Selective Attention and the Alpha course

This is the second post inspired by the Young Priest Theologians network meeting.  Again I want to explore McGilchrist’s thought on the brain, but before we go any further, if you’ve never seen the selective attention test with people throwing a ball, then take a look at this…

Did you see it?  To be honest, I don’t know if it actually works since I heard about the test with it being explained to me – kind of spoils it! McGilchrist used the phenomenon of selective attention to exemplify the difference between the right and left hemispheres of the brain.  As I said in the last post, the fundamental difference is one of attention.  Through our right hemisphere we gain broad attention – see the big picture; whilst through the left hemisphere we focus on detail and specifics.  The right hemisphere provides the context in which the left views and understands details – a context that is often assumed and unnoticed.  This is why, when focussing on details like the players in white throwing a ball, we can miss the bigger picture – because our left hemisphere perspective dominates the right.

McGilchrist went on to say that we always have a ‘take’ on everything before we see it, no matter how objective we may try to be.  The way we view the world is always shaped by some concept of the big picture every detail fits into – like wearing glasses that shape the way we see.  Our language, culture and community, for example, all shape the context in which we see and understand the details of life.

It can be difficult to accept that all our thinking is affected by an assumed context or perspective we may not have tested out.  Since Descartes the idea has been that you work out what is true by ignoring everything you assumed you knew and finding one small certainty (“I think, therefore I am”), then build up the big picture one piece at a time adding one verifiable fact to another until we’ve constructed the whole.  But the whole is never simply the sum of it’s parts – this is why, as I mentioned previously, poetry is more than the sum of words and grammar, music is more that the sum of notes and pauses – there is a whole that is greater than the detail put together.

So what’s the point?  This vastly affects the way we find out what is true.  First, it takes away the possibility of ‘proving’ anything 100% – every certainty is certain because of an assumed context.  But this doesn’t mean every viewpoint is equally valid – it means we find truth by questioning the big picture, by paying attention to our right hemisphere attention, to the context we easily assume.  We start to ask what assumptions we carry and challenge them by what we’re experiencing, by other people’s explanations, by encountering other ways of thinking that challenge our own.  McGilchrist points to Michelangelo’s ‘unfinished scultpure’ to say how creativity comes, not from a putting together, but a clearing away.  I would stretch the analogy to truth – we find what is true, not by adding details, but clearing away assumptions and finding what emerges.

Too abstract?  Well, take Alpha for example, a course where we look at a different aspect of Christian faith each week over 10-weeks. If people came as blank sheets then maybe we would be trying to establish one certainty after another from week one – who is Jesus…then why did Jesus die…etc.  But everyone comes with a ready made view of the world, a view we’ve been using to live by for years…but we may never have paid it much attention.  Alpha becomes about paying attention to that big picture and allowing evidence, experience and questions to challenge the way we see things….to keep asking, if this assumption changed, how would the detail look then?  What difference does it make if faith is not a blind leap, but a step based on evidence?  What difference if science and religion aren’t mutually exclusive? What difference if Christianity is not about what we should do for God, but what God has already done for us? What difference if Jesus, when we pay attention to what he actually said about himself, cannot be simply a good teacher, but must be mad, bad, or God?

Any of these differences could shift the way we see the details of God, the world and ourselves.  Any of these differences might help us see the gorilla in our midst.


2 thoughts on “Selective Attention and the Alpha course

  1. I like it – Something I have been thinking about more recently is how two views that seem contradictory can (possibly) be equality true when challenged in the way you mention above. Such as, What if God is both the father, the man walking in the garden of eden, and the almighty vast God of space that is immovable and unshakable from anything we might do?

    I often saw these as contradictory but I have come to realise the importance and the truth of both.

    This may have a special name, or some theological backing (or not). My question is…. Can there be both a gorilla and no gorilla at the same time?

    • Thanks Al! I think there’s a lot in your question. Scripture seems to be full of truths that we have to hold in tension – like that God is sovereign over everything and yet we have free will – exactly as you mention.

      I know some people find this a barrier to belief, but for me it seems exactly what you would expect when the infinite Creator reveals Himself to his finite creatures. We’re never going to understand the whole picture because the whole picture is bigger than our understanding.

      This is part of the gift of the incarnation – that God came as one of us – so that, where we struggle to grasp the complexity of the big picture, we can focus on the person of Jesus in front of us. It’s not that we give up trying to understand – we keep searching out truth because as we do we find more of God – but we don’t make our understanding a criteria for our following Jesus. Once we know Him, we walk with Him, and seek to understand on the way.

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