Earlier this week, as I checked my online feeds early in the morning, I came upon this query on Twitter, from someone I don’t know either on or offline:
Should I be interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist (left and right brain stuff), what would I get from it and where should I start?
I was immediately interested in this question, because, not only have I spent the past nine years following Iain McGilchrist’s work, but I have also spent virtually every morning since the start of this COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, slowly and carefully re-reading, and making notes on his seminal text, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.
Iain, who I have met on a number of occasions, once said that he was very surprised at how many people had told him they had read his book more than once. I am not surprised. It is a very long and very dense text. I am a very slow reader and it is taking me a week to read a chapter, which has turned out to be the perfect project for a lockdown! There are 13 chapters in the book. I said to Iain at the time, that since it took him 20 years to research and write the book, I fully expected it to take me quite a few years to read, re-read, and digest it in its entirety, which has proved to be the case.
In answer to the Twitter query, anyone who is concerned about the state of our world, will probably find something of interest in Iain’s work. In the The Master and His Emissary, Iain draws on extensive research to answer the question ‘Why is the brain divided?’ The book is in two parts.
Part I focusses on the brain itself, not on what the two hemispheres ‘do’, but on the ‘how’, i.e. the manner in which (not the means by which). The focus is on ways of being and ways of attending to the world. Each hemisphere offers a fundamentally different version of the human world and, as such, the two hemispheres are in conflict and stand in opposition to one another.
Part II focusses on the history of Western culture and how this relates to the divided brain. Both hemispheres have crucial roles to play. Iain believes that whilst science is integral to our understanding of the world and he does not want to undermine reason, we now live in a world dominated by left hemisphere thinking – mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised. Through bringing this to our attention, he would like us to consider how to redress the balance.
I know people who have started with reading Part 1, but have never got round to reading Part 2, and vice versa. This is not surprising. The book contains more than 500 pages of dense text, packed with information, inferences and references. It is not for the faint-hearted. It is not an easy read, but if you are prepared to give it the time, it contains something for everyone, no matter what your discipline. It is also a book that you can return to over and over again. You can skip sections, and return to the book later when you feel ready for them.
What did I get (and continue to get) from the book? I can’t speak for others, or tell the author of the tweet what he will get from it. Everyone will get something different. When I first came across the book in 2010, the idea that there are two ways of attending to the world immediately resonated. I could see this in my own life. I was struck by the idea of the asymmetry of the two hemispheres, and the fact that although each hemisphere is in one way or another involved in everything we do, there is a power struggle between them. I recognised that I had felt/experienced this power struggle between the left hemisphere’s focus on language, and the right hemisphere’s focus on visual imagery, in my own life. As I got to know the book better, there were so many more ideas that resonated. I became interested in philosophy, and philosophers. As I continue to read the book and reflect on it, I sense a greater personal awareness and understanding of my approach to living in the world, and what is important to me. And of course, now, as we live through this global crisis, the idea that we are living in a left-hemisphere dominated world, seems so very evident and obvious.
So if you are interested in learning more about Iain McGilchrist’s work, where should you start? You can of course launch straight into the book, but maybe you would prefer a slow build up to it, which is now easier to do ten years after the book was published, because there are now many videos of Iain speaking about his work on YouTube. These are the steps I would take if you want a gentler introduction.
- Watch the RSA Animate Video which explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. (11.47 mins)
2. Watch The Divided Brain Documentary (I hour 18 mins). This is a beautifully produced and very informative documentary, well worth watching. It is not free, but you can rent it for 48 hours for only £4.99, or you can buy it for £14.99.
3. Read Ways of Attending. How our divided brain constructs the world. This was published in 2018. It is a short introduction to Iain McGilchrist’s ideas, only 30 pages long, and very accessible. For some reason I don’t understand it is expensive for such a short book – £14.99 in paperback, Kindle edition £8.67, but if you really want a brief introduction to the key concepts of Iain’s exploration of brain lateralization, and its impact on human culture, this is the book to buy.
4. If you are still unsure about whether you want to invest in a copy of The Master and his Emissary, then the Introduction to the book, is freely available online as a PDF
5. Hopefully, all this has been enough introduction to the full text: The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The paperback edition of this on Amazon Prime is cheaper than Ways of Attending! £13.63.
I could recommend many more articles, videos and podcasts, but I think five is enough to start with. You can find more on Iain McGilchrist’s own website.
You can also subscribe to a new platform, Channel McGilchrist for the most recent updates about Iain’s work. This platform is in development and will probably open fully in the summer, but currently if you subscribe, you will receive a monthly newsletter by email.