McGilchrist: The Divided Brain, I

A few weeks very well spent. That’s how I would characterise my reading of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The book is a potent affirmation and corroboration of the basic soundness of Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy, and the key, or ‘open Sesame’, to understanding much else besides, including the contemporary madness of Late Modernity. So, it came as something of a surprise, given the resonances between the two, when Mr. McGilchrist informed me that he did not know Jean Gebser’s works, even though he was familiar with Gebser’s name. But the evidence of neurodynamics (neurobiology and neuropsychology) assembled in McGilchrist’s book provides important empirical grounding for Gebser’s concerns about the sorry state of human consciousness as well as the possibilities of a “metanoia” — a new consciousness he calls “the integral consciousness”.

The Master and his Emissary deserves to be described as a break-through work, and indeed, as some have referred to it, as truly “seminal”.

A few words about the title itself, which is, in essence, a contemporary reworking of the parable of the Prodigal Son — the emissary. It’s another of the many ironies of Nietzsche, from whom McGilchrist borrowed the parable of the master and his emissary (although I don’t recall it from my own reading of Nietzsche). But with this theme in mind, McGilchrist has, in a manner, turned conventional neurodynamics on its head by identifying the right-hemisphere of the divided brain as the superordinate or primary one and the left-hemisphere (the seat of the self-consciousness or the self-image) as the subordinate or inferior function. The “master and his emissary” refers to brain asymmetry, with the right hemisphere with its own “mode of attention” now identified as “the master” and the left hemisphere functions or “mode of attention” with the “emissary”. With this simple maneouvre, McGilchrist has succeeded in accounting for the error of dualism, and has provided a framework for re-interpreting some of the fundamental intuitions about the contemporary predicament that I’ve been working through in The Chrysalis itself — even the meaning of “the chyrsalis stage”.

As to the title of his book, McGilchrist states this in his introduction,

. “There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier , the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf adopted his mantle as his own — the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.” (p. 14)

You could interpret this parable moralistically, but that is none of Nietzsche’s (nor McGilchrist’s) essential concern. In Nietzsche’s rendering, it is a usurpation by the ego-consciousness of the throne occupied by the authentic “self” and the suppression of the “self” or “soul” by the ego-consciousness (as described in “The Despisers of the Body” in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra). In Nietzsche, this is the contention between the Apollonian consciousness (the intellect) and the Dionysian consciousness (the intuitive). In McGilchrist’s neurodynamic framework, this contest between Apollo and Dionysus is accounted for in terms of brain asymmetry and bilateralism. The Apollonian consciousness is associated with the left hemisphere, the Dionysian with the province of the right-hemisphere. In terms of Christian gnosticism, the left-hemisphere of the brain would be associated with “Luciferic Light” (the Enlightenment) while the right-hemisphere would be associated with “Christic Light”. McGilchrist doesn’t cast it in terms of gnosticism, as such, although one has the impression that he might have wanted to. In other words, the ego-consciousness, associated with the left-hemisphere of the brain, has become an usurper and a tyrant in the household, forcing the implicit “master” awareness of the right-hemisphere underground, where it has become “the unconscious”, or even “the occult”.

Now, in an earlier essay in The Chrysalis, I wrote that we have to distinguish between the “awareness” and the “consciousness”. This distinction caused some readers difficulty, and also gave me some difficulty to articulate the distinction as well. I believe that McGilchrist’s brain asymmetry and neurodynamics accounts for it perfectly, in terms of the two hemisphere’s different “modes of attention”, for it is this, essentially, which distinguishes them from one another and which accounts for the “divided brain” itself. The “mode of attention” of the right-hemisphere of the brain is what I would call “the awareness” and the “mode of attention” of the left-hemisphere of the brain is what I would call “the consciousness”. The consciousness is only a very narrowly focussed portion of the greater awareness that we are implicitly, a part which, nonetheless, has confused itself with the totality of the whole and which actively works to suppress the whole or censor the awareness, and this gives rise to the Jekyll and Hyde problem, or the schizophrenia of the human condition; or, to put it another way, the “two souls” problem of Faust as Goethe expressed it,

“Two souls, alas, reside within my breast,
And each from the other would be parted.
The one in sturdy lust for love
With clutching organs clinging to the world,
The other strongly rises from the gloom
To lofty fields of ancient heritage”

It’s not that the right-hemisphere awareness is “unconscious” at all. It’s quite the reverse. And so things like Jung’s “collective unconscious” are something of a misnomer. That’s the situation only as it is conceived by the ego-consciousness — the left-hemispheric mode of attention — which can actually be said to be the true “unconscious” factor — the sleepwalker. The mode of attention of the right-hemisphere is at all times lucid and perceives all instantaneously, holistically. It’s the left-hemisphere that suppresses that holistic perception. The left-hemisphere of the brain is the seat of the analytical mind, and so serialises, sequentialises, rationalises, visualises. And in those terms, then, what I have previously also called “the overview” as something distinct from the “point-of-view” and “line of thought” is explicable in terms of brain asymmetry and neurodynamics as described by McGilchrist. What we call “mind” or “consciousness” is really the narrowly focussed awareness, and as such is “the emissary” in those terms — the ego-consciousness. But it remains, nonetheless, an integral part of the overall awareness even if it chooses to remain ignorant of that fact. We are whole already. We just don’t know it. This is the basis for speaking of the “true self” and the “false self”, or even of what I (formerly) called Khayyam’s Caution that “only a hair separates the false from the true”. This is particularly applicable to the relationship between the left and right-hemispheres of the brain and their distinct modes of attention.

Henceforth (and for good reason) I will refer to the right-hemisphere’s mode of perception as “the first attention” and the left-hemisphere’s particular mode of perception as “the second attention”. We live most of our lives in the latter, which is the domain of the ego-consciousness. For this reason I have previously stated that we pay far too little attention to the act of perception itself, and that Descartes’ fateful error, the error of rationalism generally, was to elevate the thinking function as being primary, as preceding even the act of perception. Cogito ergo sum was absurd even when it was first formulated, and the logical consequence of it over time has been to end in the Absurd — an absurd world. The existentialist revolt against rationalism notwithstanding, the real absurdity is that human beings have now confused the mere self-image with whole of the awareness. The self-image is nothing — a ghost in the machine, as it were. The “Selfhood” is only an image made into a God or the proverbial “castle in the air”. “Nobodaddy” as Blake refers to it. What is this ego-consciousness but the self-image? And what is the self-image but a construct? What is the construct but a particular self-understanding, with all its limitations. And like all images, it is lifeless (as I addressed in “The Image and The Spirit of Place“).

I’ve called narcissism “the human condition”. As I recall, McGilchrist uses the term “narcissism” only once in his book. Yet in his own terms, the mode of functioning of the hyperactive left-hemisphere — self-referentiality, tautological reasoning, the house of mirrors and the echo chamber — is narcissism, a state in which the self-image, and upholding the self-image (now called the “Me Brand”), has become the dominant mode of functioning. I wouldn’t say, though, (as McGilchrist is inclined to do) that the West is more narcissistic than anyone else, despite the “culture of narcissism“.  I’m not inclined to agree with McGilchrist that “religion” is something associated with the holistic perceptions of the first attention, even though its origin may arise from there. “Religion” exists precisely because of the human condition of narcissism or separation — conceived as its correction. And you can bet that where “religious” activity is most intense or fanatical, or “piety” is most practiced, that also narcissism is most epidemic too. This was also Blake’s point. Religion, as such, is a construct of the image-making activity of the left-hemisphere of the brain. And if today we tend to distinguish between “spirituality” and “religion”, it is precisely because of the different modes of perception of the right and left-hemispheres. The seed germ of what we call “religion” certainly lies in the first attention — the perception of the holy and the sacred, the “spiritual”. But “religion” as such (which word means “re-connection”) is a profanation of the sacred in which the ego-consciousness attempts to reduce the spiritual into a “system”, a doctrine, a dogma. And as Nietzsche once put it, “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”. In that statement lies a profound insight into the divided brain.

This brings us back once again to what might be considered the central issue of The Chrysalis. There is, after all, a distinction to be made between the “whole” and the “totality”, and every error of contemporary human consciousness pivots on the failure to differentiate sufficiently between the whole (and the holy) and the totality (or system) and which is why I, like McGilchrist also, fear for the near future of the human species. McGilchrist associates these with the different modes of attention of the “divided brain”, the holistic with the right-hemisphere (the first attention) and the totalising or systematising predilection with the left-hemisphere (the abstracting, distancing left-hemisphere). But as Gebser suggested the “whole” and the “totality” are exactly contrary in meaning, the former pertaining to life and health, the later to death (Germanic “tot“).

To confuse what is living with what is dead is the disaster! And likewise, religious piety or fanaticism is never proof of spirituality, quite the contrary. This is not only the teaching of the great Sufi masters (or the Buddha), but also the meaning of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and his “madman in the marketplace” who describes the Churches as “the tombs of God”. Religion itself had become captive of the left-hemisphere of the brain and a symptom of the divided brain. And religious “otherworldliness” was nothing more than a symptom of the left-hemisphere’s loss of vital connection with the holistic first attention. Human beings had become schizophrenic, and so their God also became a psychopath — the schizophrenia of the god called “Urizen” by Blake.

This, to my mind, is the chief merit of McGilchrist’s book (which I will continue to unfold further) — that he shows why the whole and the totality have become confused, in terms of neurodynamics and brain asymmetry, and indeed why Blake believed we lived in the “Ulro” — the shadow world. The Ulro is a result of the divided brain, a construct of the second attention (the left-hemisphere) and its predilection to construct an artificial world in its own image — a virtual reality as “house of mirrors”. And McGilchrist holds that the ego-consciousness is trying to close off all the exits to self-transcendence as an expression of its will to power. In other words, its tendency is towards totalitarianism.

These are also the themes of The Chrysalis, and I’m quite thrilled to find the more intuitive ruminations of the blog corroborated in neurodynamics, which is, after all, the work of the second attention itself, yet now pointing towards an integration of the consciousness also. More evidence for Gebser. More evidence for the veracity of Blake’s “New Age” in the “Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. More evidence, also, for the essential validity of the Hermetic Philosophy.

This very brief initial excursion into McGilchrist’s neurodynamics only anticipates some further things I’ll have to say about it in relation to the concerns of The Chrysalis and the wider issue of “coming to terms” with contemporary history and the structure (or lack thereof) of the contemporary world, and the all-important question of how to overcome the disharmony between the “master” and the “emissary” that is the human brain divided against itself in fundamental dichotomy. This seems to me the real predicament of Late Modernity. And perhaps more to the point, why the dominant left-hemisphere’s mode of attention senses that of the right-hemisphere as an existential threat when it is, in fact, the source of its life.

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12 responses to “McGilchrist: The Divided Brain, I”

  1. LittleBigMan says :

    Jill Bolte Taylor’s extraordinary self-transcendental experience took place after she had a blood vessel burst in her left hemisphere.

    It’s true that “We live most of our lives in the latter [the left hemisphere’s “second attention”].” I think the urban workplace environment is mostly to blame for that, since people of the village that I came in contact with as a kid, although not very educated at all, seemed to be more in tune with their intuitive sense.

    This also is, it seems to me, why the left-hemisphere is more hyperactive in most people – it is simply because it is stimulated more often given the types of decision one has to make in the workplace.

    I love the likening of ego-consciousness to “the house of mirrors and echo chamber;” That’s so true! Quite revealing and concise of a veneer for ego-consciousness.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Great video! Thanks for linking. I’m just preparing the second part of the Divided Brain and Bolte-Taylor will make an appearance there.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Discovered another video of a lecture given by Iain McGilchrist. It is interesting to compare Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk with McGilchrist’s

      Someone highlighted this as “McGilchrist versus Bolte-Taylor”. I don’t know why, because I don’t see much of a “versus” here at all.

      • abdulmonem says :

        If both sides are important in the processes of reasoning and imagination, then is it right to attribute the flame to the right side as Infinitewarrior rightly wondered. Is not that also falling in the trap of the human as cause of himself. Back to the primordial spiritual source of inflaming the spirit in the human,the tool of his reasoning and imagination. Let us stop denying the primordial source of the existence of everything without real knowledge and clear evidence.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Is not that also falling in the trap of the human as cause of himself.

          No. Because the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere is not “human” at all. Remember that Bolte-Taylor had no sense of “I”, or even of being “human” at all, as we understand “human”. She was in that state that Rumi calls “Non-Being” or “emptiness” — no separation of self and cosmos that is implied by what the Buddha also called “the I am conceit”.

          “Unto Him we shall return”. Is that not exactly what happened to Bolte-Taylor? She experienced herself as being indistinguishable from the Life Force of the Cosmos. “Life Force of the Cosmos” is just another name for what we call “God”.

          “Human” is only a self-image. It is what belongs to the left-hemisphere of the brain — a self-understanding that congeals as “I am”. We did not make our own awareness. Nor did we make our bodies. These are, in a sense, endowments that make us human. But we did not make them.

          • abdulmonem says :

            All the human is god improvisation, left and right. I agree that we do not make our awareness,nor our our bodies and that is exactly my realization. thank you.

  2. OneSmatBunny says :

    Thank you for this video and thank you Scott for composing such beautiful and thought-provoking entries and ideas. It is needed.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Are you kidding Scott, everything you write has a high resonating quality.

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