The Being in the Brain: Newsletter 44

I have been reading this fascinating book by Iain McGilchrist called “The Master and his Emissary.” It’s a deep exploration of the much discredited hypothesis about the differences between the hemispheres, the famous right-brain/left-brain distinction.

McGilchrist mounts an extended defense of hemispheric specialization, but unlike the past, where people concentrated on the differences between what the right hemisphere does versus what the left hemisphere does (for example, speech in the left hemisphere), McGilchrist concentrates on the manner in which the two hemispheres accomplish their tasks. In other words, both the left and the right hemisphere are involved in language, but the right hemisphere focuses on non-literal ways of languaging such as the use of metaphors, while the left hemisphere focuses on literal meaning. More generally, the right hemisphere is plugged into the world and takes a global, holistic view, while the left hemisphere is the proverbial brain in the vat, tending to be self-referential and isolated.

I am sure there are neuroscientists with better knowledge of the relevant brain sciences than I do who disagree with McGilchrist; neuroscience is at an early stage of development. However, one can only marvel at McGilchrist’s accomplishment; not only has he synthesized a library’s worth of neuroscience and neurology, along with literature, philosophy, ethology and anthropology, he has put this synthesis to the service of a fundamentally humanistic question: why is modern western culture the way it is today? Why does it privilege reductive analysis over holistic thought? McGilchrist traces those enormously important historical trends to differential cultivation of the hemispheres, of the emissary becoming more important than the master.

If I may say so myself, while the book is written in the left brain style of academic discourse (good academic discourse though!), it is ultimately a right-brain book, a book that places the brain at the heart of a much older quest for the origins of value and meaning. It is as if Roberto Calasso, in his search for Ka, of Prajapati and the origins of consciousness and the mind had stumbled out of Plato’s cave into a neurology ward. The search still continues but the scene has changed.

The larger point I am trying to make here is that the relationship between the sciences and the humanities need not be one way: questions of morality or truth need not be reduced to evolutionary adaptions. The way in which we attend to the world is key to the relationship between the humanistic and the scientific disciplines. McGilchrist talks beautifully about how different types of attention bring forth different ways of being in the world. Put another way, through a careful shift of attention, nature can be studied as if it too was laden with value and meaning; that the absence of those two concepts in modern science is a bug rather than a feature. Given how our current ecological and economic crises are so closely tied to the brain in the vat model of reality, we should all ask ourselves if there’s an alternative. A new science and a new humanities can come together in an entirely new way of looking at the world, starting with the brain.