Book Review: 'The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World' by Iain McGilchrist
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Iain McGilchrist Yale University Press (2009)
“How do we understand the world, if there are different versions of it to reconcile?”
Note: The terms “master” and “emissary” as well as their correlations with the nature and extent of the “divided brain” are best explained in context, within Iain McGilchrist’s lively and eloquent narrative.
As I began to read this book and Iain McGilchrist’s discussion of the “divided” brain, I was reminded of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Whereas she notes the significant differences between extroverted and introverted individuals, McGilchrist suggests that there are two hemispheres in each person’s brain that seem to “coexist together on a daily basis, but have fundamentally different sets of values, and therefore priorities [as do extroverts and introverts], which means that over the long term they are likely to come into conflict. Although each is crucially important, and delivers valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each needs the other for different purposes, they seem destined to pull apart.”
This is generally referred to as a “left brain/right brain” dichotomy or conflict. Both are “hugely valuable,” according to McGilchrist, “but they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another — hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain.”
If I understand Cain correctly (and I may not), she suggests that there are significant differences between two personality types: those who are either primarily introverted or primarily extroverted. Whichever is subordinate nonetheless co-exists in natural balance unless provoked into conflict by remarkably durable misconceptions of what is “normal.” For example, that introverts are by nature shy, retiring, insecure, and reserved (if not anti-social) and therefore cannot be effective leaders. Cain examines the inadequacies of several concepts such as charismatic leadership, the New Groupthink, the “Extrovert Ideal” (i.e. “the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight”), being or at least seeming to be “cool,” clearly preferable in collaborative innovation, and a more “assertive” student in the classroom. Whether primarily introverted or extroverted, McGilchrist asserts, all people have a bihemispheric structure of their brain that must be understood before the meaning and significance of human history can be fully understood.
These are among the dozens of subjects, themes, and potentialities on which McGilchrist focuses throughout his narrative:
o Structural Asymmetry (Pages 22-28 o Breadth and Flexibility versus Focus and Grasp (37-40) o Reason versus Rationality (64-66) o The Self (87-91) o Language and Manipulation, and, Metaphor (113-118) o Heidegger and the Nature of Being (149-158) o The Relationship Between the Hemispheres, and, Level Three (213-233) o The “Imitation Gene” (251-256) o The Beginnings of the Enlightenment (323-328) o Symmetry and Stasis (342-344) o The Problem of Clarity and Explicitness (369-375) o Representation: When Things Are Replaced by Concepts and Concepts Become Things (401-403) o The Successes of Modernism, and, Post Modernism (421-427) o The Spirit (440-442) o Is There Room for Hope? (445-459)
Why is it so important to understand what the brain is and does? Here’s what McGilchrist has to say about that: “I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it in to being. A central theme of this book is the importance of our disposition towards the world and one another, as being fundamental in grounding [begin italics] what it is that we come to have a relationship with [end italics], rather than the other way round.”
He goes on to say, “I believe that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be illuminated by an understanding that there are two fundamentally different ‘versions’ delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but [as previously indicated] they stand in opposition to one another, and, and need to be kept apart fro one another – hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain.”
I think this book provides a brilliant response to an important question: “How do we understand the world, if there are different versions of it to reconcile?” However, that said, no brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that Iain McGilchrist provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of The Master and his Emissary. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how an enriched and enlightened understanding of our “divided brain” could perhaps be of substantial benefit to their professional development as well as to the success of their own organization.
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.