Q&A with Iain McGilchrist
by Margaret Emory
How many times have you been told, “Oh you’re such a left-brain person,” meaning you think logically, are good with numbers, very analytical and so on? And upon hearing that summation, you long for the right brain’s creative, intuitive, artistic complements. Why can’t they be part of the equation, you wonder.
We used to believe the two parts of the brain work in harmony, but according to London psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist, there’s a definite shift in our modern culture which favors left-brain dominance—and it’s something we ought to watch out for and correct. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale University Press, 2009), McGilchrist discusses the hemispheres and their different “personalities,” and then shows a sweeping dissertation on the history of Western civilization as seen from the context of the divided brain.
McGilchrist came to medicine later in life, following a distinguished career in academia. He is interested in a variety of psychiatric conditions, as well as neuropsychiatry. He also has a busy practice as a medico-legal expert and writes for numerous publications.
He named The Master and His Emissary after a parable that Friedrich Nietzsche told about a wise spiritual master who ruled a small but prosperous domain, who grew the land and appointed emissaries, one of which began to see himself as the master and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. The emissary saw his master’s self-control and restraint as weakness, and usurped his master, creating a tyranny and bringing the land to ruins.
McGilchrist likens the right and left hemispheres of the human brain to the master and the emissary of this story, respectively. McGilchrist weaves this cautionary tale to show that while the cerebral hemispheres should cooperate with one another, they have been in conflict for some time, with our current civilization in the hands of the emissary who, although gifted in many ways, functions as “an ambitious regional bureaucrat with his own interests at heart.”
Brain World: Can you speak to us about your theories on the divided brain which you describe in your book, The Master and His Emissary?
Dr. Ian McGilchrist: I suppose the first thing to say is that the subject of the two hemispheres has become an absolute no-no for any respectable scientist because it was so popularized in the sixties and seventies in a way that relied on some quite simple ideas about the separation between language and visio-spatial phenomena and between reason and emotion. And that is absolutely untrue. In fact practically every single thing that was said about the left hemisphere—it was down to earth and it was boring but at least it told you the truth—all that kind of thing is completely erroneous. I was intrigued by some fairly obvious differences that do come up in different contexts and I wanted to try to find a pattern in them. In so doing and in writing that book I was faced with a problem. When you talk about the brain as though it’s something separate from a human being, there’s a tendency for that to happen and it leads to the fallacy that there’s a machine in there that controls us. That we are somehow separate from this machine. That’s the problem with thinking about it as a machine at all. Because of course it isn’t. It’s part of a person. Our brains don’t experience things. We experience them. I need to make that point because some people who clearly haven’t gotten around to reading my book have put me in the camp of people who reduce the richness of human experience to a lot of physiological data and that’s absolutely not my intention.
BW: What was your intention?
IM: I had to really think of it more as these hemispheres contributing to a person’s experience of the world and as such there is no pre-existing way of describing this. You have to describe it using a metaphor of something and the closest is the metaphor of a person. It’s far closer than the metaphor of a machine. But in doing so you run the risk of people thinking that there are two people in your head or that half a hemisphere is a little person that’s got its own views. That’s also a problem that needs to be steered clear of. When you actually come to look at the data, they (the hemispheres) can be seen as having different goals, different preferences and therefore values, and of being parts of ourselves that have a different focus and a different take on the world. So in the end I make no apologies for making it sound like they have personalities because I’m afraid that’s the nearest way one can get at it without resorting to the “machine in your head” metaphor which is not a good one.
BW: Do the hemispheres work separately or together?
IM: Of course we’re using both hemispheres together all the time. There was never a time when all the activities were in one hemisphere. It’s more a question of what, at any one moment, is governing our actions and it’s bound to be a synthesis. It’s bound to have some of what the left hemisphere gives us and some of what the right gives us. Another thing that can be laid at my door is that I’m dichotomizing and I’m not. I mean there is a great vast dichotomy that nature put there and even though there’s a big divide to be accounted for, in fact these things were made to work together. We’re not conscious of switching. We don’t know what the thing that switches is but there’s a reasonable body of data suggesting that this sort of meta-control may be lodged very low down in the mid-brain which is the uppermost part of the brain stem.
BW: Can you describe the process of how these different hemispheres interact?
IM: The theory that the two hemispheres have differences comes from a simple Darwinian point. In order to survive we need to be able to do two things at once. We need to be able to be busily focused on something that we’ve prioritized is of interest to us already like the bird needing to lock on the seed against the background of the gravel or needing to focus on picking up a twig to build a nest. It’s got that kind of attention which is about manipulating the environment and using it. At the same time, if it’s going to survive, the bird also needs a wide open attention, looking out essentially for predators, not just in that threatening way, but also for its fellow creatures; indeed, for its mate.
Those two ways have somehow to be combined. And yet, if you do look very narrowly at something and bring it into sharp focus in the middle of your vision, it’s very different from the contextual penumbra of other experiences—intuitively-based, body-based, ancient and gathered from a synthesis of all your experience which you also bring to bear on the whole picture. So those two things, the rather narrow here and now moment has to be there but the rest has to be there too.
That’s why I think the two hemispheres have evolved in this way. They need to some extent to be kept apart because you can’t really do both things at once. It’s a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time but it isn’t actually because with practice you can do that. You can’t literally have both types of attention, or at least it’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine how this can be done. Probably it’s a matter of keeping them both running and alternating. The two hemispheres are connected by a bridge of tissue called the corpus callosum which is commonly thought of as the thing that communicates between the hemispheres. It does. Although a lot of the communication is activating in its original sense—the nerves are stimulating something to happen—what they’re often stimulating to happen is in fact an inhibition. So their ultimate aim in a majority of cases is not to make something happen in the other hemisphere, but to stop something from happening there. And by filtering like this, things come into existence.
BW: You believe the left brain has been gaining control over the course of human evolution. How did this come about?
IM: I think an aspect of being a conscious being is that you are aware that you can become powerful by manipulation. Other creatures, of course, are competing and manipulating, but they’re probably not aware of the fact that this is a way of becoming powerful—that it seems to work well for a lot of the things that one does as one grows a civilization.
One needs to build structures by putting brick upon brick, or stone on stone. One needs to create drainage and irrigation and so on. One creates these things that seem to make life simpler, easier and better and make you more powerful. It’s enticing, and you can soon begin to think that everything works like this. Everything in your world seems to break down into a lot of machines that we’ve created. While this is a very interesting way of looking at things, it’s basically a practical tool for getting ahead. It’s not really a very good instrument for epistemology or for ontology—for finding out actually what the world is and how we know about it. It can lead us to narrow down the way we think about things to a merely rationalistic set of propositions, a series of algorithms.
BW: What are the effects of the left brain taking over?
IM: One of the interesting elements that comes out in research into the “personalities” or the “takes” of the two hemispheres is that the left hemisphere thinks it knows it all, and as a result is extremely optimistic. It overvalues its own ability. It takes us away from the presence of things in all their rich complexity to a useful representation—that representation is always much simpler. And an awful lot is lost in it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes you need to simplify. For example, if you’re designing a building or if you’re fighting a campaign, you need a map, a scheme. You don’t really need all the richness of what would be there in the real world. But I’m afraid that that representation moves into a world where we have the ability constantly to interact with the world only as a representation, over a screen.
Even Facebook and social networking may look like you have suddenly have loads of friends, but what it may actually do is take you away from your real-life friends so that your life is more crowded and there’s less time, actually, to be aware peacefully of the world around you and to interact socially—a word that used to mean “with your fellow creatures.”
BW: What can we do about this?
IM: People often ask me this question. I think they’re rather hoping I’ll give them a list of bullet points—“The 12 Things You Need”—like a best-selling paperback. That is really a perfect example of the left hemisphere. “Okay. Fix it by having a little plan. We do this, we do that, and bingo!” But in fact, what I have tried to convey throughout the entire book is that the world, as it is, has its own shape, value, meaning and so on, and that we crowd it out with our own plans, thoughts and beliefs, which are going to be narrow.
A wise thing to do would be not to do certain things. Another theme of my book is that negation is creative. That by having less of something, more comes into being. So actually what we need to do is not create a world. We need to stop doing lots of things and allow the wonderful thing that is already there to evolve, to give it room to grow. That’s also true of a single human mind.
BW: How do you advise your patients in your psychiatric practice?
IM: As a psychiatrist I see people day in and day out who have problems in their lives. One way of looking at these problems might be that their minds are full of things that they feel are important, ways of thinking, and that it’s not so much that I can tell them to think differently. You can give people pointers, but the critical thing for them is to come to a realization that they’re doing things that are damaging. Therapy is always like that. Sometimes when I see a patient I have a pretty shrewd intuition of what they need to do. But if I were to tell them that right off, it would have no meaning. They need to find their way to it by realizing that what they’re doing now is not the right way.
One very practical thing—a recipe for healing for almost every one of my patients—is not forcing things to be the way they would like them to be, but to embrace the way that they’re likely to be and doing those things that will help that forward.
BW: It sounds like a very philosophical attitude.
IM: We are now understanding the benefits of mindfulness, which is officially recommended by the British body NICE (National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence). The essence of mindfulness is clearing your mind of all the stuff that’s going on in there and stopping you from experiencing life. You’re so busy feeling bad about the past you can’t change and chasing after a future you can’t predict, instead of actually being alive in the moment. That is really the essence of mindfulness. Recent research shows that mindfulness engages wide networks in the right hemisphere, and the EEG studies show that there is a more balancing of the two hemispheres in those who are meditating. So I think meditation and not doing things, making space in your life and switching off your machines, being present in the moment and practicing mindfulness would be a way to start.
BW: We often think about our brain in terms of cognitive processing, but the brain guides all of our activities from breathing and muscle movements to sensations and emotions. What do you think is the ultimate use of the human brain?
IM: I think that’s a terribly good question because it draws attention very beautifully to the fact that we are in fact not brains in a vat, but we are embodied beings. The cognitive processing model is mechanistic and sees us like a complicated heating system with valves and pumps and thermostats that switch things on and off. But one of the interesting things about the hemispheres is that the right hemisphere seems to be better able to take into its vision the information that is coming to it from what was always called the lower parts of the brain, the more ancient parts of the brain, and indeed, from the body. The difficulty with the cognitive model is that we think of the brain as a computer, and we think of memory as something like a data bank.
Memory, of course, is not at all like that. It’s part of the human’s whole world and is distributed in the body. In a way, you can say that the very muscles have memory. Memory is not something that is unchanging. It is contextual—and that’s a weakness of it in some ways, but it’s also very much the strength of it.
We now know that even something like the heart actually communicates with the brain and gives as much information back to the brain—in fact, possibly more—than the brain gives to the heart. Anyone who suffers from depression will know that you have this terribly heavy oppressive feeling in the center of your chest. The things that you feel in your body are of course experienced through the brain, but they then are seen and experienced phenomenologically in the body. Our bodies and our brains can’t be separated in that way. So although cognitive science is a very useful thing, I think it ought to learn less from the Cartesian tradition of philosophy and more from the phenomenological tradition of philosophy, particularly from the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, who is probably the single most important philosopher of the last century for those who are interested in the relationship between mind and the body.
BW: What’s up next for you?
IW: I’m working on a book with the possible title, The Porcupine is a Monkey. In it I describe an experiment done by one of the most distinguished living Anglo-American neuroscientists, Marcel Kinsbourne, with a colleague, Deglin. They were able to interview people with one half of their brain at a time desensitized. Essentially, they were addressing either their left hemisphere or their right hemisphere, or, in a controlled condition, both. They asked them what they made of false syllogisms. (A false syllogism is one where you give a couple of premises and draw a conclusion, but one of the premises is wrong. Truth is either what is consistent with your model—i.e., it follows the logic of your system, and it’s what’s on this piece of paper—or truth is what you know about the world that you’ve gathered from both reading, learning and living, all that rich mass of stuff that goes into your knowledge of the world, which we call common sense.)
I’m thinking of writing this book because you see such staggering examples of this all over our world. Clever guys with techie minds sold the idea that these things would work, and they now administratively run all the professions. Teachers used to create a relationship with their students by using the richness of their experience and knowledge of the world, often in idiosyncratic ways, with their infectious enthusiasm to fire up their students. Instead, it’s [been] replaced by, “You must do this curriculum and you must escort so many on this, and you must have so many of the following.” That is death to the mind, to the imagination, in fact to our civilization. I would like to alert people to that.