The Master and His Emissary

I had many reasons to want to read Iain McGilchrist’s 2009 book The Master and His Emissary.

  1. Its an ambitious big-picture book, by a smart knowledgeable polymath. I love that sort of book.
  2. I’ve been meaning to learn more about brain structure, and this book talks a lot about that.
  3. I’ve been wanting to read more literary-based critics of economics, and of sci/tech more generally.
  4. I’m interested in critiques of civilization suggesting that people were better off in less modern worlds.

This video gives an easy to watch book summary:

McGilchrist has many strong opinions on what is good and bad in the world, and on where civilization has gone wrong in history. What he mainly does in his book is to organize these opinions around a core distinction: the left vs right split in our brains. In sum: while we need both left and right brain style thinking, civilization today has gone way too far in emphasizing left styles, and that’s the main thing that’s wrong with the world today.

McGilchrist maps this core left-right brain distinction onto many dozens of other distinctions, and in each case he says we need more of the right version and less of the left. He doesn’t really argue much for why right versions are better (on the margin); he mostly sees that as obvious. So what his book mainly does is help people who agree with his values organize their thinking around a single key idea: right brains are better than left.

Here is McGilchrist’s key concept of what distinguishes left from right brain reasoning:

There is a need to focus attention narrowly and with precision, as a bird, for example, needs to focus a grain of corn that it must eat, in order to pick it out from, say, the pieces of grit on which it lies. At the same time there is a need for open attention, as wide as possible, to guard against a possible predator. … Not only are these two different exercises that need to be carried on simultaneously, they are two quite different kinds of exercise, requiring not just that attention should be divided, but that it should be of two distinct types at once. (p.25)

The left brain emphasizes narrow focus tasks, while the right brain emphasizes broad focus tasks. As a result, McGilchrist says that compared to the left brain, the right emphasizes: surprising over predictable, implicit over explicit, context over particulars, unknown over known, intuition over logic and rationality, natural over artificial, metaphorical over literal, connoting over denoting, real over hypothetical, ‘aha!’ over anticipated, hard over easy to verbalize knowledge, non-verbal over verbal communication, and reacting to over controlling.

These 13 distinctions all seem to me to be connected directly enough to the core narrow versus broad focus distinction. And I found the question of why the brain is split into two only-weakly-disconnected sections doing these two things intriguing enough that I wrote a post on it a month ago.

However, McGilchrist goes on to connect a great many more distinctions onto this left-right distinction. (I count at least 50 more.) And many reviewers of his book have noted that in doing so he goes far beyond neuroscience consensus, and is often quite speculative. At various points, he says that the right brain also focuses more on: wholes over parts, life over tools and machines, doubt over confidence, connected over isolated, dynamic over static, deep 3D over flat views, long over short term, data over theory, instances over categories, music over talk, personal over impersonal, justice and aesthetics and over utility and practicality, completeness over consistency, blurry over clear concepts, embodied over disembodied, real over virtual, informal over bureaucratic relations, what over how, human over inhuman, meaningful over meaningless, usual over bizarre, empathy over selfishness, emotional over unemotional understanding, reading eyes over reading mouths, spontaneous over forced feelings, wariness over optimism, melancholy over happiness, cooperation over competition, color green over red, number relations over absolutes, semantics over syntax, minor key over major key, honesty over denial and confabulation, feeling of loss over of winning, self- over other- awareness, art over practicality, funny over serious, creative over uncreative, feelings of awe over feelings of mastery, love over exploitation of nature, non-sequential over sequential, non-binary over either-or, understanding via intuitive leaps of wholes over building up argument parts, acting without purpose over with a purpose, sensitive to over indifferent to discrepancies, real sex over pornography, rituals and metaphor over literal texts in religion, love and longing over desire and acquisition, and curves over lines.

In each case, McGilchrist seems to prefer the right side more, in the sense that he wants to see more of it and less of the left side. And for most of them, he sees the arc of history as bending left, when it should bend right.  By so consistently valuing what he claims to be the right-brain sider in these distinctions, McGilchrist seems to be saying that favoring right-brain thinking is his core personal value, the source of all these other values.

Now I do find it plausible that the rise of civilization has in fact induced an emphasis on left-brain style thinking. Instead of watching for danger in a wild hard-to-understand nature, we now live in safer more artificial worlds that we better understand. And so we now less often watch for dangerous surprises and more often calculate what to do based on reliable-enough theories of how our worlds work. But this seems to me a natural and appropriate response to the rise of civilization.

So why does McGilchrist see these changes as bad? The following quotes may help you see his perspective:

It is the Industrial Revolution which enabled the left hemisphere to make its most audacious assault yet on the right hemisphere. … The mechanical production of goods ensured a world in which the members of a class were not just approximate fits … [but] truly identical: equal, interchangeable members of their category. … It would make machines that make machines, self-propagating parodies of life that lack all the qualities of the living. … A combination of urban environments which are increasingly rectilinear grids of machine-made surfaces and shapes, in which little speaks of the natural world; a worldwide increase in the proportion of the population who live in such environments, and live in them in greater degrees of isolation; an unprecedented assault on the natural world, not just through exploration, despoliation and pollution, but also more subtly, through excessive ‘management’ of one kind or another, coupled with an increase in the virtuality of life, both in the nature of work undertaken, and in the omnipresence in leisure time of television and the internet, which between them have created a largely insubstantial replica of ‘life’ as processed by left hemisphere. (pp.386-7)

Capitalism and consumerism, ways of conceiving human relationships based on little more than utility, greed, and competition, came to supplant those based on felt connection and cultural continuity. The state, the representative of the organizing, categorizing, and subjugating forces of systematic conformity, was beginning to show itself to be an overweening presence even democracies. … Pervasive rationalistic, technical and bureaucratic ways of thinking have emptied life of meaning by destroying what Berger calls the ‘sacred canopy’ of meanings reflect collective beliefs about life, death and the world in which we live. … separate things from their context, and ourselves form the uniqueness of place … ‘expert’ systems replace local know-how and skill with a centralized process dependent on rules. … The media also promote fragmentation by a random juxtaposition of items of information, as well as permitting the ‘intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness’, another aspected of decontextualization in modern life. … Sense of powerful emotional attachment to ‘my place’ … in the last hundred years this has come increasingly under attack from at least thee of the defining features of modernity: mobility, … an extreme pace of change, … and increasing urbanisation. (p.390)

Eric Fromm … describes modern man as … concerned with things more than people, property more than life, capital more than work. He sees this man as obsessed with the structure of things, and calls him ‘organization man’. (p.401)

Knowledge that came through experience, and the practical acquisition of embodied skill, … would be replaced by formal systems to be evidenced by paper qualifications. … Skill and judgment … would be discarded in favor of quantifiable and repeatable processes. … Skills themselves would be reduced to algorithmic procedures which could be drawn up, and even if necessary regulated, by administrators. … Fewer people would find themselves doing work involving contact with anything in the real ‘lived’ world, rather than with plans, strategies, paperwork, management, and bureaucratic procedures. In fact, more and more work would come to the overtake by the meta-process of documenting or justifying what one was doing or supposed to be doing. (p.429)

I did find five more explicit argument that McGilchrist gives for preferring a world where the right rules more . First he claims that the right has “ontological supremacy” (p.195). I won’t discuss that, as even if true I just can’t see how it suggests we want more right style thinking on the margin. Second, he says that

Godel’s incompleteness theorems … and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle … validate the world as given by the right hemisphere, not the left. (p.136)

Sorry, that’s just silly. Really silly. Third, he argues that the left is better at persuading us that it is better, because it is in charge of persuasion:

I have referred to the the fact that a number of thinkers have observed, often with a sense of unease, that our history intuition has lost ground to rationality; but in general their unease has been tempered by the feeling that this must be in a good cause. … But … we have already fallen for the left hemisphere’s propaganda – that what it does is more highly evolved than what the right hemisphere does. … The losing party in this struggle, the right hemisphere, is not only more closely in touch with emotion and the body … but also has the most sophisticated and extensive, and quite possibility most lately evolved, representation in the prefrontal cortex, the most highly evolved part of the brain. (p.437)

But this tries to explain a change as the result of a constant. Since the left brain has always managed persuasion, that constant fact can’t explain a change of left thinking becoming more common over time. That change seems to me adequately explained by our now living in more artificial and understandable and less dangerous worlds.

Fourth, McGilchrist says that mental illness has become more common in the modern world:

Schizophrenia was rare indeed, if it existed at all, before the eighteenth century, but increased dramatically in prevalence with industrialisation. (p.404)

Autism, a condition which has hugely advanced during the last fifty years. (p.406)

Yes, many have noted that the complexity and dynamism of the modern world can feel more demanding, resulting in more individuals who fail to manage it. But how many of us choose to move to simpler more static worlds because of this, when they have a choice?

Fifth, he says happiness has more to do with social connections than material wealth.

Increases in material well-being have little or nothing to do with human happiness. Obviously poverty is an ill, and everyone needs their basic material needs to be met. … There is little, if any, correlation between material wellbeing and happiness, objective data demonstrate it. … The main determinants of happiness, … are not economic in nature. … The single most common finding from a half-century’s research on the correlates of life satisfaction, … is … ‘the breadth and depth of one’s social connections.’ … rates of depression … appear to be linked to the degree of stability and interconnectedness within a culture. … Urbanisation, globalization and the destruction of local cultures has led to a rise in the prevalence of mental illness in the developing world. (pp.434-6)

Yes social connections matter, but I’m not yet persuaded that connection is much more promoted by right side thinking than left. Yes instability may cut happiness, but again, how many of us would choose to move to a stabler world, and give up the many benefits of growth? For most of us, our choices suggest we see our growing complex world as a better overall deal.

I’ve found these five general arguments to be inadequate. But maybe we shouldn’t expect right side thinkers to construct careful detailed arguments using clear precise concepts. After all, that’s more of a left side thinker thing to do. Instead maybe we should expect right side thinkers to immerse themselves in the details of many relevant cases, and to report colorful conclusions that have bubbled up from their opaque mental processes. So we can reasonably presume that McGilchrist really does roughly prefer all the things that he associates with right brain thinking.

He argus that what his values have in common is that they are all things that human brain design has the right side of the brain do more than the left. For example, he likes curves over lines because (he thinks) brain design assigns the right brain to think more about curves, and the left to work more on lines. But I find it more plausible that humans just have many ancient value intuitions that tend to be more strongly encoded and influential in the right brain, and that right-brain thinkers just tend to trust their intuitions more. Left brain thinkers, in contrast, are more willing to reject or modify ancient intuitions on the basis of analysis.

In this case, the distinction between right vs left brain becomes analogous to that between those with less versus more openness to experience in the standard five factor personality model. Or to intuitive relative to thinking types in the Myers-Briggs classification. As usual, intuitive types suspect thinking types of overconfidence in their concepts and theories, while thinking types suspect intuitive types of refusing to accept that attitudes need to change with a changing world, and to engage the sort of analysis that can enable such changes.

But whether or not the common cause is tasks that the right brain does more often, or ancient intuitions that the right brain is more inclined to trust, an emphasis on right over left brain styles does seem a plausible account of at least part of why people who think like McGilchrist have the values that they do. That isn’t a big reason for the rest of us to adopt their values, but as an open-thinking-analyst left-brain type of person, I think it important to try to understand these differing attitudes, so we can combine the best of both sides. (Though as a right-brainer, McGilchrist’s priority is more to sound an alarm about value threats.) And I feel like reading Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary has helped me make a little progress toward that end.

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