The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist

I had a strong personal interest in the theme of this book, its author seemed highly qualified in both of the Two Cultures, so I dove into it with great delight and anticipation. After reading each paragraph I would stare off into space, rapt, before returning to read even more closely, until it seemed I would grind to a half before I got halfway through.

The subject interested me particularly because I am making a transition from writing to performing--a shift from relatively-left-brain to quite-right-brain communication--and I welcomed an updated account of the talents of the two hemispheres by someone expert in both modes.

But after some time I realized my close reading was returning insufficient nourishment. The author was providing a density of quotes and references appropriate for readers much more professionally engaged than I was. And later still I realized the author was trying to enroll me in a mission to rein in the left hemisphere, before he'd convinced me of the need for the mission. I seemed to have strayed into an academic post-modern shootout. I ran for cover.

I did, however, welcome a new rendering of the left-brain, right-brain relationship. Here are scattered impressions from the middle chapters: The right is our frontier, where we take in the world afresh as it presents itself to us. "What we know had to come into being first for the right hemisphere..." "In the right hemisphere view, there is the individual entity in all its distinctness, at one level, and the whole to which it belongs, at the other." The right hemisphere passes its impressions to the left, where they are categorized and named. "In the left hemisphere view, there is at one level the part or fragment, and, at the other, the generalized abstraction, aggregated from the parts." "The values of clarity and fixity are added by the processing of the left hemisphere, which is what makes it possible for us to control, manipulate or use the world. For this, attention is directed and focused; the wholeness is broken into parts; the implicit is unpacked; language becomes the instrument of serial analysis; things are categorized and become familiar. Affect is set aside, and superseded by cognitive abstraction..." There is "evidence for the primacy of the right hemisphere in constituting our experience of reality, with the need for left hemisphere 'unfolding' of what the right hemisphere understands, so that the new unfolded vision can subsequently be reintegrated with the reality of the right hemisphere.... the essential point being that something new, that was not present before, comes into being through the process, not negating the earlier stages, but transforming them." "So what begins in the right hemisphere's world is 'sent' to the left hemisphere's world for processing, but must be 'returned' to the world of the right hemisphere where a new synthesis can be made."

Given that I am not the intended audience for this book, here are things I would have liked the author to tell me:

  • Techniques for switching from one hemisphere to the other? I think I can do this. To switch to the right hemisphere I induce a trance-state by staring fixedly at something, meditating on it as an impression on the retina rather than as objects. To switch to the left I make a list or compose an explanation of something. OK, now tell me some more switch techniques.
  • How to tell when to switch from the left hemisphere to the right? McGilchrist says the left is over-confident and dismissive of the urgings of the right, so resists ceding control. Then why write a book suggesting we rein in the left without telling us how to recognize it's time to make that switch?
  • I'd like a form of discourse by which to query the right hemisphere. McGilchrist tells us the right hemisphere is a window to "The Other," that we can only approach in awe, keeping our distance. I can assure you as a graphic designer bound to deliver designs on a schedule I developed lots of techniques for inducing creativity. No awe, no distance, just get-on-with-it. I expected some tips from him. He refers to the oracles of ancient Greece and could have generalized a form of discourse from how customers came to query those oracles. He doesn't talk about the right hemisphere's talents as if he's on everyday terms with them.
  • How to give the right brain access to left-brain resources? McGilchrist joins with Stephen Toulmin ("Cosmopolis") in regreting the frenzied accumulation by science of left-brain resources. How can we repair this over-balance, he asks? Easy, just put those resources as the disposal of the right brain, and create with them. If you fail to do that, don't blame the left-brain, figure out how to jump-start the right. It isn't a left-brain problem, it's a right-brain problem.
  • How can one arbitrate between different right-brain impulses, between Hitler's thinking-with-the-blood and Buddha's resignation, for example? McGilchrist seemed to have a naive trust in the benevolence of the right brain that I don't share with him. He recommended that the right-brain rein in the left, when necessary, but never suggested how the right brain was to be judged and moderated.

I had some other problems, too. A minor one--I induce right-brain mode by staring at something until I induce a trance-state, but McGilchrist said staring is left brain. I draw on right-brain talents when I design, draw and paint, yet I do it with the hand (my right hand) corresponding to left brain dominance. McGilchrist never accounted for this common anomaly. If this can be true, what other compensations are we making? McGilchrist does acknowledge that neuroscience is ineffective at following brain function over extended periods, but doesn't try hard to fill in that gap. In practice, I find most thinking runs over from one day to the next, so I suspect he knows as little about that as I (from having been a professional creative) do.

My biggest complain is more personal still, stemming from my mission concerning evolution. Evolution provides the canopy under which the two hemispheres of our brain came into existence. How do they serve the species? How does their relationship testify to the values of the process through which they were crafted? If the left-hemisphere is the servant of the right, then isn't the right the servant of some agent involved in evolution itself? If we need a moderator to adjudidate between various right-brain impulses, may we not find that in the "sphere" of evolution?

Below, microdata:

Evolution for the Humanities
The Master and His Emissary evolution