The Master And His Emissary: The Divided Brain And The Making Of The Western World, by Iain McGilchrist
There are a lot of cliches about left brain and right brain thinking. And most of them tend to favor the left brain, which is praised for its logical thinking and linguisic abilities, as opposed to the more vaguely understood right brain. What this book does is place the concern about our brain’s divided hemispheres and put it in a variety of contexts, wondering about the benefits of having two nearly independent hemispheres, looking at the comparative anatomy of the sides of the brain and how they operate in people (especially with strokes and other brain damage) as well as animals, and providing a deep historical look at the way that the Western world in particular has operated during the course of the history from the beginning of the Greek classical age to the contemporary period. The author has a lot of pointed things to say about how it is that the contemporary age and numerous other troublesome periods of history where it seemed as if the left side of the brain was more highly valued and more dominant, but what he has to say about left-brain dominance is pretty unkind, it should be noted.
This book is a very large one at over 450 pages of material, but for all that length it manages to only be 12 chapters with various supplementary material. The book begins with a list of illustrations and acknowledgments and a preface to the expanded edition of the book that expresses surprise at the popularity of the book. The introduction, discussing the right brain as the “master” and the left as an emissary with incomplete information and a strong sense of hubris, and the conclusion on the way that contemporary society as seen the emissary betray the master and enshrine left-brain dominance, frame the work as a whole. In between the twelve chapters of the book are divided equally in two parts. The first part of the book explores the divided brain (I), with chapters on the brain’s asymmetry (1), what the two hemispheres do (2), language, truth, and music (3), the nature of the two worlds of the hemispheres (4), the primacy of the right hemisphere (5) and what allows the left hemisphere to periodically triumph (6). The second part of the book explores how our brain has shaped our world (II), with chapters on imitation and the development of culture (7), the ancient world (8), the Renaissance and reformation (9), the enlightenment (10), romanticism and the industrial revolution (11), and the modern and postmodern worlds (12). The book is concluded with the usual endnotes, bibliography, and index.
It is hard to say whether or not I agree with where the author is going when it discusses the division of the hemispheres and the priority of the right, to say nothing of his scathing discussion of contemporary culture and Western history. Nevertheless, the author’s thinking is certainly well worth taking into consideration. We do live in a world where savage misunderstanding and paranoia run rampant and where there is little ability for us to get a full and coherent picture of the world because of the problem of perspectives. If the author is correct, the autism we find in the contemporary world to such a great extent is a fault of our societal worldview and the incentives and approach we have to the world, and the task of overcoming it a daunting one. Like many books, the author here seeks to defend melancholy from the hostility it has been viewed by others, pointing out the insight that comes from coming to grips with even unpleasant realities. It seems likely that the author has some insight worth following, and that there are clear advantages to having one side of the mind be the master and the other the emissary, or for one to be an emperor and the other a directrix, as a friend and I hypothesized so long ago that it seems almost another life. To have independently come to the insights of the author is flattering, but much work remains to be done to see if the author’s thoughts are indeed correspondent with the reality of history and brain anatomy, and this is not a straightforward matter to understand.