- The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary is a thought-provoking book that deserves a wide readership, even though most historians will find its account of Western history unsatisfying. McGilchrist argues that the driving force in cultural history lies not in institutions or ideas but in the human brain—specifically in the struggle for supremacy between the right and left hemispheres, which have fundamentally different ways of apprehending and engaging the world.
McGilchrist believes that the division of brains into specialized hemispheres became widespread among vertebrates because evolution favored species that could bring two “types of attention . . . to bear on the world.” Successful individuals had “to focus attention narrowly and with precision” in order to “manipulate” the world to meet their needs for food and shelter, but they also had to be open to broader impressions of others and of the world at large: “I have a need to take account of myself as a member of my social group, to see potential allies, and beyond that to see potential mates and potential enemies. Here I may feel myself to be part of something much bigger than myself, and even existing in and through that ‘something’ that is bigger than myself. . . . This requires less of a willfully directed, narrowly focused attention, and more of an open, receptive, widely diffused alertness to whatever exists, with allegiances outside of the self (25).
The two approaches to the world can interfere with each another. The former requires a “necessary detachment” that allows us to control and manipulate our natural and social environment, whereas the latter requires that we maintain “the broadest experience of the world as it comes to us” (22). The neural networks that facilitate these ways of paying attention to the world are located in different parts of the brain to minimize the degree to which they interfere with each other—the “attentive” network mainly in the left hemisphere and the “receptive” network in the right.
Ideally, in McGilchrist’s opinion, the hemispheres should work together in creative tension to facilitate survival and cultural progress, but their relationship is “inherently unstable.” The left side of the brain has a tendency to try to dominate the right side. McGilchrist believes, like Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Martin Heidegger, that there has been since ancient times “a gradual encroachment over time of rationality on the natural territory of intuition or instinct,” which in his opinion has had baleful consequences for Western civilization (244). That encroachment has reshaped the human brain, enhancing its (lefthemisphere) capacity for information gathering, manipulation, and exploitation at the expense of its (right-hemisphere) capacity for wisdom, empathy, and altruism. [End Page 619]
The result has been “an increasing disconnection of cognitive from emotional processes” that has devalued the body, art, and religion in favor of science and greed. The ascendancy of the left hemisphere has facilitated “the destruction and despoliation of the natural world, and the erosion of established cultures,” leaving humans less connected with each other and less happy (244, 434–435). McGilchrist admires the effort by Romantics and continental philosophers to restore the balance between embedded and detached thinking, but their efforts were unsuccessful. Left-brain thinking has dominated Western culture since the Enlightenment.
McGilchrist’s dystopian view of the present shapes every page of his declensionist history of Western civilization—a history that most professional historians will find strained, especially when it suggests that ancient Greeks were more empathetic and less exploitive than modern Europeans. But his larger point—that we cannot understand history without understanding its impact on the human brain and vice versa—is persuasive.