In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist explains our reality through the perspective of brain lateralization. He includes in his study neurology, mythology, art, science, literature, and psychology – to explain how the hemispheres of the brain are different, and how this explains why experience contradictions in our own thinking, such as the mismatch between what we will and what we desire.
These differences not only explain the contradictions in our own minds, but they explain the differences between cultures, and most importantly, they tell us why Western civilization is headed towards social disintegration, ostracization, and mental illness.
The Difference Between the Hemispheres
The left hemisphere is sequential, linear, compartmentalizes the world, logical, and analytic. The right hemisphere is holistic, complex, receptive. Each hemisphere knows things that the other hemisphere does not know. The corpus callosum creates cooperation between the hemispheres, by excluding the other at the right time.
A great example given by McGilchrist is to compare the two hemispheres to a technology business consisting of a salesperson and of an engineer. The salesperson forges new relationships and brings in clients, while the engineer builds systems and technologies. The salesperson thinks that the engineer is free loading of his talent, while the engineer thinks the same of the salesperson.
The True Master
The brain manifests itself in the world, and the world then reshapes the brain. But the brain is not a monolithic entity, it is comprised of two vastly different interpreters of reality, and for this reason, one takes precedence over the other. In the West, the left-brain has emerged victorious, while in the East, it is the right-brain that has won.
According to McGilchrist, the true master is the right-brain, and its servant is the left-brain. He gives many reasons to back up this claim, one of which involves what happens to patients with damage to either one of their hemispheres. For those with left-hemispheric damage, there is an increase in living in a state of denial, as compared with patients with right-hemispheric damage. The right hemisphere is more universal, it goes beyond the limitations of language.
In a sense, language, which is a left-hemisphere invention, can only work by working with its own presuppositions. That is, any insight you can derive from language can only come from language itself. While the right hemisphere cannot articulate its insights because they are too complex, and cannot formulate linear arguments with clear conclusions, it is open to new experiences, and is thus the conduit to creativity. The right-hemisphere chooses what part of the world to take in, and the left-hemisphere merely chooses to either obey or disobey.
But because the right-hemisphere can lead to an unstable society, there has been a revolt by the left-brain, and now the emissary has become the master. Yet this emissary has proven to be a terrible master.
But McGilchrist does not attack rationality. On the contrary, he uses rationality in the proper way, by being critical of the rational mental faculty itself. There is no point in using rationality in the world, if we cannot criticize our own tendencies, rational or otherwise.
Rationality is, in fact, under minded when it is not itself examined, and for this self-criticism to take place, we must apply a new kind of reason, one that is more holistic and open minded, less materialistic and narrow.
In the West, there has been a movement towards a society that is orderly and rational. Historically, we can think of this period as the Enlightenment, when a fear of human intuition, emotion, and superstition led to a hyper-rational ethic that persists till this day.
Romanticism was a reaction to the Enlightenment, and philosophers such as Nietzsche and Heidegger have warned of this development. Nietzsche, a strong critique of rationalism, suggested that the materialistic worldview is not superior to the religious. Instead of the worship of God (antithetical to left hemispheric thinking), a superior being, man will worship inferior gods, that are of his own creation.
This includes political and economic systems. Both capitalism and communism are products of the left-hemisphere, they are modes of dividing the spoils of a lifeless society in the most rational way possible. In the west, it is the worship of consumerism that has prevailed. And therefore, there has been a dissipation of family structures, and a rise in individuality. This has led to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and anorexia in urbanized areas in the west. In art, we can see the universality of right hemispheric thinking (Bach can be appreciated in areas as remote as Papa New Guinea).
The East and West differ with regards to interpreting reality. In the West, the emphasis is on taking a side. There is a winner and a loser, a correct argument and a false argument, and very little room for contradiction. Whereas in the East, it is the opposite. Children are taught to understand the world through its contradictions. That is, contradictions are a source of trouble in the West, but in the East, they are a source of illumination.
The final conclusion of the book is that there is a powerful movement towards linearity, systems, organization and separation, And unless there is a focused effort in examining where this momentum will lead, society is at risk of remaining hostage to the incompetent emissary, who knows exactly how to do things, but never what ought to be done.
While the book contains many insights, and is worth revisiting, it can be verbose at times. As for the conclusion itself, the author oversimplifies the world to match the dualism of the brain The world is not so easily divided between right-hemispheric and left-hemispheric thinking. While it is true that in the East, there is greater appreciation, historically, for holistic thinking than in the West, it is by no means clear that this is still the case. For example, in Japan, a country that is mentioned a few times in the book, while seemingly embracing the right-hemispheric thinking that McGilchrist promotes, appears to be more individualistic and techno-centric than most other societies.
It is a correct observation to say that increased detachedness and logical analysis has resulted in the destruction of social bonds, and there is evidence to back it up, but it is far from clear, where this is taking place. Is it taking place in the West, where there is now a movement towards meditation, yoga, and spirituality, or is it in the East, where there is a rapid movement towards urbanization and techno-centrism?