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The Master and his Emissary(1): The Book of the Century?


  • Social brain
  • Cognition

Over the last decade, I have read a lot of non-fiction books, most of them broadly related to human development, from the technical end of popular science to the facile end of self-help. Highlights have been Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind by Claxton,  The Happiness Hypothesis by Haidt, Ethical Know-how by Varela, Connected by Christakis and Fowler, Into the Silent Land by Brocks, and Immunity to Change by Kegan and Laskow. All of these books (alas, mostly written by middle-aged white men) marshalled evidence to elegantly describe and develop a core thesis about human nature, and all of them answered the 'so what?' question about practical implications very powerfully.

However, with respect to all of these immensely impressive contributions, none of them compare with The Master and his Emissary, the book I was blessed to read to prepare for chairing last week's RSA Keynote Event.

The best books are usually those that could only have been written by a particular person. In this case, Iain McGilchrist has a distinguished pedigree in both arts and sciences, having been an All Souls prize fellow in literature before training in medicine and becoming an accomplished psychiatrist. He therefore writes with authority in natural science and humanities, and the abundant links that lie between them for those few who know how to look. In addition to this polymathic erudition, one can also sense, between the lines,  an old soul with a dry wit who is immensely generous in spirit.

The book is about the profound significance of the fact that the left and right hemispheres of our brains have radically different 'world views'(described in the book). The hidden story of western culture, told here, is about how the abstract, instrumental, articulate and assured left hemisphere has gradually usurped the more contextual, humane, systemic, holistic but relatively tentative and inarticulate right hemisphere. The thesis is as strong on science as it is on narrative, replete with nuances, caveats, and references.

If you have ever had the feeling that the world is deeply screwed up in a way that you can't quite articulate, this book will help you to make your case. If you want some insight into why we might be stupid enough to destroy our own planet, or why the slashing of funds for arts and humanities is even more tragic than you might think, read the book.

I might come to regret being quite so effusive, and there are certainly challenges to the core thesis and its implications that need to be entertained, hopefully in future blogs. Nonetheless, I would currently say it is one of the most important books of the 21st century. It is 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.

For those who can't wait to hear more, go to the end to watch or listen, but for those who prefer to read, my understanding of the argument goes as follows:

1) The left and right brain hemispheres are both involved in almost everything we do, such that crude dichotomies like the left being the logical side and the right being the creative side are a great disservice to public understanding of the brain.

2) However, if we cease to ask what the hemispheres do (language, reasoning, creativity, forecasting) and instead ask how they do it(contextualise or decontextualise, focus on lived experience or abstract models, instrumental or affective feedback, receptivity to counter-evidence, preference for old or new) we find very significant differences in the two hemispheres. The evidence for these differences are meticulously unpacked in the book in a compelling inductive argument- there is no killer fact, but a gradual unfolding of evidence, carefully tied together with an eye for counter-evidence.

3) The hemispheres are divided for good reason, because they perform different functions. The left is broadly about focussing, and the right is broadly about contextualising. These are compatible but occasionally competing aspects of our cognition and they are both essential. McGilchrist uses the example of a bird that can only focus on finding grain with its beak if it ignores surrounding context, but still needs some background awareness of surrounding context, and a capacity to respond to it, to avoid attacks by predators. The genius of the brain is its ability to switch between these modes in response to the environment.

4) The right hemisphere should be the dominant hemisphere, 'The Master', because it shapes the context, meaning and purpose of our experience of the world. The left hemisphere, 'The Emissary', should help us to achieve within this contextual, meaningful, purposeful perspective. The right hemisphere keeps us in touch with lived experience- keeps us deeply aware and responsive, while the left hemisphere is more like a very powerful computer that makes use of familiar schemas to achieve familiar ends. Cognition at its best is slightly different from army marching orders in that it should go 'right-left-right' i.e. context-focus-context, when in fact it often goes left-left-left, focus, focus, focus, with insufficient attention to the basis for the focussing, what is at stake, what might be different, and what is trying to be achieved.

5) There is insufficient evolutionary time for these changes to take place at a structural level of the brain. It is not that the left hemisphere is getting bigger or denser or better connected than the right. The point is that slowly but surely the left hemisphere shapes our culture in such a way that it makes its own perspective the dominant one, until we reach what McGilchrist calls 'a hall of mirrors' in which the explicit, instrumental, defined, abstract voice is the only one we believe in, and the implicit, intrinsic, fluid, visceral perspective sounds diminished and foreign. This perspective speaks to, inter-alia, the Art, Drama and Music therapists currently struggling to make the case for their immense social value against cruel and blinkered market logics that want to measure their impact in numerical terms.

6) The mechanism for increased left hemisphere dominance is imitation, a subject close to our heart at the RSA. Crudely, the cultural 'stuff' of the left hemisphere  is more contagious than the cultural 'stuff' of the right hemisphere. Have you heard the expression: "What gets measured gets done"? Or "If you can't say it, you don't really understand it?" Both are examples of the 'emissary' overstepping his mark, but doing so in a compelling way that is hard to fight back against.

7) Through epigenetic cultural evolution, the left hemisphere gradually colonises our experience. The good news is that left hemisphere tends to be optimistic, giving us a feel-good factor, but the bad news is that it is remarkably unaware of how partial and/or deluded its view of the world can be, and scarily unreceptive to unfamiliar perspectives. In one of the best lines of the book McGilchrist writes:

"If I am right, that the story of the Western World is one of increasing left-hemisphere domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead, we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss."

I think this is a truly wonderful book, and it has certainly given me a new set of tools to think about the direction the world is taking and what we might do about it.

Thanks for reading this far, and before we amble into the abyss together, watch the video of the event, which includes the avalanche of questions expertly fielded by Iain McGilchrist, with just one question posed by me at the end- namely: If this colossal idea is true, which I now believe it to be, how to guard it against widespread simplification or distortion?

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