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The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World Paperback – Nov 2 2010


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; Reprint edition (Nov. 2 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300168926
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300168921
  • Product Dimensions: 3.3 x 13.4 x 20 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 599 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #139,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)


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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Anchusa on Dec 28 2011
Format: Paperback
Finally getting to the end of it. Hard going for me but immensely rewarding. The range of topics discussed, examined under the same set of ideas about the communication within the brain and relation to the world of direct perception is truly impressive and seems very thorough and well understood and articulated. Sometimes I felt the author was stretching the basic thread of argument to breaking point but it never quite broke. And there were a couple of philosophical points that could have been considered but were not.
As a student of Buddhism and meditation the whole range of discussions about modes of perception and categorization of perception and the back and forth between re-presentation(categorization) and basic perception was very clarifying of many Buddhist ideas and very provocative considered in the view of meditation and what that discipline does or hopes to achieve. So, I hope some of the current day Buddhist authors writing about science and Buddhism come across this book and take the time to read it thoroughly.
The book is slightly overwhelming in the range and depth of erudition displayed. I have marked many places for rereading, contemplation and further reading.
A truly admirable book.
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Format: Paperback
Note: The terms "master" and "emissary" as well as their correlations with the nature and extent of the "divided brain" are best explained in context, within Iain McGilchrist's lively and eloquent narrative.

As I began to read this book and Iain McGilchrist's discussion of the "divided" brain, I was reminded of Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. Whereas she notes the significant differences between extroverted and introverted individuals, McGilchrist suggests that there are two hemispheres in each person's brain that seem to "coexist together on a daily basis, but have fundamentally different sets of values, and therefore priorities [as do extroverts and introverts], which means that over the long term they are likely to come into conflict. Although each is crucially important, and delivers valuable aspects of the human condition, and though each needs the other for different purposes, they seem destined to pull apart."

This is generally referred to as a "left brain/right brain" dichotomy or conflict. Both are "hugely valuable," according to McGilchrist, "but they stand in opposition to one another, and need to be kept apart from one another -- hence the bihemispheric structure of the brain."

If I understand Cain correctly (and I may not), she suggests that there are significant differences between two personality types: those who are either primarily introverted or primarily extroverted. Whichever is subordinate nonetheless co-exists in natural balance unless provoked into conflict by remarkably durable misconceptions of what is “normal.” For example, that introverts are by nature shy, retiring, insecure, and reserved (if not anti-social) and therefore cannot be effective leaders.
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By Sean Kelly on Jan. 13 2013
Format: Paperback
I found Iain's book extremely interesting. He has sure done his homework. He is throughly researched in each topic area. I found myself wondering how he could have possibly read all of his citations; the footnoting alone is a huge asset to anyone interested in further research. Finally, my vocabulary has increased and my knowledge has grown enormously. THIS IS CUTTING EDGE STUFF!
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0 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Richard Eichenauer on July 23 2011
Format: Paperback
Have not read the thick book yet, but it was highly recommended to me by a good friend. Ask me in 1/2 year!
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Amazon.com: 82 reviews
156 of 161 people found the following review helpful
Seeing through the brain Feb. 21 2010
By Jim Coughenour - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Ian McGilchrist's thick book on the "divided brain" is the most interesting book I've read this year. I'd come to regard the fabled right brain/left brain antithesis as so much entertaining pop psychology (e.g., Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future) -- handy for provoking corporate robots, but hardly more than a convenient fiction. McGilchrist has convinced me that it's a metaphor worth taking seriously, that in fact it may be the fundamental metaphor for a scientistic age.

McGilchrist's thesis is simple: the right hemisphere of the brain (the "Master" of his title) provides our primary connection to the world - to whatever is outside ourselves; the left hemisphere is its Emissary, breaking wholes into parts, analyzing and abstracting, devising categories, names and theories, then returning the results of its investigations to the right brain to be integrated into lived experience. The health of both individuals and civilizations depends upon the reciprocal connection. The problem is that the left brain, which imagines it "knows" things it can't possibly know, usurps its role and projects its own partial, definite vision of the world onto the world's essentially ambiguous reality.

Stated simply (and the above is my own wording for McGilchrist's argument) I risk making the book sound as if it was written by a crank with an overweening metaphor. Nothing could be further from the truth. The book, which begins by examining a huge range of neurological research on the brain, then examines how the structure of the brain has affected (nothing less than!) the history of Western civilization, is continuously fascinating, rich in detail and bold in observation. Bothits science and practice of philosophy are exemplary. McGilchrist takes almost 500 pages to build his case. Fortunately, he's an engaging and unpretentious writer.

His argument reminded me of some of the most stimulating books I've ever read. A short list of ideational echoes: James Hillman's discussion of "seeing through" in Re-Visioning Psychology; Owen Barfield's examination of polarity in the evolution of consciousness in What Coleridge Thought; F S C Northrup's study of the Aesthetic and Theoretic components in The Meeting of East and West; Paul Ricoeur's theory of "second naivete" in The Symbolism of Evil; and Colin Falck's post-structuralist approach to literary language in Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-modernism . Each of these books is a touchstone to me, and each is illuminated by McGilchrist's speculations.

At the same time, McGilchrist's discussion and bibliography pointed me to books I'd never heard of and now can't wait to read: Louis Sass's Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought; Stephen Gaukroger's The Emergence of a Scientific Culture: Science and the Shaping of Modernity 1210-1685; and Joseph Leo Koerner's The Reformation of the Image. I realize this review doesn't do much more than emphasize my own enthusiasm - but for the curious reader, maybe that will suffice.
125 of 132 people found the following review helpful
A masterly achievement Nov. 28 2009
By David Lorimer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This is a brilliant and staggeringly erudite book that only Iain McGilchrist could have written. Originally a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, in English literature, he retrained in medicine and has brought together CP Snow's 'two cultures' in a masterly synthesis. McGilchrist overturns the commonly held view of the left hemisphere as dominant, showing conclusively that the right hemisphere is primary but that both are meant to work together. Each has a different but complementary perspective on the world: the right hemisphere apprehends the whole and mediates new experiences, while the left provides focus. The snag is that this narrow focus prefers abstraction to experience and treats living things as mechanisms. This mechanistic metaphor pervades the whole of modern science and indeed economics, with its emphasis on manipulation.

This view tends to dehumanise the world and impose a bureaucratic mentality, from whose excesses we currently suffer as we strive to eliminate all risk in favour of a certainty which does not exist outside mathematics. The second part of the book examines our cultural history in terms of a power struggle between left and right hemispheres, in which the left hemisphere is currently privileged. Here is a new take on the history of Western thought, which will radically reshape your understanding. The book is impressive not just in its scope, but is beautifully written, positively bristling with insights and creative intelligence on every page.
70 of 75 people found the following review helpful
Iain McGilchrist 'The Master and His Emissary': For sceptics and careful investors Jan. 2 2010
By Ian Mcpherson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Iain McGilchrist `The Master and His Emissary' : For sceptics and careful investors

Recent decades constitute a golden age for brain research, using new technology and methods. However, this gold has too often been mixed with lead, and even mud. Some have clung stubbornly to quickly outdated research, while others have aimed to cash-in on the prestige and fascination of such research by exploiting (sometimes for psycho-political as well as commercial purposes) half-truths and misunderstandings. At one extreme the brain becomes a fetish, while at another extreme it seems smart to speak of the allegedly obvious as `a no-brainer'. Hence, when a new, big, brain-book attracts such enthusiastic acclaim as this one, it is only prudent to be mindful of the need for caution.

Happily, Iain McGilchrist has provided on a personal website ([...]) not only summaries of his qualifications, experience and commitments, but also his book's complete and illuminating Introduction (about 15 pages), along with his table of contents and chapters. The caution, and respect for evidence and argument - as well as for his readers, to be found in this introduction are sufficient to show that he is an outstanding thinker, as well as researcher, polymath, cultural critic and humanistic practitioner, who deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt by any prospective purchaser. He is a genuinely interdisciplinary thinker, who - just because he appreciates disciplinary boundaries - is well prepared to cross them responsibly in developing his argument and insights.

Another impressively reliable reviewer, in addition to those already available on the Amazon site, is the great moral philosopher, interpreter of life-sciences, and cultural critic Mary Midgley. (The range of her work and the general high regard for this can be seen by looking her up on Amazon). No one could ever fairly accuse Midgley of being uncritically swept along by any version of scientism (abuse of the sciences). Her review of McGilchrist appears in the Guardian (Review section) for Saturday 02/01.2010, page 6, under the title `The Music of the Hemispheres'. Midgley's review begins, `This is a very remarkable book. It is not (as some reviewers seem to think) just one more glorification of feeling at the expense of thought. Rather, it points out the complexity, the divided nature of thought itself and asks about its connection with the structure of the brain. Midgely ends by welcoming the book as `...clear, penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating. ...And I do have to say that, fat though it is, I couldn't put it down'.
34 of 35 people found the following review helpful
A masterful work Dec 18 2010
By gypsy - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I agree with all the previous reviews of this remarkable book. As I was reading, I kept track of the specific elements of each of the hemispheres that McGilchrist cites in this well researched book. I thought I would share this with the readers:
A very partial summary of the nature of the left hemisphere could be as follows: it has an emphasis on doing, on things mechanistic, of the "whatness" of things; it is interested purely in functions and can only see things in context. The LH is not interested in living things. It does not understand metaphor and deals with pieces of information but cannot see the gestalt of situations. It recognizes the familiar and is not the hemisphere that attends to the "new", therefore it searches for what it already understands to categorize and nail down, often with (another of its characteristics) an unreasonable certainty of itself. Remember, it can't observe anything outside of its own confines. Since it prefers the known, it attempts to repackage new information (if unaided by the RH) as familiar - a kind of re-presenting the experience. It positively prefers (and defends!) what it knows! The LH tends to deny discrepancies that do not fit its already generated schema of things. It creates "a sort of self-reflexive virtual world" according to McGilchrist. Additionally, it is "regional" and focuses narrowly. The metaphor for its structure is vertical. It brings an attention that isolates, fixes and makes things explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. It helps us to be grounded and "in life", looks for repetition and commonality between things without which we would drift and be unable to understand our experiences since all would be continuously new. It is efficient in routine situations where things are predictable. Without benefit of the RH (seen in studies of people with hemispheric damage, for example), it also renders things inert, mechanical and lifeless.. But it allows us to "know" and learn and make things.

The right hemisphere's emphasis is on process, on the "how", "the manner in which" or the "howness" as McGilchrist puts it. It is interested in "ways of being" which only living things have. I was amazed to learn that the RH does recognize one group of inanimate objects as belonging to the class of living entities, and that is musical instruments (!) It helps us resonate with other living beings and the natural world, seeing its ultimate interconnectedness. The RH can carefully see things out of their context, it is global rather than regional, is broad and flexible, and as mentioned above, understands metaphor. It sees the gestalt and the wholeness; it tolerates ambiguity and the unknown. Its structure metaphor is "horizontal"; it is spacious and helps us with enough distance so we can observe. In it, we experience the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. The RH is responsible for every kind of attention: divided, vigilant, sustained, and alertness - except for "focused", the domain of the LH. It can direct attention to what comes to us "from the edges" of our awareness regardless of the hemisphere side. It alone detects new or novel experiences. It distinguishes old information from new better than the LH. Animals, like horses, perceive new and emotionally arousing stimuli with the left eye (which is governed by the RH). It is more capable of a frame shift; think "possibility"; it has flexibility when encountering the "new" and suppresses the immediate impulse to see it as "old". It actively watches for discrepancies, more like a "devil's advocate". It approaches certainty with caution and humility. It says "I wonder" or "it might be" when confronted with information. But it also, without the LH, would create an experience that was always unique, forever in motion and unpredictable. `'If all things flow, and there is never a repeated experience, then we can never step into the same river twice, and we would never be able to `know' anything." If nothing can ever be repeated, then nothing can be known.

Is the result of this growing LH dominance over the RH an increasingly dehumanized society where mechanism, bureaucracy, obsession with structure and with "what" predominates over a concern for living things and beings and their interconnectedness? You will be immersed in this question throughout this remarkable book.

While no doubt this book deepens our understanding of the brain and has vast implications for psychotherapy and the understanding of human psychology, it is far more than this. It isn't possible to read this book without a continuing awareness of our political system, the growing dominance of our corporations, the weak assumptions of war, and the uncomfortably growing sense of the "dehumanization" of our world.
22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A great achievement April 1 2011
By Ralph Blumenau - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
As a student of philosophy I have always been particularly interested in the contrasting attitudes of Romanticism and Rationalism, and it was an absolute revelation to me to read in this book that almost all the perceptions of Romanticism originate in the right hemisphere of the brain while the methods of Rationalism are processed by the left hemisphere. In the first half of his book, McGilchrist shows us in great detail the several ways in which neurological science can demonstrate this, for instance by describing the thought processes when one or the other side of the brain is physically damaged.

The most fundamental difference between the two hemispheres is that the origin of all experience is in the right half. That experience sees everything in its environment, is holistic, intuitive and profound, but it is unfocussed and indistinct. To focus on the details of the experience, to analyze it, is the task of the left. Ideally the detailed picture then returns to the right half, so that the details become integrated with and enrich the wider picture. The traffic between the two hemispheres is principally via the corpus callosum, the tissues which join them at their base.

The left half uses language precisely; the right can see can see layers of meaning, understands metaphors and jokes. The right is responsible for our personal and social relationship with others, for empathy and empathetic imitation, for picking up the meaning of facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice, for most of our emotional life and for our response to music, poetry, the spiritual dimension of life. It is the locus of moral judgment. It experiences the past, the present and the future as a continuum. The left is instrumental; it organizes, manipulates and controls details for a purpose. It measures, classifies and creates abstractions. It aims for internal consistency. Awareness of new things in the world belong to the right; the left processes and explicates what it receives from the right, and in that sense does not create anything new itself: it only works on what is already known to it.

Without the work of the left, civilization would be impossible; but when the right is neglected, the left becomes detached from everything that is holistic and profound. The left and the right, different and even conflicting though they are, should always complement each other in a creative tension, should have a dialectical relationship with each other like that of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. They achieve this when there is "negative feedback" between them, when they check each other. But the left hemisphere is particularly prone to "positive feedback", is a "hall of mirrors" where its contents reinforce each other and produce a "virtual reality".

Philosophy itself, which is essentially concerned with analysis and close examination, has a strong predisposition to privilege the left, which it takes a stupendous effort by some philosophers like Spinoza, Nietzsche or Heidegger to overcome. Scientists run a similar danger, and even neurologists have until recently described the right hemisphere as "minor", "silent", or "coarse" and the left as "dominant" or "smart". McGilchrist is in no doubt that the right hemisphere should be the Master, the left merely its Emissary, albeit as such a valued one.

In the second half of the book McGilchrist analyzes the phases of Western civilization in terms of whether they are right- or left-hemisphere dominated. (He allows for more exceptions than my summary suggests.) He agrees with Nietzsche that left domination began with Socrates and Plato. It was intensified in the Roman Empire. Christendom began with the spiritual insights we associate with the right, but degenerated into abstract theological formulations which imposed uniformity wherever it could. The Renaissance was overwhelmingly right-hemisphere dominated; but then the Reformation reverted to left-hemisphere thought. (McGilchrist's unduly negative attitude to the Reformation strikes me as the weakest part of the book.) The Enlightenment and the French Revolution of course are massively left-oriented; and on several occasions he mentions that Descartes, the founder of the Age of Reason (or rather of the Age of Rationality) exhibited thought processes which have much in common with schizophrenics. In Romanticism we then have a brief period of right-hemisphere dominance. McGilchrist taught English Literature at Oxford before he re-trained as a neurologist; and his analysis (NB) of Romantic Literature is superb and much the best part of this second part. Then, alas, comes the Industrial Revolution with its one-sided materialism and scientism, manipulating life in a way which is the fulfilment of the left-hemisphere's ambitions. And even that was not the end: Modernism comes along, whose characteristics are fragmentation of reality (see Cubism, Surrealism, abstract art etc; dissonance without resolution into harmony in much of modern music, deconstruction in literature) in much the way in which schizophrenics experience fragmented reality, and this bring all sorts of other consequences: a loss of meaning and significance, resulting sometimes in Angst, sometimes in boredom, which in turn requires more and more strident or shocking expression. For the sanity of western civilization, we badly need to restore the primacy of the right-hemisphere, not least by looking at the more holistic attitudes McGilchrist sees in Eastern civilization.

There are suggestive sentences or brilliant formulations on almost every page, although there is also a good deal of repetition in this very long book. Despite McGilchrist's comments that, in its proper role, the left hemisphere does indispensable and valuable work, the tone is constantly negative about it. There is, for example, nothing about the left hemisphere checking rather than supplementing what the right hemisphere may be doing in the way of blind emotion. Dare I say that there is even a left-hemisphere tinge to the overall pattern of McGilchrist's analysis? I was, however, left with my view of the world having been greatly enriched by this learned and immensely stimulating book.

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