Apr/May 2010

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Jonah Lehrer


In 1976, the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes published the provocative Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which argued that human self-awareness was invented in ancient Greece. His evidence consisted mainly of the Iliad, which describes its heroes as listening to the voices of the gods as they come down from Mount Olympus. Jaynes argued that these voices were emanations from inside the mind, triggered by the "breakdown" of the wall between the brain hemispheres. When the articulate left hemisphere first gains access to the dreamlike impressions of the right, a flood of new thoughts needs to be explained. This led, in Jaynes's view, to the invention of a pantheon of bickering gods, which eventually morphed into an acute consciousness of the self.

While Jaynes's speculative theory remains just that—an intriguing idea with little supporting evidence—it left a lasting mark on psychology. Thinkers in the field readily took up his central vision of human nature as a pitched battle between the two halves of the brain, each operating with a distinct set of desires and talents. That primordial conflict surfaces anew in The Master and His Emissary, a hugely ambitious work by Iain McGilchrist, a former fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, who studied literature before becoming a medical doctor. Like Jaynes, McGilchrist interprets human history as an unresolved quarrel between the left and right hemispheres. "It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate," he writes, "but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture."

McGilchrist spends the first half of the book reviewing decades of scientific research, giving a fascinating overview of experiments led by Roger Sperry, who studied the behavior of patients whose corpora callosa had been severed (one patient would put on his clothes with his left hand while his right hand was busily taking them off), and from there moving on to more recent research on patients who have suffered trauma to either their left or their right brain. When asked to draw a house, left-brain-dominant subjects provide lots of detail (wrinkles in the curtains, bricks) but don't always make sense—the roof might be upside down, for instance. People with the use of only their right brain, on the other hand, get the architecture right but lack particulars. It's the difference between seeing the forest and the trees.

These distinct hemispheric talents lead McGilchrist to invert Jaynes's hypothesis. While Jaynes argued that the Greek gods were invented to explain the breakdown of the bicameral mind—our hemispheres were finally able to listen to each other—McGilchrist argues the opposite: He interprets the internal voices the Greeks projected onto Mount Olympus "as being due to the closing of the door, so that the voices of intuition now appear distant, 'other'; familiar but alien, wise but uncanny." The emanations of the right hemisphere became both holy and neglected, abstract.

Even to the layperson, this is fascinating research, and McGilchrist eloquently weaves the evidence into a larger narrative about the modular mind. Unfortunately, the book's second half finds McGilchrist embarking on a whirlwind tour of human history, from ancient Greece to post-modernism, interpreting everything from the melancholy music of the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution in terms of the sides of the brain. Too often his arguments feel thin, such as when he suggests that the invention of the modern factory "enabled the left hemisphere to make its most audacious assault yet on the world."

When it comes to the hemispheres, McGilchrist isn't shy about playing favorites. He describes the left hemisphere as being "parasitic" on the right and blames the left's supposed selfishness for a wide variety of social ills, pinpointing its ability to construct clever excuses for bad behavior. "The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility," he writes. "If the defect might reflect on the self, it does not like to accept it."

Unfortunately, such generalizations obscure more than they reveal; the mind remains too mysterious to become an all-encompassing explanation for the past. Although McGilchrist laments the atomization of human nature—the reduction of the soul into its neural correlates—he often falls victim to the same mistake, as he struggles to interpret thousands of years of history, philosophy, and culture in terms of two hillocks of cellular mush. In reality, the brain is the universe's largest knot; our behavior is determined not by one hemisphere in isolation but by the interactions of the brain as a whole. Oddly enough, McGilchrist's reductionism is pure left hemisphere, with its love of detail and theoretical abstraction, yet his urgent message is about embracing the right brain's metaphors and generosity. I'm not sure which side of the brain would appreciate the irony in that.

JK_001

March 28, 2010
6:50 pm

"This is fascinating research, and McGilchrist eloquently weaves the evidence into a larger narrative about the modular mind".

One thing I don't do is see the mind as modular. If Lehrer had spent a little more time with my book he would know that the modular approach to mind is a principal target of my work.

'A whirlwind tour of human history': easy to make cheap jibes. I accept that any attempt to point out a pattern in cultural history can be accused of being too brief. It's a long book, as he acknowledges: how long should an attempt to point out a pattern in the shape of Western civilisation be? I can't help feeling that, if Lehrer doesn't get it now, a lot more pages wouldn't have helped. The point I make is not a reductionist one. It is that our ways of looking at the world are constrained by the structure of the human brain, and that we can see these ways reflected in the history of ideas. It is fair to say that one does not see it: it is not fair to say that it is reductionist.

'Too often his arguments feel thin, such as when he suggests that the invention of the modern factory "enabled the left hemisphere to make its most audacious assault yet on the world." '

If I had said that, it might be 'thin'. Unfortunately Lehrer is typically slapdash in quoting from the work. What I actually say is that it was 'the Industrial Revolution which enabled the left hemisphere to make its most audacious assault yet on the world of the right hemisphere', a rather different matter.

'When it comes to the hemispheres, McGilchrist isn't shy about playing favorites. He describes the left hemisphere as being "parasitic" on the right'.

I reiterate that both takes on the world are needed. What I actually say is that 'both hemispheres clearly play crucial roles in the experience of each human individual, and I believe both have contributed importantly to our culture. Each needs the other. Nonetheless the relationship between the hemispheres does not appear to be symmetrical, in that the left hemisphere is ultimately dependent on, one might almost say parasitic on, the right, though it seems to have no awareness of this fact.' One would never gather from Lehrer's crude travesty that the nature of that dependency is something that is carefully argued for in approximately 300 pages, the first half of the book, which are replete with neuropsychological evidence.

' '"The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility," he writes. "If the defect might reflect on the self, it does not like to accept it." ' Ramachandran says the same, at some length, and I explain in detail why that would be a legitimate conclusion from the evidence - evidence that Lehrer elsewhere refers to as 'fascinating research'.

I do not 'struggle to interpret thousands of years of history, philosophy and culture in terms of two hillocks of cellular mush'. What I show is that our brains present us with different versions of reality. That is going to apply to all human experience: and precisely the point that I reiterate throughout is that, as Lehrer puts it, 'our behavior is determined not by one hemisphere in isolation but by the interactions of the brain as a whole' - there could not be a better summary of my thesis. Pity he couldn't be bothered to spend the time reading my book more carefully. Or perhaps he was just looking for what he had already decided he would find? It's hard to evade the critic who accuses you of 'generalisations' and 'love of detail' at the same time.

canon alberic

May 17, 2010
8:18 pm

A truly dreadful ignorant spiteful and envious review.

Especially given the shallow vacuity of the reviewers own attempts to synthesise Proust and pop psychology.

McGilchrists book is a masterpiece.

ignosympathnoramus

May 10, 2011
6:28 pm

I agree with the comments above and hasten to add that Lehrer's caricature of Jaynes' thesis is equally appalling. The Greek gods were not "invented" or the products of imagination per se. As Jaynes puts it, ”The gods were in no sense figments of the imagination of anyone. They were man’s volition.” Lehrer seems to be deeply confused about the "breakdown" and might consider reading past the front cover of this wonderful book. He depicts bicameral man as the result of a breakdown of hemispheric barriers that forced the left hemisphere to "explain" the contents of the right, which couldn't be further from Jaynes' thesis. The contents of the right hemisphere were not explained, interpreted, or any of that: they were followed without dialogue, thought, or hesitation. The command and the execution were one! Lehrer then depicts self conscious man as the gradual result of accumulated explanations of the new and rich contents of the right hemisphere, instead of the result of the breakdown of the bicameral mind, as Jaynes did. Both Jaynes and McGilchrist deserve far more generous and accurate interpretations, not to mention admiration.

charlieb

August 28, 2011
10:14 pm

"I took a speed reading course. We read War and Peace. It’s about Russia.” ......Woody Allen

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