This is one of the most significant books I have read in my extended life; I have read thousands of books in the last sixty years but most disappear in that abyss we call memory. But not this one. This one has brought very important insights into my life that have transformed my present views on humanity:- it is Life-Changing. After wasting too much of my life studying physics and mathematics, I have finally realized that it is biology that provides more answers; in particular, neuroscience is igniting with valuable new insights into psychology. Unlike too much science that gets lost in details, this book is synthetic: it offers new views of the Big Picture. The good news here is that these findings are optimistic for our future, while being readily understandable by any non-specialist. Ironically, this book is being better received by the educated public than by many of the specialist psychologists, who cannot face up to its dramatic implications. This is why I am reviewing it here. This books attempts one of the broadest syntheses of modern times, as it lives up to its subtitle: “The Making of the Western World”. This book offers a new integrated overview of western civilization from Ancient Greek times onwards; it provides radical descriptions of the few times European thought has made positive leaps forwards and explanations of why and how we “went off the rails” so many times. Although this book approaches its subject from a structural perspective, viewing our brains in terms of its two major halves, referred to throughout as the Left- and Right-Hemispheres, the author continually reminds the reader that we each possess a single brain that presents its activities to each of us as a single mind. He shows convincingly that when we try to ignore one half of our head, our lives suffer radically: hence divided minds. This book succeeds in describing which functions of our mind are better managed by each hemisphere. Like all mammals, we need all of our brains working together to survive in a challenging world. However, the western intellectual tradition has over-emphasized domination by the Left-Hemisphere and its negative consequences are reviewed here in historic detail, as major cultural eras are analyzed to demonstrate the principal thesis. I most highly recommend reading this important book. Unfortunately, too many western intellectuals have spent many years improving the left side of their brain and will prove too incapable of altering their behaviors or beliefs; so much so, that many will totally resist reading this book; others will simply reject its implications. My only caveat is that the author wishes to preserve his acceptability within Academia (and conventional opinion) by not emphasizing the gender differences between the two hemispheres. As a result, those today in charge of our masculine, Warrior-based world, with their Left-Hemispheres, will be surprised when the Women (who pay more attention to their Right-Hemispheres) ultimately inherit our damaged civilization to clean it up. I can only confess to my growing pessimism about surviving in a world threatened by the technologies launched by my first profession. We may already be too close to the ‘Edge-of-the-Abyss’ to be salvaged. We’ll see.
Since 1900, many western universities have been dominated by modern cynicism and nihilism, both powered by Nietzsche with his ‘Death of God’ anti-philosophy. This has left the western world aimless and dispirited with its mechanistic imagery of physics. Creative artists have been driven to the Outer Periphery and the selfserving bureaucrats run uninspired governments and corporations. McGilchrist reinterprets this sorry tale from the new science of brain studies, claiming that our brains have lost their natural integrity with our symbolic language and mathematically dominated, optimistic Left-Hemisphere, ignoring the more sensitive and externally aware realistic Right-Hemisphere. Meanwhile, most modern philosophers and thought-leaders continue to boost reductionist scientism as they believe the masses must be led by their ‘natural’ leaders. The reducing numbers of academic leaders in the humanities embraced anti-elitist, deconstructive post-modernism, obsessing over their influential identity politics. The vanishing artists have sold out for large cash payments in their pursuit of novelty while rejecting all ideas of quality as just personal preferences. This broad spectrum of social activities are interpreted by McGilchrist, as evidence for mal-functioning brains. 1.1 THE AUTHOR – A RARE RESEARCHER The author, Iain McGilchrist (born in 1953) is a true Renaissance writer (a rare polymath), who began as a literary scholar (studying English at New College, Oxford), retrained in medicine and evolving into a brain scientist, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore before becoming a Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Maudsley Hospital (Britain’s largest mental health hospital in south London). During this journey, he was elected fellow three times to All Souls College (Oxford University’s senior research facility). After researching / writing this book over 20 years, he published this well-received book in 2009; he splits his time between further independent research and a London-based consultant psychiatrist. He can now afford to live quietly on the Isle of Skye (the largest island in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland). His interests span European culture from ancient to post-modern times. We are now awaiting publication of his revised second edition. The book (like the brain) is structured into two parts and this review will follow this plan, except I will split off McGilchrist’s conclusion, where he delivers his key message: the betrayal of the RH in the modern world; our real ‘Master’ has been betrayed by his ruthless, ambitious ‘Emissary’. 1.2 THE TITLE – A MODERN METAPHOR The author picked his title from a passage written by a most influential recent philosopher, Georg Hegel (1770- 1831) who dominated idealist, European philosophy in the 19th century. The passage was entitled ‘Lordship and Bondage’ taken from his 1807 masterpiece (“Phenomenology of Mind”), describing conflicts in a single mind, where the inferior Emissary (with its delegated power from his Master) usurps control after seeing himself as the important member in the relationship. This is now how McGilchrist’s views the relationship between the two hemispheres in many modern western minds. [see my related essays: ‘Bad Ideas’ and ‘German Idealist Philosophers’.]
2.1 ASYMMETRY In most animals, their brains are split into two halves or hemispheres. There is a quite observable dissimilarity in the size of these two parts and recent scientific studies on humans have shown major functional differences. It was once thought that only the LH processes words, leaving images for the RH; it is now known that this preference may often occur, both hemispheres actually serve most human activities. McGilchrist now sees that there are two modes of experience that demand co-operation but too often regress into a power struggle because he views the most fundamental difference between them lies in the Attention they give to the world based on the view that it is relationships and disposition we bring to the Reality we find ourselves within, reflecting the different priorities and values of the two hemispheres. 3 3 Accepting the evolution of the brain along with the rest of our evolving body, McGilchrist emphasizes that the brain builds on earlier developments resulting in the final layer – the cortex and its ultimate parts: the frontal neocortex, larger in humans than any other animal. It is important to repeat here one of the author’s warnings: that generalizations are always approximations, so can never become rules, as in statements about hemisphere specializations. I have described the detailed brain structures in my Intuition essay, so I will not repeat them here. McGilchrist claims that language is the province of both hemispheres but each uses it differently, as we shall see. 2.2 LEFT-HEMISPHERE The Left-Hemisphere (LH) dominates in predators, who focus on the finding and killing of prey. So, it is no surprise to find that the aggressive males who have controlled almost all tribes for the last 10,000 years show that this is their dominant hemisphere. In many species, aggressive competition for females is necessary to win sexual release. In some species, like humans, gang-behavior often enhances masculine competition. Good prey are familiar to the successful hunter; attention to similarities is vital. Utility, power and control are its values. 2.2.1 LH STRENGTHS The LH focus is immediate, short-range and goal-oriented. The humans, who are manually adept, excel at mechanical manipulation, while the linear talkers are masters of language. The adults who form the major controllers in most cultures are usually right-handed males, often reinforced by cultural traditions accepting aggression and violence. This hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right; this is reflected in its very narrow-angle visual processing of activity in the center of each eye’s retina. Surprisingly, the LH is ever optimistic but unrealistic about its short-comings, with denial being its speciality. Ultimately, the human LH is the hemisphere of the timeless ‘what’ (theoretical, conceptualized knowledge ) but always trapped in its own ‘Virtual’ world (self-referring), often guessing what the RH is paying attention to, refusing to admit ignorance; the idea of Causality is a LH construct to model the outside reality in its virtual world of expected results; it is also a Conformist, minimizing difficulties. Recent brain scans have revealed an astonishing discovery: it is the LH that is highly activated while one is under hypnosis. 2.3 RIGHT-HEMISPHERE The Right-Hemisphere (RH) is vital to the survival of creatures that are most often victims (the ‘prey’). They need a wide awareness of their surroundings and current context. Apart from the young, the most vulnerable adults are mature females, especially in mammals, as they must feed the young and stay close to protect them. 2.3.1 RH STRENGTHS The RH’s time-frame is more long-range and survival-oriented; these behaviors are enhanced by empathy and co-operation. Talking is more oriented to enhancing relationships, not in dominating or controlling competitive others. These brains must be much more aware of their own bodies and the brain’s non-mental reactions (feelings). It is also not a coincidence that the deeper regions of human brains are called the mammalian areas. Since the RH is monitoring the external context, it must be able to hold several ambiguous possibilities at the same time. This tolerance of uncertainty is implied by its ability to use metaphor. Thus, the RH is more realistic about its relationship to the world and more self-aware than the LH; this frequently leads to melancholy, perhaps as it is more aware of, and in touch with and concerned for others: empathy is intrinsic to morality. The author sees the ‘sense of self’ being grounded in the RH as the self originates in the interaction with ‘the Other’. As the RH is preoccupied with context, it must pay more attention to the relational aspects of experience, emotion and the nuances of expression: i.e. it is the hemisphere of ‘how’. But it is also ‘on guard’ for novelty. It alone is capable of synthesizing a global single viewpoint from data arising from both hemispheres. It has a better awareness of its own body as it is extensively connected to the cerebellum, with its huge number of neurons (four times more than the neocortex) controlling the body. The LH only knows about its body by linking through the RH, so then the LH can process the data into words for its own self-image. 4 4 2.4 SHARED STRUCTURES For most right-handed people, their larger LH controls the details in an area close to their speech and semantic language centers (Broca’s area); this also explains why so much speaking is accompanied by hand gestures and pointing. The RH has stronger neuronal connections with the brain stem and limbic structures at the center of the brain and connected closely to the whole body through the central nervous system. 2.4.1 CORPUS CALLOSUM Ever since the brain’s anatomy has been studied (after 1600), it is known that below the two cortical hemispheres is a structure known as the Corpus Callosum that is the main band of neural tissue that connects the two hemispheres at their base; its function remained a mystery for a long time, being seen only as a passive strengthening support to prevent the hemispheres collapsing onto the deeper limbic structures. We now know that it contains almost a billion nerve fibers, contributing about 2% of the adult brain’s total neurons. It was a great surprise to discover that its main purpose is to isolate the two halves by inhibiting complementary activity in the opposite half. Severing this organ surgically (to reduce the effects of epilepsy) found that most brains continued to appear to function normally, except during restricted, unnatural experiments. 2.5 SHARED FUNCTIONS 2.5.1 LANGUAGE MODELS THE WORLD In English, we use the word ‘know’ to describe two quite different memories; we have personal (‘biographical’) knowledge of direct, personal experiences but we also remember what facts we have been told that are shareable with others in our culture: this is our ‘declarative’ information. These elements are usually stored differently with our experiential memories mainly using visual images but facts are almost all in the form of words and numbers. In many other languages, these forms of knowing use different words; in French: connaître and savoir; in German: kennen and wissen, etc. The two hemispheres preferentially process these two types: RH and LH. The core of language (syntax and vocabulary) are housed more in the LH but it is the RH which serves the higher linguistic functions, such as understanding the meaning of a whole phrase or sentence in context and its emotional significance, along with the use of humor, irony, metaphor and so on. Knowing some abstractions, like music, are treated more like experiencing a person (difficult to talk about) rather than facts about the composer or when the piece was written. This is an old way for westerners to view the world, as Latin treated our two key actual nouns, facts and data, as verbal past participles of factum and datum to imply that activity is finished. Carl Jung has said that “all cognition is akin to recognition”; philosopher Gregory Bateson cleverly pointed out that ‘all knowledge is of distinctions’, so we are making comparisons with something we already know; noting the similarities and differences: our understanding becomes an effect of the metaphors we use. So, if we assume a purely mechanical universe and take the machine as our model, we will uncover the view that the body and its brain is a machine. This is a view that the LH prefers because lifeless machines are designed and assembled by experts (usually male engineers) from its inert parts. The author summarizes this with the metaphor that the RH paints the verbal picture but it is the LH that controls the ‘paint box’; this has resulted in the mistaken view of the site of language when a stroke damages the LH and coherent speech is lost. It is most surprising to discover that the sophisticated symbol manipulation of language may not have developed until only about 50,000 years ago while homo sapiens is very much older. Evidence also suggests that ritualized burial of the dead arose along with language; perhaps this is an explanation of the power of religious ideas over most of humanity. Only birds share our vocal and respiratory control and they are unique in imitating human speech. These features are also needed to produce song, perhaps a common evolutionary development? Music is superior in communicating emotion and both are controlled in the RH and communal singing binds societies. This also explains why poetry seems to have evolved before prose (referential usage). Poets were often seen as a society’s Wise Men; secular rivals to the tribal priests. 5 5 Like animals, most human communication is not via verbal language but more effectively uses body language, facial expressions and just sounds and gestures. Many animals appear to operate as if they possess mental concepts (forming categories) but few species ever vocalize. Naming things gives us power over them and it is not a coincidence that the earliest surviving written texts are bureaucratic records suggesting that language grew because it is so useful in manipulating other people. Ultimately, every word has to emerge from our inner world of language to get to the shared, lived world. This ties back to the power of metaphor [see my related review: ‘Too Radical’]. Children do not acquire language (or most other skills by learning rules – except for mathematics) but by imitation, not by copying. The power of language is to enable us to refer to what is not present; it helps with re-presentation. McGilchrist has a short but vital discussion of how each hemisphere uses language, each with their own interpretations, based on their complementary models of reality. 2.5.2 FEELINGS RULE RELATIONSHIPS In most animal species (and humans) intense emotional responses are related to the RH and inhibited by the LH. The LH is not impressed with empathy (no good dictionary definition); its concern is with maximizing gain for itself: its driving value is utility. Altruism is a necessary consequence of RH empathy as we feel the feelings of others and engage in their existence. The cynical LH believes that we only exhibit this deep level of real cooperation on the expectation of getting a reciprocal reward; this may be a factor in many LH-based choices. The author points out that it is not the calculated outcome that drives empathy – it is the process and relationship that is important; this has been shown in actual brain-scans where RH pleasure centers ‘light-up’ when a person co-operates with an other human but not when a similar deal is made with a computerized ‘partner’. 2.6 THE SUBCONSCIOUS A famous experiment by Libet in 1985 involving conscious finger moving suggested that the brain knew about the subsequent movement before the consciousness; this suggests that many actions are ‘decided’ first by our unconscious; unfortunately, too many identify the “I” in the life only with their conscious: a division suggested in 1976 by Julian Jaynes in his radical book about the bicameral mind. Many experts think that most (99%) of human brain activity is unconscious, involving the RH (indicating a greater level of humility by LH Egotists). This view is again reinforced by brain imaging showing that dreaming during sleep mainly occurs in the RH