Describing the Machine from Within the Machine
That “situation” is “the slide into the territory of the left hemisphere,” which McGilchrist argues has been the dominant view of the Western world for some time.
“My contention is that the modern world is the attempt by the left hemisphere to take control of everything it knows so that it is the giver to itself of what it sees,” he writes. “If one had to sum up these features of modernism they could probably be reduced to these: an excess of consciousness and an over-explicitness in relation to what needs to remain intuitive and implicit; depersonalisation and alienation from the body and empathic feeling; disruption of context; fragmentation of experience; and the loss of ‘betweenness.’‘
In an interview with Frontier Psychiatrist magazine, McGilchrist summarized one way that these hemispheric differences can impact groups of people throughout history and around the world:
“If, as is clearly the case, an emphasis on right or left hemisphere function in an individual results in certain things happening to the way that individual conceives the world, it cannot help being the case that such an emphasis in a group of individuals who share values, concepts, habits of thought – in other words a culture – will result in the same sort of things happening to the way that culture conceives the world.”
A highly-decorated English scholar, McGilchrist taught English literature before training in medicine. He became a successful psychiatrist and researcher, and pursued interests in (among other things) neuropsychology, mental illness, creativity, and philosophy. In addition to his work as a writer, he has “a busy practice as a medico-legal expert,” according to his online biography. Demonstrating this broad range of expertise in The Master and His Emissary, he manages to balance medical/clinical-related content with often astounding insights, analysis and philosophy.
For example, here are a few favourite passages:
“There is no such thing as the brain, only the brain according to the left hemisphere and the brain according to the right hemisphere: the two hemispheres that bring everything into being also, inevitably, bring themselves—like Escher’s hands.”
“Before there can be harmony, there must be difference.”
“[C]onsciousness is not a bird, as it often seems to be in the literature—hovering, detached, coming in at the top level and alighting on the brain somewhere in the frontal lobes—but a tree, its roots deep inside us. It reinforces the nature of consciousness not as an entity, but as a process.”
He’s also careful throughout to acknowledge his limitations and embrace the ambiguities inherent in such a massive, tangled and puzzling argument. In this aspect, he brings to mind the opening lines of Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching, which warn that “the Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”
“In this book certainty has certainly not been my aim,” he writes. “I am not so much worried by the aspects that remain unclear, as by those which appear to be clarified, since that almost certainly means a failure to see clearly.”
While most of the critical responses to McGilchrist’s book have been positive, noted philosopher A.C. Grayling voiced a concern in the Literary Review (see ““Of Two Minds”, by A. C. Grayling) that despite having written “a beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and adventurous book ... The fact is that the findings of brain science are nowhere near fine-grained enough yet to support the large psychological and cultural conclusions Iain McGilchrist draws from them.”
Indeed, it can be puzzling at times to connect with McGilchrist’s assertions, but he anticipates this. One of the difficulties he notes is how the very act of describing how the mind works involves language and concreteness (the domain of the left hemisphere); we are attempting describing the machine from within the machine.
“For the left-hemisphere crowd, there will never be enough neuroscientific knowledge to relate the brain to culture,” he said in his interview with Frontier Psychiatrist. “For them not only is everything valid only within its own compartment of knowledge, but each little fragment of knowledge within that compartment, each little research paper, is just that – another tiny piece of information. The bigger picture is lost, and even professionally frowned on.”
At more than 500 pages, replete with footnotes, this book is almost too much to take in. By the end, there’s a feeling that he might have been convincing simply through a tactic of overwhelming the opposition. There’s much more to McGilchrist’s work than I’ve described here. However, like the previous books mentioned, namely Hyde’s Trickster and Carse’s Games, this joins my short-list of non-fiction works that I look forward to re-reading over the years.