The mind, they say, is a house divided: The right hemisphere of the brain is predominantly intuitive; the left, predominantly rational.
In his recent book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, the British psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist looks at the evolution of Western Civilization through a neuropsychological prism. In McGilchrist’s view our left hemisphere has, over the past four centuries, progressively pushed aside our right hemisphere. “My belief,” McGilchrist told The Morning News last year, “is that it has now taken over our self-understanding, for a variety of reasons, and is leading us all down the road to ruin.”
McGilchrist is quick to point out that the old left-brain, right-brain clichés of the 1960s and 1970s were greatly oversimplified. Recent research has shown that both sides of the brain are deeply involved in functions such as reason and emotion. But the dichotomy is still useful, McGilchrist says, and should not be abandoned.
“The right hemisphere gives sustained, broad, open, vigilant alertness, whereas the left hemisphere gives narrow, sharply focused attention to detail,” McGilchrist says in a new RSA Animate feature (see above). “People who lose their right hemispheres have a pathological narrowing of the window of attention.” McGilchrist sees this narrowing process occurring at the societal level. The left brain, he argues, conceives of the world as a set of decontextualized, static, material, abstract things, whereas the right brain holistically embraces a world of evolving, spiritual, empathic, concrete beings.
Both hemispheres are necessary, McGilchrist says in the Morning News interview, “but one is more fundamentally important than the other, and sees more than the other, even though there are some things that it must not get involved with, if it is to maintain its broader, more complete–in essence more truthful–vision. This is the right hemisphere, which, as I demonstrate from the neuropsychological literature, literally sees more, and grounds the understanding of the left hemisphere–an understanding which must ultimately be re-integreted with the right hemisphere, if it is not to lead to error. The left hemisphere is extraordinarily valuable as an intermediate, but not as a final authority.”
McGilchrist is not without his critics. The British philosopher A.C. Grayling writes in the Literary Review, “Unfortunately, if one accepts the logic of his argument that our Western civilisation has declined from a right-hemisphere to a left-hemisphere dispensation, we do not have to imagine what the former would be like, because history itself tells us: in it most of us would be superstitious and ignorant peasants working a strip farm that we would never leave from cradle to grave, under the thumb of slightly more left-hemispheric bullies in the form of the local baron and priest.”
After The Master and His Emissary was published, McGilchrist discovered a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein that he felt neatly supported his thesis. He uses this quote at the end of his RSA talk: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” But did Einstein actually say that? The Internet is awash with dubious Einstein quotations, and we were unable to locate the original source of this one. If any reader can verify its authenticity (by citing the original text, speech or conversation) please leave a note in our comments section. Meanwhile, you can watch McGilchrist’s entire half-hour RSA lecture here.
via Brain Pickings