Thoughts on “The Master and His Emissary” by Iain McGilchrist

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There are only a handful of moments in my life where I would suggest that my perception on the world dramatically shifted. Now, when most people suggest this, they are usually lying. Or, at least, lying to themselves.

I am of the opinion that most people change all the time, that they do not know when they change, and their explicit ideas that they recall in hindsight are just an explanation, not a cause, for the ways in which they changed. This is the sort of thrill that we find in fiction, as the characters may have devised a story in their heads, that to their friends and relations rings as hollow. Yet, to not diminish their worldview, they keep hush hush.

So, with that preliminary out of the way, I am going to admit that just because I am aware of the possibility for self-delusion, does not keep me from doing it. And besides, it makes for a great post.

I think the first moment I felt a large paradigm shift in outlook on life was reading Atlas Shrugged and truly taking the idea of a world without a god seriously. I now find Ayn Rand’s book, over 1,000 pages, dull and wooden. But I AM grateful to the novel for giving me a toolkit for establishing some possibilities. That the world is not governed by Christian God. That governments have just as much the capacity for corruption and greed as that of companies, and that until someone is able to say the word “I”, love cannot land on its intended target. While it is a terrible book for politics, it is a great book for identity formation.

Back then, I was an adolescent entering college. While I was made fun of in high school for reading a book with a naked man on it (the cover was the iconic Greek god Atlas holding up the title), I was accepted into college with open arms. It was the perfect transition, in a way, for me to leave the cocoon of small town Texas and enter a college a couple hundred miles away.

I had a second moment of a shift in my outlook, this one is slightly shorter. Calling it the literary theory or linguistic turn, it was post-college, in which I read as much as I could of Foucault, some Derrida, in order to get ready for a graduate school I would not see for another two years. In especially Foucault, I learned to see the world not as a string of progressive turns in thinking, nor even as a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth, but as a grid-like “episteme” where creativity consisted of the mantras each society picked up and put down, combining them into supposedly “new” ways. At the time, I lived in Memphis, and I would sit in a Starbucks coffee, reading Foucault’s History of Madness for hours. Sometimes I would go to the library and read what I could of Thomas Pynchon. It is incredible to me how much I read and how little I took in. More in this moment than my time reading Atlas Shrugged, I can now recall so little of the takeaways from those books, as difficult as they were and as young as I was then, but yet I was trying to prove something to everyone, and especially to me.

The last moment before I discuss this week is my backlash back into a positivist mode of thinking, where evidence is all that matters and that, it turns out, humanity IS on a progressive track towards utopia if we would only take the opportunity to embrace what makes it so. Much of this turn is laced in scientific literacy, which is something I had not found since perhaps middle school when I wanted to be an astronomer. This is most likely to do with my meeting my wife. Her neuro-degenerative disease opened up something in me, the desire to rescue my wife with knowledge I would, somehow, be able to assimilate in reading all these books. It also arose from teaching, and the frustration I had with not reaching students because I felt as though much of the science of learning and the neuroscience of the brain’s activities were not discussed at all during my undergraduate career preparing for teaching. So I read Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, and some brain scientists like Alan Jasanoff and Adam Gazzaley.

So I suppose, in a way, this book is a continuation of that turn, which is attempting to discover from the inside-out, how exactly our minds construct the world. I am shocked, SHOCKED, at how much I have taken to meditation. I have been a rampant materialist since Rand, which has been over a decade, so this turn towards a spiritual connectedness with the world around me, or at least a desire to, is nothing short of extraordinary. Then again, we are living in extraordinary circumstances. The loneliness of the pandemic, as Robert Frost wrote “includes me unawares.”

I heard about Iain McGilchrist through Sam Harris’s Waking Up Podcast. In the time between 2016 to now I grew to like podcasts, became obsessed with them, and doubted their appeal and power. It felt like also I went through all five stages of grief when it comes to the golden age of podcasting. There’s no way that podcasting could not have brought the country together! How could the world not see the power of conversation in the age of social media! Maybe if more people had access to deep and enlivening conversations, we could take that into our daily lives? Perhaps podcasts make the situation WORSE, where people replace conversations with others around them with having a “conversation” with a podcast that’s easier for being more voyeuristic. Podcasts, like radio shows, did little to stop calamities like wars and viruses. So it seems, unlike my keeping up with meditation, that I am on the decline in my relationship to podcasts. Unless there is an author who I am desperate to hear from, I largely stick to books. Books which have never let me down. Not once. And even books with which I disagree with vehemently, I am grateful that it is all there clear as crystal, in black and white.

Now in podcast world, I use it to uncover books I might not have heard of, and if they sound interesting, I give them a try.

And what a book McGilchrist has written.

The title of Master and his Emissary comes from a story by Nietzsche: a master is the owner of a domain, and he is a great leader. But there comes a time when the duties of the world grow too large, so he must rely on an emissary to carry out his duties while he is away. At some point in this relationship, the emissary grows to realize, as he is focused on the ground level carrying out his duties, that his master’s orders to him are actually his orders, and he begins to feel a certain dominance over the master for this conflation. As such, the emissary begins to follow his own orders, and since the master rules only at a distance, the people grow none the wiser. But slowly the dominion falls into ruin.

This metaphor works well for what McGilchrist is suggesting about the inherent problem between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

It may shock you that little knowledge has gone into understanding the relationship between the two hemispheres of our brains over the past 170 years. We know, for example, that the brain has an asymmetry in its composition, in which the front right side and back left side are larger, and the right hemisphere is slightly bigger overall. Not only that, but there is a slight turn in our brains, almost like someone took our brains by the top and the bottom with their hands, and gave a slight but sharp twist. Our brains have a slight rotation as a result. It may also surprise you that the corpus callosum, the connective part between hemispheres, makes up only 2% of the connections in our brain, which means that there are more connections in the areas on either side of the brain, intra-connection, compared to when the hemispheres need to talk to each other, interconnection. It may shock you even more to realize that the 2% that IS there happens to be used to inhibit communication to each other, rather than enhance.

Why do we have an asymmetric brain? Why is our brain split into two halves? Why is there so little to say between the two, and when they do speak, it comes to different conclusions?

All these questions and more are things I cannot wait to find out.

McGilchrist’s huge book takes the complex problem of hemispheres “head on”, explaining the processes by which the brain understands the world, discussing the differences in the hemispheres and, more adventurously, begins to take the implications of the divided brain out into the world as proof of his methodology. See, the reason why I decided to start reading this book is not in its pragmatism towards sticking to the science, but in its audacity. The whole second part of this book explores the idea that our brains may be too left-hemisphere focused, and as such, we may be driving ourselves crazy. McGilchrist stipulates that many of the moments of progress and pleasure in recent human history has occurred when a balance between the hemispheres and their behavior was more fully realized. Moments of self-delusion and paranoia are more left-leaning, moments of artistic explosion and individuality, more balanced. Please understand that I have not made it to these parts yet: I am still trying to finish the second chapter, over a hundred pages in length, which explores how exactly the hemispheres are different. Contrary to popular pseudoscientific opinion, both hemispheres of the brain are needed for attention, for language, and for reason and art. The brain works still, regardless of makeup, as a central processing unit. But, in the cases where lesions, or split-brain patients present themselves as opportunities for study, we can gain keen insights into what is left behind as a result. So to McGgilChrist, though his object is binary, his subject is not.

Many of the reviews of the book call it meandering, opaque, full of tangents and asides. While I suspect this to be a facet of the second part of this book, an application of ideas to recorded human history, so far the first part of the book has been breathtaking in style. When I read fiction, the most important element to me is style and atmosphere. I could read Rachel Cusk describe paint drying, it is her crystalline prose and her unwavering attention to truth in conversation between characters that keeps me going in her Outline Trilogy. Knausgaard’s dedication to the subjective and individualistic self, combined with a knack for reducing the word choice to that of placid water, not quite as effectively as Haruki Murakami, but in that light, that keeps me reading his million+ words. For non-fiction, I have had to come to terms with the knowledge that people read these works for information, rather than style. There are always exceptions. I read Adam Higginbotham’s Midnight in Chernobyl because the style was so thrilling, written in such a way as to help uncover the disaster of the situation on paper “rather than dangerously on site”. I read the entire book in 48 hours, largely unheard of for me in the non-fiction department.

McGilChrist is not combining personal anecdote here, and there is nothing of the “thrill” of other works, but nonetheless is attention is razor sharp, and his prose is erudite. Despite the books heft, few of the paragraphs feel as though there are frivolous words thrown here or there (at least for now). In fact, by chapter two there is such a density of information that, like him, you begin to be flabbergasted that no such systematic attempt has been made to understand why asymmetric brains, and brains with two hemispheres, has come to develop in evolutionary history. We are not the only ones to have it: plenty of other animals harbor this phenomenon. McGilchrist not only has the writing skill to take on such a huge task, but the background as well. Having an interdisciplinary approach to this problem is only possible because of his movement from the humanities and philosophy back towards neuroscience. Combining them into one text is both risky and rewarding. For the laymen, we are privy to a wealth of clues into split-brain thinking. For the expert, it likely means frustration, as the hopscotch tactic from philosophy to neuroscience, to civilization, and back to psychiatry, would make any in those fields take out red pens. I know so little of each field that all I need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy the story. But for those who know what is going on, I pity you.

I have not been so excited about a non-fiction work in perhaps two years. McGilChrist offers us the chance to diagnose civilization. What are our proclivities, and what do they suggest about what ails us? How do we get back to what is sacred in our individuality, and with a reliance on a world propped up by the left-hemisphere, is it possible?

If these questions and topics interest you, I would heavily encourage giving “The Master and His Emissary” a try.

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