Saturday, June 19, 2010

All in the Mind - The Master & his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

This is a very cool episode of All in the Mind - a look at Dr. Iain McGilchrist's recent book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. I haven't read the book yet, but there are echoes in the review of Julian Jaynes' classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which after years of being dismissed is being taken seriously again.

Here is the brief Publisher's Weekly review of the book:
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.
As is usually the case, Natasha Mitchell blogged about this weeks episode before it aired:

Left, right ... but not quite as you know it

Iain_2 'Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain'....'Unlock Your Creative Right Brain Genius'...Blah, blah, blerrgh.

You've seen the headlines.

Now ditch them for something more interesting.

My guest this week, eminent UK psychiatrist Dr Iain McGilchrist, has a unique case to make about the two hemispheres of the brain.

You can tell by the title of his latest book alone that it's vast and provocative - The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

And, whoah. What a read. Every page revealed countless further layers. From neuroscience. And from the expansive history of human endeavour - the arts, sciences, religion, philosophy and beyond.

The world shapes our brain, but the brain very much pushes back to mould the world we occupy, and at a civilisational scale. McGilchrist has contemplated this powerful interplay for many, many years.

Borrowing a metaphor from a story by Nietzsche, he dubs the right hemisphere of the brain as "the Master ", and the left hemisphere as "his Emissary".

Find out why on the show this week. Catch the audio of the show on-air or over on the All in the Mind website here

And here, as promised, are some extra bits I couldn't pack into the program...and which he barely contained to 500 + pages!

Again, they'll make sense after you listen to the show, so do that first :)

Left, right - we need them both


Right brain - global in its outlook


Scientific investigation of the differences between the two brain hemispheres seems to have shifted out of vogue. Burnt by pop culture representations perhaps?


If there's been a shift in emphasis to left hemisphere interpretations of the world in the world, as Iain argues, has that played out in the brain's biology over the last 2000 years?


Iain calls for a reunion in the world, and brain:


The future of humanity - what gives Iain hope?


A plea for uncertainty - why?

Iain_McGilchrist_a plea_for_uncertainty

Enjoy! As ever, love to read your thoughts here on the blog - or it's *really* easy to over on the All in the Mind website where we now have a commenting function on each week's show webpage.

We barely touch the sides of Iain McGilchrist's thoroughly interesting book on the show. So, if you want to read deeper - take a closer look.

What do you think of his argument? Metaphor or more?

Here is the podcast now - with some links.

The Master & his Emissary - the divided brain and the reshaping of Western civilization

Eminent psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist offers an ambitious, provocative thesis about how the brain's two hemispheres came to be, and construct the world. Today there's a power struggle being played out between the left and right brain that he argues is reshaping Western civilisation in disturbing ways.

Show Transcript | Hide Transcript

Transcripts are published on Wednesdays. Audio on Saturday's after broadcast.


Dr Iain McGilchrist
Writer & psychiatrist
Former Consultant Psychiatrist and a Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital, UK

Further Information

The Battle of the Brain - excerpt from Iain McGilchrist's book
Published in the Wall Street Journal, 2010

Michael Gazzaniga: Split brains and other heady tales
Broadcast on All in the Mind, ABC Radio National in 2008.

One of the big names of the brain is Michael Gazzaniga, whose career was forged in the lab of Nobel laureate Roger Sperry. His striking experiments continue to uncover the differences between your left and right hemispheres. He joins Natasha Mitchell to reflect on the brain's left and right, and the mysterious nature of free will.

All in the Mind blog with Natasha Mitchell
Add your comments and conversation to the blog or here on the program website too (look for Add Your Comments above). It's easy to do!


Title: The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Author: Iain McGilchrist
Publisher: Yale University Press, 2009


Natasha Mitchell

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