The Master and His Emissary
The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Yale University Press, 608 pages, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
From the Introduction
This book tells a story about ourselves and the world, and about how we got
to be where we are now. While much of it is about the structure of the human
brain the place where mind meets matter ultimately it is an attempt to
understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.
Whatever the relationship between consciousness and the brain unless
the brain plays no role in bringing the world as we experience it into
being, a position that must have few adherents its structure has to be
significant. It might even give us clues to understanding the structure of
the world it mediates, the world we know. So, to ask a very simple question,
why is the brain so clearly and profoundly divided? Why, for that matter,
are the two cerebral hemispheres asymmetrical? Do they really differ in any
important sense? If so, in what way?
McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and writer who works in London and lives
on the Isle of Skye.
He believes that the mind and brain can be
understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the
whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human
culture in which they arise.
After a scholarship to Winchester
College, he was awarded a scholarship to New College, Oxford, where he read
English. He graduated with a congratulatory first in 1975 and was awarded a
Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, where he taught English
literature and read philosophy and psychology until 1982. He then trained in
medicine and was elected to another All Souls fellowship in 1984. He made a
career in psychiatry and was elected again to All Souls in 2002.
"A beautifully written, erudite, fascinating
and adventurous book. It embraces a prodigious range of enquiry, from
neurology to psychology, from philosophy to primatology, from myth to
history to literature. It goes from the microstructure of the brain to great
epochs of Western civilisation, confidently and readably. One turns its five
hundred pages a further hundred are dense with notes and references in
tiny print as if it were an adventure story ... McGilchrist tells us about
the rapidly evolving technologies and experimental work in fascinating and
A. C. Grayling, Literary Review
extends [the] received wisdom with a hugely ambitious, absorbing and
questionable thesis: the two hemispheres have radically contrasting
personalities; that they live in a state of creative tension, sometimes
declining into open war; and that their struggle for supremacy provides the
key to understanding the major cultural movements of human history."
"McGilchrist's careful analysis of how brains work
is a veritable tour de force, gradually and skilfully revealed. I know of no
better exposition of the current state of functional brain neuroscience."
W. F. Bynum, The Times Literary Supplement
"Like Jaynes, McGilchrist
interprets human history as an unresolved quarrel between the left and right
hemispheres. ... While Jaynes argued that the Greek gods were invented to
explain the breakdown of the bicameral mind our hemispheres were finally
able to listen to each other McGilchrist argues the opposite."
"[T]his remarkable survey of the human brain is one
of few contemporary works deserving classic status."
Shakespeare, The Times
"McGilchrist persuasively argues that our
society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left
hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative 'master' the right.
Brilliant and disturbing."
Salley Vickers, The Observer
in his vital field shows convincingly that the degeneracy of the West
springs from our failure to manage the binary division of our brains."
David Cox, Evening Standard
"[A] grand theory for our times. If
properly understood and acted upon, it has the potential to transform our
view of our selves and our cultures, and prevent us from making a huge
number of mistakes that might otherwise seem like sensible decisions ... a
truly wonderful book."
Jonathan Rowson, RSA blog
"A seminal book"
Ervin László, State University of New York
"McGilchrist, who is both
an experienced psychiatrist and a shrewd philosopher, looks at the relation
between our two brain-hemispheres in a new light, not just as an interesting
neurological problem but as a crucial shaping factor in our culture ...
clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating ... splendidly
thought-provoking ... I couldn't put it down."
Mary Midgley, Newcastle
Todd Feinberg, Beth Israel Medical
Center, New York
"[McGilchrist] is immensely erudite. He writes with
great clarity, and while the book develops an argument it is also a treasure
chest of fascinating detail and memorable quotation. Its thesis is
profoundly interesting: most readers who enter here with time to spend will
be richly rewarded ... the effort to make sense of the totality of our lives
in terms of brain function is exhilarating and worthwhile."
"[A] genuine tour de force, a monumental
achievement I can think of no one else who could have conceived, let alone
written, a book of such penetrating brilliance."
Scientific and Medical Network Review
"One of the most exciting and
thought-provoking books that I have read in a very long time, and
beautifully written into the bargain."
Robin Briggs, Oxford University
"McGilchrist's demonstration of the damage which has been done, and is
increasingly being done, by the dominance of the left hemisphere operating
alone, is masterly and totally convincing."
Keith Sagar, University of
"Novel, compelling, and profoundly consequential ...
obviously the product of many years of research and thought on the part of a
thinker of depth and originality as well as deep learning across a number of
fields that are very seldom combined ... McGilchrist is an unusually good
writer, with as much talent for clear and exciting exposition as anyone I
can think of ... unbelievably rich ... the formulations are often
beautifully done, managing to state in maximally clear fashion issues of the
utmost subtlety. The erudition is staggering. The overall arguments are
compelling and well-handled. I think the basic thesis is indeed of
absolutely crucial cultural and intellectual importance."
"A brilliant, exciting and important book ... The
conclusions seem to me extremely robust ... of extraordinary importance for
both scientists and humanists. ... But in the end the value of the book is
really in the rich and complex exploration of the two hemispheres and their
John Onians, University of East Anglia
AR I have to read this
book immediately. It will rival and perhaps replace the intriguing classic
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by
Julian Jaynes (1976)
in my personal treasury.
January 9, 2011
My Amazon review:
A long march on the left-right brain
Master and His Emissary
by Iain McGilchrist
March 9, 2011
Iain McGilchrist has poured his life's work into the capacious frame of this
book. Only a thinker who first spent some twenty years getting his case
together could have produced so massively buttressed an argument for greater
awareness of hemispheric differences between the two halves of our cerebral
cortexes. The scientific need for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of
our brains' lateralization is clear and acute, and the social pathologies
consequent upon our ignoring this key feature of our anatomy are
correspondingly important. That said, the investigations brought together in
this book can only represent a small start on a huge task.
McGilchrist is certainly to be congratulated for having made a start.
Previous work on this topic has been of variable quality, a fact which
becomes alarmingly clear as McGilchrist reviews the panorama of that work.
Such contrasts as intuitive versus logical, or emotional versus rational, or
even male versus female, hardly do justice to the subtle and often tricky
nuances of our hemispheric specialization. In future, any researcher who
wishes to do justice to this topic will have to take due account of this
fundamental book. In fact, any such researcher will have to start here, for
it brackets all that went before.
At first I expected a monograph
that in its scope and ambition would essentially update the classic work on
the bicameral mind published in 1976 by Julian Jaynes, but Iain McGilchrist
takes a rather different tack. Although the depth and the scope of his work
invites comparison with Jaynes, who was thinking so far ahead of the
empirical work of the time that parts of his classic work now seem almost
nutty, McGilchrist has wisely held back from speculating on the evolution of
consciousness. Given the cataract of works on consciousness that have
appeared in recent decades, this is perhaps only prudent, but it also
reflects the fact that hemispheric lateralization cannot really be expected
to shed much light either on the physiological question of how the operation
of neural networks sustains or creates phenomenal experience or on the
psychological question of how the emergence of consciousness can be traced
in the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens. However, McGilchrist does not shy
away from conjecturally tracing any number of historic cultural impacts back
to our differentially lateralized brains.
One reservation is worth
emphasizing. This book is not a work of science in the modern data-driven
sense. It is much more correctly considered as a work of philosophy in the
sense that prevailed a century ago before the logicians took over. Iain
McGilchrist is a writer who in comparison with William James or Sigmund
Freud is more inclined to cite artistic works that have no scientific
credibility in support even of his more scientific claims. For example, he
expects his readers to accept that poetic thinkers like Wordsworth or Goethe
had insights that we can translate reliably into harder modern terms. I
doubt that this translation is possible without controversy, and hesitate to
endorse the pursuit of science in such a manner. Gilchrist also writes in a
dense and allusive manner that many scientists will find hard to take. The
fact that readers of a more reflective disposition will enjoy the style is
beside the point. The message of this book, if summarized too sharply, will
sound to many scientists like a rant or a jeremiad against modern
civilization and its evils. My five stars are intended to persuade such
scientists to read the book anyway.