The Master & His Emissary (part ii)

Iain McGilchrist, the Professor and former Consultant Psychiatrist, challenges the widely held belief that the brain is simplistically divided into 'left' and 'right', with each hemisphere performing a discrete function. This leads to notions such as 'left for logic' and 'right for emotion'. Rather, he argues, backed by over 20 years of research and professional work, both hemispheres are profoundly involved in both forms of thinking. Nonetheless, the functions of the two hemispheres are indeed very different; the left is typified by division, the right by unity; the left deals with fragments, the right with over-arching canopies. The left is driven by the logic of specialisation, compartmentalisation, and competition. The right, on the other hand is an expert in nuance, subtlety, flexibility, ambiguity, and tolerance. The list goes on; alienation versus engagement; abstraction versus incarnation; the categorical versus the unique; the general versus the particular; the part versus the whole.

Part ii

Moving from Part I of the book, an investigation into the 'divided brain' (the primacy of the right, and the triumph of the left), to Part II of the book, 'how the brain has shaped our world', McGilchrist charts almost the last 3,000 years, from the Ancient Greeks of 800 BC, with a particular focus on the last 500 years of Western Civilisation. In and of itself, this is a remarkable achievement. Attempting to make a summary of a summary in this short book review would be nothing short of folly! Indeed, McGilchrist concedes that his audacious 'history of the West' is, to some critics and observers, vastly reductionistic and altogether 'foolhardy' (p.240). Yet chart this history he does, and with remarkable poise and eloquence, along with depth and detail as and when it is needed. This is noted through a sweep of Western history; from the Ancient World, with the Greeks, to the Renaissance, and the Reformation (with its unintended consequences), the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Industrial Revolution, to the Modern and Post-Modern Worlds.

The Attitudes of Left and Right

Rather than summarise his thesis, I will propose one particularly poignant aspect; his discussion of the different 'attitudes' of the right and left hemisphers of the brain. This is well exemplified in his analysis of Romanticism, and 'the difference between wanting and longing' (p.367);

The first is an impulsion, the second an attraction. Wanting is a drive, such as the left hemisphere experiences, or possibly embodies, in which one is impelled, as it were 'from behind', towards something which is inert, and from which one is isolated, something not participating in the process except through the fact of its existence. In longing, one is drawn 'from in front' towards something from which one is already not wholly separate, and which exerts an influence through that 'division within union'. The first is like a hydraulic force (like Freud's model of drives), a mechanical pressure; the second is more like a magnetic field, an electric attraction (as Jung's model of archetypes would suggest). The first is unidirectional; the second bidirectional – there is a 'betweeness'. The first is linear; the second, as the concept of a 'field' suggests, holistic, round in shape. The first has a clear view of its target; the second intuits its 'Other'. The first is a simple, in the sense of unmixed, force – one either wants or does not want. Longing, by contrast, is full of mixed emotions. Think of the typical targets of longing: home...or for the loved one'.

On Metaphor

Fundamental to this discussion, is a careful transition from the 'metaphor' of the divided brain, and the divisions McGilchrist notes in Western culture, almost as a pendulum swing from right to left and left to right at different times in the history of the West, to the 'mechanisms' of right and left etched into Western culture, such that the 'metaphor might have some literal truth' (p.462). As such, he concludes with a somewhat chilling account of what the world according to the left hemisphere would look like (p.428); 'a loss of the broader picture', 'a craving for clarity and certainty', 'increasing specialisation and technicalising of knowledge', 'a sort of dismissive attitude', '[emphasis on] quantifiable and repeatable processes', 'theoretical or abstract' tendencies, 'algorithmic procedures', 'more virtualised', '[governed by] bureaucratic procedures', 'technology would flourish', 'anonymity, organisability, [and] predictability', 'a complete loss of the sense of uniqueness', 'a mechanical view of the world', '[emphasis on] scale, speed, and precision', '[emphasis on] What, quantity, over How, quality', 'mechanisticity, measurability, and componentiality', '[compelled by] the hubris of science and the drive of technology', 'a world marked by fragmentation...with systems designed to maximise utility', 'cynicism and suspicion', 'the impersonal...would replace the personal', 'exploitation rather than co-operation', 'identification would be by categories', 'a seeking of total control', 'panoptical monitoring', 'a loss of trust', 'a loss of insight and common sense', 'an undercutting of awe and wonder', 'a sense of nausea and boredom', 'a craving for novelty and stimulation', and the list goes on (p.428-434).

Avoiding the Inevitable

As McGilchrist says (p.434) 'this is what the world would look like if the emissary betrayed the Master' (see the metaphor explained in Book Review Part I), and yet furthermore 'it's hard to resist the conclusion that his goal is within sight'. By the same token, the author 'would be surprised, but not unhappy' (p.461) if the metaphor turned out to be ' just a metaphor' (p.462) – true to his thesis, he restates that he would 'be content [as] I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world' (ibid.).

I could not recommend this stunning, if at times trying (!), book more highly, with its profound and reverberative thesis. Read more here, including free access to the introduction;


** 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 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