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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great achievement
As a student of philosophy I have always been particularly interested in the contrasting attitudes of Romanticism and Rationalism, and it was an absolute revelation to me to read in this book that almost all the perceptions of Romanticism originate in the right hemisphere of the brain while the methods of Rationalism are processed by the left hemisphere. In the first...
Published on 2 April 2011 by Ralph Blumenau

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35 of 52 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but many unfounded claims,,,
This is an interesting book but which gives me the feeling of someone picking out only the scientific experiments which support his very very simple (simpleton?) thesis. And probably interpreting them in a way which he likes.

Although he insists that "Left Side Of Brain = Logic and Language Side" is an oversimplification he then goes on to make even more...
Published on 22 Jun 2010 by Ransen Owen


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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A great achievement, 2 April 2011
By 
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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As a student of philosophy I have always been particularly interested in the contrasting attitudes of Romanticism and Rationalism, and it was an absolute revelation to me to read in this book that almost all the perceptions of Romanticism originate in the right hemisphere of the brain while the methods of Rationalism are processed by the left hemisphere. In the first half of his book, McGilchrist shows us in great detail the several ways in which neurological science can demonstrate this, for instance by describing the thought processes when one or the other side of the brain is physically damaged.

The most fundamental difference between the two hemispheres is that the origin of all experience is in the right half. That experience sees everything in its environment, is holistic, intuitive and profound, but it is unfocussed and indistinct. To focus on the details of the experience, to analyze it, is the task of the left. Ideally the detailed picture then returns to the right half, so that the details become integrated with and enrich the wider picture. The traffic between the two hemispheres is principally via the corpus callosum, the tissues which join them at their base.

The left half uses language precisely; the right can see can see layers of meaning, understands metaphors and jokes. The right is responsible for our personal and social relationship with others, for empathy and empathetic imitation, for picking up the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, for most of our emotional life and for our response to music, poetry, the spiritual dimension of life. It is the locus of moral judgment. It experiences the past, the present and the future as a continuum. The left is instrumental; it organizes, manipulates and controls details for a purpose. It measures, classifies and creates abstractions. It aims for internal consistency. Awareness of new things in the world belong to the right; the left processes and explicates what it receives from the right, and in that sense does not create anything new itself: it only works on what is already known to it.

Without the work of the left, civilization would be impossible; but when the right is neglected, the left becomes detached from everything that is holistic and profound. The left and the right, different and even conflicting though they are, should always complement each other in a creative tension, should have a dialectical relationship with each other like that of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. They achieve this when there is "negative feedback" between them, when they check each other. But the left hemisphere is particularly prone to "positive feedback", is a "hall of mirrors" where its contents reinforce each other and produce a "virtual reality".

Philosophy itself, which is essentially concerned with analysis and close examination, has a strong predisposition to privilege the left, which it takes a stupendous effort by some philosophers like Spinoza, Nietzsche or Heidegger to overcome. Scientists run a similar danger, and even neurologists have until recently described the right hemisphere as "minor", "silent", or "coarse" and the left as "dominant" or "smart". McGilchrist is in no doubt that the right hemisphere should be the Master, the left merely its Emissary, albeit as such a valued one.

In the second half of the book McGilchrist analyzes the phases of Western civilization in terms of whether they are right- or left-hemisphere dominated. (He allows for more exceptions than my summary suggests.) He agrees with Nietzsche that left domination began with Socrates and Plato. It was intensified in the Roman Empire. Christendom began with the spiritual insights we associate with the right, but degenerated into abstract theological formulations which imposed uniformity wherever it could. The Renaissance was overwhelmingly right-hemisphere dominated; but then the Reformation reverted to left-hemisphere thought. (McGilchrist's unduly negative attitude to the Reformation strikes me as the weakest part of the book.) The Enlightenment and the French Revolution of course are massively left-oriented; and on several occasions he mentions that Descartes, the founder of the Age of Reason (or rather of the Age of Rationality) exhibited thought processes which have much in common with schizophrenics. In Romanticism we then have a brief period of right-hemisphere dominance. McGilchrist taught English Literature at Oxford before he re-trained as a neurologist; and his analysis (NB) of Romantic Literature is superb and much the best part of this second part. Then, alas, comes the Industrial Revolution with its one-sided materialism and scientism, manipulating life in a way which is the fulfilment of the left-hemisphere's ambitions. And even that was not the end: Modernism comes along, whose characteristics are fragmentation of reality (see Cubism, Surrealism, abstract art etc; dissonance without resolution into harmony in much of modern music, deconstruction in literature) in much the way in which schizophrenics experience fragmented reality, and this bring all sorts of other consequences: a loss of meaning and significance, resulting sometimes in Angst, sometimes in boredom, which in turn requires more and more strident or shocking expression. For the sanity of western civilization, we badly need to restore the primacy of the right-hemisphere, not least by looking at the more holistic attitudes McGilchrist sees in Eastern civilization.

There are suggestive sentences or brilliant formulations on almost every page, although there is also a good deal of repetition in this very long book. Despite McGilchrist's comments that, in its proper role, the left hemisphere does indispensable and valuable work, the tone is constantly negative about it. There is, for example, nothing about the left hemisphere checking rather than supplementing what the right hemisphere may be doing in the way of blind emotion. Dare I say that there is even a left-hemisphere tinge to the overall pattern of McGilchrist's analysis? I was, however, left with my view of the world having been greatly enriched by this learned and immensely stimulating book.
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28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What it is to be human, 26 Sep 2010
By 
Graham Mummery (Sevenoaks, Kent England) - See all my reviews
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This could well be an important book. It certainly has that feel. It's well written and documented with many references covering subjects like neurology, psychology, music, literature, philosophy and many more. This may also be what puts some off because the density of these can be overwhelming at times. However, if this does not put you off (and it certainly doesn't do that to me), the book is an absorbing and rewarding read.

It begins with a survey of research into the left and right brain hemispheres, and looking at how they interact with each other. It looks at brain research and the affect injuries have on people's cognitive, intellectual and artistic abilities, even pointing out how a tumour in the left brain "cured" a case of anorexia nervosa.

Then McGilchrist takes the reader into various human activities relating them to brain hemisphere research. For example he suggests music may be a right hemisphere activity, whilst some aspects of science may be more left hemisphere. Then in second half of the book he looks at how times in history might be seen as dominated by one hemisphere or the other, and suggests our own era may be too dominated by left-hemisphere.

Much of this is speculative, as McGilchrist readily admits several times in the course of the book. Yet he is certainly not uninformed on his subject or in the readings from many sources. Whether brain research is advanced enough, or not, to link the brain hemispheres to human activity, on another level this book is fascinating in the way it relates aspects of human behaviour to each others. It has an ambition and broadness of scope that sometimes seems rare nowadays, and this adds to its fascination.

Right or wrong, this book asks a lot of the right questions. At its heart is an enquiry into what makes us human, and for this alone it demands to be read. I'll leave readers to decide for themselves as to how much and where they agree or disagree with McGilchrist. Personally, I find a great deal that I do, and I suspect few will leave the book without finding that it has stimulated a great deal of thought.
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93 of 100 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterly achievement, 15 Nov 2009
By 
David Lorimer (Fife, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Hardcover)
This is a brilliant and staggeringly erudite book that only Iain McGilchrist could have written. Originally a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, in English literature, he retrained in medicine and has brought together CP Snow's 'two cultures' in a masterly synthesis. McGilchrist overturns the commonly held view of the left hemisphere as dominant, showing conclusively that the right hemisphere is primary but that both are meant to work together. Each has a different but complementary perspective on the world: the right hemisphere apprehends the whole and mediates new experiences, while the left provides focus. The snag is that this narrow focus prefers abstraction to experience and treats living things as mechanisms. This mechanistic metaphor pervades the whole of modern science and indeed economics, with its emphasis on manipulation.

This view tends to dehumanise the world and impose a bureaucratic mentality, from whose excesses we currently suffer as we strive to eliminate all risk in favour of a certainty which does not exist outside mathematics. The second part of the book examines our cultural history in terms of a power struggle between left and right hemispheres, in which the left hemisphere is currently privileged. Here is a new take on the history of Western thought, which will radically reshape your understanding. The book is impressive not just in its scope, but is beautifully written, positively bristling with insights and creative intelligence on every page.
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63 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There are Two of Each of Us, 10 Nov 2009
By 
Dr. Lance St John Butler (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Hardcover)
Very few people are as qualified as Iain McGilchrist to write with simultaneous authority on the medicine, philosophy, psychology, sociology, religion and literature of humankind. His book is a tour de force that re-situates Western thought and culture through the strong metaphor of the two-sided brain; so strong is the metaphor that his suggestion that it is also perhaps literal seems more convincing with every page.

I would recommend that anyone trying to think seriously about the world from virtually any point of view should read this book first. It tells us who we are and what the world is better than many shelves-full of science and philosophy.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Two books, 14 Jan 2011
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This weighty tome has two parts, which reflect the different stages of McGilchrist's life. The first is a scientific one, exploring the two halves of our brains from a different perspective. He asks why the two halves have specialised in different ways and comes up with a convincing evolutionary argument: we need to keep aware of our surroundings even as we puzzle out what steps to take next. From this he deduces that the right half of the brain embraces wholeness even as the left half analyses to distraction.

The first half of the book is a dazzling display of up to date appreciation of the neurological world and totally to be recommended. I wish I could say the same about the second half. Here he takes on nothing less than a critique of western history from the Greeks onwards. The metaphor he uses is totally about control: he wants to give it back to the right half of the brain. This leads to a rather ridiculous glorification of the Romantics as being the only positive movement of modern times. Interestingly, the other two periods he likes (the flowering of the Greeks and the Renaissance) don't fit his metaphor as they represent a balance between the two halves.

So the second half is distinguished by all-out attacks on the Reformation, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, three periods when he sees the left as firmly in control. Now there is plenty to say in criticism of each of those periods, but he ends up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I wasn't convinced. I think by this time he was getting exhausted by the effort of writing and couldn't stop. As an example he starts to link Modernism to Nazism as a way of discrediting it - but then stops as, presumably, he realises the futility of the argument.

Curiously he doesn't give any arguments for his assertion that the left-brain is power-mad. He just asserts it. History doesn't seem quite so simple. Were the evil dictators of the 20th century (Hitler, Mao etc.) left-brainers? I don't think so. Indeed it's as easy to make the case for the evil done in the name of religion (which he defends - religion that is - in a rather non-specific way) in other centuries.

Maybe the master needs his emissary after all.
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38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A convincing explanation for the paradox of progress, 4 Feb 2010
By 
J. A. R. Willis (Hampshire, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Hardcover)
I truly believe this is the most exciting book I have ever read. My copy has penciled underlinings on almost every page and manic exclamation marks in many of the margins. Iain McGilchrist's thesis, so aptly encapsulated in his title and so richly illustrated in the two halves of the book, is an extraordinarily convincing explanation for the paradox of progress - i.e. that ultimately unprovable feeling that the finding of concrete technological solutions to the problems of our lives, wonderful as these solutions undoubtedly are, is bringing with it a tragic impoverishment of life itself.
The fundamental point of the thesis is that formal logic, the engine of the Enlightenment and of the modern world, is incapable of fully describing reality, so that an entirely different kind of modelling is needed as well. This inadequacy of logic has been proved by, of all things, logic itself, in the form of Gödel's theorem, but in a softer way it is sensed by every one of us when we encounter `madness' in the well-intentioned systems which increasingly rule our lives. But at the same time logic is the only language through which we can express ourselves if we wish to be taken seriously in the official world.
By bringing two new approaches to bear McGilchrist may just have begun to change all this. In the first half of his book he uses his expertise as a psychiatrist and experimental neurophysiologist to present a vast range of fascinating evidence to show that the functions of the two cerebral hemispheres are indeed entirely different in kind. On the way he explains numerous bizarre phenomena, including the fact that an increasingly complete separation of the hemispheres has conferred an evolutionary advantage on our remote ancestors.
In the second part of the book McGilchrist displays the other side of his `Renaissance man' credentials. From his background as a lecturer in English at Oxford University and thrice-elected Fellow of All Souls College he uses his split-world thesis to cast an extraordinary clarifying light on the entire history of western culture. Even viewed simply as a metaphor this makes wonderful sense of swings in philosophy, art and science which have always seemed to me completely baffling. But the aptness of the match he makes between these swings and the characteristics of left and right brain modelling previously described suggest something much more than a metaphor to me. Something much more like the truth.
I urge anyone to read this wonderful book. But also to annotate it with a pencil. This device will not only make the book your own but the provisional nature of pencil will keep the excitement of that first encounter in your right hemisphere, and alive.
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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Vital Key to Understanding Ourselves and Our Culture, 15 Dec 2009
By 
Anne Baring (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Hardcover)
I have been fascinated and enthralled by The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I believe it could make an important contribution to an understanding of the situation we are in now and how it has come into being. If we can understand how our view of reality has been created and controlled by an imbalance between the two hemispheres of our brain, we would be able to gain a different perspective on our predicament rather than remaining stuck, without the benefit of insight, within it.

The book explains how the growing and now dangerous dissociation between the right and left hemispheres of our brain has brought into being the culture of the modern Western world as well as the mind-set of the politicians, "opinion-makers" and the media that direct and control it.

Drawing on his long experience as a psychiatrist but also on a long-standing interest in and knowledge of history, literature and philosophy, the author offers the reader a vitally important, even crucially important key to understanding both our own nature and our present view of reality. The Master and His Emissary is grounded in a profound understanding of the neuroscience of the brain and also in an equally profound understanding of different historical epochs that have exhibited either a balance or a lack of balance between the left and right hemispheres. If read by enough people who are not caught in this imbalance, it could have the power to shift our culture towards a position of greater balance, thereby freeing us from the straitjacket of beliefs in which, for too long, we have been imprisoned. Anne Baring, psychotherapist and author
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Iain McGilchrist 'The Master and His Emissary': For sceptics and careful investors, 2 Jan 2010
By 
Ian Mcpherson (Dundee, Scotland, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Hardcover)
Iain McGilchrist `The Master and His Emissary' : For sceptics and careful investors

Recent decades constitute a golden age for brain research, using new technology and methods. However, this gold has too often been mixed with lead, and even mud. Some have clung stubbornly to quickly outdated research, while others have aimed to cash-in on the prestige and fascination of such research by exploiting (sometimes for psycho-political as well as commercial purposes) half-truths and misunderstandings. At one extreme the brain becomes a fetish, while at another extreme it seems smart to speak of the allegedly obvious as `a no-brainer'. Hence, when a new, big, brain-book attracts such enthusiastic acclaim as this one, it is only prudent to be mindful of the need for caution.

Happily, Iain McGilchrist has provided on a personal website ( - ) not only summaries of his qualifications, experience and commitments, but also his book's complete and illuminating Introduction (about 15 pages), along with his table of contents and chapters. The caution, and respect for evidence and argument - as well as for his readers, to be found in this introduction are sufficient to show that he is an outstanding thinker, as well as researcher, polymath, cultural critic and humanistic practitioner, who deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt by any prospective purchaser. He is a genuinely interdisciplinary thinker, who - just because he appreciates disciplinary boundaries - is well prepared to cross them responsibly in developing his argument and insights.

Another impressively reliable reviewer, in addition to those already available on the Amazon site, is the great moral philosopher, interpreter of life-sciences, and cultural critic Mary Midgley. (The range of her work and the general high regard for this can be seen by looking her up on Amazon). No one could ever fairly accuse Midgley of being uncritically swept along by any version of scientism (abuse of the sciences). Her review of McGilchrist appears in the Guardian (Review section) for Saturday 02 January, 2010, page 6, under the title `The Music of the Hemispheres'. Midgley's review begins, `This is a very remarkable book. It is not (as some reviewers seem to think) just one more glorification of feeling at the expense of thought. Rather, it points out the complexity, the divided nature of thought itself and asks about its connection with the structure of the brain. Midgely ends by welcoming the book as `...clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating. ...And I do have to say that, fat though it is, I couldn't put it down'.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So far, the most exciting book I've ever read!, 28 Aug 2011
I am both professionally and personally interested in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy and culture, and here is a book that brings them all together. From an early age I have been concerned about the negative effects of the dominant paradigm in the Western world, i.e. scientific rationalism, and how this can lead to 'disembodiment' and detachment from the living world. Forty years later a book that explores this terrain, bringing together a vast body of research and philosophy: brilliant!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 13 July 2011
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This review is from: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Hardcover)
The layout of the book is an example of the point it is trying to make: one half is an analytical study about the workings of the brain, the other half is a description about how that relates to experience as a whole. After a fascinating journey through the workings of the mind (the right hemisphere 'thinking style' sees the whole and passes part of this information for the left hemisphere's focused mode, after which this detail is re-integrated back into the original picture), the author describes how examples from art, culture, society, literature etc. provide an insight into how this arrangement has failed in various ways during critical epochs in human history. In a nutshell, the 'left hemisphere mode' can become too self-referential and instead of being an 'emissary' providing one part of a vital process, it sees itself as 'the master'. From this style of thinking, all sorts of difficulties arise, with implications for the western cultural tradition as well as globally. This is a basic word or two on what is actually a beautiful and well-thought through read. The author is well-versed in a range of disciplines and from this background he has produced something special and thought provoking. This book required attention, re-reading of some passages and reflection, but it was well worth the effort: it makes you look at the world in a different light.
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