The Master and His Emissary

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World  is a detailed and extensively documented scientific study of the specialist hemispheric functioning of the brain. The differing world views of the right and left brain (the "Master" and "emissary" in the title, respectively) have, according to the author, shaped Western culture since the time of the ancient Greek philosopherPlato, and the growing conflict between these views has implications for the way the modern world is changing.

The Master and His Emissary is written by Iain McGilchrist, a former Oxford literary scholar, now a doctor, psychiatrist and writer.


Main article: Lateralization of brain function

A longitudinal fissure separates the brain into two cerebral hemispheres connected by a structure called the corpus callosum.

As far back as 1861, research into speech and language by French physician Pierre Paul Broca and later by German physician Karl Wernickeshed light on the functions of the two brain hemispheres. However, modern research really became established in the 1960s when Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Wolcott Sperry carried out research on split-brain patients in which a large part of the corpus callosum connecting the two hemispheres had been severed. This work was followed by that of others such as psychologist Robert E. Ornstein. It has become clear that the two hemispheres perform different functions and a number of different theories have been constructed based on research.

In 1976, psychologist Julian Jaynes published a book entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. His hypothesis was that the human mind, from ancient times to as recently as 3000 years ago, assumed a state which he termed bicameral mind. In this state, cognitive functions were divided into two distinct sections, with one part of the brain which appears to be "speaking", and a second part which listens and obeys. Jaynes proposed that in those times, humans did not possess the self-awareness component of consciousness, and that at that time people would experience the world in a manner similar to modern-day people suffering from schizophrenia.

Since those times, according to Jaynes, there has been a breakdown of the bicameral state, or a shift away from it, with the modern-day emergence of introspection and consciousness.

In part, McGilchrist's book reviews the evidence of such research and theories, and based on this and cultural evidence, the author arrives at his own conclusions.


Book summary

The 608 page book is divided into an introduction, two parts and a conclusion. Deeply researched over a period of twenty years,[5] it contains many illustrations and over 120 pages of detailed notes and references (in small print) and bibliography.[2]

McGilchrist believes that "there is, literally, a world of difference between the [brain] hemispheres. Understanding quite what that is has involved a journey through many apparently unrelated areas: not just neurology and psychology, but philosophy, literature and the arts, and even, to some extent, archaeology and anthropology."[6]



In an interview with Frontier Psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist names two influences, amongst many, on his work: the psychiatrist John Cutting and the Chicago psychologist David McNeill. McGilchrist states: "What I began to see – and it was John Cutting's work on the right hemisphere that set me thinking – was that the difference lay not in what they [the two hemispheres] do, but how they do it."[7] In the same interview, the author explains: "Some very subtle research by David McNeill, amongst others, confirms that thought originates in the right hemisphere, is processed for expression in speech by the left hemisphere, and the meaning integrated again by the right (which alone understands the overall meaning of a complex utterance, taking everything into account)."[7]


The divided brain

In the first part, "The Divided Brain", McGilchrist describes the functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the brain and their respective and at times conflicting "world views". One of the core themes of the book is the importance of differentiation and integration, and of the integration of the two.


Speaking about the book on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, McGilchrist dismisses what he sees as some popular misconceptions about lateralization of brain function, such as one hemisphere handling reason and the other language (etc), stating that such processing involves both sides of the brain.[3] McGilchrist points out that the idea that "reason [is] in the left hemisphere and something like creativity and emotion [are] in the right hemisphere" is an unhelpful misconception. He states that "every single brain function is carried out by both hemispheres. Reason and emotion and imagination depend on the coming together of what both hemispheres contribute." Nevertheless he does see an obvious dichotomy, and asks himself: "if the brain is all about making connections, why is it that it's evolved with this whopping divide down the middle?"[8]


The author holds instead that each of the hemispheres of the brain has a different "take" on the world or produces a different "version" of the world, though under normal circumstances these work together. This, he says, is basically to do with attention. He illustrates this with the case of chicks which use the eye connected to the left hemisphere to attend to the fine detail of picking seeds from amongst grit, whilst the other eye attends to the broader threat from predators. According to the author, "The left hemisphere has its own agenda, to manipulate and use the world"; its world view is essentially that of a mechanism. The right has a broader outlook, "has no preconceptions, and simply looks out to the world for whatever might be. In other words it does not have any allegiance to any particular set of values."

Writing about the book in The Guardian, the philosopher Mary Midgley explains that "The bifurcation seems to have become necessary in the first place because these two main functions – comprehensiveness and precision – are both necessary, but are too distinct to be combined."


McGilchrist explains this more fully in a later interview for ABC Radio National's All in the Mind programme, stating: "The right hemisphere sees a great deal but in order to refine it and to make sense of it in certain ways in order to be able to use what it understands of the world and to be able to manipulate the world, it needs to delegate the job of simplifying it and turning it into a usable form to another part of the brain" [the left hemisphere]. Though he sees this as an essential "double act", McGilchrist points to the problem that the left hemisphere has a "narrow, decontextualised and theoretically based model of the world which is self consistent and is therefore quite powerful" and to the problem of the left hemisphere's lack of awareness of its own shortcomings; whilst in contrast, the right hemisphere is aware that it is in a symbiotic relationship.[8] The neuroscientists Dennett and Kinsborne, for example, conducted experiments which involved temporarily deactivating one of the brain's hemispheres. In their research they found that "when completely false propositions are put to the left hemisphere it accepts them as valid because the internal structure of the argument is valid." However, the right hemisphere knows from experience that the propositions are false.[8]McGilchrist further points out that where people have suffered a stroke involving the right hemisphere of the brain, they tend to under-estimate or even deny that they have a disability. Again, research has shown that the right hemisphere tends to hold a more realistic personal assessment than the left.[8]


Another issue that McGilchrist points out is that the two hemispheres "inhibit one-another across the corpus callosum" between the hemispheres when one of them is active. This he sees as a natural reciprocal action. However, the issue which arises is that the left hemisphere is better able to inhibit the right than the right is able to inhibit the left.[8]


How the brain has shaped our world

In the second part, "How the Brain Has Shaped Our World", the author describes the evolution of Western culture, as influenced by hemispheric brain functioning, from the ancient world, through the Renaissance and Reformation; the Enlightenment; Romanticism and Industrial Revolution; to the modern and postmodern worlds which, to our detriment, are becoming increasingly dominated by the left brain.

According to McGilchrist, interviewed for ABC Radio National's All in the Mind programme, rather than seeking to explain the social and cultural changes and structure of civilisation in terms of the brain — which would be reductionist — he is pointing to a wider, more inclusive perspective and greater reality in which there are two competing ways of thinking and being, and that in modern Western society we appear increasingly to be able to only entertain one viewpoint: that of the left hemisphere.[8]


The author argues that the brain and the mind does not simply experience the world but that the world we experience is a product or meeting of that which is outside us with our mind. The outcome, the nature of this world, is thus dependent upon "which mode of attention we bring to bear on the world".[8]

McGilchrist sees an occasional flowering of "the best of the right hemisphere and the best of the left hemisphere working together" in our history: as witnessed in Athens in the 6th century by activity in the humanities and in science and in ancient Rome during the Augustan era. However, he also sees that as time passes, so the left hemisphere once again comes to dominate affairs and things slide back into "a more theoretical and conceptualised abstracted bureaucratic sort of view of the world."[8] According to McGilchrist, the cooperative use of both left and right hemispheres diminished and became imbalanced in favour of the left in the time of the classical Greek philosophers Parmenides and Plato and in the late classical Roman era. This cooperation and openness was regained during the Renaissance 1,000 years later which brought "sudden efflorescence of creative life in the sciences and the arts".[8]However, with the Reformation, the early Enlightenment, and what has followed as rationalism has arisen, our world has once again become increasingly rigid, simplified and rule-bound.[8][10]


Looking at more recent Western history, McGilchrist sees in the Industrial Revolution that for the first time artefacts were being made "very much to the way the left hemisphere sees the world — simple solids that are regular, repeated, not individual in the way that things that are made by hand are" and that a transformation of the environment in a simar vein followed on from that; that what was perceived inwardly was projected outwardly on a mass scale.[8] The author argues that the scientific materialism which developed in the 19th century is still with us, at least in the biological sciences, though he sees physics as having moved on. McGilchrist does not see modernism and postmodernism as being in opposition to this, but also "symptomatic of a shift towards the left hemisphere's conception of the world", taking the idea that there is no absolute truth and turning that into "there is no truth at all", and he finds some of the movements' works of art "symptomatic of people whose right hemisphere is not working very well."[8] McGilchrist cites the American psychologist Louis Sass, author ofMadness and Modernism, pointing out that Sass "draws extensive parallels between the phenomena of modernism and postmodernism and of schizophrenia", with things taken out of context and fragmented.[8]


Asked in an interview whether he blamed the loss of "our relationship to beauty, to body, to spirit and art" on the left hemisphere, McGilchrist pointed to an article by Stanley Fish, entitled Does Reason Know what Reason Doesn't Know? and stated that the essence of the problem is "that the left hemisphere is not aware of what it is not aware of" and that the difficulty we are faced with is giving the right hemisphere a fair hearing.[8] Whilst agreeing that beauty, spirit and art are not the sole preserve of the right hemisphere, the author does see a reductionism not only in science but in popular culture and a loss of "the power of art to alert us to things beyond ourselves", to the transcendent.[8]

Asked whether he was giving the left hemisphere "too much flak", given that reason and rationality formed the basis of modern, scientific society, McGilchrist stated that he believes that modern science began earlier than the Enlightenment and that there was "an enormously rich period in the 15th, 16th and early 17th centuries", as seen for example in "the spirit in science from Bacon through to Goethe". McGilchrist went on to point out that "the left hemisphere is not devoid of feelings at all, it has its own range of emotions and the capacity to appreciate emotions."[8] To the author, sequential reasoning and rationality are important. To argue that the right hemisphere is right and the left is wrong is an "either/or black and white misconception" which is in itself indicative of the left hemisphere's view of the world.[8]

However, whilst the author appreciates that the left hemisphere "has evolved to help us use the world to achieve our ends", he nevertheless draws the conclusion that it is in denial and might be likened to a sleepwalker approaching an abyss.[10]



According to a write up by the Scientific and Medical Network, McGilchrist's view is that whilst "traditionally the two hemispheres have worked together," in modern times the "Master" (the right brain hemisphere) has been betrayed by his "emissary" (the left hemisphere), which has "grabbed more than its fair share of power".[5] The emissary is "in denial about its limitations", "misunderstands everything that is not explicit", "lacks empathy" and is mechanistic in outlook, at the expense of the more generous and understanding Master, which is unable to deal with this "onslaught".[5]

McGilchrist likens this to the story told by the German philosopher and philologist Friedrich Nietzsche, which the author uses in the book's introduction and which sums up the central thrust of the work:

There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.[11]

According to a review in The Economist, McGilchrist believes this usurping of control by the left brain has led to the creation of "a dehumanised society in the West, contributed to epidemics of schizophrenia and autism, caused environmental despoliation, and [also] given rise to some wilfully ugly modernist art and music."[4]



A review by Bryan Appleyard in Times Online describes the work as "A landmark new book [which] suggests we are thinking more and more like machines, and risk losing what makes us human."[12]

David Cox in the London Evening Standard writes that the author is "a giant in his vital field [who] shows convincingly that the degeneracy of the West springs from our failure to manage the binary division of our brains."[13]

David Lorimer writes in the Scientific and Medical Network's Network Review No 101 that "It is no exaggeration to say that this quite remarkable book will radically change the way you understand the world and yourself."[14] Lorimer is of the opinion that the book is a "genuine tour de force, a monumental achievement – I can think of no one else who could have conceived, let alone written, a book of such penetrating brilliance.[14]


Professor of philosophy A. C. Grayling writes in the Literary Review that it is "A beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and adventurous book. It embraces a prodigious range of enquiry, from neurology to psychology, from philosophy to primatology, from myth to history to literature. It goes from the microstructure of the brain to great epochs of Western civilisation, confidently and readably. One turns its five hundred pages – a further hundred are dense with notes and references in tiny print – as if it were an adventure story ... McGilchrist tells us about the rapidly evolving technologies and experimental work in fascinating and lucid detail." However, his conclusion is less encouraging: "The fact is that the findings of brain science are nowhere near fine-grained enough yet to support the large psychological and cultural conclusions Iain McGilchrist draws from them. Absorbing and fascinating though the book is, it does not persuade one that returning our Western civilisation to the government of such supposed right-hemisphere possessions as religion and instinct would be anywhere near a good thing." [2]


A review in The Economist is critical in its assessment that the reader is "treated to some very loose talk and to generalisations of breathtaking sweep".[4] Though the reviewer sees "a scintillating intelligence [...] at work" in the second part of the book, he states that "it has plainly become untethered from its moorings in brain science"[4] and goes on to point out that the author provides no physiological evidence for his assertion that the pronounced left-right dichotomy is not present in Asian cultures.[4] Finally, the reviewer concludes that "Mr (sic.) McGilchrist would not be unhappy to learn that what he has to say about the roles of the hemispheres in Western culture is simply a metaphor and is not literally true."[4]


In The Guardian, the philosopher Mary Midgley writes that The Master and His Emissary is "a very remarkable book."[9] She is of the opinion that "It is not [...] 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."[9] Going on to describe in detail the theories behind the book, she concludes that "though neurologists may well not welcome it because it asks them new questions, the rest of us will surely find it splendidly thought-provoking" and describes the explanations as "penetrating, lively, thorough and fascinating."[9]


Professor Adam Zeman, consultant neurologist, senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh on the medical and mystical levels of consciousness, and author of A Portrait of the Brainand Consciousness: A User's Guide, writes in Standpoint magazine that Iain McGilcrist's presentation is "immensely erudite". He finds the book "remarkable", written "with great clarity" and "a treasure chest of fascinating detail and memorable quotation." In Zeman's opinion, McGilchrist "extends [the] received wisdom with a hugely ambitious, absorbing and questionable thesis: the two hemispheres have radically contrasting personalities; that they live in a state of creative tension, sometimes declining into open war; and that their struggle for supremacy provides the key to understanding the major cultural movements of human history."


Writing in the Royal College of General Practitioners's British Journal of General Practice in March 2010, James Willis is of the opinion that "Iain McGilchrist’s qualifications for his massive undertaking are ideal, perhaps unique."[16] and that "[his] grasp of this vast field, and the depth of his philosophical and artistic insight, is staggering."[16] The work "underpins, validates, explains a whole slew of intuitions about general practice and life."[16]

W. F. Bynum, Professor Emeritus of the History of Medicine at University College London, and former head of the Academic Unit of the Wellcome Centre, writes in The Times Literary Supplement: "McGilchrist's careful analysis of how brains work is a veritable tour de force, gradually and skilfully revealed. I know of no better exposition of the current state of functional brain neuroscience."


In the April/May 2010 edition of Bookforum, American author Jonah Lehrer writes "Like Jaynes, McGilchrist interprets human history as an unresolved quarrel between the left and right hemispheres." However, "distinct hemispheric talents lead McGilchrist to invert Jaynes's hypothesis. While Jaynes argued that the Greek gods were invented to explain the breakdown of the bicameral mind—our hemispheres were finally able to listen to each other—McGilchrist argues the opposite."[18]

On 19 June 2010, McGilchrist was interviewed at length for ABC Radio National's All in the Mind programme by the show's host, Natasha Mitchell. In the programme, McGilchrist describes and explains his work in detail. The interview is available as an audio podcast, together with a transcript,[8] and further mp3 audio clips are available on the show's official blog.[19]


In the journal Brain in September 2010, Professor Andrew Scull writes that "It is no exaggeration to say that Part One of the book is a tour de force … [in Part Two] McGilchrist puts on display a remarkable erudition, an ability to discuss with intelligence and insight the history of Western art and literature, philosophy of a whole range of stripes, musicology (and the relationships between music and the brain), and the varieties of religious experience, just to mention a few of the topics he touches upon."[20]

The Master and His Emissary was shortlisted for the 2010 Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize.[21] Currently one of the largest book prizes in the UK, the award is given annually to a book which presents new, important and challenging ideas, and which is engaging, accessible and rigorously argued. It was also longlisted for the Royal Society 2010 Prize for Science Books.[22] The judges said of the book: "McGilchrist welcomes you straight into his world, without making too many presumptions about what you already know, presenting beautiful ideas in an eminently readable and engrossing manner."


In the Financial Times in January 2011, Harry Eyres describes The Master and His Emissary as "a fascinating book", and is of the opinion that McGilchrist "is a subtle and clever thinker, and unusually qualified to range with such authority over so many different domains of knowledge."[23]

Reviewing The Master and His Emissary in the American Journal of Psychiatry in June 2011, Jacob Freedman, M.D. informs his readers that: "In essence, Iain McGilchrist's book is an exploration of the link between the brain's hemispheric asymmetry and the historical development of Western society. This is no small task: chronicling how the left brain's determined reductionism and the right brain's insightful and holistic approach have shaped music, language, politics, and art."[24] The first half of the book, Freedman says, "provides a thorough understanding of brain lateralization",[24] and in the second half, "the author takes his framework of the left hemisphere's self-obsessed reductionism and the right hemisphere's empathic holism and tries to "understand the structure of the world that the brain has in part created."[24] Freedman is of the opinion that The Master and His Emissary is an "epic", "brilliantly written book that valiantly addresses the effect hemispheric asymmetry has had on Western civilization"[24] and that "while the author quotes Ramachandran and Heidegger more frequently than Freud and Bleuler, The Master and His Emissary is still certainly a relevant book for any psychiatrist (and any neuroscientist or philosopher for that matter)."[24]


About the author

After reading theology and philosophy at Oxford, Iain McGilchrist published Against Criticism in 1982.[5] He later retrained in medicine and has been a neuroimaging researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a Consultant Psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London.[5] McGilchrist is now a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and has three times been elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.[5]

According to his web site, McGilchrist currently works privately as a consultant psychiatrist in London, and otherwise lives on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland.[25]


Other works by the author

  1. ^ The 608 page book contains 55 pages of detailed notes and references (in small print) and a 68 page bibliography. See the Introduction (pdf) on the author's web site.
  2. a b c Grayling, A.C. (December 2009). "In Two Minds". Literary Review. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
  3. a b c Staff (14 November 2009). "Two worlds of the left and right brain (audio podcast)".BBC Radio 4 Today. Retrieved 2009-12-24.
  4. a b c d e f Staff (26 November 2009). "The human brain: Right and left". The Economist. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
  5. a b c d e f Staff (2009). "Scientific and Medical Network Annual Gathering 2009 (pdf)". The Scientific and Medical Network. Retrieved 2009-12-22. The pdf is available on the web site's Annual Gathering page (but that link is misspelt).
  6. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His EmissaryYale University Press. pp. 2–3.ISBN 030014878X. Hardback, published 30 October 2009.
  7. a b Staff (4 February 2010). "Interview with Iain McGilchrist". Frontier Psychiatrist. Retrieved 2010-02-05.
  8. a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Mitchell, Natasha (19 June 2010). "The Master and his Emissary: the divided brain and the reshaping of Western civilisation" (Audio podcast).ABC Radio National All in the Mind. Retrieved 2010-06-23. A transcript is available on the web page.
  9. a b c d Midgley, Mary (2 January 2010). "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist". The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-01-02.
  10. a b McGilchrist, Iain (2 January 2010). "The Battle of the Brain". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
  11. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2009). The Master and His EmissaryYale University Press. p. 14.ISBN 030014878X. Hardback, published 30 October 2009.
  12. ^ Appleyard, Bryan (29 November 2009). "Divide and rule: man is the new machine".Times Online. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
  13. ^ Cox, David (19 November 2009). "The best books of the year". London Evening Standard. Retrieved 2009-12-21.
  14. a b Lorimer, David (2009). "Network Review No 101: A Distance Between". The Scientific and Medical Network. Retrieved 2011-06-05.
  15. ^ Zeman, Adam (March 2010). "A Brain of Two Halves". Standpoint. Retrieved 2010-03-01.
  16. a b c Willis, James (March 2010). "A tale of two hemispheres". The British Journal of General Practice (Royal College of General Practitioners) 60 (572): 226–227.doi:10.3399/bjgp10X483779. Retrieved 2011-06-05.
  17. ^ Bynum, W. F. (2 April 2010). "On the right: Iain McGilchrist The Master and His Emissary – The divided brain". The Times Literary Supplement (News International): p. 12.
  18. ^ Lehrer, Jonah (April/May 2010). "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World". Bookforum. Retrieved 2010-05-07.
  19. ^ Mitchell, Natasha (19 June 2010). "Left, right ... but not quite as you know it". ABC Radio National All in the Mind blog. Retrieved 2010-06-23. The blog includes further mp3 audio clips.
  20. ^ Scull, Andrew (September 2010). Brain: A Journal of Neurology (Oxford University Press)133 (10): 3153–3156. Retrieved 2011-06-05.
  21. ^
  22. ^
  23. ^ Eyres, Harry (21 January 2011). "On the other hand". The Financial Times (Pearson PLC).
  24. a b c d e Freedman, Jacob (June 2011). "The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World". American Journal of Psychiatry (American Psychiatric Association) 168 (6): 655—656. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.11010053. Retrieved 2011-06-05.
  25. ^ McGilchrist, Iain (2009). "Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary" Retrieved 2010-02-07. From the author's web site home page.                                                                                           Further study




Other reviews

Further reading

  1. ^ Translation: "Study: right and left cerebral hemispheres have opposite personalities."

External links