The Divided Brain, Animated: Iain McGilchrist on Consciousness and Connection
A hemispheric history of the making of the Western world, or why abstraction is necessary for empathy.
By Maria Popova
The metaphor of the “left-brain”/”right-brain” divide has permeated pop culture as one of the defining dichotomies of how we think about and describe ourselves. But this metaphor is rooted in a number of neuropsychological realities of how our brains operate — the right hemisphere (the “master”), with its flexibility and capacity for empathy and abstraction but lack of certainty, and the detail-oriented left (the “emissary”), with its preference for mechanisms over living things, its inability to see past the literal, and its propensity for self-interest.
In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the product of twenty years of research, renowned psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist delves into the world of difference between our two hemispheres and argues that the formal structures of modern society significantly — and dangerously — prioritize the left brain, resulting in a culture shackled by rigidity and bureaucracy, driven by self-interest, and ultimately incapacitated by its own imbalance. He frames the premise:
This book tells a story about ourselves and our world, and about how we got to be where we are now. While much of it is about the structure of the human brain — the place where mind meets matter — ultimately it is an attempt to understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created.
Among his most compelling and countercultural assertions is the idea that consciousness is not the pinnacle of mental functioning funneling commands from the top down, as epochs of science and philosophy have conceived it to be, but “a process that is gradual, rather than all-or-nothing, and begins low down in the brain.” He writes:
Consciousness is not a bird, as it often seems to be in the literature — hovering, detached, coming in at the top level and alighting on the brain somewhere in the frontal lobes — but a tree, its roots deep inside us.
In this lovely sketchnote animation by The RSA (whose previous animated gems you might recall), McGilchrist talks about the science and philosophy of his work, and makes a passionate case for reprioritizing the right hemisphere.
This organ, which is all about making connections, is profoundly divided… and it’s gotten more divided over the course of human evolution.
Provocative and fascinating, The Master and His Emissary will give you pause — 600 pages worth of it — about the origin and making of today’s dominant worldviews, both ours as individuals as those of our collective cultural narrative.
Published October 21, 2011