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The Master and His Emissary [Kindle Edition]

Iain McGilchrist
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (81 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.

Review

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

--Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
149 of 154 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Seeing through the brain February 21, 2010
Format:Hardcover
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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122 of 129 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterly achievement November 28, 2009
Format:Hardcover
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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67 of 72 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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30 of 31 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
5.0 out of 5 stars Written by a master himself, of both hemispheres
I have indicated the degree to which I have appreciated this purchase and how it his been of value to me. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Wayne
5.0 out of 5 stars A good brain function book
This book is required reading for somatic studies. The amount of research that was required for this book boggles the mind. Read more
Published 1 month ago by john copeland
5.0 out of 5 stars Without question a required read! Handle with caution
This work is valuable for its robust interdisciplinary research spanning philosophy, neuroscience and historical data sets. However, Dr. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Nicholas Fortuna
5.0 out of 5 stars An insightful exploration of the dual aspects of our nature.
Ian McGilchrist has written a thoroughly researched, yet enjoyably written, exploration of Humanity's dual nature. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Frank N. Wiley
5.0 out of 5 stars Provocative and challenging
This is one of the most stimulating and provocative books I have ever read. The author's erudition coupled with his articulate literary style outlines concepts and relationships... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Only the how, not the why. Not enough.
I’ve read the reviews of other readers here of this book. Given its length and its self-purported scope, though, it’s hard to believe anyone could have read this tome in less than... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Bill Deef
5.0 out of 5 stars A journey and process of discovery
Much like the end of the usual suspects, the information presented here helps to see a bigger picture of what is going on in ourselves and our society. Read more
Published 4 months ago by AJ
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterpiece of the 21st century
"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Marvin Aberle
5.0 out of 5 stars Distillation
Let us see if we can boil the whole thing down as far as we possibly can:

The left hemisphere (of right-handed folks) tends toward verbal symbolization of internal and... Read more
Published 4 months ago by Not Moses
5.0 out of 5 stars Important work
More than 40 years I am puzzling with the two poles: male-female, yin-yang, east-west (cultures), etcetera but from this book on we have a two-oneness grounded on science and life. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Oscar
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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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