Books I Read: Everything and more about the two sides of our brains
Updated: Jun 10
The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist
To be honest, I've never given much thought to my brain and its workings. I'd quit biology after Secondary 2 because the next part of the syllabus involved earthworms and their innards. If not for the terrible patches of deep white matter hyperintensities on my brain scans, I'd have been quite comfortable being ignorant about the workings of those globs of grey matter inside my skull.
To me, the brain was a sort of CPU that regulated my body's automatic functions and made it possible for me to sort through my sense perceptions, store them in some meaningful fashion and then retrieve them when I needed to plan or analyze something. Like all machines, it would work less efficiently over time. And then, there would be the day that it would not, and I'd be dead. Nothing else needed to be said. Or asked.
The reality of vascular damage and the gradual dementia, however, raised urgent questions:
- What had happened and why?
- If I couldn't improve the situation, how could I at least stabilize it?
- And if things did fall apart, what would be left of the walk and talk and thoughts that the brain had been orchestrating inside this embodied 'me'? I wouldn't be dead, but then what?
It was time to learn more. Hence, The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist.
For a neophyte, Iain McGilchrist's The Master and the Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is a dive into the deep end. The book's thesis is that the hemispherical differences in brain function matters. We are determined by how we see the world, and how we are affects the world we interact with. As such it's important to understand how each of the two brain hemispheres function, and then, to consider how the dominance of one over the other may have affected society.
As the author is a psychiatrist, writer and former literary scholar, he draws on neuroscience to explain how the two hemispheres of the brain work in functional opposition to each other. and then goes on to demonstrate his case through a review of Western cultural history.
I found the first quarter of the book instructive and well worth reading.
This is the part that references the results of imaging and case studies on the functional outcomes of patients with brain damage to illustrate the different ways in which the two hemispheres of the brain process, record, store and express our lived experiences. I learnt that the widely accepted generalization that logic and language are processed in the left brain and images and emotions in the right, is too crude. Each hemisphere is involved in everything. The point is that they do it differently. Left brain processes are focused and outcome driven. The left brain categorizes facts and creates representations. It wants to argue and present these representations The right brain looks at the overall terrain, paying attention to what is new and outside its usual frame of reference. It will record experiences and create metaphors. It is silent, but in it's silence is a knowing which the left brain would do well to acknowledge.
Many of McGilchrist's critics have found the linkages drawn from the data tenuous, and his description of brain functions/processes/modes/systems muddy. Perhaps. I lack the context or knowledge to make any kind of assessment. However, I thought it was a pretty useful working hypothesis to use when thinking of how I might be thinking and what I might be missing by ignoring the silences behind my usual brain chatter.
The rest of the book can be skimmed or totally skipped. This is where McGilchrist anthropomorphizes the two hemispheres to demonstrate that the left brain has a tendency to dominate and how this is not good through a review Western cultural history from 600 BCE. Turning left and right brains into warring characters is unnecessary as all the points about the functioning of the two hemispheres have already been made in the first quarter of the book. As for the historical review . . . the author's critics are right that the conclusions are rather sweeping. I left with the impression - So okay . . . The guy knows a lot, but rather like the left brain which he tends to criticize, he has a tendency to confabulate.
I'm definitely in two minds (hahah!) about posting this review.
In left brain cost-benefit analysis terms, I really didn't get the value expected from the time I spent on the tome. But my big picture right brain does like exploring new territory. And I've been thrilled to be introduced to the treasures of my usually silenced right brain. So, here goes . . .
I'm pressing the publish button.
What would you do if you had a reading experience like this?
And would you still read this book after my review?
Audrey Chin is an award-winning Singaporean writer whose work explores the intersections of culture, faith and gender. She believes in the imponderables including love, god and ghosts AND she's an omnivore when it comes to books.
Buy her books here.