Western civilization and the divided brain

In his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  psychiatrist, doctor, writer, and former Oxford literary scholar Iain McGilchrist mounts a fascinating argument for the idea “that the division of the brain into two hemispheres is essential to human existence, making possible incompatible versions of the world, with quite different priorities and values.” The first part of the book examines the structure and function of the brain to elicit the differences between the left and right hemispheres, and to show them “as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world.” The second part examines the record of Western philosophy, art, and literature to reveal “the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere — at the expense of us all.”

In more detail, here’s McGilchrist explaining his basic idea in an excellent 2010 interview for The Morning News:

My belief is that the two cerebral hemispheres subserve two wholly different ways of looking at the world — two different “takes” on it, if you like. Both are necessary, but one is more fundamentally important than the other, and sees more than the other, even though there are some things that it must not get involved with, if it is to maintain its broader, more complete — in essence more truthful — vision. This is the right hemisphere, which, as I demonstrate from the neuropsychological literature, literally sees more, and grounds the understanding of the left hemisphere — an understanding which must ultimately be re-integrated with the understanding of the right hemisphere, if it is not to lead to error. The left hemisphere is extraordinarily valuable as an intermediate, but not as a final authority. Unfortunately the limited vision, and limited capacity for self-criticism, of the left hemisphere makes it think that it knows far more than it does. It is an optimist, too easily convinced of its own rightness, and unaware of its limitations. My belief is that it has now taken over our self-understanding, for a variety of reasons, and is leading us all down the road to ruin.

… [M]ost corrosive is [the left hemisphere’s] impact on society. It generates a view of the world in which the virtual becomes more important than the real, the “re-presentation” than the presence which it represents; where the elements are atomistically separate, rather than taking their very nature from being interconnected; where utility is the only criterion; where quality is swallowed up by quantitative measurement, and the individual by the category to which he or she belongs. It prefers machines and tools to living things — literally. It fails to understand the true power of art, of what we call (for want of a better term) the realm of the spiritual, and even of the body, which is in my view far from being the machine it is thought to be. The left hemisphere is also the hemisphere of denial: It fails to see that there is a problem at all. I have likened it to a sleepwalker, whistling a happy tune, as it ambles towards the abyss.

… I don’t want to suggest that I am one of those who reduce human experience to what goes on in the brain. In fact I am deeply opposed to that tendency. However, what I think I can show is that the way we see ourselves and the world, and particularly the relationship between the two, depends on how much we are enthralled by one or other of the “versions” of the world which the two hemispheres give us. One yields a sense of the world as an interconnected whole, in which opposites often come together, where all is flux, never certain, constantly growing, changing, evolving, and giving rise to completely unique entities. The other yields a disembodied, abstracted, fragmented world, to which we stand in a sort of superior isolation, where things are certain, known, fixed, but generalities only—no longer alive. I believe that the highpoint of our understanding in the West was the Renaissance, which synthesized the best that both hemispheres could give us, but that since the Reformation, and still more since the Enlightenment, which was a movement that had many wonderful aspirations, but fatally restricted vision, we have become enslaved by a terribly simple, mechanistic view of the world and ourselves, the view of the left hemisphere, which is not only inaccurate and limiting, but will never lead to the Enlightenment’s own ideal of happiness.

— Erik Bryan, “Iain McGilchrist,” The Morning News, November 11, 2010

Although the standard New Age version of the left brain/right brain dichotomy — which, in its most extreme form, characterizes the right brain in absolute terms as the seat of all things holistic, spiritual, and wise, and the left brain in equally absolute terms as an evil, soulless dictator — sounds superficially similar to McGilchrist’s ideas, in fact his are categorically more profound and sophisticated. The pop view of brain lateralization has justly come under widespread fire in recent years because of its hasty, simplistic, clumsy, and erroneous philosophical generalizing from early split-brain research, but McGilchrist’s thinking represents the acme of sophisticated philosophical thinking with an assiduous fidelity to the facts. It’s also enormously resonant and compelling in mythic and emotional terms. In other words, it’s well worth knowing, considering, and integrating into one’s overall thinking and outlook.

To that end, short of actually purchasing the book, you can read its introduction at McGilchrist’s Website.

You can also watch this brief (12-minute) RSAnimation, set to a portion of a recorded talk by McGilchrist:

Or you can watch him deliver the full half-hour talk itself:

Image: “Human Brain” via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About The Teeming Brain

The Teeming Brain is a blog magazine exploring the intersection of religion, horror, the paranormal, creativity, consciousness, and culture. It also tracks apocalyptic and dystopian trends in technology, politics, ecology, economics, the arts, education, and society at large.

Posted on September 11, 2012, in Psychology & Consciousness, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I recently read McGilchrist’s book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s one of those few books that will change the way you look at just about everything.

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