Sri Aurobindo and Iain McGilchrist on intellect and intuition

Sri Aurobindo and Iain McGilchrist on intellect and intuition

In a recent conversation on Auroconference (a worldwide online forum on integral yoga, for those not familiar with it) Rod Hemsell brought up an ongoing dispute between the philosopher Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein, on the nature of time. Einstein took a rather intellectual approach, expressing the common view of physicists that time is an illusion. Bergson held out for a more intuitive view, describing the irreversible nature of time, and the experience of it as an ongoing flow that cannot be grasped by the analytic mind.

The psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist sheds much light on this, I think, in his book, “The Master and His Emissary.” The book title refers to a parable by Nietzsche in which the “Emissary” takes over the role of the “Master.” For McGilchrist, the modern “individualist” (Sri Aurobindo’s term) age can be summed up as one in which the emissary of analytic intellectualism, mediated by the left hemisphere of the brain, has taken over the role which should be played by the more intuitive right hemisphere. Out of caution that the mind is not so clearly localized in the brain, McGilchrist often refers to the ‘left mode” style of thinking vs the “right mode.”

Left mode thought is linear, logical, it focuses on what is measurable and can be controlled, as well as what is easily known. Right mode thought is holistic, qualitative, generally leaning toward appreciation and openness rather than measuring and control. It easily relates to the immeasurable, the mysterious, the unknown, opening to it rather than trying to master and control it.

And actually, to make it even clearer, it’s not so much about “thinking”, McGilchrist tells us, as about how we pay attention. Psychologist Les Fehmi has made this very clear and applied in a wide variety of clinical situations over the past 45 years. The left mode tends to be characterized by “narrow, objective focus.” One attends to the details, and may miss the big picture – looking at the “trees’ and missing the “forest.” Modern neuroscientists refers to the areas of the brain associated with this as the “task positive network.” Modern society tends to highly favor a “doing” mode in which our attention grabs on with great, rajasic intensity to various projects, ignoring intuitive, instinctive and emotional input, often becoming increasingly narcissistic and focused on the “little me” (mediated by the medial prefrontal cortex)

Fehmi worked with one woman, Paula, an emergency room nurse, who had been suffering with severe migraines, stomach pain, anxiety and panic attacks for years. He noted that as she described her work, she was almost always in “emergency” mode mentally – stuck in narrow, objective focus. He simply taught her a complementary way of attending, a wide, open, immersed (emotionally, bodily engaged) attention. This simply switch of attention resulted in a complete absence of physical pain and anxiety in just 3 weeks. Paula later said that continuing to practice this over the next 3 months, resulted in virtually every aspect of her life being completely changed.

Sri Aurobindo describes these two modes of thinking and attending quite beautifully – in terms similar to those McGilchrist used – in his chapter on the education of the intellect in his writings on education.

There are many things that Sri Aurobindo has written about that are starting to be explored in contemporary cognitive, affective, volitional and contemplative neuroscience. I look forward to posting reflections on these.


There must awake in us a constant indwelling and enveloping nearness, a vivid perception, a close feeling and communion, a concrete sense and contact of a true and infinite Presence always and everywhere. That Presence must remain with us as the living, pervading Reality in which we and all things exist and move and act, and we must feel it always and everywhere, concrete, visible, inhabiting all things; it must be patent to us as their true Self, tangible as their imperishable Essence, met by us closely as their inmost Spirit. (Synthesis of Yoga)

Ban user

6 thoughts on “Sri Aurobindo and Iain McGilchrist on intellect and intuition

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about chuyen khong tuong cua hoc sinh.

  2. It isn’t just the mere fact of having two modes of attending to the world, but the sequence of events may be the most telling factor. Children basically operate in the “right mode” and enjoy life immensely without a burdensome cognitive system. The adult “left mode” is added on later when the brain fully develops. Somehow, the sequence of first receiving a holistic view followed by parsing it into details, concepts, and labels shifted and the holistic view became secondary. The “right mode” is foundational and many have made the shift (often called the spiritual journey) to put the “right mode” back where it belongs as Master.

  3. I forgot to mention that the “right mode” thought seems to be associated with what some neuroscientists call the “default mode” network. It’s quite humorous, I think, how this came to be known.

    A subject in a neuroscience study was lying in a large fMRI machine. After he completed the “task” he was assigned, the machine continued to record his brain activity. The neuroscientist noted that it seemed to reflect random activity, with particular right hemisphere activation. When he asked the subject what was going on, the subject replied that his mind was just wandering randomly.

    Research since then has noted that in most people, when the brain is in default mode, it is a rather unpleasant state. Due to what has been called the “negativity” bias of the instinctive programming of our brain (as creates in the wild we needed to be on constant alert as to whether we were going to be a meal for another creature) it seems that our “thinking” minds tend to be greatly affected by this, so we’re constantly dwelling on past failures or worrying about future negative events.

    But subsequent research has shown there is an exception to this – advanced meditators often experience very positive states of mind when the default mode is active. Turns out the scientists had prematurely concluded (as they so often do) that the default mode was inherently negative. But this is only the case for the average person who has not trained their minds.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.