Consciousness as Canopy

Posted: February 14, 2012 in Consciousness, Philosophy

At the outset of The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist disclaims a number of things the book is not about, but in the course of the book, he goes after with characteristic depth and penetration the very things he disclaims. One is the issue of handedness; another is the nature of consciousness. He also circles repeatedly to philosophy, citing (in no particular order) Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Nietzsche, Scheler, and others again and again. I’m interested in these things, so it doesn’t bother me, but I wonder why he insists the book isn’t about the things it’s clearly about.

The nature of consciousness has been a preoccupation of mine since childhood. It defies clear description and fixity even though everyone knows intuitively and first hand what it is. Gravity, emotion, and sleep similarly slip past easy explanation, though none is really necessary. Indeed, McGilchrist makes the point (every facet of his arguments is examined in detail, which would be exhausting if it weren’t also so interesting) that by posing questions a certain way we unwittingly and unreasonably command, without success, a variety of phenomena to conform to easy explanation and yield their true natures. It’s a fool’s errand, and with respect to consciousness, it’s quite literally chasing a chimera (the deus ex machina or phasmatis apparatus, if you will). After long study and consideration of consciousness as an ineffable phenomenon, I got comfortable with the idea that although consciousness is an emergent property of the brain, or more generally, the nervous system, it nonetheless has no location per se (the wrong kind of question to ask). I adopted Daniel Dennett’s phrase, namely, that consciousness is “smeared across the brain” for lack of more specific location or need of having one.

So in his book that’s not about but may as well be about consciousness, McGilchrist offers a subtly different metaphor having to do with hemispheric lateralization, the through subject of the first half of the book. The two hemispheres enable a complex of discrete, cooperative, and inhibitory processes that ultimately deliver to the right side (the Master) self-awareness but which appears to be largely in terms of the left side (the Emissary). His description of right-to-left-to-right cognitive processing is quite different from other descriptions and explanations of cognition with which I am familiar, all dealing with the result of the phenomenon as a unified whole. McGilchrist’s metaphor, borrowed from one of the researchers he cites (Panksepp), is that if the right hemisphere represents the roots of a tree spread solidly though the soil, the left side is the canopy as viewed from above ground, or better yet, above the tree line. So while the fine detail of leaves and branches is very much the domain of the left, the right nonetheless sees the gestalt of the tree in terms of the canopy, not in terms of its roots where its life originates. Or in other words, we see the whole but mostly via the minutiae. This is why he argues that the rational, logical, language-oriented left brain, while necessary for whole brain function, is nonetheless the wrong entity through which to couch our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. Its function ought to be to elaborate and finish the work of the right brain.

My paraphrase of McGilchrist may give an inaccurate impression, so let me quote at some length (wasting precious pixels, ya know):

Perhaps … consciousness is unified at the lowest levels, and it is actually only when the process becomes self-conscious at the topmost levels, within cognition, that the possibility of separation occurs … Panksepp sees consciousness as something that begins very deep indeed, in the so-called peri-aqueductal grey matter in the midbrain, and ‘migrates’ through higher regions of the brain, especially the cingulate, temporal and frontal regions of the cortex. So he sees it as a something that is not all or nothing, but has a continuous existence, transforming itself as it travels upwards, through the branches, to what he calls, by analogy with the forest canopy, the ‘cerebral canopy’, until in the frontal cortices it becomes high-level cognitive awareness. I like this image of the cerebral ‘canopy’ because it reminds us that consciousness is not a bird, as it often seems to be in the literature — hovering, detached, coming in at the top level and alighting on the brain somewhere in the frontal lobes — but a tree, its roots deep inside us. It reinforces the nature of consciousness not as an entity, but as a process. [pp. 220–221, emphasis in original]

Cognition and consciousness (or self-awareness) are partially delineated here, but the breaking up of cognitive processes — very much part of the scientific worldview — and reassembly as cognitive awareness is worth reinforcing because, despite the way the terms overlap, tentatively redefining consciousness, with all its blurry wholeness, as cognitive awareness, with its categorical concreteness, seems to me the essence of McGilchrist’s argument that the Emissary has usurped control from the Master.


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