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The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Paperback – November 2, 2010
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"'A landmark new book... It tells a story you need to hear, of where we live now.' Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times 'A giant in his vital field shows convincingly that the degeneracy of the West springs from our failure to manage the binary division of our brains.' Book of the Year choice, David Cox, Evening Standard 'A scintillating intelligence is at work.' Economist 'This is a very remarkable book... I couldn't put it down.' Mary Midgley, The Guardian 'A beautifully written, erudite, fascinating, and adventurous book. It goes from the microstructure of the brain to great epochs of Western civilisation, confidently and readably.' A. C. Grayling, Literary Review"
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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. Without benefit of the RH (seen in studies of people with hemispheric damage, for example), it also renders things inert, mechanical and lifeless.. But it allows us to "know" and learn and make things.
The right hemisphere's emphasis is on process, on the "how", "the manner in which" or the "howness" as McGilchrist puts it. It is interested in "ways of being" which only living things have. I was amazed to learn that the RH does recognize one group of inanimate objects as belonging to the class of living entities, and that is musical instruments (!) It helps us resonate with other living beings and the natural world, seeing its ultimate interconnectedness. The RH can carefully see things out of their context, it is global rather than regional, is broad and flexible, and as mentioned above, understands metaphor. It sees the gestalt and the wholeness; it tolerates ambiguity and the unknown. Its structure metaphor is "horizontal"; it is spacious and helps us with enough distance so we can observe. In it, 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. The RH is responsible for every kind of attention: divided, vigilant, sustained, and alertness - except for "focused", the domain of the LH. It can direct attention to what comes to us "from the edges" of our awareness regardless of the hemisphere side. It alone detects new or novel experiences. It distinguishes old information from new better than the LH. Animals, like horses, perceive new and emotionally arousing stimuli with the left eye (which is governed by the RH). It is more capable of a frame shift; think "possibility"; it has flexibility when encountering the "new" and suppresses the immediate impulse to see it as "old". It actively watches for discrepancies, more like a "devil's advocate". It approaches certainty with caution and humility. It says "I wonder" or "it might be" when confronted with information. But it also, without the LH, would create an experience that was always unique, forever in motion and unpredictable. `'If all things flow, and there is never a repeated experience, then we can never step into the same river twice, and we would never be able to `know' anything." If nothing can ever be repeated, then nothing can be known.
Is the result of this growing LH dominance over the RH an increasingly dehumanized society where mechanism, bureaucracy, obsession with structure and with "what" predominates over a concern for living things and beings and their interconnectedness? You will be immersed in this question throughout this remarkable book.
While no doubt this book deepens our understanding of the brain and has vast implications for psychotherapy and the understanding of human psychology, it is far more than this. It isn't possible to read this book without a continuing awareness of our political system, the growing dominance of our corporations, the weak assumptions of war, and the uncomfortably growing sense of the "dehumanization" of our world.
The reviewers who complain that the style is foreboding and dense must be unfamiliar with the pompous impenetrability of most scientific tomes, particularly of the past. McGilchrist writes in plain, easy to understand prose, which is one of the refreshingly positive qualities of this wonderful book.
My only criticism is that McGilchrist pays only fleeting regard to sages such William Blake, and avoids mention altogether of mega-philosophers such as Berkeley and Friedrich Schelling, from whom he gets many of his deeper ideas.
This is not uncommon among academics of this standing, who are rather desperate to "borrow" the ideas of greater historical savants in their quest to salvage and expand the dreadfully narrow, anemic materialist paradigms that have, for many decades now, been crumbling under their own weight.
Consequently, the extraordinary ideas of the world's foremost thinkers - Blake, Bohme, Eckhart, Malebranche, Berkeley, Goethe, Schelling, Hegel, Whitehead, and many others, are repackaged and recycled without due credit time and again. This is a particularly conspicuous oversight in scientific circles where the arrogance of writers and thinkers is on steroids.
McGilchrist and academics of his type, and their publishers, know how few readers have a clue about where their ideas come from. So the habit of recent years is to flagrantly airbrush out the name of an original intelligence from the canvas and scrawl your own signature in its place. Job done. Publishers happy. No one will notice or get bothered about it.
Most western academia is based on the plagiarized work of the great sages, some of whom i mention here, but many others besides. This work is no exception. You get the feeling that editors and publishers have methodically gone through this work and deliberately excised any reference to any great mind that McGilchrist himself might have wished to reference. This gives the book the "scientific" gleam they desire, since after all it's duped materialists they hope will read this work. So keep the blindfolds on, and just open the mouth and taste what goodies are placed on the tongue. Don't bother worrying about who cooked these delicacies in the first place before your time. The champions of scientism and materialism prefer you never find out about that.
In light of this, I suggest that interested parties read the trilogy by Arthur Koestler: "Sleepwalkers," "Ghost in the Machine" and "Act of Creation." These books help us remember that for every apparently "new" theory proffered forth by some trophy-obsessed newbie, there is a mastermind in the wings whose name gets more and more forgotten as time passes.
On a positive note, McG does well to brilliantly and concisely detail the ideas of the Phenomenologists Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. McG has noticed how well their ideas on Being, perception and somatic intelligence dovetail with his own findings on the hemispheres of the brain and their asymmetrical relationship. This unison of ideas is one of the strongest aspects of this book.
I also suggest the works of Rupert Sheldrake, Anthony Peake, Margaret Midgley, Christopher Davis, and others mentioned on the Library page of my site Schellingzone.com