Eminent psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist offers an ambitious, provocative thesis about how the brain’s two hemispheres came to be, and construct the world. Today there’s a power struggle being played out between the left and right brain that he argues is reshaping Western civilisation in disturbing ways.
Natasha introduced the program with this summary:
Dr Iain McGilchrist started out as a scholar in English literature and philosophy; his second career though saw him become a leading consultant psychiatrist and clinical director at the Bethlem and Maudsley hospital in London. His latest book is something of a magnum opus, you can tell by its title, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. At its heart is a warning about the way we live. ‘There’s a reason we have two hemispheres of the brain,’ he says, ‘it’s because we need both versions of the world.’
- The division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values.
- We now know that every type of function – including reason, emotion, language and imagery – is subserved not by one hemisphere alone, but by both.
- The differences lie not, as has been supposed, in the ‘what’ – which skills each hemisphere possesses – but in the ‘how’, the way in which each uses them, and to what end.
- The relationship between the hemispheres is not symmetrical. The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an ’emissary’ of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere – the ‘Master’ – cannot itself afford to undertake.
- It turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master. And he has the means to betray him. What he doesn’t realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself.
A synposis of the book notes that:
The book begins by looking at the structure and function of the brain, and at the differences between the hemispheres, not only in attention and flexibility, but in attitudes to the implicit, the unique, and the personal, as well as the body, time, depth, music, metaphor, empathy, morality, certainty and the self. It suggests that the drive to language was not principally to do with communication or thought, but manipulation, the main aim of the left hemisphere, which manipulates the right hand. It shows the hemispheres as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world. Through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, it reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere – at the expense of us all.
The transcript and the audio of the interview can be found here. There is some extra material in an All in the Mind Blog post.
Listening to the interview I was intrigued to hear Iain’s discussion of “sudden efflorescence” and the creativity present in epoch’s of history. This blog post was stimulated by that phrase. Subsequently I followed up an excerpt of the book. Iain McGilchrist’s thesis is:
that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain. It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.
The title of the book and the arguments contained in it are linked to a story in Nietzsche:
There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own– the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.
The meaning of this story is as old as humanity, and resonates far from the sphere of political history. I believe, in fact, that it helps us understand something taking place inside ourselves, inside our very brains, and played out in the cultural history of the West, particularly over the last 500 years or so. Why I believe so forms the subject of this book. I hold that, like the Master and his emissary in the story, though the cerebral hemispheres should co-operate, they have for some time been in a state of conflict. The subsequent battles between them are recorded in the history of philosophy, and played out in the seismic shifts that characterise the history of Western culture. At present the domain – our civilisation – finds itself in the hands of the vizier, who, however gifted, is effectively an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart. Meanwhile the Master, the one whose wisdom gave the people peace and security, is led away in chains. The Master is betrayed by his emissary.