21 | (What) Were You Even Thinking?

Machines can obviously perform tasks that once required human intuition and creativity. So what do we have left? In the long run, is there anything in human thinking that will differentiate us from artificial intelligence?


In this episode of The Gentle Rebel Podcast, I talk to neuropsychology professor and author Dr Chris Niebauer, who is the author of No Self, No Problem: How Neuropsychology is Catching Up To Buddhism.

There is so much to unpack about creative play, flow, and learning to hold ourselves and the world in more helpful, healthy, and humane ways. Since I first read the book, I’ve wanted to speak with Chris. And if you’ve ever wondered who you are, then I’m sure you’ll enjoy our conversation!

The way we process information and make decisions is heavily influenced by the functioning of our brain, precisely the distinction between the left and right hemispheres. While the left hemisphere is associated with logical and analytical thinking, the right hemisphere is thought to be responsible for creative and intuitive thinking. But is it really that simple?

“Where is the self when no one is thinking about it?” | 10:22

Chris says that many of the problems we experience in life are tied to our self-concept. The question of who we are. Or who we believe ourselves to be. But what if the self is little more than a series of stories we tell ourselves through categories, names, and labels?

Do these explain what it really means to be us?

Who are you when you’re not thinking about it?

Thinking With a Both/And Approach | 14:32

We are not searching for the true self on one side or the other. We want the enjoy the dance of left and right brain integration in our experiences.

Split-Brain Research and Investigating Two Sides of The Mind | 15:04

Split-brain research refers to the study of the effects of severing the corpus callosum, the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. It suggests there are two fundamentally different modes of processing the world, which we can shift between.

This has led to the popular idea that the brain’s left hemisphere is more logical and analytical and processes language. In contrast, the right hemisphere is more creative and intuitive and processes spatial information.

For more information about split-brain research, Chris recommends The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist.

Tools of The Thinking Interpreter | 18:22

The split-brain studies found an inner interpreter in the left brain, which makes up stories to explain the world and justify our decisions. Categorical identities inform our judgements and beliefs. The story of me that can be taken away at any minute (what we invest our sense of identity in).

We need categories, judgements, and beliefs but problems often stem from how we hold them to the idea of an essential or true self.

The right brain embraces a more eternal, non-material, and non-categorical position. The self is fundamentally mysterious; if you think you’ve pinned it down, it will escape your grasp. It’s attracted to not knowing and mystery. It’s an excellent partner for creativity because it takes us further into the questions rather than pursuing a definitive, once and for all, answer. This is the source of profound and wonderful meaning in life.

Who is Left When Things Change? | 19:18

If we attach our sense of self to abilities, labels, and circumstances, what happens if those things are lost or changed? The left brain creates constructs to help us understand and filter the world, but if we over-identify with them, they can cause create anguish when they disappear. Who are you beneath those current realities? Who would be left if things shifted?

Thinking helped us evolve as a species. It sets us apart from other animals. It’s a blessing when we use it in the right way. It gets us out of problems, helps us improve situations, and gives us bodily survival. But this is not the totality of what it means to be human.

Are we using the mind, or is the mind using us? Is there more to us than our thinking? Are we more than our thoughts?

Thinking Through The Past, Future, and Present | 21:06

The left brain is interested in using the past to inform the future. It can actively and creatively shift the trajectory of life. It’s amazing! But it can also cause us distress when we become caught up in its stories.

The right brain is our ever-presence. The observer beneath the noise of thought. It is only here now, absorbed in the always current moment.

We might think of the distinction as the left brain designing the tool and the right brain becoming absorbed in the flow of making things with the tool. The left brain might rush to find answers to change the future, whereas the right brain is patient, rhythmic, and can only experience the present.

How To Engage The Right Brain Without Over-thinking It | 25:46

Thinking defines much of our existence. We think we’re thinking all the time, but we are also in right-brain modes of processing more than we realise. Chris suggests an exercise to help us become aware of these moments of flow and play. He links this awareness to the idea that “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood”.

We play the piano; we don’t work it.

When the thinking mind returns online, it tries to diminish what was happening when it wasn’t there. Like someone who shows up late to a party and doesn’t believe it started until they get there. Everything is seen from the left brain’s reality.

The left brain is serious. The right brain is more playful.

You Can’t Force The Right Brain To Play With Left Brain Thinking | 30:14

It’s said that “you can’t get there from here”.

You can only philosophise about this so much. It’s the mode of left-brain thinking. So we need to create conditions for right brain processing.

It happens when we “zone out” – driving to work with the radio on, singing along, and losing ourselves to the moment. Then the left brain kicks in at work, and we assess that moment as “zoning out”.

The left brain plays unending games of self-improvement. The quest for the perfect process takes us away from the right brain in our search for flow. We measure things, challenge ourselves, and gamify for progress. There is a subtle difference between gamification and play in this context.

When we come to a right brain activity, the left brain loves to sabotage it (measuring it, growing it, turning it into competition etc.).

A part of you is always already in the present moment. “Trying” to get into it is just another left-brain thing.

It’s not about getting rid of the left brain; it’s about integrating it into a more balanced life.

Don’t Confuse The Symbol For The Thing | 33:51

Language is a left-brain phenomenon. It’s amazing. It’s the core of civilisation. But it also tricks us into mistaking symbols for things. So words become what they’re not. They can hurt even though they are not intrinsically painful.

The left brain might say, “I recognise these games, and I’m going to stop playing them”, but that’s another form of the game.

Embracing Non-Dualism in a Binary World| 35:37

The world feels dualistic. We are separate from each other. But this is our way of understanding an uncertain and mysterious reality through categorisation and storytelling. In other words, the left brain gives structure so that we can be productive. But this productivity doesn’t have an essential truth to it. It’s just fun. We can play with it as we learn to see it as it is.

Thinking of Life as an Escape Room | 36:22

Chris suggests we might imagine life like an escape room surrounded by clues that take us home. There’s something intrinsically resonant with the idea of finding our way home. He suggests we can think of human existence, where consciousness got lost in the left brain stories, but we are full of clues to the mystery of life. And we can think of our lives as a playful exercise in piecing together a puzzle, where each experience holds the key for the next room.

Maybe we get to figure things out like it’s a mystery to explore and enjoy. We move through various rooms that transform us and bring us back to where we started. Like a song or a circular walk, it’s about the process to get back to where we started, not the destination itself.

It’s all about what happens between here and here.

Most of Everything is Nothing | 1:07

Most of everything is nothing. Try to think about emptiness. You can’t think about the infinite nothingness of space and time. Our left brain clambers for something concrete, but the fun thing about those concepts is they are impossible to grasp.

When we confuse the symbol for the thing itself, we fail to hold the object’s reality because most of it is nothing. Eternity is an excellent example of a word we speak but cannot grasp. When we use language to define things, we try to categorise them. But there is much more to everything than we can hope to capture with a sound or scribble.

Without space, we have no form. Therefore, void is form, and form is void.

The left brain can only focus on nominal symbols and objects (things we give names to), while the right brain focuses on emptiness and space. It’s the silence between the notes—the margin around the edges.

The Joy of Bad Days | 45:23

We often tell people to “have a good day”. But good days are dependent on bad days. So, likewise, joy is dependent on the struggle.

Many of my most memorable and meaningful days have been underpinned by finding something I lost, fixing something I broke, or succeeding at something I feared or previously failed. Finding, fixing, growing, healing, and succeeding all require life not to be perfect.

We wouldn’t choose to suffer, but we can understand how suffering creates meaning, connection, and creativity. Through suffering, we find opportunities to come together, innovate, and build relationships between people and things that change the world.

Memory, Meaning, and The Constant Self | 1:07

The left brain loves the story of continuity. It wants a single Self that is the same throughout life. But what IS the constant self? It’s something more profound than identity.

Identity changes many times each day, and it will ebb, flow, and morph over a lifetime. Things will become more or less important and feel more or less natural, depending on the story we tell ourselves based on the story the world values at any given moment. So there is something else that provides our sense of what it means to feel ourselves. Awareness. Observation. Consciousness.

Playing With The Story of Self | 58:43

When we surrender our absolute identification with the left brain processes, there is a shift, and the right brain becomes more valued and playful. When we approach it with playfulness (not seriousness about playfulness), all the left-brain stories become less serious, and we can have some fun with them. They can become harmless if the playful side of our spirit approaches them.

Maybe there are positive selves that come out. We don’t need to identify with them, but we can enjoy them. We can hold them lightly. Suffering comes from holding our desire too seriously and tightly.

We will likely suffer if we take a story too seriously (positive or negative). This is not a rule; it’s an observation of the mechanics of the mind. All identities, if taken playfully, have the potential to work out wonderfully.

Mind 2.0 (Human Creativity and Artificial Intelligence) | 64:31

Until now, homo-sapiens have dominated the planet as the most clever thinkers. But we’ve replicated thinking and created technology that transcends our left-brain thinking capabilities.

When it comes to strategy, survival, and predicting the behaviour of others, Artificial Intelligence will outthink us. This is because it can think multiple thoughts at a time and have multiple relationships simultaneously.

So if we’re not the dominant thinkers, what do we have? We move to the right brain. What do we do besides thinking?

Beyond the left brain, a whole level of mysterious processes defines our existence far beyond thinking. It’s a great time to explore what this means, how we can engage it, and what it means for our human potential.

Music Inspired By The Conversation | 75:34

After I finished speaking to Chris, I recorded the piece of music that ends the episode.

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