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Four Insights From "The Master and His Emissary."

Why this is interesting: This is a big one: the single book I’ve read that has most dramatically altered my perspective of the world. A Friday afternoon is either the best possible time to send this out, or the worst possible time. I guess I’ll find out.

[13 minute read]

Like all amazing books, it’s incredibly hard to summarize, and at 608 dense pages, a big ask to read. Thankfully author Iain McGilchrist speaks extremely articulately. This 37 minute video does a pretty solid job of quickly introducing his thesis. His conclusion is that the nature of this relationship determines everything from our individual experience of the world to the society around us.

McGilchrist is a unique kind of polymath generalist. His background is rather absurdly impressive: a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford (the “genius” college), a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and a former research Fellow in Neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins.

His credibility is particularly important because he’s approaching an area of research that has been historically been questionable and oversimplified. McGilchrist also has an impressive arts background that makes him unusually adept at marrying science and philosophy, disciplines he argues should never have been divorced.

Even for a brain science skeptic, I’ve found his thesis is a metaphor that might explain our world in an absolutely revolutionary fashion.

Four key insights from the book (he really likes a long sentence, so take deep breaths when reading)

1. McGilchrist believes the two hemispheres have different characters and capabilities. They see the world in two completely different, and contrasting ways.

“The world of the left hemisphere, dependent on denotative language and abstraction, yields clarity and power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, disembodied, general in nature, but ultimately lifeless.

The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings within the context of the lived world, but in the nature of things never fully graspable, always imperfectly known — and to this world it exists in a relationship of care.

The knowledge that is mediated by the left hemisphere is knowledge within a closed system. It has the advantage of perfection, but such perfection is bought ultimately at the price of emptiness, of self-reference. It can mediate knowledge only in terms of a mechanical rearrangement of other things already known. It can never really ‘break out’ to know anything new, because its knowledge is of its own re-presentations only. Where the thing itself is ‘present’ to the right hemisphere, it is only ‘re-presented’ by the left hemisphere, now become an idea of a thing. Where the right hemisphere is conscious of the Other, whatever it may be, the left hemisphere’s consciousness is of itself.”

In understanding these capabilities, tensions, and conflicts, you can get a much more profound sense of your own limitations. It also meaningfully diminished my own sense of self-importance. I had based a lot of my self-worth on intellectual prowess, which you rapidly realize is a relatively limited tool.

This leads to two parallel, competing, and yet complimentary experiences of the world. Funnily enough this is VERY close to what gets reported by people suffering hemispheric, lateral strokes. Why do we need to see the world in two different ways?

“Experience is forever in motion, ramifying and unpredictable. In order for us to know anything at all, that thing must have enduring properties. If all things flow, and one can never step into the same river twice  -  Heraclitus’s phrase is, I believe, a brilliant evocation of the core reality of the right hemisphere’s world  -  one will always be taken unawares by experience, since nothing being ever repeated, nothing can ever be known. We have to find a way of fixing it as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow. Hence the brain has to attend to the world in two completely different ways, and in so doing to bring two different worlds into being.

In the one, we experience — the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected.

In the other we ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: a ‘re-presented’ version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes, on which predictions can be based. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But it also enables us for the first time to know, and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power.”

If we didn’t have the power to isolate single things out of the flood of sensory experience we’d just be in this continuous undifferentiated flow. The left hemisphere gives us the necessary power to isolate certain things and categorise them (“cat,” “rose,” etc). Otherwise we could never even communicate with other people: everything would be a part of everything else. It’s oversimplified, but I’d also characterize one hemisphere as focused on safety and stability and the other on growth and exploration. Everything that achieves that balance seems to be intrinsically desirable and meaningful to humans.

2. The Emissary has become the Master. Just as the intellectual brother Scar overthrew Mufasa in the Lion King, the left has become the master of the right. Current research suggests about 75% of us are left-hemisphere dominant. The key issue from his book, is that the left is typically the servant of the right hemisphere, as it is intrinsically more limited. It understands much less than we assume. But the left hemisphere has become dominant in Western society. Why? McGilchrist argues:

“The left hemisphere point of view inevitably dominates, because it is most accessible: closest to the self-aware, self-inspecting intellect. Conscious experience is at the focus of our attention, usually therefore dominated by the left hemisphere. It benefits from an asymmetry of means. The means of argument — the three Ls, language, logic and linearity — are all ultimately under left-hemisphere control, so that the cards are heavily stacked in favour of our conscious discourse enforcing the world view re-presented in the hemisphere which speaks, the left hemisphere, rather than the world that is present to the right hemisphere.”

Hence we have a much more limited relationship with the world, when at least half of our experience is unknowable. There’s a lot more out there than we understand, it’s just our intellect often dismisses it for more power and control (see Tor Nørretranders’ The User Illusion I wrote about recently). Witness how much the intellect seems to denigrate other forms of intelligence; from plant and animal, to indigenous people to our own guts and hearts. The “gut brain” has been discovered and “forgotten” 3 times in the last century. Witness how we compensate artists relative to knowledge workers. If you’re having a dismissive reaction to these concepts, consider why!

3. Our outside world and society reflects this tension and imbalance. What’s particularly interesting is that McGilchrist believes the left hemisphere has increasingly influenced the nature of our external world and our society. This initially seemed strange, then less-so the more I pondered it. In fact it would perhaps be weirder if we didn’t have our external world reflect our inner realities. As he puts in (in another loooong sentence):

“I would contend that a combination of urban environments which are increasingly rectilinear grids of machine-made surfaces and shapes, in which little speaks of the natural world; a worldwide increase in the proportion of the population who live in such environments, and live in them in greater degrees of isolation; an unprecedented assault on the natural world, not just through exploitation, despoliation and pollution, but also more subtly, through excessive ‘management’ of one kind or another, coupled with an increase in the virtuality of life, both in the nature of work undertaken, and in the omnipresence in leisure time of television and the internet, which between them have created a largely insubstantial replica of ‘life’ as processed by the left hemisphere — all these have to a remarkable extent realised this aim, if I am right that it is an aim, in an almost unbelievably short period of time.”

The big takeaway here is that the more abstracted our life becomes, digitally or intellectually, the unhappier and further from natural vitality we get. This was a huge factor for me in understanding and conceptualizing depression. The key hallmarks of depression are withdrawal and loss of connection. A retreat into the closed-circuit, abstract world of the left hemisphere.

4. The biggest idea for me: our two hemispheres control two different kinds of attention. McGilchrist likes to use the example of a bird. A bird uses its left hemisphere to identify if a grain is food or sand, while simultaneously using its right hemisphere to be on guard for predators. Narrow focus and broad focus, simultaneously and in balance. Without the narrow focus of the left you can’t interact with the world and sort things into categories, without the right you focus too narrowly and get eaten by a cat.

This broader right-hemisphere awareness is what allows us to “see out of the corner of our eyes.” We are always scanning for the unusual, and when it gets noticed, we swivel our heads and bring the full focus of left-brained attention onto it. For me this also relates neatly back to The User Illusion. We are unconsciously absorbing 11 million bits, but consciously aware of 60 bits. The left hemisphere operates a spotlight, while the right hemisphere sees the whole stage. This is consistent with McGilchrist’s theory:

“It is thus the right hemisphere that has dominance for exploratory attentional movements, while the left hemisphere assists focused grasping of what has already been prioritised. It is the right hemisphere that controls where that attention is to be oriented.”

There is a huge, bonkers, wonderful idea that results from this, in my opinion. As your right-hemisphere has access to infinitely more information and is directly connected to the outside world in a way the left isn’t, it might sometimes operate as a superior guide for your growth and evolution. It just might seem irrational, as most right-hemisphere knowledge does. Carl Jung argued that our larger “self” guides us along the path to optimal growth by directing your interests in the present. It’s a mind-blowing idea, and potentially life-changing.

Concluding thought:

As I argued above, you don’t necessarily need to believe the science of McGilchrist’s argument to get immense value from it, as he himself says many of his readers felt he articulated something they themselves deeply knew. I’ve found this is typically a strong clue that someone is revealing a valuable truth.

“When one puts that together with the fact that the brain is divided into two relatively independent chunks which just happen broadly to mirror the very dichotomies that are being pointed to — alienation versus engagement, abstraction versus incarnation, the categorical versus the unique, the general versus the particular, the part versus the whole, and so on — it seems like a metaphor that might have some literal truth. But if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.”

The important emphasis is that this tension is necessary: you need friction to move forwards. The problems come from an unbalanced relationship. Which is where he thinks we are now.

As befits his status in my personal pantheon, you’ll see a lot more of his ideas. But I wanted to send this out as an appetizer.


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