Was Descartes Schizophrenic? Iain McGilchrist on the Answer

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Yes. I know. I haven’t written a Bowlby Less Traveled blog post in many months. I simply got to a point where I was only going to write a blog post if something important popped up on my radar screen. Something has. I’m currently reading a book by Iain McGilchrist entitled The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I’m at about page 334 (out of 462) and I have mixed feelings. Allow me to flesh out some of these mixed feelings.

I have mixed feelings because in my opinion Divided Brain (for short) presents huge implications for the study of Bowlbian attachment theory. That’s a good thing. However, my guess is that most attachment types (researchers, clinicians, practitioners, policymakers, etc.) will never read McGilchrist’s book. It’s not a book about Bowlbian attachment theory. I only know about Divided Brain myself because it was given to me by a friend for my birthday. She happens to knows that I like books on brain studies. I do like books on brain studies. I’ve read every popular book by neurobiologist Antonio Damasio (who is frequently mentioned in McGilchrist’s book). As I read through Divided Brain, I was amazed by how much McGilchrist talks about Bowlbian attachment theory. A lot. And in a few places he actually does bring in an attachment researcher such as Allan Schore.

I have mixed feelings because I have been talking about the same themes McGilchrist brings up in not only my books but also in my BLT blog. This is a good thing. Not so fast. McGilchrist talks about the right brain and how it’s concerned with such things as systems, holism, and the relationships that exist between objects in a scene. In my opinion, McGilchrist is describing organismic systems theory. Sadly, McGilchrist never mentions organismic systems theory once (at least not up to page 334). This is a bad thing. I find this stunning personally. McGilchrist spends significant time in essence trash-talking reductionistic science (as being too left brain), but never once mentions that there exists a whole different approach to science: organismic systems theory. This saddens me because McGilchrist has to resort to such things as philosophy and poetry as the only right brain alternatives to reductionistic science. What a loss. And it’s a loss when you stop to consider that Bowlby went to great lengths to put forward organismic systems theory as an alternative to such reductionistic thinking as behaviorism.

I have mixed feelings because even though I’m enjoying McGilchrist’s book I have this feeling of “been there, done that.” Not to offer up a spoiler but Divided Brain is about left brain versus right brain. Julian Jaynes takes up this topic in his 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (yes, I read Jaynes’ book many years ago in the 1990s). And McGilchrist does give Jaynes credit for drawing attention to the fight between the left brain and the right, and how we can see this fight reflected in the ancient Greek poem The Iliad. McGilchrist disagrees with some of Jaynes’ conclusions, but agrees wholeheartedly with Jaynes’ attempts to bring to light to this brain fight. But I read a book that I think covers the left brain – right brain battle in a better way.

The book is The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image by Leonard Shlain (1998). As McGilchrist points out, the left brain is concerned with the word, and the right brain is concerned with the image. Shlain is less politically correct and comes right out and states that throughout history, male God-based religion and culture has oppressed female Goddess-based religion and culture. And McGilchrist gets into all of this but on a more polite level. Again, I appreciate McGilchrist’s take and the information he presents (because it does add to these earlier authors I have read like Damasio, Jaynes, and Shlain), but I think I’ll stick with Shlain’s version. You simply cannot look at a treatment of left brain versus right brain without bringing in male versus female. Don’t listen to me. Pickup a copy of Bram Dijkstra’s book Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture.

I have mixed feelings because McGilchrist presents an idea as being relatively new that is in fact not that new: that great leaders and thinkers of the past are, how shall I put it, whack jobs. In the section I’m currently reading, McGilchrist introduces the idea that a great thinker from the past, Descartes, suffered from schizophrenia. McGilchrist presents interesting data that suggests that what principally characterizes schizophrenia (and other schizoid and schizotypal conditions) is the left brain’s inability to access the experience processing centers of the right brain. Now, the inability of the left brain to communicate with the right brain might arise from the connecting “cable” being damaged (such as the corpus callosum), or brain damage either to the right or the left or both, or possibly the right and left brains having never had the opportunity to work one with the other. I’ll let you read the section on Descartes (at about page 334) wherein McGilchrist argues that Descartes suffered from schizophrenia, and, as such, his philosophy should be looked at as an ode to the left brain dissociated from the right. I’m not disagreeing with McGilchrist but I have a different take.

When you read McGilchrist’s descriptions of what happens when left brain is cutoff from right brain, he is, in my opinion, describing dissociation. I would suggest that Descartes suffered from a dissociative disorder brought about through early childhood trauma. What trauma? you might ask. Well, in his book Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Damasio talks about how in Descartes’ time (the early 1600s) it was not uncommon for parents to bring their small children to the town square to watch all manner of torture and violence as sinners and criminals alike were punished. I would argue that this early childhood trauma was the principal cause of Descartes’ later developing (what we now call) PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Yeow! If this is true, a lot of civilization has been and continues to be built up around trauma! Yes. And I first heard of this idea during a lecture by trauma expert Robert Pynoos back in the 1990s. Pynoos told us that throughout time civilizations were built up using what he called a trauma narrative. As an example, Pynoos pointed to the Myth of Icarus as an example of a trauma narrative, you know the one where the young lad flies toward the sun with wings glued with wax. Pynoos told us that trauma, like natural floods or famine, has the potential to totally disrupt normal social relationships (I’m writing this as hurricane Dorian still rages). As a result, society needs trauma narratives to tell us how to frame or understand the trauma occurring all around us. Christ on the cross could be framed as a trauma narrative. Fast forward a bit and we have a book by S. Nassir Ghaemi entitled A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. Ghaemi does a great job showing us how many modern leaders, such as John Kennedy, Lincoln, Hitler, and Churchill, were, well, whack jobs. But we followed them. McGilchrist intimates that reductionistic science, with left brain largely cutoff from right brain, is itself a trauma narrative of sorts. Heck, Western civilization could be looked at as a trauma narrative.

Yes. There is no doubt. When left brain works largely on its own, it can bring us many wonders, like nuclear energy. It can also bring about destruction like nuclear bombs. Left brain can clone cats (as the Chinese just announced they are doing), but should it, a question only right brain can answer.

So, to end let’s bring this back to Bowlbian attachment theory. If we believe Allan Schore then the early mother-infant attachment relationship is not only about getting the right and left brain centers to develop properly (the right developing first) but it is also about getting the two brain centers working together collaboratively. When this does not happen, then it is possible that you will see the various symptoms associated with brain center communication difficulties, whether some form of schizophrenia or even PTSD with its focus on dissociation. Now, all is not lost because society could grow up in such a way that these “communication difficulties” are accommodated or normalized, like the development of Western civilization. As Pynoos pointed out, if trauma narratives successfully map individual experience to collective experience then all is well. And McGilchrist’s book is all brain center communication patterns throughout history: when brain centers did communicate well (much of Greek and Roman civilization before militarism took hold), and when they did not (the so-called Dark Ages). Brain center communication patterns ebb and flow.

Right now we are in a period characterized by poor brain center communication. And there are any number of reasons for this. I would argue that so-called digital social relationships are a contributing factor, but that’s just me. All this to say that Bowlbian attachment theory could be simply framed as a theory that advocates for robust brain center communication. Sadly that message is lost in a period of time characterized by left brain severely cutoff from the right. If I’m reading McGilchrist correctly, he advocates for right working well with left. In this way he’s an advocate for Bowlbian attachment theory. And so are others, like cognitive scientist turned political commentator George Lakoff (who McGilchrist mentions frequently). Lakoff argues that we think using frames (right brain) and not facts (left brain). Lakoff associates nurturance with the right brain (e.g., nurturant parents) and strictness with the left brain (e.g., strict fathers). Today we are in a period of hyper nurturance (as evidenced by the rise of socialism) and hyper strictness (as evidenced by the rise of nationalism and protectionism). And there is very little communication between the two. The middle ground has been given up.

In the final analysis Divided Brain is a call for right brain productively working with the left. In this way, it’s a call for safe and secure attachment relationships: the royal highway to robust and productive brain center communication. But, that’s not to say that we cannot go through a long and protracted period of brain center dissociation. I think we’re there: another Dark Age as talked about in Jane Jacobs’ 2005 book entitled Dark Age Ahead. And I have no idea how long this will last. But until it ends, I do not see where Bowlbian attachment theory will fit in. I just hope that some ember of Bowlby’s work survives that has the potential to light a fire once the next Renaissance arrives.

PS–I probably will not finish Divided Brain. It’s simply too painful a read for me. I have read this story before (starting in the 1990s) and it remains essentially the same. If you do read the whole book and find some glimmer of hope, please, by all means, leave a comment. I’m sure we would all appreciate it.