The Wisdom of Lived Experience, by Maxine K. Anderson

How the ongoing dialogue between the left and right hemispheres constitutes our mental reality


My book The Wisdom of Lived Experience explores various aspects of the nature of reality and more specifically that of lived experience. In recent years I have become aware that my efforts to learn from theory and from noted colleagues have often meant closing down my experiencing mind and focussing upon the intellectual and the theoretical, rather that upon the more three-dimensional lived experience with my patients and within myself.

415EcLtFKjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ (1)Wilfred Bion, an author whom I admire, encourages learning from one’s own experience, while allowing any thoughts derived from the reading of his and others’ works to become part of one’s accruing understanding. And yet this advice, which trusts the intuitive, seems to be difficult to follow. What seems to happen more, at least among students of psychoanalysis, is a close, almost scriptural study of favourite authors as if to unlock the secrets that those texts themselves might hide. Here again, idealizing texts and theories as if they hold deeper wisdom than does one’s own experience.

8529354._UY200_So when I came upon Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary (2009), especially his depiction of the left and right brain interplay, and in this instance how the intellectual left brain so needed for language and abstract thought can obscure the softer implicit aspects of lived experience, I felt I had a companion in terms of the dilemma I had encountered in my endeavours toward deeper learning about human nature and perhaps about Nature itself.  The question that posed itself almost naturally was what are the significant elements in the process of coming alive that are essential for incorporating the intellectual and the intuitive toward the multi-dimensional qualities of lived experience?

This book, then, is a tracing of my explorations of this complex question. The sequence of the book describes the path of my own searching. I begin with McGilchrist and other sources, employing an emphasis on the intellectual, left-brain manner of looking closely at the research and honouring the texts. It is not until later in the book that I am able to turn to my own inner experience, including dreams and clinical work. It felt imperative to ‘do the research’ first, to read what others have thought, before I could turn to my own experiences. I believe this is in accord with the scientific approach of gathering the data and gleaning others’ contributions as one gains footing about one’s own potential offerings. However, such can also be the path toward idealizing the intellectual, which may freeze the frame that then rejects new considerations. This may be the case especially when that frame involves the valued work of mentors and others with whom one might identify.

Later in the book I begin to set out my own explorations, including my dreams and clinical experience. The tone then changes to a more interior exploration. Hopefully the reading of the book will aid in answering that question about the process of awakening or coming alive.  In particular, I focus on the importance of the dialogic interplay which seems so vital to coming alive: first, in terms of left and right brain functions as noted by McGilchrist, who emphasizes the cooperation between them but also their creative opposition and different views of the world.  Next, the dialectic of Aufhebung, as noted by Hegel, which involves the creative transformation of elements as from bud to flower to fruit which seems relevant to all of biology, perhaps to all of Nature.  Then, psychoanalytic understandings about the birth of the subject, the birth of the ‘I’ as noted in the works of Freud, Klein, Ogden, Civitarese, and Siegel. I explore what processes impede that developing subjectivity, what resistances to growth and differentiation are inherent in us all? Bass’s work on disavowal as the response to disturbing realities is informing here.

The book also deals with contemporary neuroscience, which is verifying the importance of sensory-based functions as essential for the deepening integration of the subjective self—some of that being the enhanced appreciation of the primacy of the quiet right-brain functions. There is significant focus on the recent work of Mark Solms, which emphasizes the primary nature of affective consciousness along with its inevitable accompaniment by intrinsic emotion. Also shared are ponderings about the myth that consciousness is a high order attainment of the cerebral cortex. Later chapters suggest that this myth may derive in part from the propaganda that left-brain functions broadcast about the primacy of cognition.

One stunning suggestion of Solms is the tendency toward automatization, which seems inherent in thought-based functioning: if all learning can be relegated to unconscious processing then the need for consciousness wanes.  The echoes of this tendency toward somnolence and its counter-measures are reviewed as well. The work of Friston regarding free energy and its destabilising potential offers new ways to think about intense, unmediated affect – that is, as unbound free energy. This chapter concludes with a review of the experience of Jill Bolte Taylor and her left-sided stroke as a compelling testament to the very different views of reality that left and right brain articulate.

 In Part II of the book, the focus turns to other processes of coming alive. Continuing to appreciate the primacy of affect, it highlights how innate expectations may be the roots of unconscious fantasy, the ubiquity of hallucinatory phenomena, and the creative contributions of poetic states of mind.

I discuss, for example, whether evolution and foetal experience may hard-wire the anticipation of a care-giving environment. The suggestion here is that innate or prenatal stirrings might be considered to be the roots of unconscious fantasy. The roles of implicit (the earliest and unrecallable) memory and explicit (conscious) memory are also considered in terms of their significant impact upon affective, lived experience. An example of a dream of a young child is offered to illustrate several elements described in the chapter.


“we are virtually hallucinating all the time”

The book also asks how much of reality is comprised of hallucinatory phenomena – that is to say, sensory input, such as the remembered dream, which arises from internal sources. It appears that we are virtually hallucinating all the time!  In addition, I consider aspects of psychic trauma in terms of affective overwhelm and the crucial role of negation and cortical shaping as part of necessary regulation. The fundamental nature of hallucinatory experience as a basis of lived experience, but also as primary to our identity, is considered. A personal dream is offered to illustrate some of these concepts. Here the tone of my writing shifts from the perhaps dense considerations of others’ work to the softer relating of my own experience.

Developing this shift towards a more lived, experiential mode, I consider how poetry, as an example of the more intuitive approach to coming alive, bridges the cognitive and the contemplative, the left- and the right-brain approaches to experience. This discussion also illustrates how the metaphoric capacities of the right brain foster such depth of view. In addition, via the powerful poetry of Blake and Milton, it offers the opportunity to view the poetic depiction of the tyranny of the intellect, and the measures necessary to end its rule through both recognition of that tyranny and the re-integrative potential that accompanies that recognition.


“the poetic depiction of the tyranny of the intellect, and the measures necessary to end its rule”: William Blake’s picture of Newton as a form of limiting and self-enclosed left-hemispheric ‘ratio-nality’ that abstracts itself from lived experience

Part III attempts to consolidate aspects of coming alive which are also considered in terms of Bion’s concept of Becoming. It begins with a reminder that we construct reality from what we expect to see, as illustrated by the humorous experiment of the unseen gorilla on the basketball court, and continues with an illustration of how the bud-to-flower-to-fruit of Hegel’s Aufhebung illustrates an evolving, transcending process, which can be seen in dialogue and more generally in the differentiating processes of living organisms. It also focuses on how the poetic state of mind can enhance and deepen self-awareness. This includes tracing the myth of the Garden of Eden as the journey of the mind from the medieval paradise of absolute Truth to the more modern daring to step into the unknown with its attendant doubts amidst uncertainty.

This departure from the Garden of the absolute may lead to the grace of an open dialogic stance that offers receptivity, learning and change. The resulting potential for enhanced inner space is described and illustrated with a personal vignette. A brief discussion of the neurobiological view of mindfulness is then offered which illustrates heightened capacities for integration of affect and cognition, suggesting enhanced capacities to bear psychic pain without collapse. The latter portion of the chapter offers a brief discussion of two authors’ works that reflect this open stance amidst trust and faith – Wilfred Bion and David Bohm. The basic themes of Being and Care as also seen in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger are mentioned. In conclusion, a comparison and contrast of the various faces of reality as viewed by Bohm and Bion is offered as a touchstone back to the internal dialectic between the implicit and explicit aspects of experience.

In the book, I also trace my own personal experience over the years, from the intellectually-based definitive thought gained in medical training to the seeking of the more open-ended learning from emotional experience. I describe my experience of how mind-closing adherence to theory may be but also how I discovered that one’s attribution of authority to others might also shut down the mind. I trace my explorations of reaching beyond my discipline, including a sojourn into the virtual world to study the nature of reality. Notations of my own experience as well as those from the leader of that exploration are included.

Gurteen_2008_KC_workshop_slide_16I then relate some details about an experience which seems to have fulfilled the previously not fully formulated goals of my search – an experience of a non-authoritarian group organized around learning from each others’ clinical material, amidst a several day workshop located in beautiful surroundings. It seemed that these circumstances fostered the open dialogic stance suggested by Bohm and the late Bion in which there may be true learning from one another’s experience in a receptive, trusting atmosphere, one that also fosters the emergence of deeply creative contributions from nearly all members of the diverse group. Key elements for this openness seem to be mutual respect amidst a non-authoritarian atmosphere. The creative emergences may have been fostered by that receptivity.

This discussion emphasizes once again the sense of an innate expectation of attentive care, perhaps the equivalent of non-judgmental curiosity felt in the dialogic group, and its crucial role in terms of fostering one’s coming alive, that is one’s Becoming. Residing in that receptive atmosphere amidst trust and awe, remaining open to be moved by and to learn from evolving experience and genuine dialogue may be considered as approaches to Being.

Modern research into epigenetics, a burgeoning new field, raises the question of the impact of immediate lived experience upon genetic expression in all animals studied.  Compelling evidence is offered as to how immediately genetic expression at a cellular level can be impacted. In some cases dramatic change seems to occur within minutes. Amidst heated debate within the field about these new findings, it may be that we as yet do not know how to think about these data in terms of what is really occurring.

But if the immediacy of experience really does have an impact which can last into future generations we may need to be open to new ways of thinking about its significance. If the learnings of this book have any validity, it will be important to remain open to as yet un-glimpsed aspects of reality – which may lead to new realms of understanding about the power as well as the wisdom of lived experience.

Maxine K. Anderson, MD, trained in psychoanalysis in both the USA and London, England. She is a Training and Supervising Analyst for several psychoanalytic institutes in North America; a Fellow of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA); and a Fellow of the British Institute of Psychoanalysis. She has published widely on psychoanalytic topics especially relevant to contemporary Kleinian and Bionian thought. Her most recent explorations into the nature of reality attempt to bridge the disciplines of psychoanalysis, neuroscience and philosophy. Her book The Wisdom of Lived Experience: Views from Psychoanalysis, Neuroscience, Philosophy and Metaphysics is published this week by Karnac.

Reviews and Endorsements

36140‘Seldom have I read someone with such sophisticated comprehension of the psychoanalytic literature who grasps so deeply what neuropsychoanalysis is all about. In doing so, Maxine K. Anderson transfers her sympathetic understanding of relevant neuroscientific literature to her readers with lucid clarity. The result is an original, fascinating, and profoundly forward-looking book.’
Mark Solms, psychoanalyst and neuropsychologist, and author of The Feeling Brain

‘Maxine K. Anderson’s exciting new book is a beautiful voyage into the richness of contemporary psychoanalysis. In order to explore the secret links between the birth of the psyche and mental suffering she draws attention to many fascinating subjects: new ideas on dreams, hallucinosis, innate preconceptions of the world, the interplay of implicit and explicit memories, and many others. I recommend this book to every psychoanalyst or psychotherapist as an original contribution to our field and as an outstanding account of the state of the art in psychoanalysis.’
Giuseppe Civitarese, author of Truth and the Unconscious in Psychoanalysis

‘Calling on poetry, philosophy, and neuroscience, including the newly emerging epigenetics, Maxine K. Anderson elucidates how wisdom can be gained from lived experience. Astute understanding of the relationship between mind and brain is best illustrated with her thesis that the ongoing dialogue between the right and left hemispheres of the brain is what constitute our minds – our subjectivity. Dr Anderson’s well-substantiated work can convince even the most diehard intellectual theoretician that trusting and sharing one’s experience leads to effective learning and subjective development. This book will be of high relevance to the practice of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.’
Mary Kay O’Neil, PhD, training and supervising analyst, Toronto Psychoanalytic Society

‘In this exciting and clearly-written book, Maxine K. Anderson contributes to the future of psychoanalysis. She convincingly demonstrates how clinical theory and practice, neuroscience, philosophy, physics, and poetry can enlighten each other as they deal with different aspects of the same questions. This interdisciplinary dialogue is essential to the deeper understanding of that still mysterious thing we call mind.’
Alan Bass, PhD, training analyst


4 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Lived Experience, by Maxine K. Anderson

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