The divided brain: do you have two people inside you? An interview with Iain McGilchrist (Part 3)

Jessa Crispin

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


Did it take 20 years to write because you spent five of those years reading studies about the split brains? Because I feel like I could have done that. After reading about the woman whose right brain wanted to wear something different from the left brain, I had the sudden desire to have my corpus callosum paralysed for a while, so I could ask my right brain its food preferences and what it wanted to wear.

I agree that the split-brain literature is fascinating. And it is remarkable that, as Sperry suggested, there are different sets of values, and therefore different preferences and even “personalities”, to the hemispheres. In the end, though, most split-brain patients, as you know, carried on, after an initial settling-in period, much as though nothing had happened. What has kept my attention over 20 years of research has been the fact that the literature about normal brains also displays obvious, hugely important differences between the two hemispheres – but we’ve completely overlooked them. I believe this is because we have been mesmerised by the idea of the brain as a machine. So we ask what “functions” it performs in either half. Initially, around the time of the split-brain operations in the ’60s and ’70s, everyone got excited because they thought they could answer that question. But since we found out that language, visuospatial functions, reason and emotion, go on in both hemispheres, not just one, and that creativity depends on both hemispheres, everybody just gave up looking. They failed to see, despite the hints that Sperry gave them, that the hemispheres are  more like persons than machines. So – no, the 20 years were partly about gathering the information from a widely disparate literature, and partly, to be honest, needing time to think. How to put it across? Because here, too, the problem of the hemispheres obtrudes. I found that, in order to explain any one thing, I needed already to have explained everything else. In other words, the parts needed the whole to be understood before they could themselves be understood. Straightening it out into what any book demands, namely a sequential argument, was like trying to straighten out a cat’s cradle without losing the pattern in which, alone, it existed.


You wrote a book called “Against Criticism,” and you are currently corresponding with someone who occasionally does work that resembles that of a book critic. Should I be wary of you turning on me?

Never! Everything true partakes of the nature of paradox. My book Against Criticism was itself, knowingly, a book of criticism. I believe criticism is valuable. It just needs to work “against itself” in order to succeed: using language, of course, but to get beyond language; using analysis, too – like language an invaluable tool – but to get beyond analysis. Which is why the implicit is so important in art and in the criticism of art. Use your right hemisphere as well as your left! Just don’t use your left hemisphere only, in criticism or anywhere else.

Speaking of criticism, reading the reviews of your book it seemed an awful lot of people missed the part where you stated you don’t believe right brain dominance is any better than left brain dominance. Do you sit on your hands to keep from composing emails, “Dear Mr AC Grayling: Please read the goddamn book”?

It has been a strain. I am grateful to Grayling for the very generous things he said, though obviously he quite misunderstood the point that we need both hemispheres in balance, not either the right alone or the left, which I do keep saying throughout the book. Sitting on my hands slightly failed, as I did write to the Literary Review to make that point (don’t know if they will publish it). But he, too, like the anonymous reviewer for The Economist, seemed to balk at the idea that something that is true about the way in which a single human being sees the world can be true about the way in which an aggregate of human beings who share a worldview (namely, a culture) sees the world.  

I had to take a calculated risk, to describe the hemispheres as if they were personalities, with desires and values of their own (no odder that supposing them to be machines, in my view). The left hemisphere evolved to help us manipulate the world. Its disposition is acquisitive, and because it has a simplified model of the world, it thinks it knows it all – it seems arrogant. Anyone who reads the accounts in my book of experimental research into hemisphere differences would have to acknowledge that. Therefore to liken it to a person who has those qualities is reasonable enough, though of course, like every scientific explanation, it is just another model. I did acknowledge the problems of doing so at some length in my book, and deal with them there, but in the end I have to live with the possible misunderstandings. Inevitably these have turned up. So far I’ve had at least one rather shrill and superficial review, to the effect that I am an emotionalist who merely want us all to go back to singing Kumbaya on the beach.

Incidentally that reviewer, had read the book so carefully that he even got the primary metaphor of the book back to front (he’d only have to have made it as far as p. 14 to understand that). As a philosopher friend wrote to me, “Call me old-fashioned, but I do think it helps to read the book before reviewing it.” However this sort of thing is to be expected. The left hemisphere sees only a very simple version of reality, is black and white in its view, tends to arrogant certainty, a view that it “knows it all already” and doesn’t have to listen to anything new, and is in denial about its own shortcomings. And it has a tendency to paranoia if it feels its position is being threatened. So he really gave me a textbook demonstration of what I was saying.


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 on Facebook


The interviewer: Jessa Crispin is the founder and editor of the magazines Bookslut.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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