Weak Coherence: Madness and Modernity


By Wayne Allensworth

(Edvard Munch, The Scream)

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…

William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

This is the third of my articles on Iain McGilchrist’s hemisphere theory, and its implications. An overview of his ideas is found in A Hole in the World and Between Two Worlds: Iain McGilchrist and the Crisis of Modernity. McGilchrist claims that the modern world is built around the assumptions of the Left Hemisphere (LH) of the brain, and advances and promotes those assumptions and the people most receptive to them. Indeed, drawing on studies in neuroscience and psychology, McGilchrist argues that today’s dominant worldview is reminiscent of schizophrenia and our culture reflects that. McGilchrist catalogs case studies that give us a picture of what a LH dominant world looks like in its extreme state, as both schizophrenia and autism mimic Right Hemisphere (RH) “deficit” or dysfunctions, as do cases of RH damage in stroke patients, and the results from experiments in which the RH is suppressed artificially. By citing these examples, his readers can readily correlate them to modern life, including in art, literature, architecture, and political ideologies, all reflecting to a significant degree a LH view of the “weak coherence” of reality.

In The Master and His Emissary (hereafter M/E), McGilchrist noted that as modernism advanced, the alienation, fragmentation, abstraction, and decontextualization that were hallmarks of the LH-centric modernist world-view began to assert themselves in the arts. The same forces that drove the development of bureaucratic states aimed at control and manipulation encouraged a distorted worldview that denied the shared values and historic experiences of human societies in the arts, as well as psychological disorientation in individuals: 

The development of mass technological culture, urbanization, mechanization, alienation from the natural world, coupled with the erosion of smaller social units and an unprecedented increase in mobility, have increased mental illness [Abundantly documented in one of the appendices of The Matter with Things WA; Hereafter TMWT], at the same time as they have made the ‘loner’ or outsider the representative of the modernist era.

He also observed that “Increasing virtuality and distance from other human lives tends to induce a feeling of an alien, perhaps hostile environment.” It’s not surprising, then, that “social isolation leads to exaggerated fear responses, violence, and aggression,” which, in turn, tends to magnify and increase isolation.

Abstract art, cubism, brutalist modular architecture, and transgressive (against traditional values) literature became cultural solvents, rather than providing cultural cohesion, as the LH struck back at “irrational” romanticism, emotional depth, and the sense of awe, wonder, and the sublime that had marked great art, which had so often been seeded by traditional religion.

McGilchrist (M/E) noted that by the early 20th Century, Romanticism and Aestheticism in art were displaced by the “distancing ironies” and self-consciousness of Absurdism and the Dadaist movement. Art was no longer about the sublime or the beautiful, it was a self-conscious exercise in manipulation and control, with an emphasis on “the artificial, the bizarre, the unnatural (reflecting the LH’s alienation from and desire to dominate nature WA) and the obscurely menacing.” It was French artist Gerard Nerval sporting green hair and “taking a lobster on a walk on a string.” Art had become “self-indulgent” and “perverse.” Its abstract, angular forms reflected the LH’s penchant for linear thinking and bracketed categorization, also evident in the angles and blocks of sterile modern architecture. The philosophical assumption of these new movements was an absence of meaning or purpose in life. What was left was self-assertion. 

McGilChrist noted (M/E) that the alienation, fragmentation, and decontextualization of the modern world “was as problematic for art as it was for society, since art, like society, derives its meaning and power from connection, cohesion, context.” A severance from place, or even from history, is matched in modernism’s inevitable “severance from the roots of all meaning in shared values and experiences, the vast implicit realm from which imagination draws its power.” Modernism as a category has been applied to a vast array of movements and groups in poetry, fiction, drama, cinema, music, architecture, even in politics and sociology—and there are common features in all of them that mark them as “modern.” McGilchrist has pointed to a certain self-consciousness about being “modern” in all those cases, “in the sense of not building on the past,” but of “sweeping it away altogether,” with destruction as a goal, even a refashioning of humanity itself by totalitarian ideologies, which reflected the LH’s will to power.

If this comes across as hubris, even as a form of madness, that’s because it is a reflection of a distorted sense of reality.  One of McGilchrist’s sources for his delving into the connection between a LH worldview and mental illness is psychologist Lewis Sass’s Madness and Modernity: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought. Sass had noticed that phenomena described by schizophrenics closely patterned phenomena not simply reminiscent of, but at the heart of, modernism. McGilchrist (in TMWT, which is the source of further references in this article) wrote that Sass cataloged a large number of people who were prominent in literature, art, music, and philosophy in the modern period (and not nearly so common in other periods) who were “on the schizo-autistic spectrum.” Drawing from findings recorded in neuro-scientific literature, Sass noted that phenomena connected with schizophrenia closely resembled those of patients with RH damage.

McGilchrist concludes that perhaps what we are witnessing is not a sudden outburst of schizophrenia widely in society, “but too heavy a reliance on the world as delivered to us by the left hemisphere,” while dismissing the intuitive and imaginative sense of a RH reality that is holistic, not abstract or fragmented. The hallucinations of schizophrenia, for example, are commonly found in RH dysfunction, as are paranoid delusions. “Schizophrenics,” writes McGilchrist, are “sometimes hard to tell from right-hemisphere damaged subjects.” Both are practically indistinguishable from each other in failing to deal with the “connotative or metaphorical, rather than the denotative and literal.” Both lack skill in interpreting emotional signals and expression, have a damaged ability to sense the unity and integrity of the body (with some schizophrenics mistaking the left side of their body, which is in the RH field of vision, for someone else’s) and a general lack of bodily awareness, as well as exhibiting emotional indifference and passivity. Both neglect context and are largely incapable of interpreting communicative gestures. And both tend to confabulate, to concoct versions of reality that close the gaps in their distorted, incomplete perceptions. Both have trouble following a storyline in a novel or a film, and they have difficulty dealing with the implicit, with nuances in tone of voice, humor, sarcasm, facial expression, and body language. And both prefer a view of themselves and of other human beings, and the entire world, as a machine, or “meat computer” in Richard Dawkins’ parlance.

Indeed, as noted by McGilchrist, “left hemisphere hyperactivation has been demonstrated in schizophrenia,” and research suggests that “individuals on the schizophrenic spectrum tend to over activate the left hemisphere, relying on it in circumstances in which it would be more usual to rely on the right.” McGilchrist further wrote that medications that induce a shift in hemisphere balance toward the RH “bring with them insight and healing” for schizophrenia patients. In short, people suffering from such disorders experience a fragmented world of “weak coherence.” They tend to artificially use the LH to impose a rigid and false coherence on reality by confabulation, creating unrealistic or fantastic storylines to build mental boundaries and categories for themselves, while being dismissive—or better to say, incapable—of applying what is usually called “common sense.” One schizophrenic, who was at least partially aware that something was missing in his cognition, told his doctor that he lacked common sense.

McGilchrist, noting the ubiquity of diagnoses of autism in our society, pointed out that autism shares common characteristics with schizophrenia and RH deficits, including a “primacy of the local over global attention.” The forest is invisible, replaced by individual trees that are taken out of a larger context. The narrow obsessive focus distorts reality. As McGilchrist put it, an insistence on sameness, focused attention on the parts of objects, a fascination with inanimate objects, and “an uneven cognitive profile” present in schizophrenia, autism, and RH deficits, “may all be aspects of what has been called ‘weak coherence’—an over emphasis on detail with respect to the whole.” Obsessive compulsive behaviors—including anorexia—are also quite prevalent.

None of this means that such behaviors, obsessions, and limited thinking have not been present at all times in human history, with the tug of war between hemispheres always a key element in human cognition. But our world has become dominated by an LH worldview that has magnified and pushed such perceptions to the forefront of our thinking and behavior. Again, both hemispheres are needed to have a balanced sense of coherence, but the RH has lost its place as the “master,” to a LH usurper. And this usurper, like Milton’s Satan — and perhaps this was Milton’s Satan, a voice inside all of us, as McGilchrist notes — has no intention of serving any master but wishes to assert its own wishes and parameters on reality. The LH is that aspect of our personalities that prefers domination, ideological or dogmatic certainty, manipulation and control, to empathy, cooperation, imagination, and intuition, the stuff of a faith that is trust. One that is based on RH perceptions and experience. The RH can deal with ambiguity and exceptions; the LH cannot. If the “weak coherence” of our world is reminiscent of a sort of madness, that, as they say, is no accident.

Wrote McGilchrist, in his summary to TMWT’s Chapter Nine:

Western modernity has many overlapping features with the phenomenology of schizophrenia … and I submit that this is because modernity simulates not a disease state, but a hemispheric imbalance. The testimony of people with schizophrenia and autism provides us with articulate accounts of what living in the left hemisphere’s world looks like, when most fully expressed.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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