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The Master and His Emissary [Kindle Edition]

Iain McGilchrist
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Why is the brain divided? The difference between right and left hemispheres has been puzzled over for centuries. In a book of unprecedented scope, Iain McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent brain research, illustrated with case histories, to reveal that the difference is profound—not just this or that function, but two whole, coherent, but incompatible ways of experiencing the world. The left hemisphere is detail oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest, where the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity. This division helps explain the origins of music and language, and casts new light on the history of philosophy, as well as on some mental illnesses.
In the second part of the book, McGilchrist takes the reader on a journey through the history of Western culture, illustrating the tension between these two worlds as revealed in the thought and belief of thinkers and artists, from Aeschylus to Magritte. He argues that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with potentially disastrous consequences. This is truly a tour de force that should excite interest in a wide readership.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A U.K. mental health consultant and clinical director with a background in literature, McGilchrist attempts to synthesize his two areas of expertise, arguing that the "divided and asymmetrical nature" of the human brain is reflected in the history of Western culture. Part I, The Divided Brain, lays the groundwork for his thesis, examining two lobes' significantly different features (structure, sensitivity to hormones, etc.) and separate functions (the left hemisphere is concerned with "what," the right with "how"). He suggests that music, "ultimately... the communication of emotion," is the "ancestor of language," arising largely in the right hemisphere while "the culture of the written word tends inevitably toward the predominantly left hemisphere." More controversially, McGilchrist argues that "there is no such thing as the brain" as such, only the brain as we perceive it; this leads him to conclude that different periods of Western civilization (from the Homeric epoch to the present), one or the other hemisphere has predominated, defining "consistent ways of being that persist" through time. This densely argued book is aimed at an academic crowd, is notable for its sweep but a stretch in terms of a uniting thesis.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


'A landmark new book ... it tells a story you need to hear, of where we live now.'

--Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

Product Details

  • File Size: 1763 KB
  • Print Length: 608 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press (August 16, 2010)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B003ZSHUG6
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #86,885 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
168 of 173 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Seeing through the brain February 21, 2010
Ian McGilchrist's thick book on the "divided brain" is the most interesting book I've read this year. I'd come to regard the fabled right brain/left brain antithesis as so much entertaining pop psychology (e.g., Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future) -- handy for provoking corporate robots, but hardly more than a convenient fiction. McGilchrist has convinced me that it's a metaphor worth taking seriously, that in fact it may be the fundamental metaphor for a scientistic age.

McGilchrist's thesis is simple: the right hemisphere of the brain (the "Master" of his title) provides our primary connection to the world - to whatever is outside ourselves; the left hemisphere is its Emissary, breaking wholes into parts, analyzing and abstracting, devising categories, names and theories, then returning the results of its investigations to the right brain to be integrated into lived experience. The health of both individuals and civilizations depends upon the reciprocal connection. The problem is that the left brain, which imagines it "knows" things it can't possibly know, usurps its role and projects its own partial, definite vision of the world onto the world's essentially ambiguous reality.

Stated simply (and the above is my own wording for McGilchrist's argument) I risk making the book sound as if it was written by a crank with an overweening metaphor. Nothing could be further from the truth. The book, which begins by examining a huge range of neurological research on the brain, then examines how the structure of the brain has affected (nothing less than!) the history of Western civilization, is continuously fascinating, rich in detail and bold in observation.
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132 of 139 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterly achievement November 28, 2009
This is a brilliant and staggeringly erudite book that only Iain McGilchrist could have written. Originally a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, in English literature, he retrained in medicine and has brought together CP Snow's 'two cultures' in a masterly synthesis. McGilchrist overturns the commonly held view of the left hemisphere as dominant, showing conclusively that the right hemisphere is primary but that both are meant to work together. Each has a different but complementary perspective on the world: the right hemisphere apprehends the whole and mediates new experiences, while the left provides focus. The snag is that this narrow focus prefers abstraction to experience and treats living things as mechanisms. This mechanistic metaphor pervades the whole of modern science and indeed economics, with its emphasis on manipulation.

This view tends to dehumanise the world and impose a bureaucratic mentality, from whose excesses we currently suffer as we strive to eliminate all risk in favour of a certainty which does not exist outside mathematics. The second part of the book examines our cultural history in terms of a power struggle between left and right hemispheres, in which the left hemisphere is currently privileged. Here is a new take on the history of Western thought, which will radically reshape your understanding. The book is impressive not just in its scope, but is beautifully written, positively bristling with insights and creative intelligence on every page.
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74 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Iain McGilchrist `The Master and His Emissary' : For sceptics and careful investors

Recent decades constitute a golden age for brain research, using new technology and methods. However, this gold has too often been mixed with lead, and even mud. Some have clung stubbornly to quickly outdated research, while others have aimed to cash-in on the prestige and fascination of such research by exploiting (sometimes for psycho-political as well as commercial purposes) half-truths and misunderstandings. At one extreme the brain becomes a fetish, while at another extreme it seems smart to speak of the allegedly obvious as `a no-brainer'. Hence, when a new, big, brain-book attracts such enthusiastic acclaim as this one, it is only prudent to be mindful of the need for caution.

Happily, Iain McGilchrist has provided on a personal website ([...]) not only summaries of his qualifications, experience and commitments, but also his book's complete and illuminating Introduction (about 15 pages), along with his table of contents and chapters. The caution, and respect for evidence and argument - as well as for his readers, to be found in this introduction are sufficient to show that he is an outstanding thinker, as well as researcher, polymath, cultural critic and humanistic practitioner, who deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt by any prospective purchaser. He is a genuinely interdisciplinary thinker, who - just because he appreciates disciplinary boundaries - is well prepared to cross them responsibly in developing his argument and insights.

Another impressively reliable reviewer, in addition to those already available on the Amazon site, is the great moral philosopher, interpreter of life-sciences, and cultural critic Mary Midgley.
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39 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterful work December 18, 2010
By gypsy
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I agree with all the previous reviews of this remarkable book. As I was reading, I kept track of the specific elements of each of the hemispheres that McGilchrist cites in this well researched book. I thought I would share this with the readers:
A very partial summary of the nature of the left hemisphere could be as follows: it has an emphasis on doing, on things mechanistic, of the "whatness" of things; it is interested purely in functions and can only see things in context. The LH is not interested in living things. It does not understand metaphor and deals with pieces of information but cannot see the gestalt of situations. It recognizes the familiar and is not the hemisphere that attends to the "new", therefore it searches for what it already understands to categorize and nail down, often with (another of its characteristics) an unreasonable certainty of itself. Remember, it can't observe anything outside of its own confines. Since it prefers the known, it attempts to repackage new information (if unaided by the RH) as familiar - a kind of re-presenting the experience. It positively prefers (and defends!) what it knows! The LH tends to deny discrepancies that do not fit its already generated schema of things. It creates "a sort of self-reflexive virtual world" according to McGilchrist. Additionally, it is "regional" and focuses narrowly. The metaphor for its structure is vertical. It brings an attention that isolates, fixes and makes things explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. It helps us to be grounded and "in life", looks for repetition and commonality between things without which we would drift and be unable to understand our experiences since all would be continuously new. It is efficient in routine situations where things are predictable.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Kindle edition sucks
A complaint about the Kindle edition: illustrations are not included due to electronic publishing copyright issues. Read more
Published 25 days ago by SC Peterson
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
excellent book!
Published 1 month ago by Vany
5.0 out of 5 stars A VERY IMPORTANT BOOK
This is a VERY important book and not at all the usual simplistic drivel about right brain-left brain. It's not easy going, but well-written. And LONG. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Jon
4.0 out of 5 stars Patiently delighted.
Initial chapters read slowly as the basic biochemistry of the brain is outlined for the future explanation of perception and gestalt experience. Read more
Published 1 month ago by George A. Kline
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading
I cannot begin to write about how essential this book is. I am reading it for the second time. Tho written densely, McGilchrist's writing style is not a stone wall to... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Richard Steiner
5.0 out of 5 stars The Divided Book
Like many, I've been skeptical of left / right brain theory for decades. The data seemed fluffy, with too many exceptions. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Sudden Disruption
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
Have only gotten into the first 100 pages. It's very dense.
Published 2 months ago by Joan Claassen
5.0 out of 5 stars the most synthetic read in neuroscience I have ever had ...
the most synthetic read in neuroscience I have ever had the privilege to read, ponder, or explore. This is the work of a true Renaissance writer who is all about integration.
Published 3 months ago by Jim Varga
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Not an easy read, but worth it, Very informative and seems well researched.
Published 4 months ago by Dave D
5.0 out of 5 stars A Remarkably Thorough Treatment of Integration
What a remarkably thorough treatment of how we in the West may be going through a cycle of exalting the "emissary" or the "bean-counter" hemisphere of the brain,... Read more
Published 4 months ago by James R. Webb
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More About the Author

Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and writer who works privately in London, and otherwise lives on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of North West Scotland. He is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise - the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is moulded by, our minds and brains.

He was a late entrant to medicine. He went up to Oxford to study theology and philosophy, read English literature, and after graduating in 1975 was awarded a Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford. An interest in the mind-body problem led to him training in medicine, and at Johns Hopkins in 1992 he researched in neuroimaging. He practises as a psychiatrist, formerly as a Consultant at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Trust in London, and now privately.

He has published original articles in a wide range of papers and journals, including the Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books, The Listener, Essays in Criticism, Modern Language Review, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph, BMJ, English Historical Review, British Journal of Psychiatry, and American Journal of Psychiatry, on topics in literature, medicine and psychiatry, and has published original research on neuroimaging in schizophrenia, the phenomenology of schizophrenia, and other topics. He took part in a two-part Channel 4 documentary, Soul Searching, in 2003. His first book, Against Criticism, was published by Faber in 1982, and dates from before his medical training, but deals with issues of the wholeness, uniqueness and embodied nature of the work of art, which are continuous with his current concern, the relationship between the history of ideas and shifts in brain hemisphere function, a topic which he has been researching for 20 years, and which is the subject of a recent book published by Yale University Press, The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.


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