A review of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

by Charles on February 3, 2010

Published by Yale University Press, 597 pp. H/B (2009) : £28: ISBN 978 0 300 14878: P/B (2010): ISBN 978 0 300 168921

The world that each of us occupies is, at least in part, a creature of our brain. If we want to understand that world, we have to study our brains.

In neurology, just as everywhere else in biology, form is related to function. Our brains are divided into two hemispheres, and the hemispheres are anatomically and functionally highly unsymmetrical. Before neurosurgery it is common to shut down one hemisphere at a time by the injection of an anaesthetic agent into the blood supply to one side. While the effect lasts, the patient is a left or a right hemispherical person. If a wholly unanaesthetized patient is asked to draw a flower, the result will be a fairly accurate, prosaic representation. If the left hemisphere draws it, the drawing will be small, wizened and truncated – a literally reductionist effort. But if the right hemisphere is given the pen, the drawing will be exuberant, sympathetic and free. It won’t just be blandly representational; it will expound: it will have a brave stab at showing the flowerness of the flower. The neuro-romantic in me wants to say that it will look even more like the flower than the flower itself does. It will certainly look much more like the flower than the left hemisphere’s version. If you had to opt for one drawing you would, on any criterion at all, go for the right hemisphere’s. Reductionism isn’t just deadly dull; it’s deadly inaccurate. If you had to sit beside one or other hemisphere at dinner, everyone would unhesitatingly choose the right.

The left hemisphere is conservative, with all the neuroses that typically come with conservatism. It creates rigid models of the world to which it becomes pathologically attached. It hates it when inconvenient, anarchic reality won’t conform to those models. It hates having to revise. It loves lists, statistics, machines and small print. It’s a nerd. And, as you’d expect, it doesn’t always get on well with its counterpart over the other side of the corpus callosum.

The right hemisphere is a holistic visionary. It sees the context in which facts nestle. Its perspective is relational, rather than atomistic. Its perspective is multi-dimensional; that of the left tends to be flat. The left has knowledge; the right tends towards wisdom.

But they need each other. Wise governments need executors in suits. One wouldn’t want the civil servants to rule, though. All sorts of things would go wrong then. But that, says Iain McGilchrist, is precisely what has happened. The Emissary, to use the language of Nietzsche’s story, is assuming an importance that he should not have. The Master is being usurped.

McGilchrist’s book is a dazzling achievement. Drawing his material from many corners of learning, he contends that the history of ideas, and therefore history itself, can be explained in terms of the sometimes creative and sometimes destructive tension between the hemispheres. Neuroscience is crowded with expert, nerdish describers of tiny islands. Until now it has had no one to map the whole, and give each island the often unwanted knowledge of its own relationships. Now there’s a map. Just as a read, it’s an immense pleasure. McGilchrist adroitly avoids the ham-fisted personification of the hemispheres into which pressure of space has forced me. He always knows the limits of his metaphors. Almost every page forced a delighted readjustment of my world view.

And yet I fear for this book. I fear for it precisely because it is so big and ambitious. It is many normal lifetimes of work. The Academy is a narrow, stifling, envious place. It dislikes connections. It is corporately agoraphobic. It gets the vapours if it gets a glimpse of the big picture. It sees the broad canvas as a threat to its raison d’etre, and resolutely refuses to believe that anyone can paint so expertly on such a scale. It is, in short, a left hemispherical place, and it won’t like McGilchrist’s exposé of its shortcomings, and its insistence that it needs to listen to other voices if it is faithfully to represent the world.

McGilchrist concludes with a gloomy diagnosis. The contemporary western world is ruled by the Emissary. The Master is in chains. Effective therapy presupposes accurate diagnosis. The prognosis is not hopeless if we act quickly.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim December 29, 2010 at 11:53 am

Sounds like a fascinating book.

Alastair Humphreys January 28, 2011 at 1:27 am

What a terrifically smart new website!

Oliver Milne February 9, 2012 at 3:31 am

But to which side does elegance belong?

Amadeus Boden February 26, 2016 at 1:20 pm

Hi, I find so much in McGilchrsist’s work to be important and of sound mind. It is, as Owen Barfield might say – a completely indexed account of the evolution of human consciousness. Yet there is this one problem I have with it, which I was hoping I would find resonance with by searching through reviews of his book – reviews such as yours. Yet apparently, no-one seems to have picked up on it – or if they have, it is treated as immaterial.
The problem is this; why, if the world is in part determined by how we think about and perceive it, does McGilchrist put so much emphasis on the physical brain? You say ‘if we want to understand that world, we must study the brain’. But how, prey, are we to study the brain? ie, Are we to study the brain with the so called ‘left hemisphere’ or the ‘right’?
I can make my point still clearer. Is it not the case, that McGilchrist’s premise, ie, “to link the highest achievements of the human mind, in philosophy and the arts to the structure of the brain” is yet again that very reductive (left hemisphere) way of thinking? McGilchrist dogmatically insists that it is not reductive to do so. Yet he never explains why – instead he later on bolsters the argument to the contrary when he defines reductionism as “an inescapable consequence of a purely left hemisphere vision of the world, since the left hemisphere sees everything as made up from fundamental building blocks…”
One is left wondering if McGilchrist has failed to take heed of his own message!
Does he not see that the idea of these two hemispheres of the brain, forming the cultural history of western civilization, is itself that very same reductionism?

I believe one could make a very strong argument demonstrating that it is NOT immaterial whether we reduce, or not, our science, philosophy, art – our entire civilization – to a particular hemisphere of grey matter inside the skull. I would go so far as to say that until we question this whole premise, the important message behind McGilchrist’s work is never actually taken seriously.

Yours sincerely,

Amadeus

Charles Foster February 26, 2016 at 8:40 pm

Many thanks for your message.
The study of the physical brain is plainly important because we know that the brain is important in the interpretation of the world: if brains get damaged our ability to interpret the world is changed.
Should one use the left or the right side of the brain in studying the brain? Both: just as we should use both sides for doing everything. McGilchrist doesn’t advocate abandoning the left side. The left side just needs to be put in its place; to be used to do what’s it good at. And not used for what it’s not good at.

Kenneth Cross October 24, 2017 at 1:14 pm

Amadeus, you raise a good point which I have reflected on too as I have read the book. I think it illustrates something which lies at the heart of the book: paradox. Paradox can of course be a ‘get out’ for any criticism: well it’s a paradox, that explains it! But, while eschewing any desire to dismiss the criticism, I think paradox is inherently always going to be a problem with a book such as this – using the brain to study the brain!
I think McGilchrist’s treatment of language is really helpful: crudely, language evolved from song, through poetry (right hemisphere) to syntax and analysis (left brain), and today language has ‘done its best to obscure its parentage’ (125). Language should at its best be provisional, uncertain and lead into non-language. I think McGilchrist’s book works in this way: it is, using his terms, analytical and ‘left-brained’, yet it opens out into the non-articulate but directly interconnected-with-the-world ‘right-brain’. The book is founded on what may look like a circular argument but is I think more like this: an intuitive leap (right-brain) about the hemispheres, backed up by detailed analysis and evidence (left-brained) and opening out to an intuitive sense of where it might lead us (right-brain) in terms of the arts, philosophy, spirituality etc… This demonstrates its own central thesis that the brain works best for human flourishing in harmony with one another and our environment when right and left work in sync in this kind of way: right-left-right. I think it is a book that will no doubt be corrected and augmented and debated for some decades ahead. I think your critique is in a sense correct, but to my reading, McGilchrist is aware of this very problem throughout – it is when it is unacknowledged that it has destructive power.

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