The Master and His Emissary (review)

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western WorldThe Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very remarkable book. It significantly altered my perception of the world around me and I would often put the book down with my head buzzing with the insight it offers.

McGilchrist is a former consultant psychiatrist, a researcher in neuroimaging, as well as lecturer in English at Oxford University! He took 20 years to write the book, which sets out to “attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.” (p.1)

It’s a lofty aim and he’s a credible writer who gets us well down the road to that understanding. My one criticism is the pitch and depth of the book seems caught between two stalls. On the one hand McGilchrist is a credible academic who appears to be aiming his writing, if not at his peers, then at least to his post-grad students. On the other hand there are universal messages here that could be communicated without the in depth analysis of nineteenth century poetry or the finer details of neurology. I’m not saying it should have been in the “For Dummies” format but there seemed occasionally to be two books here; one an academic treatise, the other something much more accessible.

I started out aiming to log my favourite quotes, which I began with the ones below. I regret not keeping that up because there are many wonderful little snippets. Of course the soundbites wouldn’t do the book justice, but they would have been a nice reminder of the pithier moments, of which there are many.

Some Quotes from the Intro

In refuting the popular version of beliefs about the hemispheres of the brain:

“[they] could be characterised as versions of the idea that the left hemisphere is gritty, rational, realistic but dull, and the right hemisphere is airy-fairy, impressionistic, but creative and exciting; a formulation reminiscent of Seller and Yeatman’s immortal distinction between the Roundheads – ‘right and repulsive’ – and the Cavaliers – ‘Wrong and Wromantic’.” (p.2)

In refuting the opposing beliefs that either “everything exists out there” – naive materialism or “everything is a subjective creation of our own minds” – naive idealism:

Things change according to the stance we adopt towards them, the type of attention we pay to them, the disposition we hold in relation to them. This is important because the most important distinction between the hemispheres is the type of attention they give to the world. (p.4)

The conclusions about left hemisphere domination:

An increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness ha come about reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemiphere.(p.6)

How our evolution is encoded into us:

When we look at our embodied selves, we are looking into the past. But that past is no more dead than we are. The past is somethin we perform every living day, here and now. (p.8)

How the brain is organised casts light on the structure and experience of our mental world:

The brain is – in fact it has to be – a metaphor for the world. (p.9)

Not a Cartesian dualist:

It has been said that the world is divided into two sets of people, those who divide the world into two sets of people and those who don’t. I am with the second group. (p.11)

Great metaphor for what might happen when there are structural abnormalities in the brain:

… does placing a maths professor in a circus troupe result in a flying mathematician, or a bunch of trapeze artists who can no longer perform until they’ve calculated the precise trajectory of their leap? (p.12)

It’s not just our brains that are asymmetrical, the universe is:

… asymmetry must have been a condition of the origin of the universe. It was a discrepency between the amounts of matter and antimatter that enabled the material universe to come into existance at all, for there to be something rather than nothing. (p.13)

… following the physiological principal of opponent processors, duality refines control.

Problem with explaining consciousness:

the fundamental problem with explaining the experience of consciousness is that there is nothing else remotely like it to compare it with.

Mind is more a process than a thing:

Every individual mind is a process of interaction with whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves according to its own private history. (p.20)

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