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The Master and his Emissary

The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Iain McGilchrist, Yale University Press, 2009; hbk, 597pp, ISBN 978-0-300-14878-7, £25.00; pbk available in October, ISBN 978-0-300-16892-1, £10.99. (First published in STATNews, September 2010)

Review by Ron Colyer


This is a book of enormous scope, whose two parts are illustrated by its subtitle.

The title refers to an old Sufi tale, in which the Master is an enlightened sage who, as his teaching spreads more and more widely, delegates the administration of it to his favoured disciple. This Emissary gradually takes control of the teachings. He has a vast amount of knowledge, but it is piecemeal, and does not stem from a deep understanding of his experience in and of the world. In the book he stands for the left hemisphere, that part of us which analyses and ‘re-presents’ (McGilchrist’s hyphen elegantly emphasises the point).

The argument is that Western culture has arrived at a stage in which what the author identifies as left hemisphere modes of thought and expression are too dominant, with a corresponding weakening of the functioning of the right hemisphere, with its capacity to sense things as a whole, in depth and context. McGilchrist’s objective is to plead for the restoration of balance:


"The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn’t believe. … The Master needs to trust, to believe in his Emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The Emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible: but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the Emissary owes his existence to the Master."


What we thought we knew about left and right hemispheres when it became a popular idea (language on the left, spatial awareness on the right, etc.) turns out to be a fairly crude and not altogether accurate picture -the right hemisphere does have language, for example:


"If it is true that most syntax and vocabulary, the nitty-gritty of language, are in most subjects housed in the left hemisphere, it is nonetheless the right hemisphere which subserves higher linguistic functions such as understanding the meaning of a whole phrase or sentence in context, its tone, its emotional significance, along with use of humour, irony, metaphor, and so on."


The chapter on Language, Truth and Music will be extremely thought-provoking for students of Alexander’s work. Much of its argument reinforced my understanding of F.M.’s constant effort in his books to keep to a ‘broad reasoning approach’, and to use ‘blanket words’, so as not to limit meaning. McGilchrist contrasts the word ‘rational’ (left brain territory with its Latin roots in measurement and proportion), with ‘reason’, so implying a more contextual approach which does not preclude some kind of intuiting or even paradox. Too often nowadays we consider that things are explained and ‘wrapped up’ if we can produce a few statistics!


One vivid example from McGilchrist’s exhaustive survey of the scientific literature (his bibliography is huge), may sum up the situation. Evidently when a chicken feeds, its right eye (left brain) is focussed on the little grains it is pecking at, while at the same time its left eye (right brain) scans the horizon, the general surroundings, for possible trouble. Partial detail versus total context -the chickens seem to have got it right.


It may be that people with wide and expert knowledge in the neuroscientific field will find the book wanting. I gave my brother a copy, and he raised the caveat that drawing conclusions from the examination of damaged or otherwise dysfunctional brains does not in the end tell us how the fully integrated brain really works. Mind you, a vast amount of our neuroscientific knowledge is based on doing just that.


The focus on left and right is itself partial. What about top and bottom -the relationship between cortex and sub-cortical brain areas? With this narrow focus McGilchrist might be accused of the sort of overly left-brained approach he decries. He does not hesitate to accuse António Damásio of a similar crime in Descartes’ Error, deftly pointing out that Damásio commits Descartes’ error towards the end of the book!


The second half of the book, with its broad canvas of the history of Western culture, I found utterly absorbing. It started me on explorations which I might not otherwise have made, many of which seem to have links with Alexander’s work. I particularly enjoyed tracing the often fragile line of thought which began with the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus and contemporary dramatists like Aeschylus. Heraclitus is he of "everything flows" fame (except that he probably didn’t say quite that, but something more provoking, rather shocking, and relevant in a hidden sort of way to our work). The thread almost disappears from Plato onwards, comes and goes, but is almost always implicit to some extent in art, music and literature. It surfaces in Keats, Hegel, Heidegger and Mahler, to name a few. McGilchrist also mentions John Dewey and William James. Alexander of course respected and admired the work of both. What the thread is would take more discussion than there is room for here, so I hope I have aroused your curiosity!


This book may not lie in everyone’s sphere of interest, or may spill over from that sphere into too many others. Whatever its scientific merits or demerits, it stands, if nothing else, as a metaphor for ways of thinking, some constructive, some destructive, which I think have a significant bearing on our work. How, for example, do we approach the question of anatomical and physiological knowledge? What is ‘thinking’? How many of us spent our early Alexander years constructing all sorts of mental models of the Technique, each seeming to be ‘the one’ -for a while! Such misapprehensions usually arise from taking the anatomical description, which can only be partial, as describing the right thing, which, as F.M. continually emphasised, must be allowed to ‘do itself’. But such knowledge can be very helpful if it throws some light on how things might go wrong and need to be consciously inhibited. Taken in that spirit, I think The Master and his Emissary offers a good many clues.


© Ron Colyer 2010




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