David Hickey reflects on the work of Iain McGilchrist and his book ‘The Master and his Emissary’.

[New City Magazine – August-September 2021 page 18-20]

Sometimes a song reminds me of a book, as happened with Leonard Cohen’s, ‘Almost like the Blues’. Cohen’s songs have often attracted me with their cascade of unusual images, their simple, but rather subtle music, and the profound depths of his baritone voice. And ‘Almost like the Blues’ (from the Popular Problems album, 2014) is both poetic, and philosophical. Generally, ambiguity and contrast are among the singer-song writer’s tools. This is particularly so with two verses towards the end (see full song on YouTube):

There is no God in heaven
There is no hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know.

But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
It’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues.

It points to a contrast between two quite different approaches to life, two ways of thinking, but we are left with the impression that he identifies with the sinner, while touching on the uncertainty of it all. ‘The great professor of all there is to know’ seems to be someone who knows things (theoretically or intellectually), but perhaps has little understanding of real life, while the invitation to a sinner sparkles with life and relationship.

The Master and his Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world

And it’s here, in this very contrast and ambiguity between two ways of thinking, that I find myself recalling an unusual book that hit the world in 2009, written by Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and former teacher of English literature at All Souls College, Oxford. His core book so far, The Master and his Emissary, is so striking, profound and radical that his theory has many enthusiastic followers, and some strong detractors too.

While teaching literature at Oxford between 1975-1982, McGilchrist pursued other interests in philosophy and psychology, in particular the mind-body relationship. As a result he went on to train in medicine, and subsequently psychiatry, becoming a Consultant Psychiatrist of the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Trust in London, and contemporaneously a Research Fellow in neuroimaging at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, USA.

His major claim is that the left hemisphere of the brain has come to dominate Western culture, with a particular type of reasoning that has impacted hugely on our ways of thinking and acting. And it’s not that the left hemisphere is for reasoning and the right for emotion, as was popularised in the 60’s and 70’s, and has been well scotched since. Rather that both hemispheres are profoundly involved in both, just in different ways, as he discovered from working with stroke affected patients, or others whose brains had been altered in life saving (or life-enhancing) operations.

He summarises it in a very broad ranging and beautifully produced 2018 documentary on his work, called ‘The divided brain’; (see the 3-minute trailer on YouTube, quicker and easier than reading the book, but the book has far more depth and cultural analysis).

We’ve lost the means to understand the world

‘The two hemispheres have styles, takes if you like, on the world. They see things differently, they prioritise different things, they have different values… A way of thinking which is essentially mechanistic is taking us over, and we behave as if we’ve had right hemisphere damage… It’s made us enormously powerful; it’s enabled us to become wealthy… but it’s also meant that we’ve lost the means to understand the world.’

And he is quite clear that it’s not just a question of our understanding and thinking about the world, it’s also a question of bad politics, a warped economic system, and the damage we have done to ‘our home’, as he calls it, the environment.

His central point about the two hemispheres is that one sees the wood, the other sees the trees. The right side concerns itself with the broader, bigger picture, both in society, and in our relationships with each other and the natural world. We embrace and express this through all forms of communication and through the humanities – art, music, poetry, religion etc. This type of intellect and reasoning also includes ambiguity, contrast, uncertainty, and grasps everything through what he calls intuition. The left side, on the other hand, sees the details of everything, applies abstract principles and logic, and names and systemises our world, using a narrower form of rationalism. Technology and the physical sciences are particularly useful tools for this and details are important, not relationships.

It always comes back to relationships

The actual process of all this in our brain is that stimuli arrive through our senses to the right hemisphere first, creating the big picture, and then this is all transferred to the left for the necessary application of logic and abstraction, so that we can order the data that we experience. The problem is that many have become convinced that such a process stops there in the left side, when, in fact, we really pass everything back to the right side to get the broader view again. Both sides are needed, but the right side has the greater ability to grasp the holistic reality of life and the world and should be the ultimate ‘Master’… And yet it needs the left side’s help to arrive there. So the two are inter-dependent. It always comes back to ‘relationship’.

As McGilchrist says in the documentary, referring to our past, ‘Things that were anciently known were embodied in myths, in drama, in poetry; the way of thinking that was kept for the kind of knowledge that logic can’t reach – a whole way of thinking, feeling and being. Einstein said: “The rational mind is a faithful servant, but the intuitive mind is a precious gift.” And we live in a world that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.’

Ourself, others and our universe

In the conclusion McGilchrist gives his best shot at summarising his viewpoint:

‘We do need this paradigm shift, but it’s not little things here and there, it’s about the whole way we conceive what a human being is, what the world is, and what our relationship with it is… “Love” is a pure attention to the existence of the other… It’s such a simple thing but it’s so deep… Really what we need to do on this planet is to give it attention, to attend to this other, like we attend to people… the natural world surrounds us and is our home… it is this amazing, beautiful, staggeringly expressive gift.’

Dr Leroy Little Bear of the Blackfoot First Nation in Canada whom McGilchrist chats with towards the end of the video, puts it this way, from his culture’s perspective:

‘The way we look at the world inside the Blackfoot mind, it’s a panoramic view. We fit into this whole picture. And it’s a flux, nothing ever stands still… Everything is related to everything else in the culture of the First Nation people.’

The divided brain and Western culture

There is a lot of scientific research about the divided brain in the first half of McGilchrist’s book, but the cultural element is never missing and comes out stronger and stronger all the time. His grasp of philosophical and literary culture (as well as the physical arts) is quite mind boggling. He gradually goes into how our divided brain has impacted on Western culture from the early Greek philosophers, artists and writers, up to romanticism and the modern world (modernism, postmodernism etc.) in incredible detail. I have never seen such a profound take on it all. And he really answers many of my own questions and problems regarding Western culture, especially having experienced other cultures in southern Africa.

After finishing the book, I was left appreciating the beauty of difference and contrast and ambiguity and metaphor far more than before, and with even more rational support. I had already come to value in life the fruitfulness of our mistakes, vulnerabilities and limitations (along with all of our talents and gifts), and also of the right types of relational conflicts. So many times my own failures and differences with people have led to personal growth, and a far deeper understanding of others, and have contributed greatly to the most important achievements of all – intimacy with myself, God and others. McGilchrist has added a further, very profound, physical, heartfelt, intelligent level to it all.

An understanding of the unity of opposites, and an appreciation of difference and ambiguity, help us to face reality, and, above all, to live with others. And it’s when we try to live the profound spirituality of the Gospels that we begin to notice their depths of ambiguity and paradox, (and this could clearly be applied to other sacred scriptures) and the apparent contradictions inherent in them: ‘be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves’ … ‘whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it’. My greatest experiences of profound unity between people of very different cultures, ages and beliefs, and between men and women, have all been fruits of the Gospels lived.

Songs and Books

Songs and books have shaped my life in many ways and have been a vital part of my friendships too. But it’s been my relationships, often based on differences and challenges as much as on similarities and easy ways, which have, quite often, made me who I am. The contrasts and difficulties embraced have created a unity within myself and with people and God that I could not have imagined as an idealistic, uncertain 17-year-old beginning his Gospel adventures, and facing profound friendships for the first time. When Jesus prayed ‘That all may be one’, it was ‘the dream of a God-Man’. And we see it realised partially every time we experience real unity, not despite our differences, but often because of them.

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