The Divided Brain: Do You Have Two People Inside You? An Interview with Iain McGilchrist (Final Part)

Iain McGilchrist

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. You can read the Part 1 here


If people are wary of you attributing personalities to the hemispheres, they seem to have no trouble assigning gender. I read a book not too long ago about the evolution of the left hemisphere and it stated the left hemisphere is a misogynist. It doesn’t take much digging to find a lot of scientific research describing the right brain – the silent, submissive, irrational one – as “feminine.” You touch on this briefly while dismissing it in the book, but I was wondering if in your research you figured out how prevalent this thinking is.

You are skilfully luring me into fields I have tried to steer clear of. To answer your question, though, the research I have done has been in the technical scientific literature, where such ideas as one hemisphere being “feminine” and one “masculine”, let alone, God help us, “misogynistic”, would quite rightly be considered ludicrous. However it is true, and I don’t think at all controversial, at least in scientific circles, that any brain measurements, whether morphological, physiological, neuroendocrine or neuropsychological, yield different results in men and women. That includes issues of hemisphere asymmetry.


All I can say is that the research I refer to in my book is broadly true across both men and women. One general conclusion that has quite a lot going for it is that women tend to demonstrate a lesser degree of  hemisphere differentiation than men. You can look on that as a good thing or a bad thing, I imagine, and, depending on the purpose, it might be either. 

Your dig at postmodernism reminded me why I can’t read David Foster Wallace and his ilk. It’s as if those words are coming from a disembodied head, not a human being, which I find painful for 20 pages let alone 1,000. Although what’s interesting is the rise of the so-called neuro-novel, the workings of the brain having an influence on contemporary literature – from Tom McCarthy to Richard Powers, even going back to Stanislaw Lem, and every Oliver Sacks essay or lecture seems to be the seed of a novel. Perhaps your research will inspire a new part of that wave…

Well, I suppose it might. I’d be delighted if my ideas were taken seriously in the important world of the arts, which is where we learn about ourselves. I have found Stanislaw Lem’s ideas – at least as filtered, I have to admit, by the genius of Andrei Tarkovsky – inspiring. I think, though, that what you say makes a valuable wider point. The interest in “brain matters” in the contemporary novel shows that people have come to accept that what we know about the brain is an interesting route to understanding who we, as human beings, are – perhaps the route, the one with all the charisma – and they don’t want to miss out on that, or be thought to be unaware of the brain debates. But they are so mesmerised by the white coats that they don’t seem to see that it is a two-way street.

What we know about human beings from philosophy and the arts is equally essential to understanding what the brain is. There is no fixed, unimpeachable place to start one’s exploration. I’m afraid that far too many scientists are philosophically naive: they believe it is transparent that if you can make the machine model fit what you are looking at, it is a machine. What they fail to see is that we can understand anything only “as a” something else: and depending on what that something else is, we see only the bits that fit that model. So choosing the right model is of critical importance. Until the Enlightenment, the natural model for understanding anything was itself that of a living being, a body, a tree, or a community: now we are so impressed by our ability to make machines, that even living beings, bodies, trees, and communities are modelled as machines – and as a result reveal only their mechanical aspects.

Speaking of the mind/body divide, to me it’s missing a spirit or soul category. We’re at a place where you can’t even bring divinity into the conversation without making it the only conversation. You briefly, briefly mention Jung and metaphysics, and then you back off very quickly. How much more quickly would the knives have come out if you had brought religious belief into the conversation, do you think? Is this divide more left hemisphere dominance stuff?

Ah, yes. What an interesting topic. I agree with you about the missing realm of experience. As you will have noticed, I left the issue open, whenever I mentioned it. I didn’t want to lose some potential readers over something that, while in itself undoubtedly important, is not necessary to the argument of my book. And Jung is a particularly divisive figure; otherwise reasonable psychiatrists will dig up paving-stones and hurl them at you, if you so much as mention his name. I couldn’t give an adequate judgement of him overall, since there is so much to get to grips with, and I don’t know him well enough: some of it seems to me wise and full of insight, some of it – as with anyone so creative and so productive – rather rash and questionable. 

In respect of hemispheres, the situation is complicated. I refer to the book by the neuropsychiatrist Michael Trimble called The Soul in the Brain, which came out last year. His analysis of the literature is appropriately cautious, but he concludes that the posterior right hemisphere is the area most closely linked with spiritual experience, though, as I say in my book, the other main area that comes up is the left frontal area (probably because of its inhibitory influence on the posterior regions of the left hemisphere). But the mechanical model beloved of the left hemisphere – and that is not just a form of words, the left hemisphere really does code preferentially for machines and man-made tools – has no room for the category of spirit.

The broader issue is fascinating, and I hope to address it in a future book.

Since you left yourself open for this, what are you working on next? Where does one go after writing a book about everything?

I think I’d like to write a shorter book – good start, you may say – looking at contemporary culture in a bit more detail from the standpoint of a psychiatrist.  Some, but not all, of that would be to do with the hemispheres. I’ve been studying the artworks of people with psychotic illnesses for many years, too, and I think there is a study there that would be of fairly broad interest. For one thing, the paintings themselves are absolutely wonderful. There was going to be a bit about that in The Master and his Emissary, but it just got unmanageable, and had to go. And eventually I want to write a short book about spiritual experience, but I don’t think I’m ready for that yet.


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_brainand onFacebook


The interviewer: Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor of the magazinesBookslut.comand 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.  


 


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