'The Master and His Emissary': Feed Your Head

Check your head: This insightful, erudite and thought-provoking examination of the brain's hemispheres can change how you see (or think you see) the world.

The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Publisher: Yale University Press
Price: $25.00
Author: Iain McGilchrist
Length: 544 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2010-11
Author's website
Official site

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."

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