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The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Paperback – October 9, 2012
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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.
'This is a very remarkable book ... McGilchrist, who is both an experienced psychiatrist and a shrewd philosopher, looks at the relation between our two brain-hemispheres in a new light, not just as an interesting neurological problem but as a crucial shaping factor in our culture ... clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating ... splendidly thought-provoking ... I couldn't put it down.' -- Professor Mary Midgley, The Guardian
'A beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and adventurous book. It embraces a prodigious range of enquiry, from neurology to psychology, from philosophy to primatology, from myth to history to literature. It goes from the microstructure of the brain to great epochs of Western civilisation, confidently and readably. One turns its five hundred pages - a further hundred are dense with notes and references in tiny print - as if it were an adventure story ... McGilchrist tells us about the rapidly evolving technologies and experimental work in fascinating and lucid detail.' -- Professor AC Grayling, The Literary Review
'It is no exaggeration to say that this quite remarkable book will radically change the way you understand the world and yourself ... Reading this book, to which you will want to return on a regular basis (one reading cannot possibly exhaust its multifaceted insights) will help you better understand reality and the way we experience and represent it. It is a genuine tour de force, a monumental achievement - I can think of no one else who could have conceived, let alone written, a book of such penetrating brilliance.'
-- David Lorimer, Scientific and Medical Network Review
'20 years in gestation, this remarkable survey of the human brain is one of few contemporary works deserving classic status ... [McGilchrist] writes with penetrating authority.' -- Nicholas Shakespeare, The Times
'A fascinating book ... [McGilchrist] is a subtle and clever thinker, and unusually qualified to range with such authority over so many different domains of knowledge.'-- Harry Eyres,Financial Times
'A dazzling masterpiece, hugely ambitious and the most comprehensive, profound book ever written on brain laterality... One puts down this beautifully written, profound, philosophically sophisticated book thinking psychiatrist and former Oxford English professor McGilchrist might just be one of the most learned people in Europe.' Professor Norman Doidge, University of Toronto & Columbia University, NY, and author of The Brain That Changes Itself, 'Book of the Year', writing in Canada's The Globe & Mail
'This book is a wake-up call. In the most comprehensive, and lucid, review to date of findings from research on differences in consciousness, motives and emotions in the two cerebral hemispheres ... Dr McGilchrist, a humanist scholar and psychiatrist, deliberates on their significance for our scientific and philosophical understanding of ourselves, and of our fate in the modern technical world with its complex artificial devices.' -- Professor Colwyn Trevarthen, Professor of Child Psychology and Psychobiology, University of Edinburgh
'A wonderful book - broad in scope and full of incisive detail. It should be required reading for any serious student of human psychology. For researchers involved in hemisphere studies, the historical/cultural context.' -- Professor Norman Cook, Professor of Informatics at Kansai University, Osaka, and author of The Brain Code: Mechanisms of Information Transfer and the Corpus Callosum
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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.
Though I give this book 5 stars, it does not mean I have no reactions.
McGilchrist is tireless with his argument of the left hemisphere dominating the right to such an extent that you feel exhausted by the end of the book. He makes it clear that he desires a balance of the two hemispheres, yet you can loose that point during his arguments. I do wish he had discussed more the dangers of right hemisphere dominance. Indeed, The Renaissance's open minded worldliness led down some murderous pathways.
Nietzsche is quoted many times to support his arguments of Western Civilization's dominance by left hemisphere rationality and abstract thinking and indeed the critique is very much in line with Nietzsche's views. McGilchrist and Nietzsche both see Western civilization going off the rails because of Plato and only going back on the rails with the Renaissance and then going back off with the Reformation and Enlightenment. Nietzsche's condemnation of other- worldly rationality is given a specific place in the brain-the left hemisphere. Those Platonic Forms and the argument that truth is only found through rationality, McGilchrist says is the left hemisphere's poison which rolls through Western history. A stunning neuroscientific backing of Nietzsche. Yet, Nietzsche's philosophical overview can break down in the cold objective view of hemispheric brain science and actual history. McGilchrist's hammering of the nasty left hemisphere's dominance of history, sounds like McGilchrist's own left hemisphere going off the rails. I think Nietzsche would have told him to calm down a bit, and that is saying a lot, indeed.
McGilchrist's view on religion is fascinating. He understandably leaves out Nietzsche's complete condemnation of all things Christian and wades in. The Protestants are condemned as destroying the Renaissance,(Nietzsche agrees) by bringing back a rational word based left hemisphere religion which assaults the intuitive and metaphorical Catholics. The Catholic church can be comforted that McGilchrist says they are more right hemisphere based than the fundamentalist Protestants who are left hemisphere based, yet will priests find comfort looking out at a flock who are there to buff up their right hemispheres'? The idea that Catholicism is good for brain hemisphere balance is interesting but may not be taken up by the Vatican just yet.
There are more things to say, but as Nietzsche wrote:"Follow you, not me". Read this amazing book and think your own thoughts.
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