September 18, 2020

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The Divided Brain and the
Making of the Western World

by Iain McGilchrist
Yale University, 2009 (534 pages)
[2019 10th Anniversary ed Special Intro]

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note = Numbers in parentheses refer to pages



INTRODUCTIONThe Master and His Emissary (1-14)
    [1] Structure of the book (3-7)

    [2] Why is the structure of the brain important? (7-9)

    [3] The importance of being two (9-10)

    [4] Differences are not absolute, but even small differences get to be amplified (10-11)

    [5] Brain organization differs from individual to individual (11-13)

    [6] Essential asymmetry (13-14)

1) Asymmetry and the brain (16-31)

2) What do the two hemispheres ‘Do’? (32-93)

3) Language, truth and music (94-132)

4) The nature of the two worlds (133-175)

5) The primacy of the right hemisphere (176-208)

6) The triumph of the left hemisphere (209-237)


7) Imitation and the evolution of culture (240-256)

8) The Ancient World (257-297)

9) The Renaissance and the Reformation (298-329)

10) The Enlightenment (330-251)

11) Romanticism and the industrial revolution (352-388)

12) The modern and post-modern worlds (389-427)

CONCLUSION — The master betrayed (428-462)

NOTES (463-517)


INDEX (523-534)

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AUTHOR NOTE = Iain McGilchrist is a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, an associate Fellow of Green Templeton College, Oxford, a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a Consultant Emeritus of the Bethlem and Maudsley Hospital, London, a former research Fellow in Neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, Baltimore, and a former Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Studies in Stellenbosch, who now lives on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of North West Scotland, where he continues to write, and lectures worldwide. He is committed to the idea that the mind and brain can be understood only by seeing them in the broadest possible context, that of the whole of our physical and spiritual existence, and of the wider human culture in which they arise - the culture which helps to mould, and in turn is molded by, our minds and brains.

He was a late entrant to medicine. He went up to Oxford to study theology and philosophy, read English literature, and after graduating in 1975 was awarded a Prize Fellowship of All Souls College, Oxford. A preoccupation with the mind-body problem led him to train in medicine, and during this period All Souls re-elected him to a further Fellowship (1984-1991), and again in 2002-2004. He trained in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital.

He has published original research on neuroimaging in schizophrenia, the phenomenology of schizophrenia, and other topics, and contributed chapters to books on a wide range of subjects, as well as original articles in papers and journals, including the British Journal of Psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry, Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, BMJ, Lancet, TLS, London Review of Books, LA Review of Books, Listener, Literary Review, Essays in Criticism, Modern Language Review, English Historical Review, Wall Street Journal, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph, on topics in literature, medicine, psychiatry and philosophy. He has taken part in nearly twenty radio and TV programmes and documentaries, including Innsaei: The Sea Within, and Bruce Parry's acclaimed film Tawai: A Voice from the Forest; and a Canadian full-length feature film about his work, The Divided Brain, is in production.

His books include Against Criticism (Faber), The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale UP), The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning: Why Are We So Unhappy? (Yale UP), and Ways of Attending (Routledge, in press). He is currently working on a number of further books: There Are No Things, a book of epistemology and metaphysics, to be published by Penguin; some reflections on the humanities and sciences commissioned by OUP; a critique of contemporary society and culture from the standpoint of neuropsychology; a study of the paintings of subjects with psychotic illnesses; and a series of essays about culture and the brain with subjects from Andrew Marvell to Serge Gainsbourg.

SUMMARY= In a book of unprecedented scope — now available in a larger format Iain McGilchrist presents a fascinating exploration of the differences between the brain s left and right hemispheres, and how those differences have affected society, history, and culture.

BOOK DESCRIPTION = A new edition of this bestselling classic has been published with a special introduction to mark its 10th anniversary.

This pioneering account sets out to understand the structure of the human brain – the place where mind meets matter. Until recently, the left hemisphere of our brain has been seen as the ‘rational’ side, the superior partner to the right. But is this distinction true?

Drawing on a vast body of experimental research, Iain McGilchrist argues while our left brain makes for a wonderful servant, it is a very poor master. As he shows, it is the right side which is the more reliable and insightful. Without it, our world would be mechanistic — stripped of depth, color and value.

KINDLE DESCRIPTION = In this 10,000-word essay, written to complement Iain McGilchrist's acclaimed The Master and His Emissary, the author asks why — despite the vast increase in material well-being — people are less happy today than they were half a century ago, and suggests that the division between the two hemispheres of the brain has a critical effect on how we see and understand the world around us. In particular, McGilchrist suggests, the left hemisphere's obsession with reducing everything it sees to the level of minute, mechanistic detail is robbing modern society of the ability to understand and appreciate deeper human values. Accessible to readers who haven't yet read The Master and His Emissary as well as those who have, this is a fascinating, immensely thought-provoking essay that delves to the very heart of what it means to be human.

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McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent research in neuroscience and psychology to reveal that the difference is profound: the left hemisphere is detail oriented, while the right has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity. McGilchrist then takes the reader on a journey through the history of Western culture, illustrating the tension between these two worlds as revealed in the thought and belief of thinkers and artists from Aeschylus to Magritte. "A landmark new book. . . . It tells a story you need to hear, of where we live now." Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times "A very remarkable book. . . . McGilchrist, who is both an experienced psychiatrist and a shrewd philosopher, looks at the relation between our two brain-hemispheres in a new light, not just as an interesting neurological problem but as a crucial shaping factor in our culture . . . splendidly thought-provoking. . . . I couldn't put it down." – Mary Midgley, The Guardian.

Named one of the best books of 2010 by The Guardian "

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[1] S. Carlin - For those that sense a growing societal split = For the past few years, it has felt like I'm on a different planet from about half my friends. Their perspectives are foreign and confusing, and the exact opposite from the other half of my friends. Their logic hides behind hostility to reasonable discussion and debate. This book offers up a possible biological explanation... One rooted in scientific and psychological research and objectivity regarding left and right brain function. Definitely a good quick read for those seeking some insight to 'why'. I started with the larger book that this short version is based on. The larger book is way too complex to be the starting point. This ebook is a much better summary of the topic and more digestible to a broader range of readers.

[2] Xuan - Interesting and thought provoking essay = This essay and the research by the author explains quite persuasively that our brains evolved as two halves that work together to adaptively survive; the left hemisphere perceives reality in terms of parts and utility, the purpose of which is to manipulate, while the right hemisphere perceives reality as a whole system of connectedness, the purpose of which is to understand, or perhaps even simply to just ‘be.’ The latter third of the essay quickly pivots into a critique of modern society as driven largely by a left-brain ethos that is overly fixated on parts rather than a whole, and the author starts passionately going off on paragraph-long rants about advertising and academic funding. While I agree with a lot of his critiques, I am not convinced by what he says is the *cause* of them; the author doesn’t dive too deeply into why he thinks the left brain’s modus operandi ‘won out’ in the Western world’s value systems - perhaps I will find it in his book The Master and His Emissary, but here I feel I was asked to take it at face value. My personal view is that society is a pendulum that swings back and forth between various dichotomous values systems, with (hopefully) each swing bringing about a better understanding and a bit more wisdom. The fact that we now have McGilchrist’s essay and book may be one of the signs that we, as a society, are now ‘waking up’ to (once again) appreciate the interconnectedness of all things. Great food for thought!

[3] Jerry Catt - Stunning overview of brain function and the linkage to meaning-making = Superb writing style through which a holistic vision for how to think about the brain and its developing awareness of metacognitive functions. Moreover the author moves easily between discussion of hemispheric specializations as it's currently understood and the practical implications for society, culture, and individual pursuit of meaning. The author has 'mastered' the art of 'meta-communication' as well, aptly keeping this reader with lay interests aware of the complexity beyond comprehension that the brain in any event attempts to understand and manipulate into a sensible if inconclusive portrait of its way of being in the world; I've been studying hermeneutic theory for some time and McGilchrist's description of the whole and the parts that make it up and yet somehow supercedes, provides as perfect a definition of any I've read. I highly recommend this summary work to any self-reflective reader interested in how humans make meaning of their world and communicate that meaning to others. I intend to purchase the Master and his Emmissary soon, undaunted the more specialized knowledge will be beyond me yet confident this author for his ease of making difficult processes mindfully metaphorical, will give me more than my money's worth toward finding my way in the world my analytical brain is notwithstanding poetically inclined to enjoy.

[4] Robbienz - Thought provoking = I kinda pride myself on being left-brained, and a serious user of reason. But, I can certainly agree with Iain that it tends toward unbalancing one as a human person. Also, I find his use of “evolution” and “emergence” to be fluffy, asserted without proof, and part of the contemporary narrative for explaining the processes that allegedly got us to this place. However, neither has sufficient evidential weight to convince me, either by the left or the right hemispheres.

[5] Terrence - An insightful take on the most important problem of our time = Dr. McGilchrist’s thesis is that our culture has become saturated in the perspective of the left hemisphere, which perceives the world as an object to be manipulated as a linear dynamical system. Missing the right hemispheres complementary perspective of the world as a nonlinear dynamical system we are part of has a cost, and is plainly mistaken. The cost of this perspective is the malaise of our time. I think he is entirely correct.

[6] John S. Uebersax - Excellent summary of divided brain research = This is basically a brief, summary version of the author's excellent longer book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The longer work is well-written, extremely interesting, goes into detail, and is definitely worth reading. But for those who want a shorter presentation of the results and implications of divided brain research — how human beings have a left-brain and a right-brain, and how the difference (and sometimes conflict) between them accounts for many important aspects of our experience and culture, then this shorter work is very good. It covers all the main points of the longer work and is a genuine bargain. I would recommend this shorter work for all psychologists and philosophers, or anyone with a strong interest in either field. (And I would recommend the longer work also for people with a special interest in this important topic.)


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