The Master and His Emissary

The human brain is not an undifferentiated lump of jelly. It is in fact divided into 2 distinct hemispheres, left and right. ( These are joined by a bundle of nerve fibres known as the corpus callosum. Psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist ( sets out to inform us about this, and other facts, about the  neurophysiology of the brain. Beyond this he wants to discuss what implications the structure and functioning of the brain have for human history and culture. McGilchrist digests study after study for our benefit. He displaces the popular and superficial notion of the hemispheres as respectively logical and creative in nature. He offers the idea that they pay attention in fundamentally different ways. The left is ‘detail-oriented’, the right is ‘whole-oriented’. These two modes of perception cascade into wildly different hemispheric ‘personalities’, and in fact reflect yet a further asymmetry in their status. The right has a more immediate relationship with physical bodies (our own as well as others) and external reality as represented by the senses, a relationship that makes it the mediator, the first and last stop, of all experience.


In the second part of the book McGilchrist 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. This is a beautifully written, erudite, fascinating and adventurous thesis.


You may come to believe, as A.C. Grayling did writing in The Literary Review that the findings of brain science are nowhere near fine-grained enough to support the large psychological and cultural conclusions McGilchrist draws. This is nevertheless a hugely informative and entertaining read. Further research may well bear out McGilchrist’s thesis. I commend the book to you.


Enquire at your local library or consult  for full bibliographic detail.


544 pages in Yale University Press

First published 2009

ISBN  978-0300188370



Iain McGilchrist


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