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The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Iain McGilchrist)

Iain McGilchrist

Yale University Press, New Haven/ London (2010)

ISBN 978-0-300- 16892-1 (pbk)

Iain McGilchrist is a former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital, London and has researched in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Baltimore. He taught English at Oxford University, where he has been three times elected a Fellow of All Souls College. He presently works privately in London. He was winner of the Scientific and Medical Network Book Prize 2009, shortlisted for the Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize 2010 and longlisted for the Royal Society Book Prize. He presented a talk at the OUPS 2014 Conference.

This book tells a story about ourselves and the world and about how we got to be where we are now is the opening line of Iain McGilchrist’s book. That is no small boast and it does have to be said that this is a substantial piece of work and had taken something like twenty years in putting it together. In it McGilchrist points out the intricacy and divided nature of thought itself and its connection with the structure of the brain. He goes into the relationship between the brains two hemispheres both as a neurological point of view and more importantly as an element in shaping (Western) culture.

It is an original approach taking in neurological, psychological, art, literature, philosophical, historical, sociological and archaeological aspects. There is a mass of evidence and it is well referenced. The book begins with scientific evidence about the two hemispheres, their functions and relationship and noting that each hemisphere is linked with the opposite side of the body. McGilchrist then suggests that the left-hemisphere is more efficient in situations that are familiar to us while the right-hemisphere with the unfamiliar. The left-hemisphere is more self-referential and independent, having more synaptic connections within itself. On the other hand, the righthemisphere has more external links and also regulates actions between the two hemispheres. He also notes that meaning for the right hemisphere is contextual and that the left-hemisphere is part of a closed system of representation.

The book is divided into two parts with the first explaining the basic functions of the two hemispheres. The second part of the book deals with how the brain shaped our world and does so with regard to art, literature and philosophy in particular. The relationship between the hemispheres is evidenced through the influence and development of culture. He again provides a wealth of evidence here including Western languages and why they are all written from the left to the right. The chapters are laid in sequence of Evolution of Culture, The Ancient World, Renaissance and the Reformation, The Enlightenment, Romanticism, Industrial Revolution and The Modern and Post-Modern Worlds.

McGilchrist notes that the brain has evolved, like the body in which it sits, and is in the process of evolving, but the evolution of the brain is different from the evolution of the body. The structure of the brain reflects its history: as an evolving dynamic system, in which one part evolves out of, and response to, another. The cerebral hemispheres differ in ways that have meaning indicating consistent difference in neuropsychological, anatomical, physiological and chemical characteristics. In addition, there is meaning suggesting coherent patterns of differences to explain human experiences. Ultimately, McGilchrist’s thesis is that there are two modes of experience each of importance and yet rooted in the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain.

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