About a book

I've been musing on the idea of writing a book, and a thought occurred to me while reading something else.

Thames & Hudson approached me a few months back about the possibility (I don't know if it'll happen) of writing a book about printing. During that discussion, we talked about my views on physicality and its human connections, so I've outlined that to them as well. However, in scoping that out, a more intriguing idea emerged from all the bits I left out.

In this RSA Animate, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist explains how our 'divided brain' has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. Taken from a lecture given by Iain McGilchrist as part of the RSA's free public events programme.

I have long been fascinated by the notion, nature and role of human intuition, and more recently, what happens when it meets digital technology. For a bunch of quite personal reasons, it's been very present to me and something I've always been aware of, but I guess it's occurred to me quite late in life, that others don't quite see things the way I do. I recently came across this presentation from Dr Iain McGilchrist about the divided brain, which outlines the neuroscientific reasons why we have right and left brains and how that affects our perception, and in turn, shaped modern western culture. In short, McGilchrist says that, in evolutionary terms, the need for this division is so that we can be both aware and focused simultaneously, but also inherent in this is an asymmetric hierarchy: the right brain decides where the left brain focuses its (and our) attention. However, we have come (since the invention of modern printing, I realise) to revere knowledge, logic and reason (the domain of the left brain) and we have flipped this hierarchy so that we now believe our left-brains to be the master. He sums it up with a fable borrowed from Nietzsche:

“The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an 'emissary' of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere - the 'Master' - cannot itself afford to undertake.  However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master.  And he has the means to betray him.  What he doesn't realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself.”

However, I realised one glaring problem the moment the shop assistant handed me McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World — all 400,000 words of it. It is itself, a masterpiece of focused, logical reasoning; part of the very same intellectual hegemony he cites as the root of the problem. So, I wondered whether a more authentic approach to this subject might be to involve intuition in the process, to use its own imprecise, but intimately familiar perception, to explore what it might be.

I should point out at this point that the word, 'intuition' is a kind of lexicological / philosophical tautology — its meaning is as vague and uncertain as the thing itself. There is considerable disagreement about what it is, depending on who you talk to: to philosophers, it's something between an idea, insight and tool, but definitely within the realm of thinking. To behavioural scientists, it's part of the subconscious, or maybe all of the subconscious (though they conspicuously avoid using the i-word); to modern marketing people it's heresy (because you can't measure it); to creative people it's their proprietary tool — how they earn a living — and something 'gifted' to them and not possessed by mere mortals; to people of a more spiritual bent, it's a connection to something somewhere outside our consciousness — something above and beyond our selves; to others, it's just what-you-don't-think-about and for that reason, it remains in the margins of our consciousness. 

Taking McGilchrist's insight and adapting it slightly (right brain for intuition), this makes a whole bunch of sense to me. A real lightbulb moment.

I can remember long ago, attempting to debate with a design journalist, the value of the subtle, imperceptible signals that emanate from printed objects — a purely intuitive communication — and realised that the moment you attempt to bring this idea into the realm of logic and reason, it evaporates like a Will-O'-The-Wisp. So, this taught me that it's the opposite of reason, logic, thought and intellect. It's something else; thinking about it doesn't get you any nearer; you have to focus another kind of sense on it; you have to feel it with intensity. It usually makes itself clear when it takes the opposite view to cognitive thought  — "I think this, but feel this" — the typical head/heart dilemma we all recognise. 

So, how would I go about writing a book about it? It's not going to be very interesting or informative (or very long), if I just whittle on about "I feel this" and "I feel that", but equally I don't want to fall into the trap that McGilchrist and many other academics and philosophers fall into, by retreating into a mire of intellectual interrogation that — in this instance — is unlikely to capture its quarry. 

Penguin publish in the UK with a nicely conceptual cover

Penguin publish in the UK with a nicely conceptual cover

A case in point is Matthew B Crawford's, The World Beyond Your Head — How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction. I'd come across this via a very favourable review in The Guardian and was excited to read it as it seemed very close to what I've been contemplating — perhaps too close, I wondered. But, I'm halfway through and it seems a curious, but slightly disjointed and ultimately frustrating smorgasbord of philosophy (Crawford is a philosophy professor at the University of Virginia, but famously divides his time as a motorcycle mechanic in Richmond, VA — where I lived for a while) and more familiar vaguely Gladwell-esque illustrations.

I would, if I were to be honest, count myself to be reasonably intelligent — I'm not the brightest, but I'm no dunce — and if I have to read sentences and whole paragraphs three, four or five times to get their meaning, there must be something odd going on. But, that's what Crawford's book is like — not all of it, to be fair, there are some passages that flow really nicely, but then it soon comes up with some grinding, turgid language — a little like driving down the A303 in Wiltshire in the summer, if you know what I mean (if you don't, never mind).

So, is this Crawford's problem or mine?

OK, let's start from somewhere reasonable and polite — and if I'm going to venture out into the world of authorship, probably sensible — and let's say it's my problem. Crawford is an experienced writer with one accomplished title under his belt and plenty of accolades. I find it hard to believe that all the reviewers in the all the newspapers would have been so generous with their praise, if they'd had to read it over and over again to get its meaning. Is this just how philosophers write and everyone makes allowance for that? Is that what philosophy books are like nowadays? I've read a lot of quasi-business / neuroscience / philosophy / (pop)psychology books in recent months and this tendency for impenetrable density doesn't seem to be restricted to philosophy books; all books written by academics seem to suffer from it. But, who does it serve?

Both McGilchrist and Crawford reference the enlightenment and the desire for knowledge as the critical step towards the world we live in now, and Crawford talks at length about where knowledge resides — do things in the world ultimately exist only in our head? —  and how philosophical theories of consciousness have been corrupted for political ideologies — individual freedom to choose what we pay attention to as the foundation of political freedom. 

But, I think there's perhaps a more useful insight to be gleaned here. These books are perpetuating the very theory they set out to espouse. Intuitively (because intuition looks for intention), it feels like there's a(n irresistible) desire on the part of the author to flex their academic and intellectual muscle and claim ownership of these beliefs and to support them with facts, reason and epistemic justification, which maybe justified in their desire to sell more books — the essential 'brand' promise that I'll become wiser through reading them and that's the implicit transaction in me buying the book. But this also seems to fall foul of the very trap Crawford uses to summarise Enlightenment thinking, that "reality is not self-revealing"; that it needs people like him to enlighten us. 

To me, this seems like an unnecessarily double-edged sword. For sure, I'm wiser in gaining the knowledge, for which I feel the book is good value, but the language makes me feel stupid at the same time — and I don't like to feel stupid — that I am to remain in some kind of intellectually subordinacy. And this subordination is eerily similar to that outlined by McGilchrist: that our unquestioning reverence for knowledge makes our intuitive mind — what guides us through senses and feeling — is somehow not valid, worthy or useful. 

It doesn't have to be so. Malcolm Gladwell — a journalist — has proved that it's possible to convey these ideas in more simplified, accessible language. Even the web appears to have grasped this idea: Steve Krug summarised the challenge faced by digital designers and developers of engaging the split-second attention spans of modern humans in his book — Don't Make Me Think — a how-to guide to make the web more human-compatible. 

So, I've come to realise that if I'm going to write about the hazy, imprecise and ultimately unknowable nature of human intuition, it might be better to not attempt to dissect it with intellectual precision. I hope to reveal more about it by outlining it in its own terms. More specifically, I don't want anyone reading it to feel stupid. I'd like them to read it and think, "yeah, that kinda feels about right; that's kinda familiar, I could see how that could be so". So often, the success of these kind of books (which Mark Earls pointed out to me are rarely read to the end) is how you remember them; how you might sum them up to a friend. At the moment, I'm struggling with Crawford's book — beyond repeating its title to anyone, a deep insight has yet to emerge, but then, I haven't finished it yet. I'd like to write a book with a closer eye to how it might linger in your imprecise, hazy, intuitive mind afterwards. Life isn't an exam, after all.