The Master and His Emissary

I’ve been struggling to understand Iain McGilchrist’s argument about the two hemispheres of the brain, as presented in his book “The Master and His Emissary” [1]. It’s an argument that takes you from neuroanatomy, through behavioural science to cultural studies [2]. The book is crammed with fascinating evidential trees, but I left it without a clear understanding of the overall wood. Watching this RSA Animate helped.

Basically, I think McGilchrist is attempting a neuroscientific rehabilitation of an essentially mystical idea: the map is not the territory, of the important of ends rather than just means [3]. Here’s a tabulation of functions and areas of focus that McGilchrist claims for the two hemispheres:

Left Right
Representation Perception
The Abstract The Concrete
Narrow focus Broad focus
Language Embodiment
Manipulation Experience (?)
Parts Wholes
Machines Life
The Static The Changing
Focus on the known Alertness for the novel
Consistency, familiarity, prediction Contradiction, novelty, surprise
A closed knowledge system An open knowledge system
(Urge after) Consistency (Urge after) Completeness
The Known The Unknown, The ineffable
The explicit The implicit
Generalisation Individuality/uniqueness
Particulars Context

A key idea – which is in the RSA Animate – is the idea of a ‘necessary distance’ from the world. By experiencing yourself as separate (but not totally detached) you are able to empathise with people, manipulate tools, reason on symbols etc. But, of course, there’s always the risk that you end up valuing the tools for their own sake, or believing in the symbol system you have created to understand the world.

From a cognitive neuroscience point of view, this is fair enough, by which I mean that if you are going to look into the (vast) literature on hemispheric specialisation and make some summary claims, as McGilchrist does, then these sort of claims are reasonable. You can enjoy one of the grand-daddies of split brain studies, Michael Gazzaniga, summarise his perspective, which isn’t that discordant, here [4].

From this foundation, McGilchrist goes on to diagnose a historical movement in our culture away from a balanced way of thinking and towards a ‘left brain’ dominated way of thinking. This, to me, also seems fair enough. Modernity does seem characterised by the ascendance of both instrumentalism and bureaucracy, both ‘leftish’ values in the McGilchristian framework.

It is worth noting that dual-systems theories, of which this is one, are perennially popular. McGilchrist is careful and explicit in rejecting the popular Reason vs Emotion distinction that has come to be associated with the two hemispheres. In this RSA report Divided Brain, Divided World, he briefly discusses how his theory relates to the automatic-deliberative distinction, as (for example) set out by Daniel Kahneman in his Thinking Fast and Slow. He says, briefly, that that distinction is orthogonal to the one he’s making; i.e. both hemispheres do automatic and controlled processing.

I was turned on to the book by Helen Mort, who writes a great blog about neuroscience and poetry which you can check out here: If you’re interested in reading more about psychology, divided selves and cultural shifts I recommend Timothy Wilson’s “Strangers to Ourselves” and Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy”.


[1] If you buy the paperback they’ve slimmed it down, at least in some editions, by leaving out the reference list at the end. Very frustrating.

[2] Fans of grand theories of hemispheric functioning and the relation to cultural evolution, make sure you check out Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind . Weirdly McGilchrist hardly references this book (noting merely that he is saying something completely different).

[3] And when I use the term ‘mystical’, that is a good thing, not a denigration.

[4] Gazzaniga, M. (2002). The split brain revisited. Scientific American, Special Editions: The Hidden Mind.

7 thoughts on “The Master and His Emissary”

  1. Good to see another mention of McGilchrist’s book. However I think the comment about Julian Jaynes is a little off the mark. McGilchrist does refer to it several times, acknowledges its importance, and even states he believes that Jaynes was ‘close to making a breakthrough’.

    However, McGilchrist merely disagrees with Jaynes on one issue, albeit a crucial one. The central idea of Jaynes’ book is the merging of a previously ‘bicameral’ mind (i.e. the two hemispheres). McGilchrist argues that the phenomena described by Jaynes were actually caused by a development in the complete opposite direction: a relative separation of the two hemispheres from a more unified initial state. McGilchrist elaborates on this in the first part of Chapter 8 (‘The ancient world’).

    1. Thanks for the correction Johan. I used the index to track down all mentions of Jaynes, but obviously it or (more likely) my memory misled me.

      1. Actually you’re right that there aren’t too many references to Jaynes in TMAHE, but I just happened to remember this one particularly well because it’s something I specifically looked up after reading Jaynes’ book last year.

        Must also say that TMAHE is worth repeated reading. I first read it shortly after it came out in 2010 (prompted by a mention here on Mind Hacks!), and then re-read it a year later. For me a lot of McGilchrist’s ideas became a lot clearer on the second reading. I may well read it a third time.

  2. I have not finished the book yet as it is a daunting task considering how dense it is. But I do have a feeling that his discoveries concerning the divided brain are monumental and an absolute necessity for us to understand.. If I could only wrap my brain around it completely. I think there is an existential danger in being too wrapped up in a left-brain dominate society.

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