The Thinking Poet


Our Dual Identity

There is some evidence for believing that the right-brain is the seat of the `subjective mind',

and that the left-brain serves the `objective mind'. In coping with the outside world it would follow that we spend most of our lives mainly active within the left-brain.

Artists, poets and mystics are natural `right-brainers'. So too, it seems, are all children up to the age of seven.

The thesis presented is that the ego - the person I call `me' - `lives' in the left cerebral hemisphere of the brain, while the person who `lives' in the other half is, relatively speaking, a stranger.

In a sense we are all split-brain subjects. The right-brain, occupied by the `other you', deals with intuitions, with overall meanings, with patterns; it is the part of us that appreciates music and poetry. The left-brain studies the world through a microscope. It is concerned with every-day living. It uses language, logic and analysis.

There is some evidence from studies of primitive man (1) that as a species we started life as natural `right-brainers'. We were all once poets. We viewed the world more through the eyes of a mystic than of a mechanist. To say that today we are "trapped in the left-brain" far more than we frequent the right-brain is to use language metaphorically. In this, Ryle (2) is correct; there is no person, least of all a ghost, trapped in the brain, left or right. We can only speak of a system of specialized cells which, if the supposition be correct, differentiated at about the age of seven. The right hemisphere remained true to its initial nature, the left, however, began to specialize and develop in an entirely different way. These two systems of cells, respectively, subserve the discursive and intuitive mental activities.

If we generalize - and we have no choice, for clearly the organizational potential of 10 neurons is of cosmic proportions beyond our intellectual grasp - then we may tentatively postulate the following: the left-brain is organized, at least partially, in such a way that sequential logical functions (albeit allowing for the possibility of some parallel processing) may be performed. The analytical processes upon which discursive thought is based - and this includes much scientific and mathematical thought - must have their analogue in cell activity. The logical machines of man are in turn analogues of the left-brain system, though it is unlikely that the nature of the hardware/software in both instances bears much resemblance to each other. What is in common between human-intelligence artefacts and the left-brain is the element of mechanization - signals occur in a logically determinate fashion, and signals give rise to further signals in the time-domain of the processor.

So for instance when we state a syllogism, or when we predicate an object, and qualify it, e.g. "That is a white horse", we perform a sequential process of thought which has, we may suppose, its analogue in signals along neural pathways.

Now let us consider the role of the right-brain. Immediately we are in some difficulty, for as has been suggested, in the explanatory mode we are `trapped' in the left-brain, and that alienates us from an appreciation of the right-brain. The `left' demands its own way of assessing things including the brain itself, and that way is entirely inappropriate to the mode of functioning of its partner on the right. If we are to make any headway at all we must abandon `left-brain language' and look as impartially as possible at what it is believed the right-brain makes possible.

As a starting-point, what have scientific innovators, poets and young children in common that is relatively rare in most adults? It is suggested that creative imagination is a quality shared by them. This quality, it would appear, includes the ability to `see' holistically as opposed to the sequential, logical processing characteristic of discursive thought. To see many possible choices from which one choice is made is characteristic of creativity. A gestalt is grasped in a moment of insight as a spontaneous act of thought. The `self' of the left-brain is swept along `in time' under the compulsion of logical necessity. The `self' of the right-brain appears to be free of such constraints.

In the speculation that follows the symbols (R) and (L) denote respectively the `right' and `left' brain. The symbols are used metaphorically rather than as having any physiological significance.

(1) Both symbols are products of (L) since (L) is seen as the symbol-formulator.

(2) Symbols are not the reality. The prime reality is that of which we are first aware before that experience is handed over to (L) where it is contained in symbolism.

(3) (R) gives us meaning which illuminates experience. The apprehension of meaning comes gratuitously in a moment of insight outside time. Of this moment of sudden illumination T.S.Eliot writes:

"We had the experience but missed the meaning. As we approach the meaning we revive the experience in a different form, not as an isolated moment of happiness but as a pattern of timeless moments". (3)

`Time' is a (L) model or concept.

`Meaning' comes in a moment of felt certitude which has holistic significance. (L) uses the symbol, `intuition', to denote this state.

(4) (R) permits us to `see' non-analytically and beyond the conceptual. As Blake might say, (R) allows us to see as a wise man: "The fool sees not the same tree that the wise man sees".

It permits us to see "A World in a Grain of Sand" and "Eternity in an hour".

(5) Whet (L) receives from (R) are tokens of holistic and timeless meaning. These tokens are our concepts, abstractions and models.

They remain tokens. They are not the meaning.

(6) (L) has a dynamic capability we call `reason'.

Reason armed with a system of logic manipulates concepts in a sequential process we call `time' to yield its own `truth'.

This is not the holistic truth of (R).

(7) (L) tends to become autonomous and to deny any other truth except its own. It behaves as a closed self-sufficient system.

The sense of autonomy resides not so much in (L) as in the manipulator of (L), designated as the `ego'.

(8) (L) will tend to find explanation within itself, i.e. in terms of its repertoire of symbols.

If the metaphorical (L) (R) approach is presented to (L) it will raise and pursue the question of the mechanism of (R).

(L) will naturally assume that its mechanism is rational/logical and spatio/temporal.

This is why the metaphor is limited. There is no mechanism for (R); only its existential content.

(9) To understand the implications of (8) it is necessary to dispense with a reasoned approach.

A token or symbol cannot be used to analyze that which it symbolizes.

There is no logical way in which a coin, given in payment for a service, can be related to the work done in performing that service. Give a young child a coin, and it could not arrive at the contingent idea of `coin and work' except through custom, i.e. through existential content.

(10) Whatever (R) is or does, explanation must be sought at a completely other level from that of the `token world' of (L).

(11) Explanation is a necessity imposed by (L).

But it is not only unnecessary, it is inappropriate in the context of (R).

In this we have something which transcends explanation. This is the intuitive sense of wholeness itself in which resides a unique certitude of truth.

(12) (L), the ever vigilant analyst will at this point say of (R):

"Intuitive truth has throughout history been seen in retrospect to be unreliable".

Now it is essential to perceive in this assertion a confusion between that which intuition prompts, and that which results and becomes hardened conceptually.

What (L) receives from (R) is a token of holistic meaning. A token must remain an inadequate representation of that which it betokens. Some symbols are more limited in their usage than others. None is the truth. A methodology may be built upon a limited token-truth and declared to have generality.

Concepts are constructs which represent intuited reality. They serve our purposes when we are thinking about that reality. Concepts are substitutes constructed by (L) for the realities of (R). They are often ill-conceived. The concepts of `phlogiston' and `the ether of space' are just two of the errors that resulted from a preoccupation with (L) and its tokens, and an insufficient retracing of steps back to the illumination of (R). In time, `false concepts' are replaced by others, but if pressed too far, if they are mistaken for the truth, they must fail us, for they are not the intuitional truth of (R).

Eddington, speaking of the highly imaginative type of concepts used in physics, wrote:

The physicist "is nowadays scrupulously careful to guard these from contamination by conceptions borrowed from the other world", i.e. the familiar world of practical reality. (4)


(1) The `ego' of (L) should be subservient to the `self' of (R).

The ego is a good and necessary servant, but an unreliable master. It should recognise that it `mints its token coins' from the existential resources of (R).

(2) Live as much as possible in the `now'; what De Caussade calls "The sacrament of the present moment" (5) In this we are safe from the errors which result from living amongst objectifying abstractions, e.g. `past time'; `future time'. In other words, regard (R) as our `real home'.

(3) The resources of (R) are literally `unspeakable', i.e. they are amoral and lacking in attributes, since attributes are (L)'s tokens.

Its `primitive awareness' - Zaehner's pan-en-henic state (6) - can, on (L)'s subsequent ego-based interpretation, become:

(a) A God-centred mystical state.

(b) The pantheistic `heaven' of a Richard Jefferies. (7)

(c) The `hell' of a Rimbeau (6 Ch4), or Satre; or

(d) The `primitive awareness' may be repudiated totally.

The intellectual assent of the ego is vital. The role of (L) is therefore vital to the recognition of the `true self'.

(4) The recognition of the `true self' by the ego is seen by many as the climactic point of what has been described as man's spiritual life. `Spiritual' in this context means pertaining to, and recognition of the resources of (R).

This climax may be identified with:

(a) Christian metanoia or `second birth'.

(b) Hindu purusha - pure being and pure consciousness in one.

The state of saccidananda is that of bliss in this union in which the distinction of subject-object disappears. (6 Ch7)

(c) In Jung's psychology the climax is termed individuation.

(d) In Maslow's psychology: self-actualization.

(5) The resources of (R) are gratuitous, i.e. there is no sense of ego-willed action under the momentum of logic.

Pure experience of (R) simply is. Untrammelled by space/time limitations it is limitless in its resources.

(6) Idolatry is to mistake the `token' for the `existential'.

Perhaps the ultimate folly of idolatry is that of conceiving a simulation of (L) electronically and extrapolating to a super-intelligent, even conscious machine.

Just as Laplace had no need of the concept `God', so the `utopians' have no need ( they suppose) of the resources of (R). It remains to be seen whether or not they are deceived.

All illusion becomes grist to the `historical mill'.

In the ever-present `now' the passing of illusion is of little account.

Ronald R.Cretchley 26.3.96


(1) "Language and Myth" - E.Cassirer

(2) "The Concept of Mind" - G.Ryle

(3) Quoted in "The Unattended Moment" - M. Paffard, pg. 74

(4) "The Nature of the Physical World" - Sir A.Eddington, pg xv

(5) "Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence" -Jean-Pierre De Caussade

(6) "Mysticism: Sacred and Profane" - R.C.Zaehner

(7) "The Story of my Heart" - R.Jefferies