thickens, McGilchrist has written a “sequel” to his paradigmatic text, The Master and his Emissary, entitled, The Matter With Things. His second book maintains the story of the bi-hemispheric brain, pretty much unchanged, but places it into a more philosophical and evolutionary context. And that leads me to the contents of this post—my attempt at understanding the practical consequences of the divided-brain-model more clearer so that i can be more convincing in my own work to promote flourishing and the need for a fundamental culture change to enable it to emerge from the complex cosmos which we inhabit.

Although the way the two sides interact is very complicated, there is a more-or-less dichotomous character to the consequent actions. When the right dominates, behaviors tend to be fitted to the immediate context out there, reflecting the “needs” found in that context. When the left dominates, the consequent behaviors take on an instrumental character, reflecting the “needs” of the institutional context or that of the actor. The big question about such actions that has persisted since ancient times is what determines the particular behaviors that follow from whatever cognitive processes are taking place.

Descartes had a view that continues to hold paradigmatic hegemony today. The brain/mind mirrors reality, knowing what is out there from the essence of the objects present, and acts after a rational process informs the actor about what to do. The divided-brain-model leads to a very different mode of operation. What follows is my interpretation of what I have read in The Matter With Things. I think it seems pretty consistent, but I will issue the usual warning. The way the brain works is very, very complicated, and my words should always be seen as an approximation, but one that helps us understand and apply that understanding.

I will focus on the right hemisphere in this post. The right side has two primary operational modes, depending on whether the action is a normal response in an institutional setting where the rules have been given or whether it comes in an extra-institutional setting where the circumstances determine the proper action. In both cases, the process starts with the right processing the signals from all the sensory inputs both from outside and also from the body. One might say, it is presenting the world to the actor. Okay, but how does the actor know what to do now?

The process would appear to start with an identification of place that is giving meaning to the perception, or embeddedness in the world. Heidegger helps us here in a short essay titled “Building Dwelling Thinking.” The quote that follow are taken from it. I haven’t quite figured out the whole essay as Heidegger remains pretty dense, but he offers clues as how we think when we encounter the world that, interestingly, seem to line up with the divided-brain-model. It starts with a discussion of “dwelling.”

The way in which you and I am, the manner in which we humans are on the earth, is baun, dwelling. Baun is the root of the German word bauen, which now means to build, as in to erect a structure. To be a human being means to be on the earth as a mortal. It means to dwell. The old word, bauen, which says that man is insofar he dwells, this word bauen however also means at the same time to cherish and protect, to preserve and care for, specifically to till the soil, to cultivate the vine. . . Building in the sense of preserving and nurturing is not making anything,” ( pp. 147) (emphasis in the original)

Heidegger argues that we have lost the original sense of dwelling, bauen, as being, with its associated sense of caring for the world, and now live according to the instrumental sense of the word, building. Elsewhere he writes very critically of the role of technology in modern life. Well, this dichotomy looks the same as the way behaviors mirror the dominant side of the brain. When the right hemisphere is in charge, our actions are some manner of caring for what is out there. But how do we know what to care for? How do get from a gestalt, a “picture” of the whole contextual world to a linguistic equivalent that our brains can process. Here, McGilchrist has an answer in the form of ontological primitives, concepts that exist out in the cosmos, prior to being captured in language. I find this idea very troublesome and hard to grasp, but here is my best shot.

Ontological primitives exist out in the cosmos, independent of humans, but we are able to capture them and convert them into meaningful linguistic forms which we then know how to handle. McGilchrist’s list of these ontological primitives includes: truth, beauty, value, goodness, and love/care. It has helped me to think about these as call-outs that are transmitted to the right-hemisphere along with all the sensory data. Beauty is saying stop and look at me, let your body respond to me, and is connected to the impact the world as a gestalt, a whole, shows up. Truth is telling the right-brain that you hold a representation of the whole that fits it as, again, a gestalt, not simply a mechanical assemblage of parts connected together. I think there is a connection between these two primitives, both are telling the actor to pay attention to the whole and to its parts only in relationship to the whole, not as disassociated fragments. Here is what McGilchrist’s writes:

The word ‘detail’ here is unfortunate, because it means the embodied and unique (rather than the general), which is not the same as ‘detail’ in the sense of a small part. So this prompts me to make an important distinction. Each hemisphere deals in parts of a kind, and each deals in wholes of a kind; this is hardly surprising, because each has to negotiate and make sense of the world. But they do it in different ways, suggesting a different relationship between the ‘parts’ and the ‘whole’. In the left hemisphere case, there are fragments, which must be put together to form an aggregate. In the right hemisphere case, there are wholes at any number of levels, in which parts can be distinguished. In the right hemisphere case things remain maximally diverse, yet unified; in the left hemisphere case things are minimally diverse, yet fragmented. A similar distinction can be made between the process of individuation, an internal unfolding into complexity, which respects, never departs from, and enriches the whole; and mere individualism, which fragments, atomises and destroys the whole. Heidegger is unusually clear on this, helped by the German language which distinguishes Stücke (fragments) from Teile (parts) – the word comes from teilen, to share or divide, and thus alludes to its post factum, retrospective not compositional, nature. He writes

that the fragment [das Stück] is something entirely other than the part [der Teil]. The part shares and imparts itself [teilt sich mit] with [by, as, in] part of the organic whole [das Ganze]. It takes part in the whole, belongs to it. The fragment on the other hand is separated out and indeed is thus as fragment, as what it is, only as long as it is locked up in opposition to other fragments. It never shares and imparts itself in and as part of an organic whole.(pp. 1289-90)

The primitives, value and love/care, are also linked. Value is a call to pay particular attention to some part(s) of the whole that is in need of being taken care or, that is, to be loved. Love, in this sense, is all about care for the Other, not some erotic attachment. Humberto Maturana has a particularly apt definition:

Love is the domain of those relational behaviors through which another arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself under any circumstance. Love does not legitimize the other; love lets the other be. Through seeing the other, love entails acting with the other in a way that they do not need to justify their existence in the relation. (Maturana and Nisis)

I have no idea of how the brain converts the arriving signals into a particular action, but I do think this overview sets the context. The idea of primitives fits the evolutionary history of H. sapiens, We distinguished our species from others by the kind of actions we developed even before the development of language that could describe and explain them. Among other species, somehow we have the capacity to respond to these ontological primitives, ontological because they have made us the beings that we are.

There is already too much here for a single post, but I will finish with an important related point. If you concatenate beauty, truth, value, care/love, the result is a message conveying a sense of what actions should be taken here and now, that is, what is the right (truthful, fitting, caring) action to take. This suggests that ethics (a set of rules about the right action to take under the particular circumstances) rests on a set of principles that humans have discovered in the course of living. They may have been refined by manipulation later, but have the same sense of being ontological primitives. McGilchrist notes the connection to dwelling.

There is a difference between the view of philosophy as an edifice and as a dwelling. (Incidentally, the original meaning of the Greek word ethos, from which the word ‘ethics’ derives, is ‘dwelling place’.)129 In the one view it is something constructed, piecemeal, as it were from the outside; in the other it is something coming about through being lived, as it were from the inside. ‘Place yourself’, writes William James,

at the center of a man’s philosophic vision and you understand at once all the different things it makes him write or say. But keep outside, use your post-mortem method, try to build the philosophy up out of the single phrases, taking first one and then another and seeking to make them fit, and of course you fail. You crawl over the thing like a myopic ant over a building, tumbling into every microscopic crack or fissure, finding nothing but inconsistencies, and never suspecting that a center exists.’ (p. 945)


Ehrenfeld, J. R. (2008). Sustainability by Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Ehrenfeld, J. R. (2020). The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting with the Real World. New York: Routledge.
Heidegger, M. (1971). Building Dwelling Thinking (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). In Poetry Language Thought (pp. 141-160). New York: Harper & Row.
Maturana, H. R., & Nisis, S. (1997). Human Awareness: Understanding The Biological Basis Of Knowledge And Love In Education. Paper presented at the The 6th Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Education, Stellenbosch, South Africa.
McGilchrist, I. (2022). The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (Kindle ed.).

One Reply to “How Do We Know What’s the Right thing To Do”

  1. It may help to view McGilchrist as providing an alternative way to describe joint agent-environment systems. It’s been remarked that, fundamentally, an agent and its environment are not fully separable. There’s a coupling between them, a common phenotypic space that they share. And over time they tend to synchronize. This convergence emerges as the agent and environment ‘get to know each other’. How do we understand this ‘fit’ or ‘attunement’ wherein ‘appropriate action’ is being in tune with our environment? We are in a ‘dialectic’ with the world around us. And it is the nature of this dialogue (or dance) that determines which hemisphere will dominate at any moment. Typically we might ask “What kind of stressors does the agent need to respond to?” McGilchrist would add to that the question “What kind of values does the agent need to respond to?” The answer to those questions determine which mode of attention is best suited to the context. Today we are in dialogue with an increasingly artificially controlled environment, and we have been provided numerous tools that predispose us to a sort of manipulative form of engagement with that environment. All of this tends to reinforce the use of one hemisphere over the other in a kind of positive feedback loop, obscuring a more values-based form of engagement.

    Getting from a “picture of the whole contextual world” to a “linguistic equivalent” involves a process of model building, of taking the “terrain” and simplifying it in various ways to produce a “map”. This process was described by Jonathan Rowson as the “McGilchrist Manoeuvre”. We analyze the whole by breaking it up and constructing an artificial model, an aid to mental and linguistic manipulation. Then we reintegrate this model with the terrain, such that we gain a deeper understanding of the world by ‘seeing through’ the linguistic model that was thus produced. The two then work together in a cyclic pattern of fragmentation and reintegration that promotes the dialectical synchronization between agent and environment. Unless or until we spin off into a positive feedback loop from which we don’t escape. Which is of course the challenge today.

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