The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
by Iain McGilchrist
New Haven, Connecticutt: Yale University Press, 2009
Why is the brain divided? Despite much research and speculation, neurologists have struggled to make sense of hemisphere differences, or of their impact on human thought and experience.
In this remarkable and absorbing book, Iain McGilchrist argues that the two hemispheres have not merely different skills, but wholly different perspectives on the world. Drawing on a vast body of recent brain research, illustrated with fascinating case material, he suggests that the left hemisphere is designed to exploit the world effectively, but is narrow in focus and prizes theory over experience. It prefers mechanisms to living things, ignores whatever is not explicit, lacks empathy, and is unreasonably certain of itself. By contrast, the right hemisphere has a much broader, more generous understanding of the world, but lacks the certainty to counter this onslaught, because what it knows is more subtle and many-faceted.
It is vital that the two hemispheres work together, but in Western culture there is evidence of a power struggle, with the left hemisphere becoming increasingly dominant. The result is a dehumanized society, where a rigid and bureaucratic mentality, obsessed with structure and mechanism, holds sway, at huge cost to human happiness and the world around us.
Throughout the book, McGilchrist focuses on the influence of our divided brains, both for us as individuals, and for our society, including the impact on the history of philosophy, and the origins of music and language. In the second part of the book he takes the reader on a journey through Western history and culture, demonstrating shifts in thought and belief that reflect his argument with examples from Aeshylus to Magritte.
This is a genuine tour de force that deserves not only critical acclaim but a wide and enthusiastic readership.
Iain McGilchrist is a former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital, London, and has researched in neuroimaging at John Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore. He taught English at Oxford University, where he has been three times elected a Fellow of All Souls College. He works privately in London and otherwise lives on the Isle of Skye.