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The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Hardcover – 9 Oct 2009

4.5 out of 5 stars 75 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (9 Oct. 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 030014878X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300148787
  • Product Dimensions: 23.9 x 16 x 5.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (75 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 474,526 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


'...shows convincingly that the degeneracy of the West springs from our failure to manage the binary divisions of our brains.'
--David Cox, Evening Standard Books of the Year, 19th November 2009

`A landmark new book ... it tells a story you need to hear, of where we live now.'
--Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times 'Culture', 29th November 2009

'Few books this year can match this one in breadth of erudition, scope, and ambition ... a highly stimulating read.' --'Best Books of 2009' choice, Barnes & Noble

'A scintillating intelligence.' --The Economist

`This is a very remarkable book...clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating...splendidly thought-provoking... I couldn't put it down.' --Professor Mary Midgley, The Guardian

'...beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and adventurous...tells us about...rapidly evolving technologies and experimental work in fascinating and lucid detail.'
--Professor AC Grayling, Literary Review

'...beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and if it were an adventure story... Absorbing and fascinating."
--A.C. Grayling, Literary Review, 1st December 2009

`...remarkable... McGilchrist's explanation of such oddities in terms of our divided nature is clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating.'
--Mary Midgley, Guardian, 2nd January 2010

`...splendidly thought-provoking. And I do have to say that, fat though it is, I couldn't put it down.'
--The London Review Bookshop, London Review of Books, February 2010

`...while the book develops an argument it is also a treasure chest of fascinating detail and memorable quotation.'
--Adam Zeman, Standpoint, 1st March 2010

`Twenty years in the making, this seminal book has been well worth the wait.'
--David Lorimer, Scientific Medical Network, Winter 2010

'McGilchrist is a remarkable person...he writes lucidly...Voices such as McGilchrist are essential.' --Salley Vickers, Daily Telegraph

'McGilchrist writes well, with a direct engaging style...This is a very good book, both informative and erudite.' --Ian Gibbins, Australian Book Review

'McGilchrist...persuasively argues that our society is suffering from an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative 'master,' the right.' --Salley Vicker, The Guardian

'McGilchrist, for whom certainty is the greatest of illusions, has produced an absolutely convincing narrative of who we are.' --Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph

'This book is a dazzling achievement...Just as a read, it's an immense pleasure.' --Charles Foster, Contemporary Review

About the Author

Iain McGilchrist is a former Fellow of All Souls' College, Oxford, where he taught literature, before training in medicine. He has an interest in brain research, and now works privately in London, where he was a Consultant and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Graham Mummery TOP 1000 REVIEWER on 26 Sept. 2010
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: 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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By Ralph Blumenau TOP 500 REVIEWER on 2 April 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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By MAH on 13 July 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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