Balancing brain hemispheres

Language and neurology
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Two interesting facts about language reported by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emissary may have relevance to some of the more unusual aspects of Clean Language, especially as David Grove practised it in the early days (pre-1990).

If you have read McGilchrist’s book, or my previous blogs inspired by it (Ent-sprechen says it all, Mutual gaze), you’ll know that his quest is to understand the “profound asymmetry” between left and right brain hemispheres resulting in them experiencing the world in “fundamentally incompatible” ways. He maintains that since the advent of civilisation there has been a growing trend favouring the left hemisphere’s viewpoint over that of it next door neighbour.

The first aspect of the left-right asymmetry in relation to language that caught my attention was:

McGilchrist says that all languages are processed by both hemisphere’s but the lion’s share of the work is done by the left. However, non-Western languages are often structured so as to favour an increase in right hemisphere processing (e.g. being written vertically or right to left). “In syllabic language such as Chinese, the same syllable can be pronounced with different tones … [which] activates far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere than English”. (p. 275 and 278) It is a similar story in relation to the way the brain processes poetry and music.

In his early work, David stressed the importance of the rhythmic and poetic qualities of Clean Language. He told me that when considering which clean question to ask next his choice was often deeply influenced by the rhythm and poetic nature of the question. Also he would dramatically vary his tonality depending on what was happening in the client’s metaphor landscape. For example, when addressing a symbol of a young ‘child-within’ he would use a rhythm and tonality like that of an adult reading a fairy story to a child. He said he would usually choose a question that “sounded right” over one that might be more ‘logical’.

From what McGilchrist says, unwittingly David would have been activating “far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere” thereby bringing the qualities of both hemisphere’s in to play – in both the client and the therapist.

The second point I noticed was:

McGilchrist notes that preference for left hemisphere ways of thinking over right hemisphere ways was accelerated by the development of early Greek which favoured abstraction and idealisation – both strong points of the left hemisphere. For example, “the Greek language, by inventing the definite article, could take an attribute of an existing thing expressed through an adjective – that it was ‘beautiful’, say – and turn it into an abstract noun by adding the definite article: so from beautiful to ‘the beautiful’.” (p. 285)

In the early phases of David’s work he stressed the importance of dropping, or not introducing, the definite article when asking a Clean Language question. For example:

Client:       The tree is sad.
Facilitator: And when ‘tree is sad’, what would ‘sad tree’ like to have happen?

In Metaphors in Mind we suggest the definite article is dropped in order to give ‘sad tree’ a ‘name’ and hence an identity and a role in the drama. It may also be that by not using ‘the’ David was encouraging his clients’ to revert to a pre-Westernised form of language and again to activate “far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere”.

This is important because while the left hemisphere’s strengths are goal-directed focus of attention, differentiation, systematising, unpacking, detailed observation, logic and internal coherence – all of which play the vital role of making the implict explicit; the right hemisphere’s aptitude is for seeing the whole, being at home with ambiguity, paradox and uncertainty, awareness of connections outside the system and synthesis – out of which a new whole can emerge. And both sets of qualities are needed for a balanced creativity.

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