Inside Out

Michael Metzger

When you know something inside out, you really know it. A great many organizations claim to really know something about innovation. Truth is, most have only inside knowledge. Innovation arises from circles of exchange, knowing things inside out.

Last week I described innovation as requiring “Mr. Inside & Mr. Outside,” two views coming from the brain’s two hemispheres. Innovation requires knowing something inside out, with both hemispheres exchanging views. Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist as well as Oxford literary scholar and researcher in neuroimaging, says this exchange has tailed off in the Western world. There’s a widening gap between the left and right hemisphere.

McGilchrist is the author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The title is drawn from a tale told by Friedrich Nietzsche of an arrogant emissary who overthrows his benevolent master. McGilchrist recasts Nietzsche’s story with the master as metaphor, which is more of a right hemisphere function. Language is the emissary, and more a function of the left hemisphere. The Enlightenment overthrew this arrangement, to the detriment of the kingdom.

The Enlightenment disdained the inexactness of metaphor, preferring what it believed – incorrectly – was the precision of language. The ancients didn’t see it this way. Enlightenment thinkers dismissed them as darkened by religion and unenlightened. They presumed to be smarter than those who came before them. Disdain bred arrogance, so the emissary overthrew the master, metaphor. McGilchrist says this has led “ultimately to a large bias overall” for words over images in the Western world.

This bias leads to blindness. There’s a dynamic in the brain where the two hemispheres complement each other but also compete in a winner-take-all contest. McGilchrist says the one “getting in first” controls how we think. If the right hemisphere gets in first, it includes the left. But if the left wins, it excludes the right. This is happening in the West. We have mostly inside knowledge. Thus, we talk about innovation, but, as the saying goes, talk is cheap. We’re kidding ourselves.

When the left wins, it pushes away from the right. We see this in neuroimaging. The corpus callosum is the wide bundle of neural fibers connecting the left and right hemispheres. It facilitates an exchange between the two hemispheres. But findings from neuroimaging indicate that the corpus callosum is shrinking, leaving a widening gap between the left and right hemisphere. The left, left to itself, is in La-La Land.

The self-deception is due to the left hemisphere, which uses “that part of language to grasp things, or, as we say to ‘pin’ things down,” notes McGilchrist. Our left hemisphere tries to pin down in language what it assumes to be important. And therein lies the rub. To know what is important or innovative, we have to first rely on the right hemisphere.

Innovation, a Latin word drawn from the Greek renewal, requires what McGilchrist calls “the newness of the right hemisphere.” It plays “devils advocate, always on the lookout for things that might be different from our expectations. It sees things in context. It understands implicit meaning, metaphor, and body language.” On the other hand, “the world of the left hemisphere is dependent on denotative language and abstraction. It yields clarity and the power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, isolated, static, decontextualized, explicit, and general in nature but ultimately lifeless.” The left plays an important role, but only after learning what is important. It’s the emissary.

That’s why the right hemisphere is the master. “The right hemisphere by contrast yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate living beings within the context of the lived world – but in the nature of things never fully graspable, never perfectly known.” The right hemisphere operates in an open system – the left in a closed system. The right includes the left, thinking in images that are sent to the left hemisphere, where they are “re-presented” in “virtual” categories expressed in language. These constructs are returned to the right for review. It’s supposed to be a never-ending reciprocating cycle. But due to the left winning the race, the Western world is now trapped in “hall of mirrors,” a “virtual reality,” according to McGilchrist. If you want to listen to McGilchrist detail this a bit more, check out this RSA Animate:

“Innovation arises from ongoing circles of exchange,” writes Margaret J. Wheatley, “where information is not just accumulated or stored, but created. Knowledge is generated anew from connections that weren’t there before.” She’s describing knowing something inside out. Today, with recent findings in neuroscience, we recognize that completing the circles of exchange requires including the outside view. It’s the only way individuals as well as institutions can claim to really know something.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike


Morning Mike Check


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. The deception of language, is its appearance to have power in its own right. A magic we project upon it. Unveiled by our senses and feelings. Our detachment from creation can give us a programmed narrative that lacks spirit.

  2. Hire an outsider to serve as facilitator of this tension. The arrogance of left hemisphere thinkers is assuming they best facilitate the back-and-forth reciprocating dynamic. They aren’t very well equipped to do this.

  3. Only in very rare (and generally not sustained) instances. Example: I was with a large organization last week that’s rolling out a new image, or icon, for the purpose of rebranding the firm. The project started well with a great image. Then a group added all sorts of words, etc. Classic left-hemisphere thinking. The final product looks like it was cobbled together by committee. An outside voice would have stopped the process long before it ran off the rails, reminding the roundtable that simplicity is the essence of sophistication.

  4. The question being what prompted the need for a re-brand ? Does modelling by its nature seek to control ? Do we fail to celebrate our uniqueness, if we try to classify and brand everything ? Do our brains function so fast that we cannot seek to control each finite part. Would it be healthy to ? Has thinking and language gained too much focus ?

  5. Barnabas – as to your questions, from last to first. Thinking has not gained too much attention, language has. Both are necessary yet insufficient for making sense of the world. We also feel and imagine. In my option, “control” is a poor choice of word for this conversation. Too strong. “Influence” or “shape” or “awareness” might be better. We cannot be conscious or aware of all that influences us. Classifying and branding are not inherently bad. Our conversation would be nonsensical if we could not. “Celebrate our uniqueness” reminds me of “celebrate diversity.” Not sure what how that works. Modeling, like classifying, is inherently good.

  6. Thanks for your response Mike. I sense that we exhibit the dilemma in our discourse. How we choose in our minds to interpret the words placed before us, recognising the absence of tone and sound. The language of the written getting attention as our main means of sharing information. The sufficiency of making sense of the world only being apparent, if the outcome resonates with each of us. Yes,we feel physically using our five sense and emotionally, imagine and aspire. I note the emphasis of adjustment to “control” in using “Influence” or “shape” or “awareness”. I also accept that we cannot be conscious or aware of all that influences us. I do not see classifying and branding as inherently bad, but I am uneasy about labelling that doesn’t fully express the essence. Maybe the clue is that conversing distils the resonance of sense or nonsense. I sense a hint of cynicism towards the phrases “Celebrate our uniqueness” and “celebrate diversity.” Possibly recognising how interpretation can influence our sense of outcome. None of us being exactly the same. Modeling, like classifying, is in my opinion a neutral abstract tool that can be used by us for good or bad.

  7. Well said. Yes, our conversation is capped. Lesslie Newbigin said something to the effect that a conversation about an individual changes to some degree when that individual enters the room. We’re not physically in the same room, so our conversion to some degree suffers, as you rightly note. As to my cynicism, it comes from my wife and I having put three kids through college. The modern university is all about “celebrating diversity” yet is one of the most intolerant environments we’ve experienced, with a marked lack respect for a few diverse views, particularly orthodox Christianity. Oh well.

  8. Thanks for the prompt response Mike. I appreciate the root of your cynicism. Is it possibly, more as a result, that you appreciate the individuality of your children more than the ‘institutionalised’ thinking and language of the ‘ruling culture.’I suspect, the wisdom of parenting is the challenge of leading a child to the point they can walk themselves, reflecting their personality. Often, guidance being given in actions that clothe the words with reality. Respect being a key as you, as you hint. We have a life time to learn from the Living Word. May we each find rest in the rhythms of grace imparted to us. Bless you for diligently voicing your perceptions each week.

  9. “McGilchrist says this has led “ultimately to a large bias overall” for words over images in the Western world.”

    Mike, curious- why don’t you use images on your blog, then?

  10. David:

    Good question. McGilchrist would say the solution is image/words. That’s what I do every week in these columns. I develop a metaphor that frames the piece. Last week it was a football backfield. Metaphors are word pictures, or word images.

Leave a Reply

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