The Master and His Emissary
Thank you, Iain McGilchrist. This is not only a brilliant and comprehensive work, not only utterly convincing and erudite, but it shines the bright light of understanding on so many aspects of life. I can’t remember a time I enjoyed a book more than this one. I can’t remember a time I felt so enthralled by a book as this one. I’ve been busy underlining, making notes, looking up references and reflecting since I opened up this immense text. I haven’t rushed it, but I’m still a bit sad I’ve finished it. I’d have read more!
Iain McGilchrist is trained in both the Arts and Science, having taught English at Oxford University and worked as a Consultant Psychiatrist. The Master and His Emissary begins with a review of the science of the brain. Why is our cerebral cortex split into two halves with only a thin connection between the parts? Do the two halves do the same job? And if so, why have two halves to do the same job? This is no simplistic idea of “right brain versus left brain” however. He does make the claim that the two halves are NOT the same. In fact we can see that in the gross anatomy, but we’re also seeing it in the functions revealed through clinical experience (what changes for a person who loses the function of a certain part of the brain?), and through both neuroscience experiments and imaging work.
Put simply, he claims that the two halves of the brain are used to engage with the world in two different, but essential, ways. While the right hemisphere has an open and wide focus on the world, noticing connections, or the “between-ness” of things, the left has a narrow focus, noticing the parts. Both of these forms of attention are important to us.
Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay to them, the disposition we hold in relation to them. This is important because the most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the type of attention they give to the world.
He postulates that the brain has evolved this way to allow us, first of all, using our right hemisphere, to be aware of life as it is, or in its wholeness, then the left hemisphere selects some of that information from the right in order to focus on part of life in order to exert power over it. In other words, the left has a focus on utility to allow us to interact with specific parts of reality. Having focused on part of reality, the left then sends this information back across to the right, for the right to incorporate it in its over all understanding. Drawing on an old tale of a Master and his Emissary, he identifies the right hemisphere as the Master, who sends out his Emissary (the left hemisphere) to do specific work for him.
He then goes on to show how dominance of either the right or left ways of engaging with the world create the culture of the time. Having done so, we come to the final part of his thesis. By describing the culture of different eras, examining everything from philosophy, art, music and writing of each time, he shows how there has been a progressive shift in power from the Master to his Emissary, so that by now we are experiencing a world created by the left hemisphere as if the right is either redundant, or doesn’t exist.
Let me be clear here. He is not simplistically saying right side good, left side bad. Rather he continually reminds us that we need a healthy integration of both of these ways of understanding and engaging with the world.
Ultimately we need to unite the ways of seeing that are yielded by both hemispheres. Above all the attention of the left hemisphere needs to be reintegrated with that of the right hemisphere if it is not to prove damaging.
He gives us plenty of evidence that the dis-integrated dominance of left hemisphere thinking is damaging ourselves and our planet.
Here’s one of his many summaries throughout the book of the differences between these two approaches.
The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known – and to this world it exists in a relationship of care.
I wish we had a course based on this book. A course which ALL health care professionals would complete. If we did, we’d counter the increasing objectification of patients as examples of diseases to be manipulated on the basis of abstracted and generalised research as if they are objects without individuality or context. We’d counter the increasing fruitless or delusional pursuit of certainty. We’d have a chance of increasing empathy, a respect for difference and individuality, of increasing our understanding of patients as people in a holistic and contextually embedded way. We’d move from agendae of “management” and “productivity” to ones of care and experience.
This book has taught me so much. The discussion of the relationship between music and language was a complete eye opener to me. I’m learning a lot about neuroscience just now as I’m taking Dr Dan Seigel’s “Mindsight” course, and his focus on “integration” fits right in with this thesis, as does Dan’s definition of mind – “an embodied, inter-relational, process of regulation of energy and information”. It connects to other books I’ve read, such as Daniel Pink’s “Whole New Mind”, Richard Ogle’s “Smart World”, Robert Solomon’s critique of the “thin-ness” of much philosophical thought in “The Joy of Philosophy“, and Lakoff and Johnson’s “Metaphors We live by”.
It helps me to make sense of both “scientism” and “scientific materialism” and gives me insights which clarify why I find those approaches to life to be so profoundly lacking and unsatisfying.
Guess what I’m going to do now? Yep, I’m going to start to read it again. I’m convinced this is an important and much needed book published just when the world needs it. We need to prioritise integrative approaches to life, and certainly to health care, and, I believe, we need to increase the amount of empathy and understanding in the world. Iain McGilchrist has shown us how to enrich life with the rewards which can come from a reactivated right hemispheric approach to reality.
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