In this long–read, Nick Spencer reflects on Iain McGilchrist’s book which seeks to explain the Western world through the divided brain. 27/10/2020
Towards the end of this life, Charles Darwin indulged in a little retrospection. Aged 65, he wrote a short, episodic autobiography, intended only for close family members. Published in a redacted version as part of his son’s Life and Letters of Charles Darwin a decade or so later, it only emerged fully into the light in the 1950s.
Primarily about his working life, the document did allow Darwin to ruminate a bit on his personality and interests. “Looking back as well as I can at my character during my school life,” he recollected, “the only qualities which at this period promised well for the future were that I had strong and diversified tastes.”
Some of those tastes were self–evidently scientific. Euclid’s geometry, he recalled, gave him “intense satisfaction.” But many were not. “I was fond of reading various books, and I used to sit for hours reading the historical plays of Shakespeare.” The poetry of Byron, Scott, Milton, Gray, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Thomson had the same effect, as did art and music, which afforded him “very great delight”.
Things began to change, however, and from about the age of thirty Darwin began to lose all pleasure from poetry “of any kind, including Shakespeare.” Indeed, it was worse than this. For many years now, he confessed towards the end of the memoir, “I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me.” It was a similar story for art. “I have also almost lost any taste for pictures.” Music simply distracted him and even beautiful scenery “does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did.”
Darwin lamented this and, in typical fashion, pondered it. “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” he said, before proceeding in the very same sentence to ask, “why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive.” The juxtaposition of these clauses – the first seemingly answering the second – appears to have escaped him.
He goes on to evaluate, briefly, the consequence of this loss. His inability to read and enjoy poetry, drama, music, and art may possibly have been “injurious to the intellect”, but Darwin sounds unsure about this. More probably, it was a loss “to the moral character”. Certainly, it entailed “a loss of happiness”.
Darwin’s loss may have been pronounced but it was surely not unique. Indeed, it might even stand for the entire trajectory of the modern Western world, if the argument of The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist’s widely–lauded intellectual blockbuster is correct. Society has become a kind of machine for grinding general happiness out of large collections of data, or at least trying to. It probably hasn’t been injurious to our intellect. We remain very clever. But it hasn’t done our moral character any good. And it hasn’t really generated that much happiness. To paraphrase William Wordsworth, who hovers like a presiding genius above The Master and His Emissary, we have murdered to dissect.
This is a bold claim, easy to make badly. An individual’s changing tastes and abilities may be analysed according to his own life and mind. Darwin’s intellectual trajectory makes sense. The same may be said of a culture’s: more books have been written about how enlightenment rationalism slipped into romanticism than will ever be read. But combining the two – the personal and the societal – is a perilous business.
On the one hand, such analysis opens itself up to no end of vagaries about ‘reason and emotion’, or ‘the head and the heart’, or ‘left brain and right brain’, or, worse still, ‘male and female characteristics’ that are, at best, simply another way of re–describing the problem, rather than providing any kind of explanation. On the other hand, the analysis is vulnerable to the obvious question of how you meaningfully connect personal, medical or neurological explanations with cultural, societal or civilizational ones. It’s hardly as if humans had different shaped brains in 1700 and 1800, or ones through which blood flowed in different ways.
If that were not enough, there is the additional challenge that writing well on this subject demands a breadth of knowledge that few possess. To be able to write intelligently on neurology and poetry is rare indeed. Over sixty years ago, C.P. Snow argued, in The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, that the intellectual life of western society has become divided into the sciences and the humanities, a tragedy in itself and a major handicap in humanity’s attempts to solve the world’s problems. The Master and his Emissary lives in the shadow of C.P. Snow’s diagnosis, even if the book is not mentioned in it. Indeed, The Master might even be judged as an updated (and considerably deepened) version of Snow’s. Mercifully, as if he were the exception that proved the rule, McGilchrist is one of the few who clearly can bridge the cultures, and the range of interest and expertise on show in The Master is truly impressive. McGilchrist would shy away from the polymath label, but it surely applies to him.
Described in the book as a former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital, McGilchrist’s early academic interests were literary, teaching literature at Oxford in the 1970s and ‘80s. His first book, Against Criticism, was published in 1982 but reveals a mindset that is clearly discernible in The Master nearly thirty years later. At heart, a detailed reading of Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne and Wordsworth, Against Criticism argues that whereas ‘art’ creates new, organic, unique wholes, (Western) criticism destructs by deconstructing, and as such has something to learn from Eastern philosophy. His literary work drew him into philosophical, psychiatric and neurological fields, in which he focused on the relationship between mind and brain and in particular on the neuroimaging and phenomenology of schizophrenia. Everything subsequently came together in the 500 dense pages of The Master and his Emissary.
Rather than waving to general notions of left brain and right brain, as if humans had two brains, the first part of The Master goes into considerable detail about how the two hemispheres of the brain operate in subtly different ways.
Thinking about the brain is not easy. Quite apart from the sheer scale of the task, it is, by definition, philosophically self–referential, a bit like tasting your own tongue. Humans have known that the brain is bi–hemispheric forever, and neurology now shows that the two hemispheres are connected by an estimated 300–800 million neural fibres in the corpus callosum. Those hemispheres are unequal, however. The brain is asymmetric, larger on its right side, with more neurones and neuronal connections there. It is also slightly twisted around its central axis, the so–called Yakovlevian torque, so that the right hemisphere is pushed slightly forward and around the left, while the left side is also larger towards the back of the brain.
Such physical asymmetry appears to be matched by an asymmetry of function. Ascertaining this has never been straightforward but by studying patients who have had brain lesions, or who have undergone ‘callosotomy’ and have ‘split brains’, or by using experimental hemisphere ‘inactivations’ (i.e. temporarily anaesthetising half the brain), or by using ‘transcranial magnetic stimulation techniques’ (i.e. doing a similar thing magnetically), or by using neuroimaging, it has become easier (if never actually easy) to see into the brain and establish where different activities occur.
McGilchrist is careful to avoid the simplistic pitfalls, recognising that both hemispheres are involved in reasoning, language and creativity. There is a whole person here, an important point to which we shall return. That noted, his entire argument turns on the fact that the two hemispheres contribute to that whole person in different ways, and to differing degrees. To take a few examples: patients who have experienced damage to the right hemisphere have no ensuing problem using simple tools, whereas those with damage to the left are rendered incapable of using even a hammer and nail, or a key and padlock. By comparison, those with right hemisphere damage have difficulty in understanding emotional intonation or implications, or non–literal meanings, or metaphor, or even humour, when there is no comparable problem for those with left hemisphere damage. Prosopagnosia, the disorder in which patients are unable to recognise faces, commonly follows right hemisphere lesions, not left ones. Left–anterior lesions are associated with depression, whereas right anterior ones are associated with ‘undue cheerfulness’. Damage to the right hemisphere produces attitudes and behaviours that are commonly found in schizophrenia, exhibiting problems appreciating narrative, the natural flow of time, presuppositions, intuition. Examples proliferate.
The slow accumulation of studies over decades gradually reveals the different ‘worlds’ of the left and right hemispheres. The left hemisphere is wilful, directed, and focused. It sees and understands things as abstracted from their context, breaking them down into their constituent parts and manipulating them and, through them, the world. It is the locus of speech (and of instrumental vocalisation in other animals). It is good at ‘re–presenting’ reality, rather than being present in reality. It deals with what is already known, usually with what is supplied to it from the right hemisphere. It is marked by the tendency to classify. It takes a short–term view. It is self–referential. According to the left hemisphere, “we ‘experience’ our experience [of the world]… a ‘re–presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based.” (31)
The right hemisphere, by contrast, understands things, and the self, in their wider context. It is open and receptive, sees things as a whole, and as part of a whole. It brings to attention that which is not already known, and takes the longer–term view. Whereas the left–hemisphere is closely associated with anger, the right is responsible for that peculiarly human ability to express sadness through crying. Although language sits in the left hemisphere, song and especially music, with its physical resonance and its dependence on relationships between notes and silences is the provenance of the right. According to the right hemisphere, “we experience… a live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected.” (31)
There is a danger that this formulation sounds a bit ‘right hemisphere good, left hemisphere bad’. After all, who would prefer the anger–inclined, narrowly–representational, metaphor–deaf world of the left hemisphere over the tearful, present, intuitive world of the right? Worse, such a formulation easily slips into the simplistic ‘rational vs emotional’ or ‘male vs female’ dichotomies of pop psychology.
This is emphatically not McGilchrist’s point. If The Master does have tendency to allow its controlling idea (or controlling metaphor – if it is a metaphor; we shall come to that too) to run away with it a bit, it is nonetheless clear that not only is the brain more plastic than any simple dichotomy would suggest (each hemisphere is quite capable of taking over the tasks of the other if it needs to), but that both hemispheres are needed and both work well together. However empathetic you want to be, just try living well without being able to operate a key and padlock.
There is a helpful evolutionary example that illustrates and perhaps explains this division. The bi–hemispheric brain is not a distinctively human or even mammalian thing. It is widespread among vertebrates. The same goes for ‘lateralisation’, the preponderance of one hemisphere to deliver certain tasks. Thus, chimpanzees and other primates, like humans, show right hemisphere specialisation for facial expression of emotions. The right hemisphere is longer, wider, generally larger than the left in most social mammals. More basic than this, however, is the fact that the universal need for mammals both to eat and to avoid being eaten may lie behind the kind of left–right lateralisation noted above.
Eating, whether plants or other animals, involves close attention to the thing you want to consume, whether that is seeds, plants or creatures. Conversely, avoiding being eating necessitates paying attention to the whole environment in which you’re present. Both skills are vital if you want to stay alive and well nourished, but it is fair to say that you can only eat if you are still alive. One hemisphere enables the creature to survive in the world by being aware of it in its totality, whilst the other enables it to grow and develop there by manipulating bits of it. Put another way, while there is a profound co–dependency between hemispheres, the left is ultimately dependant on the right, taking what the right sends it, processing it, and sending it back again. One hemisphere is, ultimately, the master; the other his emissary.
The jump from brain structure to cultural epoch appears, at first sight, to be an unmanageably large one. Visions of people in the renaissance with pulsing right hemispheres giving way to reformers with buzzing left ones, or enlightenment savants with emaciated right hemispheres making way for flamboyant, nature–loving romantics with vastly enlarged right ones does not seem especially credible.
That, of course, is not McGilchrist’s argument. The point is not that different people are inhabiting different worlds, still less that they have different neurological structures. Rather, crucially, there are different ways of engaging with the world and “the kind of attention we bring to bear on the world changes the nature of the world we attend to.” (28) There is no such thing as “seeing”, as Wittgenstein, who hovers next to Wordsworth in the shadows of the book, would say; only “seeing as”. We understand the world in patterns and pictures that are drawn from the kind of concentration we bring to bear on it. “We are literally partners in creation”, (5) McGilchrist says, channelling Genesis chapter 1.
The Master ends with a list of European greats – Goethe, Schopenhauer, Bergson, Scheler – who have pointed out the “fundamentally divided nature of mental experience”, and the text is peppered with many others who have claimed the same. The idea that there are different ways of seeing and being in the world is as old as human thought. What McGilchrist argues is that these approaches to the world map onto our deep hemispheric divisions. There are epochs or movements that feel the left hemisphere is dominant, and others where the right seems in charge.
We can see this in the rise of classical Greek thought–world. Beginning with pre–Socratic philosophy, there is a sustained attempt to ascertain the underlying unity of creation within its obvious diversity. Immutable philosophical or mathematical truths are located behind the all–too–mutable movement of the world. Indeed, in extremis, that movement is really just illusory, a mask for the disembodied, ideal, abstracted Forms where Reality really resides. The particular is downplayed in favour of the categorical, the creative in favour of the logical. Poetry suffers. “All the poets from Homer downwards”, as Socrates fulminates in Plato’s Republic, have “no grasp of reality… Strip it of its poetic colouring, reduce it to plain prose, and I think you know how little it amounts to.” (287) Such a trenchant dismissal of metaphor in favour of unvarnished, truth–telling literalism is straight out of the left hemisphere’s playbook.
Augmenting this Hellenic left–hemispheric landgrab is a wider historical context in which pictogram writing gave way to phonogram which gave way to phonetic, vertical script to horizontal, and right–left writing to left–right – all of which are changes towards the left hemisphere. It also occurs at the same time as societies begin to use money, in which arbitrarily–valued metal stands in for genuinely–useful goods, perhaps the most powerful mental abstraction humans have ever generated. For all these reasons and more, the period is one in which the left hemisphere is “gradually coming to win the day”.
Recognisable stories can be told of the Renaissance and the Reformation, and the Enlightenment and the age of Romanticism. There was, McGilchrist contends, a proper hemispheric balance in the Renaissance, although the evidence here of right hemisphere characteristics – such as the realisation of the value of individuality and the importance of originality, the artist becoming some kind of a conduit for the Other – is clearer than the evidence for left hemisphere characteristics.
By contrast, the Reformation was a left–hemispheric movement towards words, doctrine, order, and control. This is an age marked by iconoclasm and literalism. Even Reformation worship – with its static congregation, panoptical pulpits, and lengthy sermons – became marked with left hemisphere concerns. During this period, “the cardinal tenet of Christianity – the Word is made Flesh – [became] reversed, and the Flesh [was] made Word.” (323)
Ideas that span off from the Reformation – of atomistic individualism, competition, free thought, bureaucracy, and capitalism – took the left hemisphere to new heights, which reached a new hubristic apotheosis during the Enlightenment. Here rationality edged aside reason (McGilchrist is excellent on the subtle different between the two). The picturesque “improved” beauty, and nature yielded to artifice rather than the other way round. Music and architecture were immaculately ordered. Poetry scanned, rhymed (ideally in couplets) and avoided elaborate metaphor. “Expression is the dress of thought”, as Alexander Pope put it. Symmetry was everywhere. “In the Enlightenment, the living was thought to be the sum of its parts; and if so its parts could be put together to make the living again.” (351)
It wasn’t to last and in perhaps the most famous cultural volte face in European history, Romanticism swept all before it: ambiguity, melancholy, longing, the lessons of childhood, the call of the mystical beyond, love of metaphor; poetry, as Shelley put it, lifting the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and making familiar objects unfamiliar. And above all these, the transcending, redemptive power of nature, in which Wordsworth reigned supreme:
I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
The right hemisphere has never written more beautiful lines.
These shifts were clearly between different ways of seeing the world and map onto hemispheric differences well. They were movements between different kinds of attention rather than between different kinds of worlds. Indeed, when explaining how our attention “changes” the nature of the world early on in the book, McGilchrist specifically adds the rider “yet nothing objectively has changed” (28) Enlightenment philosophes and Romantics poets lived in the same reality, even if they read it very differently. Nonetheless, around 1800, this began to change, as humans began to remake the world in our own image, or more accurately in half of our image.
After we were first married, my wife and I lived in a small house that backed onto a railway bank which had been raised in the mid–nineteenth century. We paved our small yard up to the wire fence that separated us from the bank on which I looked out every morning. One morning, I had a minor epiphany. The railway bank changed over the year, my yard didn’t. The bank was always tangled with undergrowth, but in autumn it was covered with leaves from the trees that rose above. In winter, it turned ghost grey and stone hard. In spring, it was peppered with little flowers and dappled by the emerging leaves above it. In summer, it flitted with insects and birds. It changed slowly and predictably and completely independently of anything I did or thought. Here was a steady, cyclical narrative in which my own life took a small place. The bank was truly Other to me. My yard, by contrast, never changed or rather only changed if I changed it. It was, in essence part of me, an extension of my phenotype. Paraphrasing what Gertrude Stein said of California, there is no Other there.
For millennia, humans lived on my railway bank. Since about 1800, we moved to my yard. From having inhabited a world that was unmanageably bigger than, independent of, Other to us, we have shifted to one in which most of what we, at least in West, and at least in urban areas, encounter is controlled and ordered by ourselves. We no longer need to find our position in a wider narrative. We tell the story now.
It is the left hemisphere’s ability to dissect and control nature that has got us here and so it is the left hemisphere’s story we tell. First through scientific materialism and positivism – the ideas that only the measurably material is Real and that only a narrowly–conceived ‘scientific method’ can determine the truth about that Reality – and then through the Industrial Revolution, which constructed an ordered, measured, mechanising, routinized world for people to live in, the world of the left hemisphere became our world which became the world. In an efficient feedback loop, the more time people spent in this left hemisphere world, the more obvious it became that this was the real world and that only the left hemispheric approach to it was legitimate.
The consequences have been deleterious, McGilchrist argues, starting with modernism’s fragmentation of the self, and moving to post–modernity’s denial that there is a meaningful self – indeed that there is such a thing as meaning – at all. Words need referents – things they refer to – in order to have meaning. But while the left hemisphere does words well, it needs the right’s greater awareness of context, of words’ referents, to acquire meaning. In recent times, though, the right hemispheric awareness of a wider context that gives meaning to the world had withered on the vine. Instead, the self and the world are constructed, arbitrary, and ultimately meaningless.
What we see as a result is not pretty (and almost a mirror image of Steven Pinker’s picture of the modern world). McGilchrist paints a picture of what he thinks a thoroughly left hemisphere world would look like: reductionist, mechanistic, abstracted, fragmented, decontextualized, depersonalised, easily bored, saturated with irony and cynicism, unwarrantedly optimistic, utilitarian, inflexible, self–certain, bureaucratic, contemptuous towards belief, lacking in empathy, eternally seeking total control and paranoid if unable to get it. This is not the world in which we live, but nor is it wholly unfamiliar.
Is there hope? McGilchrist gestures, albeit rather briefly, in three directions. There is the body, not as mere matter but as a sign and symbol of something other. Pornography is the product of the left hemisphere’s idea of the body – known, exposed, owned, used; effectively an extension of the self. Sexual love, by contrast, is more in tune with the right’s, seeing the body as given, cherished, indicative of a life beyond the flesh.
There is art. Human creativity has run alongside human ideas of the transcendent for ever, long an indispensable part of religion and ritual. It needn’t do so. Sometimes, art self–consciously sees itself as a wholesale substitute for any transcendence. Other times, such as in types of modernist art, it intentionally and sometimes brutally denies any possibility of transcendence. McGilchrist criticises this approach severely, rightly in my view. But such artistic anomalies aside, the manner in which art (and especially music) feels as if its pointing to the transcendent, to the Other, is something most people don’t need explaining. As the author Nick Hornby wrote in his book on music, 31 Songs, “I try not to believe in God, of course” – notice that perceptively honest “of course” – “but sometimes things happen in music, in songs, that bring me up short, make me do a double–take.” (25)
And then, lastly, as the Hornby quotation intimates, there is what McGilchrist calls ‘the spirit’, a vague term that might be translated as the persistent human interest in and search for the divine. McGilchrist quotes Nietzsche noting that when humans decide not to worship divinity, we do not stop worshipping but merely find something else less worthy to worship. We do that in spades today, whether is it football teams and celebrities or human agency and the self, in so doing glimpsing why the Hebrew Bible is particularly obsessed with idols. Placing ultimate worth on anything created, especially created by us, anything within our grasp, anything here, will disappoint. The created cannot sustain worship. That is why God, if God exists, must be completely Other, always just over the Horizon. We may see God’s light illuminate the world but can never see ‘him’, for to do that is to capture ‘him’, to grasp ‘him’, to know ‘him’, to deny his Otherness; in effect, to deny ‘him’.
God, St John writes in his first letter, is love. It is not clear whether McGilchrist would agree with this. Indeed, his own personal beliefs are admirably absent from the book. But when he concludes by saying that, ultimately, body, art and God are all “vehicles of love” and “love is the attractive power of the Other”, you can sense his sympathy with St John. (445)
The Master and his Emissary is vastly richer than you could hope to capture in a single essay, even one as long as this, and it will be evident that I am sympathetic with much of McGilchrist’s analysis. That said, I have some reservations, including with the main idea itself, that merit mentioning.
The book at times feels as if it is a bit susceptible to sweeping generalisations. The Renaissance, we are told was “the time… when emotions are experienced as characteristically mixed.” (307) To which, we might reply, “Only the Renaissance?” It was also a time when there was a greater recognition of the beauty of the world. But Middle and even Early English poetry, for example, could demonstrate a sensitivity to the beautiful particularities of the world, such as the harshly beautiful landscape “decked and draped in damp, shaggy moss/ [with] bedraggled birds on bare, black branches” (ll. 745–46) through which Sir Gawain travels to his fate with the Greek Knight; or the blossom that “springs and spreads/ on tree and meadow” (ll. 437–38) in the wonderfully whimsical 12th century poem The Owl and the Nightingale; or even the plangent melancholy of the crumbling cityscape of “fallen roofs and ruined towers” in the Anglo–Saxon poem ‘The Ruin’. Similarly, the Enlightenment was the time of rationality, but it was also when Shakespeare’s genius was first recognised and celebrated, and when Thomas Gray wrote his elegy in a country churchyard, and Oliver Goldsmith lamented “parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed” in ‘The Deserted Village’. Attention to the ambiguous beauty of the world has surely been a feature of every culture.
So much contemporary historical scholarship is dedicated to picking off the labels assigned to epochs – the Renaissance was more barbaric than we give it credit for; the Enlightenment more ambivalent about rationality than most of us think – that it feels at times as if McGilchrist is happy, indeed depends on, un–nuanced readings of these big historical epochs for his argument to work.
In his defence, McGilchrist recognises the artificialities and subtleties of historical epochs and it is clear, at least at times, that he is not talking about monolithic eras or tendencies, so much as ages that were more typically characterised by one form of ‘attention’ rather than another. Thus, for example, he notes that “despite his having died long before the birth of Romanticism, [Claude Lorraine] appears to have prefigured the vision of the Romantics” (361). This could be interpreted in two different ways. Uncharitably, it means that these categories are effectively meaningless, as there are examples of Romanticisms eons before anyone was a Romantic. More charitably, it should be taken to emphasise that these categories – like all cultural categories – are simply indicative. Different people have always adopted more left or more right hemispheric attitudes to the world throughout history. It’s simply that in some periods one particular attitude has become dominant in art, literature, music, architecture, and philosophy. This is all together more credible, although it does invite the question, why.
A second criticism is that there are moments in the book when you feel that McGilchrist’s analysis is being driven unduly by his own personal tastes. This is something that the reader is liable to notice only when those judgements show themselves as clearly different from your own. Mine, it seems, largely coincide with McGilchrist’s so this was hardly an issue in my reading of the book, but there were moments when I was brought up short. Thus, when talking about modernism as another stage in cementing the left hemisphere’s domination of the world, he takes a shot at one of my sacred cows, calling T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land “an interesting culturohistorical document… rather than powerful poetry.” (422) I mutinied. Admittedly, he allows that “its borrowings make it gleam like a magpie’s nest” but this, I would argue, makes the poem a strength rather than a weakness, the poem’s exquisite fragmentations struggling but failing to amount to complete redemptive vision make it more rather than less “powerful”. It’s a tiny example but it does raise the spectre that there may be more partiality in his analysis of left and right hemispheres than is at first apparent. He certainly seems to come down disproportionately hard on the left at times.
A third criticism might be that McGilchrist tries to explain too much through the left–right hemisphere device. That might seem an obtuse thing to say about a book that seeks to explain the Western world through the divided brain, but the sheer range of what he covers feels like a vulnerability. At one point in the book, McGilchrist writes that humans need “metaphor or mythos to understand the world”. (441) This was a view powerfully articulated by the philosopher Mary Midgley, who wrote an entire book on The Myths we live by. However, everything here rides on the plural: myths.
Those people who fear science today, Midgley wrote, tend to do so because of the unspoken imperialism in some scientific myths and their myth–makers. In sentiments that could have come straight from The Master and his Emissary, Midgley critiqued reductionist models of knowing which reduce the process to an allegedly singular, infallible and omnicompetent ‘scientific method’. This is inadequate. Even among the sciences there are subtly different ways of knowing, and when it comes to explaining the world many subtly different ways. If we seek to map the world, as all attempts at understanding ultimately do, we would do well to remember that there are many different kinds of maps.
As with maps, so with myths. To reduce our understanding of “the making of western world” to the single idea of the “divided brain” seems, paradoxically, to ignore its own lesson and to pay undue attention to the isolating, itemising, categorising nature of the left hemisphere. The divided brain is, I think, a remarkably fresh, penetrating and persuasive way of understanding where we are and how we got here, but it cannot, surely, be the sole or sufficient.
This leads to a final criticism or, perhaps, observation. McGilchrist ends the book by observing that whether the controlling metaphor of master and emissary as ‘just’ a metaphor is largely immaterial. Metaphor and myth are precisely how we come to see and understand the world. The extent to which this is literally true (whatever that might mean) is unlikely to be significant.
This is surely correct, but with a caveat. The ‘left and right hemisphere’ is a powerful analytical tool, and ‘the master and his emissary’ a powerful explanatory myth. But they are analytical and explanatory. In the language of the book, they are left hemispheric devices for understanding ourselves and the world we have created.
When it comes to responding, to doing something about the problems of an excessively left–hemispheric world that McGilchrist outlines towards the end of the book, we transparently need something more. It’s hardly as if the right hemisphere has agency in its own right, and is capable of regaining any of the ground it has lost to the left. Agency resides in the whole person, and to effect any rebalancing, the whole person, left and right together, has to respond. The master and his emissary must here be ‘just’ a metaphor if we are to respond constructively to what their imbalance hath wrought.
That is the paradox on which The Master ultimately pivots. The book is, in its very nature, an objective attempt to understand the human condition through a highly–informed and sympathetic analysis. But it is an analysis nonetheless and one that points us to the need for a response that cannot be analytic. We cannot forensically analyse our way out of whatever existential cul–de–sac the left hemisphere has driven us into.
Rather, we need to do something else. We need art, we need music, we need poetry, we need ritual, we need landscape, we need narrative, we need the Other, we need God, we need love. We need, as Seamus Heaney wrote in his magnificent poem, ‘Postscript’, to “make the time to drive out West…when the wind/ And the light are working off eachother.” But we need to keep moving because it is “Useless to think you’ll park and capture it/ More thoroughly.”
Darwin knew this. He ended his most famous book with his own tangled bank, “clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth”. It’s a vision almost worthy of the Romantic poets with whom he grew up, Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ hovering in the background:
“Therefore am I still A lover of the meadows and the woods And mountains; and of all that we behold From this green earth.”
Darwin was still, then, a lover of meadows and woods but by this stage, Wordsworth hovered only as a ghost, and Darwin was well on the way to losing the “strong and diversified tastes” with which he started out. The left hemisphere was winning. “A man with a mind more highly organised or better constituted than mine, would not I suppose have thus suffered”, he reasoned in his autobiography, before resolving, somewhat mournfully:
“If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use.”
It’s good advice to us all. Go on. Read a poem.
Iain McGilchrist will be appearing on Reading Our Times, a podcast hosted by Nick Spencer, soon.
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