Why is the brain divided? The difference between right and left hemispheres has been puzzled over for centuries. In a book of unprecedented scope, Iain McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent brain research, illustrated with case histories, to reveal that the difference is profound - not just this or that function, but two whole, coherent, but incompatible ways of experiencing the world. The left hemisphere is detail-oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest, where the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility and generosity. This division helps explain the origins of music and language, and casts new light on the history of philosophy, as well as on some mental illnesses. In the second part of the book, he takes the reader on a journey through the history of Western culture, illustrating the tension between these two worlds as revealed in the thought and belief of thinkers and artists, from Aeschylus to Magritte. He argues that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with potentially disastrous consequences. This is truly a tour de force that should excite interest in a wide readership.
Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and writer who works privately in London, and otherwise lives on the Isle of Skye. He is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise - the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is moulded by, our minds and brains.
He was a late entrant to medicine. He went up to Oxford to study theology and philosophy, read English literature, and after graduating in 1975 was awarded a Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford. An interest in the mind-body problem led to him training in medicine, and at Johns Hopkins in 1992 he researched in neuroimaging. He practises as a psychiatrist, formerly as a Consultant at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Trust in London, and now privately.
He has published original articles in a wide range of papers and journals, including the Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books, The Listener, Essays in Criticism, Modern Language Review, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, BMJ, English Historical Review, British Journal of Psychiatry, and American Journal of Psychiatry, on topics in literature, medicine and psychiatry, and has published original research on neuroimaging in schizophrenia, the phenomenology of schizophrenia, and other topics. He took part in a two-part Channel 4 documentary, Soul Searching, in 2003. His first book, Against Criticism, was published by Faber in 1982, and dates from before his medical training, but deals with issues of the wholeness, uniqueness and embodied nature of the work of art, which are continuous with his current concern, the relationship between the history of ideas and shifts in brain hemisphere function, a topic which he has been researching for 20 years, and which is the subject of a recent book published by Yale University Press, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.