“This we have now is not imagination
This is not grief or joy
Not a judging state, or an elation,
Or a sadness.
Those come and go.
This is the Presence that doesn’t.”
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I’ve been reading this brilliant book by Iain McGilchrist.
The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World is as big as the lengthy title suggests. It’s about the right brain and the left, the different ways of seeing and being these two hemispheres have, and the relationship between them. McGilchrist quite eloquently demonstrates how this relationship has shaped not just individual human perceptions, but cultures, societies — indeed, all of life.
He synthesises vast quantities of neuroscientific research to demonstrate how the right hemisphere’s approach of flexibility, integration and context contrasts vividly with the left hemispheric functions of focus, division and abstraction. Here, his background as an Oxford English professor and a London psychiatrist and brain researcher comes into its own: the book covers not just brain science, but European culture, history, philosophy, music, and more. In a quick flip-through just now, my eye landed on mentions of the French revolution Nietzche, King Lear, Phaedo, and the Ghent Altarpiece.
Basically, McGilchrist maintains that the brain is the filter for all our experiences — not a determinant, but an organising principle. The split hemispheres have different tasks and functions, as well as values and priorities. The right brain experiences itself as connected to the world, the left as removed from it. And, the left (the Emissary of his title) has dominated throughout much of Western history, to the point where the current mechanistic world view separates us from happiness and the world itself.
Possibly my greatest delight in this book comes from the unexpected quarter the message is delivered from. It’s beyond refreshing to read a scientist with heart, who argues so passionately and intelligently for right-brain values.