29. Some Early Voices Intuit the Bicameral Mind

We all speak well of our hearts, we none of us dare speak well of our minds.1

La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680)

But though I distrust my head, I am always sure of my heart.2

Voltaire (1694–1778)

The above quotations contain a very important and familiar Truth. There are more ways of knowing, than the ways of knowing we are taught in school. Upon reflection, every reader will be able to think of instances where he knew something, especially regarding Love or Music, which he could not explain in words. The great composer, Richard Wagner (1813–1883), wrote of this very problem, using the words “Feeling” versus “Understanding,”

“The musician addresses himself to Feeling, and not to Understanding. And if he is answered in terms of Understanding, you might as well say he was not understood.3

Here is a clear example of this problem from my own experience. As a freshman at the University of Michigan I was forced, as a member of a public speaking class, to participate in a campus-wide oratorical contest. To my utter astonishment, I won the contest! The sole judge was the Dean of the famous Michigan Law School, who offered me on the spot a seat in the Law School if I would change my major from Music to Law. The Dean, not to mention my parents, was amazed that I would turn him down, saying I would prefer to remain a student in music education! In retrospect I too find this decision rather amazing, because of course at age 17 ½ I had no body of rational information to make such a decision, but that did not seem to cause me to hesitate in answering. Also looking back, in my own defense I must acknowledge that in the following sixty years I have never met a lawyer who was happy in his job!

In subsequent years I was equally concerned that I had definite feelings about Music that I could not explain in words. And so it was for me as if the sun came out from behind the clouds when in the early 1970s the Nobel Prize winning results of the research in our bicameral brain were made public, which explained everything to me. We have a left hemisphere brain which has the words and a right hemisphere brain which has the feelings and never the twain shall meet; they are completely separate areas of knowing.

The following years have produced a thousand books and articles studying the minute operation of these two hemispheres and this research will never end as we have an estimated three trillion circuits in our brain. However, no matter how more complex this subject becomes, in my opinion it is safe to say that the general activities of these two hemispheres are accepted throughout the world. Long before this subject was introduced to the field of medicine, there have been philosophers who understood this thought that we were like two separate persons joined together, one who understands through data and one who understood through feelings. The following discussion presents some of these early, and in several cases astonishing, observations.

The distinction between the two types of understanding can be found almost everywhere. The French word for “Law,” one of the most conceptual, logical and rational professions, is “droit” (“right” as in right hand), the significance of which is obvious if the reader remembers that the hemispheres of the brain operate opposite sides of the body, so right hand is a symbol for Law being left brain. Similarly, the Indians of the American Southwest distinguished between the functions of the hands, the right for writing and the left for music. There are the Hindu notions of “buddhi” and “manas” and the Confucian concepts, found in the ancient book, I Ching, which associate the masculine, “Yang,” with the left side of the mind and the feminine, “Yin,” with the right. From this comes our expression, “I had a yin to …” for those actions for which we lack a good rational explanation.

My previous two essays presented early commentary on the relative importance of Reason and emotion, or the rational versus the non-rational sides of man. The purpose here is to provide the reader with a sampling of the views of early philosophers who seemed to recognize that both of these are found in our mind.

To begin with, there were early observers who recognized that something like our twin hemispheres of the brain existed, but were quick to return to the ancient dogma that Reason must nevertheless rule. For example, among the early Greeks, Epictetus (55–135 AD) was well aware of the rational and non-rational nature of the person and observed, “by nothing is the rational creature so distressed as by the irrational.” We can sense his frustration in trying to explain to himself how the mind must be organized and his employment of Music as a distinction with the rational does not seem to help him much.

Of our faculties in general you will find that none can take cognizance of itself; none therefore has the power to approve or disapprove its own action. Our grammatical faculty for instance: how far can that take cognizance? Only so far as to distinguish expression. Our musical faculty? Only so far as to distinguish tune. Does any one of these then take cognizance of itself? By no means. If you are writing to your friend, when you want to know what words to write grammar will tell you; but whether you should write to your friend or should not write grammar will not tell you. And in the same way music will tell you about tunes, but whether at this precise moment you should sing and play the lyre or should not sing nor play the lyre it will not tell you. What will tell you then? That faculty which takes cognizance of itself and of all things else. What is this? The reasoning faculty: for this alone of the faculties, we have received is created to comprehend even its own nature; that is to say, what it is and what it can do, and with what precious qualities it has come to us, and to comprehend all other faculties as well.4

We are particularly impressed with the insight of Aristides Quintilianus (first to fourth century AD), who not only recognized the rational and non-rational division; of the mind,

These, then, are its two aspects, the rational, through which it accomplishes the works of wisdom, and the irrational, through which it engages in the business of the body.5

but he also stated that the “leader and high priest” of the first branch of learning is philosophy and the “ruler” of the second is music!

Cicero, the Roman (106–43 BC), recognized the two divisions in man, but he did not quite know what to call the non-rational side. One can see here the strong prejudice against everything non-rational, an idea which continues to negatively influence society.

The soul is divided into two parts, one of which partakes of reason, the other does not. So when the instruction that we should rule over ourselves is given, the instruction is that reason should restrain impulsiveness. There is in practically everybody’s souls by nature something soft, lowly, abject, nerveless so to speak, and feeble. If there were nothing else, a human being would be the ugliest thing that exists. But at hand is the mistress and queen of all, Reason, which through its own strivings advances forward and becomes perfected virtue. It is man’s responsibility to ensure that it rules over that part of the soul which ought to obey.6

In one of the early music treatises, the Musica Disciplina, of 843 AD, Aurelian of Reome not only finds that music joins “Reason in the body,” but also finds it more surprising that it is music which connects the rational and non-rational parts of us.

What else is it that binds together the parts of the soul and body of man himself, who, as Aristotle is pleased to put it, has been joined together of the rational and the irrational.7

We find an extraordinary insight by the philosopher known as Pico in 1519,

The intellect does not permit any lower faculty to function in collaboration with it. Rather, whenever anything comes near the intellect and arouses it, the intellect, like a roaring fire, burns it up, and converts it into itself.8

He was quite correct: early 20th century research on the split-brain, found that the left hemisphere of our brain tends to completely ignore the mute right hemisphere. The implications of this have had a dramatic influence on civilization. Consider only the fact that the left hemisphere consists primarily not only of past tense information but also second-hand information of other people, and yet it tends to ignore the real us, the experiential and present tense right hemisphere.

Early poets writing of love often found themselves having to sing of both hemispheres, as if they realized that the emotions were fundamentally apart from language. A striking example is found in Dante (1265–1321), who, in the introduction to one of his sonnets, clearly seems aware of the separation of faculties.

In this sonnet I make two parts of myself in accordance with the way in which my thoughts were divided. One I call “heart,” that is desire; the other “soul,” that is reason; and I relate what one says to the other.9

And, when Reason does speak to Desire, it makes reference to the power of the emotions to shut down Reason,

Who is this one that comes with consolation for our mind and who, possessing such outrageous strength, will not allow another thought to stay?10

This must have been impressive, if confusing, to Dante — that feeling could so over power Reason. In one poem he observes that Love overcomes the intellect like a ray of sunlight overcoming eyes that are weak.11

In passages which demonstrate that he was clearly aware that there is more to man than Reason, he returns to this idea of feeling versus Reason twice in his famous Divine Comedy. In a reference at the beginning of Paradise, he used the terms desire and intellect,

As it approaches its desire,
Our intellect submerges so profoundly
That our memory is unable to go back.

In the Inferno, he speaks of other emotions which have the same power over the intellect,

Who could ever tell, even in straight prose,
The full story of the blood and of the wounds
That I now saw, often though it be told?
Certainly every tongue would falter, for
Neither our speech nor our intellect
Is capable of encompassing so much.12

Another early example of one who was aware of the separate faculties was Geoffrey Chaucer (1340–1400), who, in his The Romaunt of the Rose, warns,

You must both perceive and feel that pride is a sin.13

Later in the Renaissance we find the same kind of thought by Guarini (1538–1612):

My heart and thoughts till now were so much set
To train that foolish nymph into my net …

His Spanish contemporary, Cervantes, also recognized love’s difficulty in communication,

Auristela finished her speech and began to weep tears that undid and erased everything she’d just said.14

Juan Vives, in his famous book, On Education of 1531, was not only clearly aware of the separate functions of Reason and emotions in the brain, but believed that Reason needed help and understanding in order to hold its own against the emotions.

All the precepts of Moral Philosophy have been prepared, like an army, to bring support to Reason. Wherefore the whole man must be understood, from within and without. Within the mind are the intellect and the emotions. We must know by what things the emotions are aroused and developed; by what things on the other hand they are restrained, calmed, removed …

Our intellect is enveloped by too dense a darkness for it to see through, for the passions, aroused through sin, have spread a great and most obscuring mist before the eyes of Reason. Reason has need of being clear, and of being as little perturbed as possible.15

The problem in trying to have the left hemisphere speak about the experience of love (found in the right hemisphere), something it knows nothing about, of course reflects the independent nature of the two hemispheres. One frequently finds references such as one by Erasmus, who noticed that “when someone is chattering away, one can not listen to the lute.”16 Similarly, Martin Luther used to complain about his little son, Hans, singing while he was trying to write.17

Here are some similar examples of recognition of the separate hemispheres found in English literature of the Renaissance.

Robert Greene (1560–1592):

Can wisdom win the field, when Love is Captain?18

John Lyly (1554–1606):

I cannot tell what reason it should be,
But love and reason here do disagree.19

William Shakespeare:

Ask me no reason why I love you; for though Love use Reason for his physician, he admits him not for his counselor.20

The accumulation of centuries of common observation resulted in a considerable increase in discussion of the bicameral mind during the Baroque. In addition to the difficulty of communication of feelings through the rational left hemisphere of the brain, the great German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716), added the problem the rational side often has in describing the senses themselves.

Additional simple primitive terms are all those confused phenomena of the senses which we certainly perceive clearly, but which we cannot explain distinctly, neither define them through other concepts, nor designate them by words.21

He struggled with the problem of how the rational mind could have the idea, that is, a rational understanding, of something like emotion.22 In the end, being a highly rational person himself (a mathematician) he fell back on the old principle that the Reason must rule,

The highest perfection of man consists not merely in that he acts freely but still more in that he acts with reason. Better, these are both the same thing, for the less anyone’s use of reason is disturbed by the impulsion of the affections, the freer one is.23

The French philosopher, Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), speculated on the differing nature of rational and non-rational vocal sounds, that is, the difference between speech and singing. After much speculation he concludes that the different voices which express the passions of the soul in men and animals are natural, but language itself is artificial.24

The Frenchman, Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), a brilliant thinker and inventor, seems to have been clearly aware of a bicameral division in the mind and one of his expressions of this is a familiar and widely quoted maxim,

The heart has its reason, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things.25

However, he complicates things when he introduces the term “intuition,” which we argue, along with “insight,” is something probably capable in both hemispheres. Nevertheless, here is a nice attempt to personify the two sides as he understood them in this regard.

Thus it is rare that mathematicians are intuitive, and that men of intuition are mathematicians, because mathematicians wish to treat matters of intuition mathematically, and make themselves ridiculous, wishing to begin with definitions and then with axioms, which is not the way to proceed in this kind of reasoning …

Intuitive minds, on the contrary, being thus accustomed to judge at a single glance, are so astonished when they are presented with propositions of which they understand nothing, and the way to which is through definitions and axioms so sterile, and which they are not accustomed to see thus in detail, that they are repelled and disheartened.26

We find some additional interesting reflections of our bicameral mind among French writers of the Baroque, first in Charles de Saint-Evremond, in a poem contained in a letter to the Duke of Buckingham (1678), quite correctly suggests that the two hemispheres are inclined to work separately and not together.27

Sometimes let Reason, with a sovereign sway, Control all your desires:
Sometimes let Reason to your heart give way,
And fan your warmest fires.

Jean de La Bruyere (1645–1696) makes the same point by way of reference to separate famous French playwrights.28

The plays of Corneille occupy one’s mind; those of Racine stir one’s heart.

At the beginning of this essay we quoted one of La Rochefoucauld’s famous maxims which reflects our bicameral mind. There are two other maxims of his which have a different focus and impress us very much. These two are relevant to the fact that the right hemisphere of our brain is mute and has no language to express itself (except through music). The first of these maxims pictures a right hemisphere communicating in a manner other than through language,

Tone of voice, look and manner can prove no less eloquent than choice of words.29

More extraordinary is his insight that there are forms of understanding unique to the right hemisphere. This is a very correct and valid truth and represents a fundamental part of us that is never approached by the field of education, since society appears to have made the emotions off-limits to teachers.

Nature would seem to have hidden deep within us talents and abilities we know nothing about; only strong emotion is able to bring them to light, and to give us at times insights beyond the reach of [rational] thought.30

Montesquieu (1689–1755) counters this notion with a wonderful story about a man who had been unable to sleep for thirty-five days. Ordinary physicians, at a loss, proposed to give him opium, but a friend took him to an holistic doctor (a man who “does not practice medicine, but has a multitude of remedies”) who gave him a six-volume study of law. After reading a few pages, the man fell asleep.31

This reminds us of another wonderful story, this one by Voltaire. His Zadig (1747) is a tale about a Babylonian philosopher and a wise man who “knew as much of metaphysics as hath ever been known in any age, that is, little or nothing at all.” This story reflects another aspect of our bicameral mind, the fact that, as each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body, so each eye feeds into the opposite hemisphere. Thus we must think of the right eye as the rational eye and the left as the eye dealing with our emotional life. With this in mind we return to the beginning of this story when a young man, Zadig, is wounded in the eye. A messenger is sent to Memphis for the famous physician, Hermes, who came with his large retinue. After his examination of Zadig, the doctor observed,

Had it been the right eye, I could have cured it; but the wounds of the left eye are incurable.

In the English Baroque we find many references to our bicameral brain. Indeed, the great philosopher, David Hume (1711–1776) once noted, “Everyone of himself will readily perceive the difference between feeling and thinking.”32

A poem by Thomas Sheridan (1687–1738), a priest and schoolmaster, is a remarkable example of someone who had arrived at the bicameral division of the brain purely by intuition. He is absolutely, and astonishingly, correct in his assignment of right or left eye and ear functions vis-a-vis their actual relationship with the brain hemispheres. Indeed, this is so accurate it is difficult to believe this was written before the availability of the results of clinical brain research.33

With my left eye, I see you sit snug in your stall,
With my right I’m attending the lawyers that scrawl.
With my left I behold your bellower a cur chase;
With my right I’m reading my deeds for a purchase.
My left ear’s attending the hymns of the choir,
My right ear is stunned with the noise of the crier.

Since, as most readers know today, our two hemispheres tend to work separately, and not together, according to which side is best equipped for a particular problem, we should like to include two examples of English writers complaining about the interference of one side or the other. Charles Avison (1709–1770), in one place, observes that people sing with more emotion when they visit foreign churches and cannot read the words to the hymns. His point, of course, is that in this case the right hemisphere is not hampered by the left at all.34

Similarly, Richard Steele, in the Spectator for 24 September 1712, published a fictitious complaint that our emotions carry us away, whereas the sermon is soon forgotten.

A loose trivial song gains the affections, when a wise Homily is not attended to.

From the nineteenth century we need only point to the experience of the great composers, who also made observations which reflect the recognition of the conflict between the two hemispheres of our brain. Mendelssohn, for example, once noticed that sometimes he became so emotionally involved while he was conducting that he had difficulty in maintaining the beat. In this case, we know conductors use the right hand to give the beat, as it is controlled by the left hemisphere which knows the notation and the numbers of music. When Mendelssohn became emotionally involved, his right hemisphere was interfering with the left hemisphere function. Similarly, Schumann once remarked that when he was absorbed in music he found that he had difficulty remembering his German language!

The musician who wrote most extensively on the subject of our bicameral selves was Richard Wagner and his writings are worthy of thoughtful contemplation, certainly by all musicians. Instead of using terms like left and right brain or rational versus non-rational, he used the terms Understanding versus Feeling, which, of course, match perfectly the primary functions of the two hemispheres of our brain. He makes a number of contentions, beginning with a statement that the musician addresses himself to Feeling, and not to Understanding.35 And he says if the musician is answered in terms of Understanding, you might as well say he was not understood.

How shocked he would be if he could observe American music education, which aspires to do just the reverse.


  1. The Maxims of La Rochefoucauld, trans. Kronenberger, Nr 98 ↩︎
  2. Letter to abbe Chaulieu, July 26, 1717 ↩︎
  3. Ellis, Wagner’s Prose Works, I, 270ff ↩︎
  4. The Discourses of Epictetus, trans. Matheson, 224. In another place, page 372, he states, “for it is being a child to be unmusical in musical things, ungrammatical in grammar…” ↩︎
  5. Greek Musical Writings, trans. Barker. II, 457ff ↩︎
  6. Tusculan Disputations, II, 47 ↩︎
  7. The Discipline of Music, trans. Ponte, III. The Aristotle reference is apparently to the Niomachean Ethics, I, 13 ↩︎
  8. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Commentary on a Canzone of Benivienti, trans. Jayne, 148
  9. Vita Nuova, trans. Musa, 76 ↩︎
  10. Ibid., 77 ↩︎
  11. “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” lines 59–60, in Goldin, German and Italian Lyrics of the Middle Ages, 377 ↩︎
  12. Inferno, XXXVIII ↩︎
  13. Line 2240 ↩︎
  14. The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, trans. Weller and Colahan, II, v ↩︎
  15. On Education, trans. Watson, V, iii ↩︎
  16. Collected Works, XXIX, 279 ↩︎
  17. Luther’s Works, LIV, 21. In the same conversation, Ibid, 83, a statement by Luther reveals the he understood that the left hemisphere of the brain knew no emotion. ↩︎
  18. Life and Works of Greene, ed. Grosart, III1, 197 ↩︎
  19. The Maydes Metamorphosis, IV, 1 ↩︎
  20. The Merry Wives of Windsor, II, I, 4 ↩︎
  21. Concerning the Analysis of Concepts and Truths, trans. O’Briant, 33 ↩︎
  22. “What is an Idea,” in Philosophiao Papers and Lettes, ed. Loemker, 207 ↩︎
  23. “Critical Thoughts on the General Part of the Principle of Descartes,” in Ibid., 388 ↩︎
  24. Traitez de la Voix, trans. LeRoy, III, I, 10 ↩︎
  25. Pensees, III, 277 ↩︎
  26. Ibid., I, i ↩︎
  27. Letters of Saint-Evremond, ed. Hayward, 205 ↩︎
  28. Characters, trans. Stewart, 38 ↩︎
  29. Op. cit., Nr. 249 ↩︎
  30. Ibid., Nr. 404 ↩︎
  31. The Persian Letters, 269 ↩︎
  32. A Treatise on Human Nature, I, I, section 1 ↩︎
  33. Poetical Works of Swift, III, 245 ↩︎
  34. An Essay on Musical Expression, 88 ↩︎
  35. Ellis, Prose Works of Wagner, I, 270ff ↩︎