It may surprise you – or maybe not, depending how long you stand in front of your closet deciding what you’re going to wear that day – that you have two people inside of you. One is logical, mathematical, focused. The other is poetic, attentive, intuitive. These are personalities represented by the left hemisphere of your brain and the right hemisphere, respectively. While they were once believed to work in harmony with one another, dividing up tasks like language (left) and music (right), instead neuroimaging has allowed us to see that one hemisphere can dominate and essentially shut out the other. And in our contemporary Western culture, that hemisphere is predominantly the left.
Iain McGilchrist is worried about this left hemisphere preference, and he sees the effects in our society’s materialism, our disregard for the environment, our art world’s tendency towards the shocking and the abstract, our predatory capitalist system, and the rise of super rationality in religion (the new atheist movement), science, and discourse. Not that he’s arguing against logic or competition or abstraction – but without the balance of the contributions of the right hemisphere, with its appreciation for nature and beauty, for its sense of community and empathy, and its wide-angle view, the effects can be disastrous. Now, that might sound like hippy dippy nonsense to you, but that’s probably just your left brain talking.
In “The Master and His Emissary”, McGilchrist uses the Nietzsche story of the same name to illustrate his position. The Master, a wise man who is beloved by his subjects and rules with wisdom and caring, uses an emissary to conduct his business. The emissary begins to believe he is doing all of the important work, and usurps the throne. Only he is so concerned with material goods and ruling with an iron fist, things deteriorate. McGilchrist believes that we are seeing an unprecedented overthrowing of the Master (right brain) by the Emissary (left), and in his book he examines why this matters, how it influences philosophy, art, mental illness, and business, and how this balance of power has changed and shifted through the ages.
McGilchrist talked to Bookslut via e-mail about his sweeping and fascinating “The Master and His Emissary”, why he had to encompass centuries of history in his book, your right brain’s clothing preferences, and why he’s against criticism.
I am so accustomed to reading these “niche-y”nonfiction books, the detailed examination of the cultural history of the button or what have you. The Master and His Emissary does not lack in ambition or scope, and that was refreshing. Did you ever think you must be mad, though, to try to fit evolution with creativity with Heidegger with anatomy with Athens with schizophrenia? Was that your intention, to sit down and find a connection between the hemispheres of the brain and just about everything in the world?
No! But, although some people (unlike you) might think the book’s scope is a sign of me “taking things too far,” and have said as much in some of the reviews, such a position is illogical. If, as I believe, the ways in which we can see the world are constrained by the choices offered to us by the two brain hemispheres (though not in an all-or-nothing fashion), then that would have to be imaged in the history of both philosophy and culture. Philosophy is a series of attempts to understand the world, and reconcile the paradoxes we encounter in doing so; cultures represent different bodies of beliefs, values and responses to the world, emphasising different aspects of it. How, then, could a clearer understanding of the differences between the two versions of the world offered by our two hemispheres fail to be central to the understanding of either? That’s why the neuroanatomy and neuropsychology, along with the mental illnesses that result from hemispheric imbalance, find themselves brought into discussions of creativity, Heidegger and ancient Greece.
Incidentally I am a great fan of the “history of the button.” There is a place for that, too. But there is a problem with the way knowledge has become more and more specialised and purely technical. It gets harder and harder not to lose sight of the bigger picture, the context in which all the little bits make sense. In that way this book can itself be seen as an image of how I believe the brain must work: taking the detailed view of the left hemisphere (e.g., the mass of specific neuropsychological data I deal with in Part I) back to enrich the comprehensive view offered by the right (the evolution of the Western mind in Part II).
The interviewed author: Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, and writer who is committed to the idea 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 – the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is moulded by, our minds and brains. His book, “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World ” is being made into a feature length documentary, “The Divided Brain“. You can follow the documentary on Twitter @divided_brain and on Facebook.
The interviewer: Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor of the magazines Bookslut.com and Spoliamag.com. She is the author of The Dead Ladies Project, published by The University of Chicago Press, and The Creative Tarot, published by Touchstone. She has written for many publications, some of which are still in existence. She has lived in Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Ireland, Berlin, among other places. She currently lives nowhere in particular. You can follow her on Twitter @thebookslut You can find out more about Jessa through her website.