18 January 2011

The Master and his Emissary - reviewed

The Master and his Emissary - The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

In which Ian Mcgilchrist takes an interesting idea and stretches it to breaking point.

The Master and his Emissary tells an old tale......

The basic idea is that we have evolved with an asymmetrical split brain, the two hemispheres of which have different 'takes' on the world, different ways of 'seeing' reality, both of which are crucial to optimal functioning. The left hemisphere is more analytical, reductionist, particular, linear in viewpoint; it will help you break a problem down into its component parts, it will 'see' the detail, it can focus on a grain of food and pick it out against a background that looks similar. The right hemisphere takes a more global and overall view of things. It 'sees' context, it's aware of the surroundings - it's aware of the storm approaching and the predator behind those bushes; watching you while you eat the grain. It can see the big picture. It is holistic, empathic, emotional, connected.

Apart from the few wild places left, the world we've created is built by our brains interaction with the world. The cities, the cars, the credit cards, the shopping malls, the banks and the town halls, the theatres and the zoo. All of it. So what have we created? A mess, it seems: and the reason, according to Mcgilchrist, is that our brains are out of balance, the left hemisphere (the emissary), has taken over from the right hemisphere (the master), which it is now effectively suppressing and has taken over the reins, and fashions our lives according to its dictates.

To explore this idea, he takes us on an (enjoyable) and very detailed journey through neuroscience, history, anthropology, art - all of civilisation in fact. At the end, he paints an apocalyptic vision of what a world dominated by left hemisphere thinking would look like: not a pretty picture, to say the least. He looks (through rose tinted glasses, I feel) to times in the past where he believes the left and right hemispheres have been more balanced - ancient Greece (circa 600BC) for example. He states, without providing evidence, that this power shift to the left, is not as prevalent in India say, or in Japan. He seems to have a somewhat romantic view of these more right hemisphered societies, seemingly able to put to one side the vast social inequalities, grinding poverty, feudal hierarchies and religious divisions contained therein.

At the end, I don't think his thesis can be supported by the current evidence available. I think it is too soon to reach the conclusions he has. At the very end, he sais that he won't really mind too much if his theory turns out to be incorrect. I don't really believe him though.

Essentially, it is an old old story. Plato or Aristotle would have deemed it a battle between good and evil, between god and the devil, between reason and the soul.

Mcgilchrist re frames it into a battle between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, between the master and the emissary. vying for power and control. It's a great read, even if you don't buy into the theory....

There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.

1 comment:

Tony O'Brien said...

I agree with the general thrust of your review. (It's taken a few years to catch up with this book). It is essentially a moral tale, not unlike the Prometheus tale. I found it quite disconcerting that McGilchrist talks about 'schizophrenia' and 'schizophrenics' throughout the book, but always in terms of 'pathology'. There is no recognition that 'schizophrenia' is a problematic and contested category, or that McGilchrist's language objectifies people with this diagnosis. McGilchrist never once turns his torchlight on his own discipline of psychiatry and its (often) pseudoscientific claims.