The Master and His Emissary

The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

master emissary coverReview of the book by Iain McGilchrist. This review is an edited version of one that was first published in Conjunction, the magazine of the Astrological Psychology Association in 2011.  I believe that these ideas need to be much more widely understood. I have included some astrological analogies in parentheses for those familiar with the astrological planets.

This book is about the brain and its left- and right- hemispheres. Most of us are aware that there is something about the hemispheres and what they are good at – the left being better at speech, logic, abstraction and science, and the right being better at feeling, sensation, holistic perspective and the arts. [Astrology has of course for millennia recognised these different perspectives on humanity by the two ‘intelligence’ planets Mercury (‘left brain’) and Jupiter (‘right brain’).]

Iain McGilchrist is a former psychiatrist, neural researcher and teacher of English at Oxford University and has felt impelled to write this book to alert us to the dangers of a current imbalance between the  two hemispheres, which imperils our very existence. The left brain has usurped the right and put itself in a dominant position in human affairs, a role to which it is not suited and which leads us to the precipice…

The book is in two parts. The first part looks at the science of the brain, and the latest neurological research, to give an up-to-date perspective on this essential brain asymmetry and the roles taken by the two hemispheres. The result is a rather more subtle picture than the popularly understood characterisation presented so far.

Research shows that, in both humans and animals, the right hemisphere is of crucial importance for mediating new experience via the senses [Jupiter], aware of signals coming from the environment, whereas the left hemisphere gives the narrow, focused attention necessary for getting and feeding. The right sees things whole and in context; the left sees them abstracted [Mercury] from context and broken into parts.

However, this difference is asymmetrical, corresponding to two different levels of being in the world. The right brain corresponds to human and animal experience in the world before the intervention of language; the left creates abstraction, which is but a model of the real world. So in effect the right brain perceives the world as it really is, whereas the left brain creates its own self-contained virtual world, which it maps onto the real world.

Of course, the left brain is intelligent, so the map is continually refined to relate more closely to reality – see e.g. the development of the scientific and technological world over the past 400 years. But there is also disturbing evidence over the ages of its tendency to develop fixed viewpoints which are not necessarily well-adapted to reality, resulting in disturbing episodes such as the Inquisition, Wars of Religion, witch trials, the Terror following the French Revolution, the Nazi search for supremacy, and so on.

Research shows that the right hemisphere alone can bring into the experience something new, whereas the left largely handles things that it ‘already knows’. The left takes a ‘short term view’, whereas the right sees the ‘bigger picture’. The right sees the ‘whole’, whereas the left is concerned with the ‘parts’. The right understands context, meaning and metaphor, whereas the left is the hemisphere of abstraction – taking things out of context. The right is ‘personal’, the left is ‘impersonal’. The right has affinity with the ‘living’, the left with the ‘mechanical’. The right with empathy and social behaviour, the left with autism. The right hemisphere handles emotional expression and recognition, with the exception of aggression and anger, which are left-dominated.

When it comes to reason, the right is associated with insight, and the left with explicit thought processes. Thus all scientific advancement is initiated from the right hemisphere. The right also plays the major role in the appreciation of music, time and depth of space. The right is more self-aware; denial , boredom, depression and schizophrenia being specialities of the left. The left also has a tendency to positive feedback and becoming ‘stuck’. The left is always engaged in a purpose; the right has a relationship of concern with whatever happens to be.

All of this research gives a picture of two hemispheres with radically different approaches to the world, both of which are necessary to our experience. The right aligns with the unconscious; the left with the conscious mind. The right with common sense, the left with what is required by rules and systems. The integration of the two essentially comes from a process of ‘imagination’. The new originates in the insight of the right, transfers to the left for ‘unpacking’ and then is given life by being taken back and validated by the right. Both are necessary, but the right needs to be dominant for healthy operation of this ‘system’.

You will see from the above characterisations that the modern Western world is dominated by left hemisphere characteristics, and indeed this has been increasingly the case since the time of the Scientific Revolution.

The second part of the book looks at ‘how our brain has shaped the world’ and the influence of left and right brain on the development of our culture over the millennia. Broadly there is a succession of shifts of balance between the two.

Crudely, the right was dominant in ancient Greece before the time of Plato, followed by a gradual shift to left-dominance through Roman times until this crystallised into the Dark Ages, which also corresponded with the institutionalisation of Christianity.

The right is reconnected with in the 12th century ‘Early Renaissance’ followed by the Renaissance proper, inspired by the recovery of much of the ancient Greek knowledge, followed by the Reformation and Scientific Revolution. With the so-called Enlightenment the left takeover began, with a hiatus of Romanticism eventually submerged in the glamour of the Industrial Revolution and Capitalism, both left-hemisphere driven.

But it is only the 20th century that sees signs of a closing off of the ‘escape routes’ of art and religion, with a ‘conceptualising’ of art and music, a utilitarian modernism, the loss of meaning in post-modernism and scientism’s denial of religious experience, etc.

The left hemisphere has taken over and usurped its master, the right. It is observed that the East Asian cultures are less left-skewed, which might offer signs of hope.

Is the author’s analysis correct – has the emissary [Mercury, the messenger] usurped its master [Jupiter, king of the gods]? As he says, it certainly is a metaphor which has some valuable truth for us today. I can live with that, and came from reading his book a little bit wiser about how we got where we are today.

Should you read it? Just be aware that McGilchrist is an academic, and there are 460 pages to read, plus 120 pages of notes and bibliography. For me the effort was well worthwhile.


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