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.
on 13 July 2011
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.
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.
on 15 November 2009
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.
Note: The terms "master" and "emissary" as well as their correlations with the nature and extent of the "divided brain" are best explained in context, within Iain McGilchrist's lively and eloquent narrative.
As I began to read this book and Iain McGilchrist's discussion of the "divided" brain, I was reminded of Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Whereas she notes the significant differences between extroverted and introverted individuals, McGilchrist suggests that there are two hemispheres in each person's brain that seem to "coexist together on a daily basis, but have fundamentally different sets of values, and therefore priorities [as do extroverts and introverts], which means that over the long term they are likely to come into conflict. Although each is crucially important, and delivers valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each needs the other for different purposes, they seem destined to pull apart."
This is generally referred to as a "left brain/right brain" dichotomy or conflict. Both are "hugely valuable," according to McGilchrist, "but they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another -- hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain."
If I understand Cain correctly (and I may not), she suggests that there are significant differences between two personality types: those who are either primarily introverted or primarily extroverted. Whichever is subordinate nonetheless co-exists in natural balance unless provoked into conflict by remarkably durable misconceptions of what is "normal." For example, that introverts are by nature shy, retiring, insecure, and reserved (if not anti-social) and therefore cannot be effective leaders. Cain examines the inadequacies of several concepts such as charismatic leadership, the New Groupthink, the "Extrovert Ideal" (i.e. "the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight"), being or at least seeming to be "cool," clearly preferable in collaborative innovation, and a more "assertive" student in the classroom. Whether primarily introverted or extroverted, McGilchrist asserts, all people have a bihemispheric structure of their brain that must be understood before the meaning and significance of human history can be fully understood.
These are among the dozens of subjects, themes, and potentialities on which McGilchrist focuses throughout his narrative:
o Structural Asymmetry (Pages 22-28
o Breadth and Flexibility versus Focus and Grasp (37-40)
o Reason versus Rationality (64-66)
o The Self (87-91)
o Language and Manipulation, and, Metaphor (113-118)
o Heidegger and the Nature of Being (149-158)
o The Relationship Between the Hemispheres, and, Level Three (213-233)
o The "Imitation Gene" (251-256)
o The Beginnings of the Enlightenment (323-328)
o Symmetry and Stasis (342-344)
o The Problem of Clarity and Explicitness (369-375)
o Representation: When Things Are Replaced by Concepts and Concepts Become Things(401-403)
o The Successes of Modernism, and, Post Modernism (421-427)
o The Spirit (440-442)
o Is There Room for Hope? (445-459)
Why is it so important to understand what the brain is and does? Here's what McGilchrist has to say about that: "I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it in to being. A central theme of this book is the importance of our disposition towards the world and one another, as being fundamental in grounding [begin italics] what it is that we come to have a relationship with [end italics], rather than the other way round."
He goes on to say, "I believe that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different `versions' delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but [as previously indicated] they stand in opposition to one another, and, and need to be kept apart fro one another - hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain."
I think this book provides a brilliant response to an important question: "How do we understand the world, if there are different versions of it to reconcile?" However, that said, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that Iain McGilchrist provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of The Master and his Emissary. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how an enriched and enlightened understanding of our "divided brain" could perhaps be of substantial benefit to their professional development as well as to the success of their own organization.
on 9 March 2011
Iain McGilchrist has poured his life's work into the capacious frame of this book. Only a thinker who first spent some twenty years getting his case together could have produced so massively buttressed an argument for greater awareness of hemispheric differences between the two halves of our cerebral cortexes. The scientific need for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our brains' lateralization is clear and acute, and the social pathologies consequent upon our ignoring this key feature of our anatomy are correspondingly important. That said, the investigations brought together in this book can only represent a small start on a huge task.
Dr. McGilchrist is certainly to be congratulated for having made a start. Previous work on this topic has been of variable quality, a fact which becomes alarmingly clear as McGilchrist reviews the panorama of that work. Such contrasts as intuitive versus logical, or emotional versus rational, or even male versus female, hardly do justice to the subtle and often tricky nuances of our hemispheric specialization. In future, any researcher who wishes to do justice to this topic will have to take due account of this fundamental book. In fact, any such researcher will have to start here, for it brackets all that went before.
At first I expected a monograph that in its scope and ambition would essentially update the classic work on the bicameral mind published in 1976 by Julian Jaynes, but Iain McGilchrist takes a rather different tack. Although the depth and the scope of his work invites comparison with Jaynes, who was thinking so far ahead of the empirical work of the time that parts of his classic work now seem almost nutty, McGilchrist has wisely held back from speculating on the evolution of consciousness. Given the cataract of works on consciousness that have appeared in recent decades, this is perhaps only prudent, but it also reflects the fact that hemispheric lateralization cannot really be expected to shed much light either on the physiological question of how the operation of neural networks sustains or creates phenomenal experience or on the psychological question of how the emergence of consciousness can be traced in the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens. However, McGilchrist does not shy away from conjecturally tracing any number of historic cultural impacts back to our differentially lateralized brains.
One reservation is worth emphasizing. This book is not a work of science in the modern data-driven sense. It is much more correctly considered as a work of philosophy in the sense that prevailed a century ago before the logicians took over. Iain McGilchrist is a writer who in comparison with William James or Sigmund Freud is more inclined to cite artistic works that have no scientific credibility in support even of his more scientific claims. For example, he expects his readers to accept that poetic thinkers like Wordsworth or Goethe had insights that we can translate reliably into harder modern terms. I doubt that this translation is possible without controversy, and hesitate to endorse the pursuit of science in such a manner. Gilchrist also writes in a dense and allusive manner that many scientists will find hard to take. The fact that readers of a more reflective disposition will enjoy the style is beside the point. The message of this book, if summarized too sharply, will sound to many scientists like a rant or a jeremiad against modern civilization and its evils. My five stars are intended to persuade such scientists to read the book anyway.
on 26 April 2011
I think the best reaction to this book is to view it as a quite brilliant synthesis of fact, theory and speculation. It doesn't all have to be 'true' to be a valid piece of work. Anyone who was paying full attention while reading will appreciate the irony of criticism (see some other reviews) based on the premise that McGilchrist has 'got his facts wrong'.
In any case, why read it purely as a book about the bi-cameral structure of the brain and its implications? It is perfectly possible (preferable?) to view the author's representation of the right and left hemispheres as a metaphor for different approaches to the business of being human; approaches that often conflict but don't need to.
McGilchrist acknowledges this in his conclusion: "...there are, not just currents here and there, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary...the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these...It seems like a metaphor that might have some literal truth. But if it turns out to be 'just' a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world."
I've just finished reading this impressive piece of work and I feel that what I have read is the answer to 4000 years of human struggles, epic mistakes and blind alleys. I can now imagine how those Victorian flat-earthers felt like after reading Darwin's Origin of the Species for the first time and thinking, as T. H Huxley did, "how extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"
The answerers slot into place, once someone smart enough comes along to solve the puzzle. I am not exaggerating when I say that the way Darwin solved the mystery of the Giraffe, Iain McGilchrist has solved the mystery of our wretched state. I am not saying that McGilchrist is some sort of Albert Einstein, no, because the answer has been starring us in the face, like natural selection did, we just needed a very clever chap to come along, who happened to work with patients but who was also a dab hand at philosophy, and, most importantly, had the latest brain research at hand. Indeed, McGilchrist does not spin his ideas from first principle, but from solid brain imaging and years of first hand study on real sick people.
(not only is Iain McGilchrist a top hands-on researcher, who worked for years with real patients, rather than abstractions from the citadels of the ivory tower. McGilchrist has also read very widely and and he understands what he has read and so he is a true philosopher and this is why academic philosophers have been giving this book average reviews.)
McGilchrist is on to something here and intelligence roars out of the pages of The Master and his Emissary. It is the architectonics of the brain that is the problem and not the world etc and there is enough proof for even the diehard genetic determinists to accept. Can I suggest a similar book call Left in the Dark? It basically covered similar territory to this one.
These are exciting times!
on 10 November 2009
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.
on 4 February 2010
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.