The Master & His Emissary (part i)

Iain McGilchrist, Psychiatrist and Professor, undertook 20 years of research before publishing this book. No wonder it charts the brain, then, along with a sweep of the making of the Western World, in a staggering 500-page treatise, which reads much like a thriller. He challenges the simplistic notions and 'popular dichotomies' of left and right brain - left for reason, right for emotion; left is logical, right is imaginative. McGilchrist suggests rather that both hemispheres of the brain are profoundly involved in both modes of thinking, or indeed all modes of thinking.


'Popularised by artificial intelligence researchers, the idea that the brain behaves like a computer, with each module performing a highly specialised job and sending its output to the next module, is widely believed... But my experiments have taught me that this is not how the brain works. Its connections are extraordinarily labile and dynamic. Perceptions emerge as a result of reverberations of signals between different levels of the sensory hierarchy, indeed across different senses' (Ramachandran in McGilchrist, p.14)

The book charts a fascinating course through the anatomy of the brain, investigating the different parts of the two hemispheres and their different functions in many areas - language, truth, music, touch, consciousness, to name but a few. An understanding of fairly sophisticated neuroscience is imparted, even to the total novice, including details such as Yakovlevian torque and the nuances of Broca's area. A significant chapter on language and music tees up a discussion on the 'nature' of the two hemispheres. McGilchrist examines the 'primacy' of the right hemisphere, ahead of a discussion of the 'triumph' of the left hemisphere. In short, 'where the left hemisphere's relationship with the world is one of reaching out to grasp, and therefore to use, it, the right hemisphere's appears to be one of reaching out - just that. Without purpose. In fact one of the main differences between the ways of being of the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere always has 'an end in view', a purpose or use, and is more the instrument of our conscious will than the right hemisphere' (p.127).

The Brain

So, without going into all the neurological differences, what does make right and left separate? McGilchrist sums this up in a word for each - the maxim of the left is division, whilst that of the right is unity. The left brain is an expert in fragments - packaging information and stimuli into discrete, utilisable fragments for speech, movement, grasp, and such. The left hemisphere excels in compartmentalisation, specialisation, and competition. It is also highly competitive - 'its concern, its prime motivation, is power' (p.209). As such, a balance of power in favour of the left hemisphere, would, over time, wind up in a world that 'would be relatively mechanical, an assemblage of more or less disconnected 'parts'; it would be relatively abstract and disembodied; relatively distanced from fellow-feeling; given to explicitness; utilitarian in ethic; over-confident of its own take on reality, and lacking insight into its problems' (ibid.).

The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is an expert of nuance, subtlety, flexibility, ambiguity, and tolerance. If we were to choose a philosopher to caricature the right brain it would be Heidegger; 'of all beings, only the human being experiences the wonder of wonder: that things are' (1929). His Dasein, or beingness, stands in direct contradiction to 'mere perception'. The philosopher of the left would be Descartes. Philosophical research in the 20th Century corroborates closely with the right hemisphere's understanding of the world, including; 'empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness; the importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention; the implicit or hidden nature of truth; the emphasis on process rather than stasis; the primacy of perception; the importance of the body in constituting reality; an emphasis on uniqueness; the objectifying nature of vision; the irreducibility of all value to utility; and creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process' (p.177).

On Language

McGilchrist gives a fantastic example of this in his chapter on language - 'Non-verbal behaviour, language, facial expression, intonations and gestures are instrumental in establishing complex contradictory, predominantly emotional relations between people and between man and the world. How frequently a touch by the shoulder, a handshake or a look tell more than can be expressed in a long monologue. Not because our speech is not accurate enough. Just the contrary. It is precisely its accuracy and definiteness that make speech unsuited for expressing what is too complex, changeful and ambiguous' (p.72). Interestingly, he cites the question 'does God exist' as a classic case of contradicting the above. Precisely because of the irreducibility of 'God' or the concept of God, a question demanding a factual answer such as 'does God exist', immediately concedes an extremely left brain notion of the world, since it is 'only the left hemisphere that thinks there is certainty to be found anywhere' (p.171). The fact that such questions are so prevalent in our culture does not worry McGilchrist per se; rather, to him it shows quite how far down the road of 'left hemisphere thinking' we have progressed, at the expense of much, he argues. After all, it is only humans that are capable of 'imagination, creativity, the capacity for religious awe, music, dance, poetry, art, love of nature, a moral sense, a sense of humour, and the ability to change their minds' (p.127). The right hemisphere has a different 'disposition towards the world' (p.170) - 'for it, belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering' (ibid.), a dynamic, reverberative, resonant relationship of sorts. On the question of God, therefore, a purely 'factual' answer, which can be portrayed as a matter of opinion, is far too weak a form of knowledge for the right hemisphere - this is 'not what is meant by a belief, a disposition or an attitude' (ibid.).


There is a story in Nietzche that serves as an apt metaphor for McGilchrist, throughout his work. 'There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of his small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts... Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master's temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master's behalf, adopted his mantle as his own - the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins' (p.14). Part II of the book (yet to be read or reviewed) is all about the 'making of the Western World'; McGilchrist hazards a suspicion that 'civilisation' as we know it is becoming increasingly entrenched in a left- hemisphere dominated mode of existence. McGilchrist sees Nietzche's story as fundamental to his thesis; 'it helps us understand something taking place inside ourselves, inside our very brains, and played out in the cultural history of the West, particularly over the last 500 years or so' (ibid.).

Part i Conclusions

Whilst McGilchrist closes Part I with a coda on the sleepwalker drifting towards the abyss, he still sees hope. He writes; 'if I am right, that the story of the Western world is one of increasing left-hemisphere domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss' (p.237). Yet a hopeful note still rings through. Whilst asserting that something is profoundly out of kilter with the modern world view, he draws on Heidegger, once again, to expose a deeper reality and the mounting problems. 'A state of fallenness, which Heidegger called Verfallen, is according to him an inevitable part of existence. But there is a sense in which, as Heidegger believed, this has its positive too, since the very existence of Verfallen prompts Dasein to awareness of the loss of its authentic self, and to strive harder towards what is authentic. This process is inevitably one of cycles or alternations of direction. The sense of longing and striving for something beyond, which otherwise we could not achieve, is the recurring idea in Part II' (p.233). Part II next up.


** Readability (2/5): a long text (over 500 pages) with some difficult passages

**** Application (4/5): mind sciences and the brain is a hugely topical issue at present

**** General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as an introduction to the big unknowns of the brain

**** Commitment (4/5): Weekend read or major commitment? A major commitment!

**** Challenge (4/5): a fascinating read, though quite challenging or intricate to follow

***** Recommendation (5/5): for those looking for a Spring or Summer read, this may well be it!

Samuel JohnsComment