Master Indeed

Posted: October 27, 2011 in Consciousness, Culture, Nomenclature, Philosophy

I am coming to the end of part one (of two) of The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. After having described the divided brain, he is now at the stage of explaining in detail why the right brain is the master and the left brain the emissary. Here is one of many restatements of the central thesis from p. 177:

There is a tendency for the life sciences to consider a mechanistic universe more ‘real’, even though physics long ago moved away from this legacy of nineteenth-century materialism, with the rather odd result that the inanimate universe has come to appear animate, to take part in mind, while the animate universe appears inanimate, mindless. Science has to prioritise clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up of detail over the the bigger picture. Like philosophy it comes at the world from the left hemisphere’s point of view … There Newtonian mechanics rules; but it ‘frays at the edges’, once one pans out to get the bigger picture of reality, at the subatomic, or at the cosmic, level. Here uncertainty replaces certainty; the fixed turns out to be constantly changing and cannot be pinned down; straight lines are curved: in other words, Einstein’s laws account better than Newton’s. Straight lines, such as the horizon, are curved if one takes a longer view, and space itself is curved — so that the rectilinearity of the left hemisphere is a bit like the flat-Earther’s view ….

Naturally, one must rely on language to describe hemispheric worldviews, so it is no surprise that McGilchrist uses metaphors from science to support his argument. He points out, however, that while the left hemisphere can understand conflicts between Euclidean and elliptical or hyperbolic space (among other things, e.g., Schrödinger’s cat or the wave vs. particle debate), the right hemisphere is far more comfortable dealing with flow, flux, ambiguity, and paradox. Those problems are not resolved in the right hemisphere, exactly, but they no longer matter so much.

This calls to mind an early scene in the movie The Matrix where Neo admits that things feels off, or subtly wrong somehow. He can’t pin it down, but he can sense it somehow. This is why the right brain is the master: it gets it more fully, if perhaps imprecisely. (“What is it, exactly?” asks the left brain. “Who cares,” answers the right brain, “let’s dance!”) Yet we strain and struggle to fix reality in our minds via the left hemisphere due to habits of mind developed, learned, and institutionalized over centuries. So the wrong way of viewing the world has gained the upper hand, at least temporarily (some 6,000 years perhaps, which is almost nothing in the larger scheme of things).

I was delighted to discover (on two different blogs on the same day, a good instance of how something suddenly goes viral) an RSA Animate video of McGilchrist summarizing his findings, which is a shorter, animated version of a longer version (available elsewhere on YouTube) delivered behind a podium with some supplemental media.

His message is very clear to me, but I’m currently reading the book. As I watched the video, however, I was struck that the tantalizing visual distraction and cleverness of the illustrator (using animation within the animation) overwhelms the spoken message. It’s basic media theory: the medium is the message, and here, despite using MiGilchrist’s book as the ostensible subject, the dominant message becomes about the illustration (or the illustrator).

  1. rg the lg says:

    Hmm …
    I think I may need to read the thing myself …
    Something does not seem quite … acceptable. [I believe nothing … things range, if not impossible, from plausible to implausible … and from acceptable to unacceptable … from slightly greater than zero all the way up to just less than one … ]

    • Brutus says:

      Ran Prieur doesn’t think it’s quite right, either, as shown in this entry at his blog. I usually appreciate Prieur’s insights, but I suspect he is responding to the animation rather than the book and so missing the voluminous explanation and documentation that supports McGilchrist’s thesis. If you’re a fast reader, you can easily overtake me in the book.

  2. rg the lg says:

    I am NOT a fast reader … and I am backed up somewhat (as usual) … but I spend close to 40 hours a week reading … and about 30 hours teaching … and about 12 hours with my granddaughter. I will get there … but if you hold your breath, you WILL turn blue. While you may look good in blue, I doubt if you’d look nearly so well being blue … ?

  3. John says:

    Please find an essay which describes the nature of Reality. A description which is based on direct felt-experience of what is being described. Reality & the Middle

    Plus two related references.

    Plus a reference which describes the origins and cultural consequences of the perceptual strait-jacket in which we are now all trapped – with no exceptions.

    Also Touch at

    • Brutus says:

      This is the second or third time I’ve been spammed with links to some guru offering an alternative view of reality. The amount of reading necessary to familiarize myself with the teachings of the guru is a little burdensome considering what’s already on my plate and where my focus lies. No doubt there is some good value in the recommended links, but I can’t really attend to them now. I’m also somewhat sympathetic to alternatives but nonetheless trapped at the fringes of the dominant paradigm. No doubt another of my many failings.

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