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Interview

Iain McGilchrist

Iain McGilchrist Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist and writer who works in London. He was awarded a Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford, in 1975 for teaching English, and later trained in medicine. His new book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, examines the neuropsychological underpinnings of culture in the West based on the relationship of the brain’s hemispheres.

TMN: After establishing yourself in the fields of literature and philosophy, what drew you to medicine?

Iain McGilchrist: I wanted a better understanding of the relationship between the mind and the body, which I believe we misconceive nowadays in the West. I thought that that misunderstanding was relevant to my dissatisfactions with the study of literature. A poem, something that was unique, incarnate, a living whole, a context which utterly changed all the ’bits’ that could be found in it and taken out of it—in other words more like a person than a thing—was treated as a vessel of ideas that were in the nature of things general, abstract, and could be taken out of context, and in fact could have been found somewhere else. That a poem was an embodied living being that acted on us as embodied living beings—its movement aligned with our pulse and breath—seemed to be neglected. I found the philosophers that I read adopted already a too disembodied approach to the “mind-body problem,” and I thought understanding would never come from sitting in a seminar room, but from living amongst people whose lives were altered when something in their brains affected their minds, or something happening in their minds affected their bodies. So I wrote a book, Against Criticism, about my dissatisfactions with the academic lit-crit business, and went off to study medicine.

TMN: The title of your book, The Master and His Emissary, refers to the right and left hemispheres of our brains, respectively. Why designate them as such?

IM: The title is taken from a story in Nietzsche. There was a wise spiritual master who governed a community so well that it flourished; and as it grew, he realized that he not only could not deal with all the concerns of state, but actually must not get involved with aspects of them, if he was to retain his ability to see certain things that were of ultimate importance. So he appointed his brightest and best minister to be his emissary, and to go abroad doing his work on his behalf. The emissary soon began to feel that he was the one that did the real work, and that his master was irrelevant: He took upon himself the master’s cloak, assumed his authority, and deposed the master. Unfortunately he did not know what it was that he did not know. As a result both master and emissary, and the realm they both served, fell into ruins.

My belief is that the two cerebral hemispheres subserve two wholly different ways of looking at the world—two different “takes” on it, if you like. Both are necessary, but one is more fundamentally important than the other, and sees more than the other, even though there are some things that it must not get involved with, if it is to maintain its broader, more complete—in essence more truthful—vision. This is the right hemisphere, which, as I demonstrate from the neuropsychological literature, literally sees more, and grounds the understanding of the left hemisphere—an understanding which must ultimately be re-integrated with the understanding of the right hemisphere, if it is not to lead to error. The left hemisphere is extraordinarily valuable as an intermediate, but not as a final authority. Unfortunately the limited vision, and limited capacity for self-criticism, of the left hemisphere makes it think that it knows far more than it does. It is an optimist, too easily convinced of its own rightness, and unaware of its limitations. My belief is that it has now taken over our self-understanding, for a variety of reasons, and is leading us all down the road to ruin.

What I did not know, when I wrote the book, is that Einstein had already said something similar. “The intuitive mind,” he reflected, “is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

TMN: What do you see as the danger of having a culture dominated by the left hemisphere?

IM: Firstly there is the very fact of its limited vision, which includes an inability to see its own limitations. But most corrosive is its impact on society. It generates a view of the world in which the virtual becomes more important than the real, the “re-presentation” than the presence which it represents; where the elements are atomistically separate, rather than taking their very nature from being interconnected; where utility is the only criterion; where quality is swallowed up by quantitative measurement, and the individual by the category to which he or she belongs. It prefers machines and tools to living things—literally. It fails to understand the true power of art, of what we call (for want of a better term) the realm of the spiritual, and even of the body, which is in my view far from being the machine it is thought to be. The left hemisphere is also the hemisphere of denial: It fails to see that there is a problem at all. I have likened it to a sleepwalker, whistling a happy tune, as it ambles towards the abyss.

TMN: Briefly, in what sense was the Western world “made” by the hemispheres?

IM: As your question indicates, that’s a large question. I don’t want to suggest that I am one of those who reduce human experience to what goes on in the brain. In fact I am deeply opposed to that tendency. However, what I think I can show is that the way we see ourselves and the world, and particularly the relationship between the two, depends on how much we are enthralled by one or other of the “versions” of the world which the two hemispheres give us. One yields a sense of the world as an interconnected whole, in which opposites often come together, where all is flux, never certain, constantly growing, changing, evolving, and giving rise to completely unique entities. The other yields a disembodied, abstracted, fragmented world, to which we stand in a sort of superior isolation, where things are certain, known, fixed, but generalities only—no longer alive. I believe that the highpoint of our understanding in the West was the Renaissance, which synthesized the best that both hemispheres could give us, but that since the Reformation, and still more since the Enlightenment, which was a movement that had many wonderful aspirations, but fatally restricted vision, we have become enslaved by a terribly simple, mechanistic view of the world and ourselves, the view of the left hemisphere, which is not only inaccurate and limiting, but will never lead to the Enlightenment’s own ideal of happiness.

TMN: In what sense do you feel the vision of the Enlightenment was “fatally restricted”?

IM: The philosopher Isaiah Berlin refers to the three propositions upon which Enlightenment belief was founded: namely, that all genuine questions can be answered, that if a question cannot be answered it is not a question; that all these answers are knowable, that they can be discovered by means which can be learnt and taught to other persons; and that all the answers must be compatible with one another. Anyone who has lived, and is not brainwashed by this culture, will know that these principles are false. In the first place, many genuine questions—perhaps all really trenchant questions—do not admit of a certain answer; moreover, the answers to the important questions in life cannot be inserted into the understanding of others, like data into a computer, but rely on the person themselves already having a certain understanding which we can do no more than awaken in them; and finally the answers are definitely not compatible one with another. Paradox, as our logical mind calls it, is at the very core of truth. Many things that are true are not mutually compatible, and all things that are mutually compatible are not necessarily true. The problem with the Enlightenment view of life, which is essentially the left hemisphere’s view, is that it is not aware of what it is not aware of. Stanley Fish recently wrote an article called “Does Reason Know What It Is Missing?” The point is good. It thinks it has everything sown up because it has a very simple view of the world. The simpler your view of the world, the easier it is to think that you have it all sown up. Because it only acknowledges certain elements of reality, which all cohere (because the ones that don’t cohere have been excluded), it thinks it can explain everything. Its ignorance is ultimately dangerous, because it leads to complacency and a dismissal of those elements of reality that it cannot account for.

TMN: In his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Leonard Shlain argues that, since the invention of photography, our culture has become more image-oriented over the last century, and thus the right hemisphere is regaining its dominance. How would you respond to that?

IM: With total incredulity. Shlain was an intelligent, imaginative writer, but he does not display a deep knowledge of the way the brain works. The whole thesis of that book is vitiated by the fact that it is women, not men, who are most at home with language. All that rhetoric about men and “The Word” is politically coherent, perhaps, but makes little sense from the neuropsychological point of view.

The image-oriented point is wrong in any case, because both hemispheres are involved in imagery—as they are, in fact, in everything. What differentiates the hemispheres is not which aspect of reality they engage with, since each engages with everything, but the way in which they engage with each aspect of reality. All the evidence I see suggests that in the modern world we are getting trapped in what I call the hall of mirrors: the left hemisphere’s construction of reality, in which everything refers to something else within the hall of mirrors, but never breaks out to reality. Life becomes more and more abstract and virtual: The values that would have led us out of this vision of the world, and are grounded in a view of the world as embodied, neither wholly material nor wholly spiritual, become neglected.
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TMN Editor Erik Bryan is living the dream. He grew up in Florida, but he’s from all over. He likes playing chess, making cocktails, smarting off, and not freezing to death in Brooklyn, where he currently resides. More by Erik Bryan

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