I’m part-way into a book that’s going to take me ages to read – 460 pages of detailed argument in a hardback so heavy that I can only read it in bed resting on a pile of cushions. But I can tell it’s going to be worth the effort. The book is Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. This is an interim report. (It is out in paperback this autumn, and I might need to get that and return the borrowed hardback – I say this even as a devotee of the physical artefact!)
The book is both heavy-going (because of all the scientific detail) and fascinating. What could be more fascinating than the way the human brain affects what we think and say and do, the way we organise our lives and societies, our culture? The author is a former consultant psychiatrist and expert on neuroimaging, and has also taught English at Oxford. This range of expertise is apt for the theme of the book, the entirely different perspectives and approaches of the two separate hemispheres of the brain. The left is focused, intent on detail, literal, unintuitive and so on, the right looks at the whole, is alert to what is new, looks at the broad rather than the narrow. This contrast is well-known in the popular understanding of brain science, although perhaps over-simplified.
The interesting argument made here is that increasingly in western culture the two halves are fighting each other, rather than working together as they need to. The left hemisphere is winning, moreover, to the detriment of culture and nature. I am still on the first, brain-focused, half of the book, and not yet the second culture-focused, second half. I’m therefore not in a position yet to assess the argument. It is an important one, though. To quote the introduction:
“An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”
And I’m also interested to see if Prof McGilchrist thinks we can help our right hemispheres fight back. An interestingly self-referential task.