It’s now a little over a year since I first read ‘The Master and his Emissary’ by Iain McGilchrist. My estimation of its importance has continued to grow during that time. When I first read it I wrote a detailed review, incorporated aspects of it into my own thinking and writing, contacted the author and had the privilege of meeting him. Now I am even more convinced than ever, not that McGilchrist’s work is perfect or even that he himself understands all of its implications, but merely that those implications are profound and important.
Below is a video which contains an animation of some of McGilchrist’s key ideas about the brain. I think that it was seeing this video that first led me to read the book, so I hope it does the same for you.
What McGilchrist offers, to put it as succinctly as possible, is external scientific evidence for the epistemological and moral importance of the Middle Way. In the video above, it is his idea of “a certain necessary distance” that captures it. The left brain is obsessive, myopic and rigid,and needs the right brain to give a wider perspective on its beliefs and maintain a degree of openness and provisionality. The Middle Way is an epistemological and moral optimisation created by linking the hemispheres sufficiently to maintain that “necessary distance” and not be sucked into the assumption that the left brain’s representations are perfect. The left brain left to itself flattens and absolutises all beliefs into metaphysics, but the right sufficiently linked with the left can help provide a perspective that keeps all our theories provisional and helps us respond to conditions better. The Middle Way is thus another way of talking about the effective integration of the hemispheres.
Some people need to get over the idea that any reference to the brain is reductive. McGilchrist is the very opposite of reductive, but rather gives us a richer and fuller perspective. All the things he says about the brain can also be said just on the basis of experience without any reference to the brain – but he provides a wholly new angle and point of access to the insights first offered in the Buddha’s Middle Way 2500 years ago.
It is also not an oversimplification, as some allege, to generalise about dominant features of one hemisphere or another, given that each hemispheres has evolved specialised functions and dominates over the other hemisphere with regard to those functions by inhibiting the other hemisphere. In many ways the two hemispheres do duplicate potential functions, but in practice it is their specialisations that dominate and affect our mental states and behaviour.
McGilchrist’s book is rich, readable, but also heavily referenced and academically serious. It combines the merits of science with art. If you read nothing else this year, read it.
My book ‘Middle Way Philosophy 1’ (endorsed by Iain McGilchrist, and including sections discussing the impact of McGilchrist’s work on Middle Way Philosophy)