‘The Master and His Emissary’: Feed Your Head

Turning the final page of this massive and wide-ranging book, the first thing that comes to mind is Keanu Reeves. There’s a scene in the film version of A Scanner Darkly where two medics tell the character played by Reeves that drug use has injured his brain.

“Damage has taken place to the normally dominant left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere is attempting to compensate,” they tell him.

He responds, “The two hemispheres in my brain… are competing?”

As one, both medics reply, “Yes.”

Just like the Philip K. Dick novel it’s based on, Richard Linklater’s film explores drug culture and how it can bend our perceptions of self and reality, and strangely enough, that scene resonates with The Master and His Emissary, the mind-bending new book by Iain McGilchrist. Specifically, Reeves captures the creeping paranoia and sense of sheer weirdness that can accompany the idea that your brain’s hemispheres are in conflict, that they are something other than you.

At the core of McGilchrist’s book is the notion that the two hemispheres are locked in a contest that not only influences our perceptions of reality, but actually changes reality around us.

“My thesis is that for us as human beings there are two fundamentally opposed realities, two different modes of experience; that each is of ultimate importance in bringing about the recognisably human world; and that their difference is rooted in the bihemispheric structure of the brain,” he writes.

“It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture… [T]hey have for some time been in a state of conflict. The subsequent battles between them are recorded in the history of philosophy, and played out in the seismic shifts that characterise the history of Western culture.”

It sounds like science fiction, like Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven, where a young man’s dreams alter reality. Or, bringing it back to Keanu, it’s reminiscent of The Matrix, especially the moment when Reeves’ character is confronted with the knowledge that his mind has physical control over the world. Like him, at least one reader of The Master and His Emissary uttered a philosophical “Whoa.”

The book is also split into two parts. The first explores the medical evidence for how each hemisphere seems to “see” the world. Reminiscent of books by Oliver Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran, this section is based on clinical research and studies, including detailed examinations of subjects who experienced injuries to a particular hemisphere, thereby isolating the other half and revealing to researchers that hemisphere’s particular modus operandi.

“When I say the ‘left hemisphere does this,’ or ‘the right hemisphere does that,’ it should be understood that in any one human brain at any one time both hemispheres will be actively involved. Unless one hemisphere has been surgically removed, or otherwise destroyed, signs of activity will be found in both,” he writes.

“But, at the level of experience, the world we know is synthesized from the work of the two cerebral hemispheres, each hemisphere having its own way of understanding the world — its own ‘take’ on it. This synthesis is unlikely to be symmetrical, and the world we actually experience, phenomenologically, at any point in time is determined by which hemisphere’s version of the world ultimately comes to predominate.”

The book’s second half is nothing less than a history of western civilization in the context of the left vs. right brain ways of being. It’s ambitious, philosophical and ultimately convincing, if at times intimidating in the breadth of its topics and conclusions.

“Ultimately I believe that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are highly valuable; but that they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another — hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain.”

There’s no lack of books that look at left-brain vs. right-brain differences (notably from a self-help perspective), but two aspects of McGilchrist’s work that set him apart are his scope and depth. There’s a sense that McGilchrist has read nearly everything, and he weaves into his story subjects ranging from art history to economics, musicology to linguistics and more. This recalls Lewis Hyde, whose Trickster Makes the World achieved a similar effect of creating a fascinating and unique lens through which to view the history of the world and the way we live. It also brings to mind James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games, whose 101 brief and poetic chapters offer a similarly compelling way of seeing the world.

“There are at least two kinds of games,” Carse’s book begins. “Once could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

Like Carse, McGilchrist creates a philosophical structure that’s anchored in duality, and then demonstrates how the entire world fits into it. Relating one book to the other, the right brain could be described as playing infinite games, while the left plays finite ones.

“[T]he right hemisphere is grappling with experience, which is multiple in nature, in principle unknowable in its totality, changing, infinite, full of individual difference, while the left hemisphere sees only a version or representation of that experience, in which, by contrast, the world is single, knowable, consistent, certain, fixed, therefore ultimately finite, generalised across experience, a world that we can master,” McGilchrist writes.

“Each needs the other. Nonetheless the relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might say almost parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. Indeed it is filled with alarming self-confidence. The ensuing struggle is as uneven as the asymmetrical brain from which it takes its origin. My hope is that awareness of the situation may enable us to change the course before it is too late.”

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.

RATING 10 / 10