Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist

This book is one you should read, but probably won't. It's 462 pages long, and that's without the footnotes and bibliography. And they're big pages with small type.

But it's worth reading. It's even worth just skimming. I kept it to the end of our library's generous renewal policy once, and then I have kept it almost to the end again before getting it reviewed. It is a book that makes clear connections that I have long felt but not been able to fully explain.

It is more like two complimentary books, really. The first is on neuroscience and the different roles of the two hemispheres of the brain. Not in the simplistic manner of "Are you right-brained or left-brained?" quizzes or common dichotomies like words and logic vs. art and music.

In fact, everybody is using both hemispheres of their brain all the time for every task. The difference is not so much *what* the two halves do as *how* they do it. The left side of the brain takes things apart, creates clear divisions, handles and manipulates, deals in lists and syllogisms. The right side of the brain takes things in, absorbs the whole, understands and appreciates, deals in relationships and paradoxes. Without the left brain, we cannot find words, use tools, manipulate the world. Without the right brain, we cannot understand words, find meaning, know our place in relation to the world, appreciate the existence of reality outside ourselves.

The two hemispheres of the brain correspond to two ways of knowing, which were certainly understood and appreciated for centuries before the brain was so closely analyzed. They might be called analytic and synthetic. Or scientific and poetic. C. S. Lewis has a memorable passage in which he discusses the difference between looking "at" a beam of light in a dark shed and looking "along" that beam of light to the world outside.

The challenge is keeping these two parts of the brain in balance, working together even though it is their nature to operate at cross purposes. And the real challenge in this is that while the right side of the brain, which takes in the whole picture, can appreciate and understand what it needs the left side of the brain for, the left side of the brain doesn't. It thinks it's got the whole picture and can do everything itself. It thinks its way of looking at the world is the *right* way. (One reason this book is so huge is that all these points are meticulously documented with patient studies and other neurological and psychological research.) Without the right brain keeping it in check, it takes over and tries to do tasks for which it has no capacity

So, on to the second book within the book: the way the tension between the two hemispheres has played out over the history of Western civilization. Not that our brains have changed drastically over the course of recorded history, but the way we perceive and interact with our environment produces and is produced by culture, and it shifts over relatively short timeframes. (This part, also, is meticulously documented in a completely different way, with literary, historical, and philosophical references.)

The author is dealing with a very big picture here and can of necessity only bring fragments to sketch it, a difficult task but one I think he for the most part succeeds at. But the general idea is that the hemispheres tend to alternate dominance, first culture showing a flowering of right-brained creativity, and then a left-brained tendency to analyze and sharpen. He starts back in ancient Greece, then on through Rome and the middle ages, the Renaissance (right brain) followed by Reformation (shifting), leading to the Enlightenment (hard left), and then a rebellion against that with the right-brain emphasizing Romantic movement.

The challenge he sees is that over time the left-brain dominance becomes sharper. The left brain, after all, thinks its way is the right way. It dismisses the right-brain approach as illogical, inconsistent, inadequate. For most of human history, the right brain has had many supports to keep its place: our experience of nature and our own bodies, the presence of art and music and religion. These have kept the left brain from following its own drift too far.

However, since the Industrial Revolution, we have less and less access to these anchors. Our environment is more and more not a thing outside ourselves, but predominantly the product of human technology, all straight lines and sharp angles. Science (a vital endeavor) has been turned into scientism, a dogmatic insistence that only the left-brained facts and figures have any truth value. Religion has responded mostly by abandoning its realm of mystery and splitting up into fundamentalism (an attempt to reduce the inexpressible to a logically consistent body of dogma) or modernism (eliminating the supernatural altogether). Art and music have ceased to be human endeavors toward the beautiful (the left brain can't handle the idea of beauty; it can't be reduced to specific parts) and have become exercises in novelty for the sake of novelty. The body itself becomes an object, not a thing we are, but a thing we own and try to manipulate.

In consequence, we have followed up Modernism, a triumph of the left brain if there ever was one, not with a right-brain revolution to restore our appreciation for the reality that is out there, for beauty and relationship and all those other things that don't quite reduce to figures, but with Post-Modernism--a retreat further into the left-hemisphere world, in which there is no longer an out there at all, but everything is simply a product of our own minds.

I have already summarized a book that is probably too long to read with a blog post that is also too long to read, so I will try to do a second post on how this resonates with me.


Darren said...

One of the smartest and most logical lawyers I have known says that utilizing the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues has provided this necessary check to thinking that his rational side has all the answers.

Wendy said...

Fascinating! Thanks for sharing!

mamatigerj said...

I was going to say "Fascinating!" but Wendy already did. However, I cannot think of another word, so I will just say, "I agree with Wendy."