the master and his emissary

art by lynn

art by lynn

One of the most eye-opening books I have read in the past few years is The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009) by the psychiatrist and neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist. The title is taken from a story about a wise spiritual master who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, his domain grew in size. He then had to trust others, emissaries, to ensure the well-being of the more distant parts. He had to delegate to these emissaries. He nurtured and trained them, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious emissary, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s balanced temperament and patience as weakness, not wisdom. So the emissary became contemptuous of his master, and considered himself in charge as he did his work. So he took over, and his tyrannical approach cause the domain to ultimately collapse in ruin without the wise ruler being in charge.

This story, says McGilchrist, represents how the two sides of the brain need to work together for our success as people and as a civilization.   Although he takes the two sides of the brain as his starting point, he assures the reader that the way ‘left brain’ and ‘right brain’ have been used in popular culture are simplistic and do not adequately grasp the complexity that he sees existing, and I agree about the simplistic take on left brain/right brain.  His deep and thoughtful book stretches beyond these simplifications and can inform the way we see the world and ourselves. From his introduction:

“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. 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….

One of the more durable generalisations about the hemispheres has been the finding that the left hemisphere tends to deal more with pieces of information in isolation, and the right hemisphere with the entity as a whole, the so-called Gestalt – possibly underlying and helping to explain the apparent verbal/visual dichotomy, since words [more left brain] are processed serially, while pictures [more right brain] are taken in all at once. But even here the potential significance of this distinction has been overlooked. Anyone would think that we were simply talking about another relatively trivial difference of limited use or interest, a bit like finding that cats like to have their meat chopped up into small bits, whereas dogs like to wolf their meat in slabs. At most it is seen as helpful in making predictions about the sort of tasks that each hemisphere may preferentially carry out, a difference in ‘information processing’, but of no broader significance. But if it is true, the importance of the distinction is hard to over-estimate. And if it should turn out that one hemisphere [the right] understands metaphor, where the other does not, this is not a small matter of a quaint literary function having to find a place somewhere in the brain. Not a bit. It goes to the core of how we understand our world, even our selves, as I hope to be able to demonstrate.…The relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might almost say parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact. Indeed it is filled with an alarming self-confidence.”

In the book he describes the Left Hemisphere (as a symbol as well as an aspect of the brain itself) as being the more verbal, analytical, breaking things down into parts, attending to details, not necessarily in context. But because it is so verbally quick and facile, it is able to shut down the right side of the brain, sending constant inhibitory signals, that enable the way it acts and envisions the world to ‘take over’ both in our minds, and in our culture. He goes on to say:

“…I suggest that it is as if the left hemisphere, which creates a sort of self-reflexive virtual world, has blocked off the available exits, the ways out of the hall of mirrors, into a reality which the right hemisphere could enable us to understand. In the past, this tendency was counterbalanced by forces from outside the enclosed system of the self-conscious mind; apart from the history incarnated in our culture, and the natural world itself, from both of which we are increasingly alienated, these were principally the embodied nature of our existence, the arts and religion. In our time each of these has been subverted and the routes of escape from the virtual world have been closed off. An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness, has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.”

His suggestion for the world is that we need both aspects of our minds, and the world needs both. And we need to envision ways for the right brain to be empowered to be the “wise ruler” and the left brain serving those ends in the world.

For me, the ultimate wise ruler would be a meta-view of all. McGilchrist’s descriptions of how we function biologically can enable us to recognize the biases that might exist in the world today, that need our correction. We can see how the aspects of our brain that describe the world in mechanistic and fragmented ways can take over, even though they are better designed to serve rather than dominate.