McGilchrist’s Divided Brain and “the Other”

This morning, I want to speak to one of the problematic issues — or so it seems to me — in Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary. This bears on the related matters of “truth” and “fact” as these are reflected in the different modes of attention of the divided brain, or what we might correspondingly refer to as “high fidelity” and “low fidelity”, respectively, in terms of perception. Or, as I expressed it earlier in The Chrysalis, the separate, and often apparently conflicting issues of “the truth that sets free” and “the facts of the matter”.

What can McGilchrist’s divided brain thesis tell us about the relationship between truth and fact?

In McGilchrist’s description of neurodynamics and the divided brain, there are perhaps three key characteristics of the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere of the brain that distinguishes it from the mode of attention of the left-hemisphere (henceforth I will refer to these as “the first attention” and “the second attention” respectively). Those three key characteristics of the first attention are: it is concerned with “betweenness” (relationship); it is attuned to “the Other” (the other-than-itself); and it perceives “verily” (with “high fidelity”).

The second attention, by contrast, ignores “betweenness” or relationship and emphasises detail or objects. It is attuned to, or oriented towards, “facticity” — or what it itself has made and has established as “real”; and it perceives reality with very “low fidelity” owing to its narrow, perspectival focus, which might be another way of saying– it doesn’t do the world justice.

To begin: McGilchrist is affirming that there is indeed a difference between truth and fact, and that these bear on the different modes of attention that the divided brain brings to the world. The word “fact” does mean “made” (Latin facere, to do, to make — as in manufacture, factory, facility, faculty, etc) and even the word “perfect” is something “thoroughly made” (per + facere). A “fact” is, in this sense, an image or representation of the truth but is not identical with the truth itself. We can say, in that respect, that a “fact” is a low-fidelity representation of the truth. “The facts of the matter” and “the truth that sets free” are, again, “the same but different”.

The second attention is therefore interested in what it itself has made. The elements of its world are objects, details, “facts” in the aggregate, but lacking in apparent cohesiveness or overall integrity, as bits and pieces of a world. The world of facticity is a world of disintegrate elements, and this unsatisfactory state is the condition for the search for the perfect “system” that can account for all the facts of the matter, and conditions the drive for the Integral Theory or Theory of Everything or Unified Field Theory that would especially account for the four cosmic forces: the gravitational force, the electro-magnetic force, and the strong and weak nuclear forces.

(And here, once more, history repeats itself, for this unsatisfactory condition reflects the Greek philosopher’s search for the unitary principle or Logos that would account for the unity of the four cosmic elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, and their reflection in the human form as metabolic system, respiratory system, nervous system, and circulatory system, respectively. These are, equivalently, Blake’s “four Zoas” of the disintegrate “Adam”. In other words, same old quest for the mysterious principle of equilibrium and homeostasis).

The realm of facticity is, in other words, an artificial construct of the second attention, whereas the missing element is the unitary principle. This unitary principle is the concern of the first attention which perceives “verily” or with high fidelity compared to the first attention, by virtue of its attunement towards the holistic and “betweenness”. The realm of facticity, the realm of the “made”, is what Blake calls The Ulro. The Ulro is the shadow world where “fact” is indeed the shadow of the true; or, as Blake expressed it in one of his Proverbs of Hell: “Every thing possible to be believ’d is the image of the truth”. This is the principle of the Ulro, and pretty much reflects also Plato’s Parable of the Cave.

The first attention is, however, concerned with “betweenness”, as McGilchrist insists. This “betweenness” is the very meaning of the word “intelligence” (inter-legere or inter-ligere) and even “intellect”. Blake, in fact, uses the word “Intellect” only in this sense — not as analytics, but as providing the true unifying intelligence or “imagination”. But the intelligence or the intellect without the imagination (which is all together Reason proper) is only “Aristotle’s Analytics” in which abstraction becomes also distraction, and which in consequence generates an unreal world. What we call “intellect” today is a mistake. It is itself a “made thing” — the “foreign installation” as it were — and without the imagination becomes a zombie or automaton, rootless and homeless. The second attention (which we call ego-consciousness) has cunning and cleverness, but no inherent intelligence, because the veritable intelligence is supplied by the first attention, but this has been suppressed, in Blake’s terms, by the false god “Urizen” (who is Universal Reason as intellect without the intelligence).

So, the world of everyday, ordinary experience of the second attention is the Ulro, and McGilchrist has provided solid evidence for Blake’s understanding of this. It is the “made world” of facticity and “the Mundane Shell” made of “the facts of the matter”, a world of cleverness and cunning, but without the “why” of things, which is the issue of “betweenness” or intelligence. And this higher intelligence or intellect is what we call, from the perspective of the second attention, “the intuitive”. The Ulro is the world of “Single Vision” and of “the mind-forg’d manacles” and therefore, as such, has become the contrary of “the truth that sets free”.

And this brings us to the third feature of McGilchrist’s divided brain — the perception of “the Other”. McGilchrist states that the first attention (the right-hemisphere mode) is attuned to “the Other”. “The Other” is capitalised throughout The Master and his Emissary, leaving no doubt that it refers to All That Is — to the beyond-itself or the other-than-itself, ie the “transcendental” by any other name. “The Other” by virtue of its capitalisation, is a reference also to the divine.

But these features of the first attention as described by McGilchrist are, for one thing, approximations. “The Other”, “betweenness”, and truth are somewhat misleading in that they are interpretations of the second attention about what the first attention is actually doing and of its unique and implicit mode of being. In it’s pure state there is no “Other” or “betweeneness” as such. There is only what Buddhists sometimes refer to as suchness. There is no distinction of itself and Other and so no “betweenness” per se. That is an interpretation or intuitive apprehension or aperception of the second attention. When Jill Bolte-Taylor describes herself during her stroke as being “the Life Force Power of the Universe”, there is no “Other” here. That comes in as an interpretation of the second attention of its own relation to the meaning of the first attention.

In those terms, then, “the Other”, “betweenness” and even the high fidelity of the first attention are themselves interpolations by the second attention of what the first attention is doing, because the first attention doesn’t actually do those things. It does not discern itself as other than All That Is. This is encapsulated in the Buddhist teaching of no-Self or anatta. It’s not that it perceives the Other-Than-Itself. It IS the Other-Than-Itself. It’s mode of being is identical with All That Is where there is no “Other” and hence no “betweenness” as such. These are, nonetheless, useful interpretations or descriptions of the second attention of what our other cognitive mind is up to.

This bears on the Hindu parable I once retold here in the pages of The Chrysalis. There was once a yogi, who desirous of enlightenment, meditated and meditated until one day he had a “eureka!”, a satori. He rose from his seat and ascended the Holy Mountain where, at the summit, there stood the temple of the Holy of Holies. He approached the door and knocked, and a voice within responded “who’s there?”. “I” said the yogi triumphantly. “Go away!” replied the voice within. “There is already an “I” here and no room for another!”. Dejected, the yogi descended the Holy Mountain. “What had he done wrong?”, he thought to himself. And returned to his practice. Some years later, he had another “eureka!” or insight, and ascending the Holy Mountain, once again he knocked on the door of the Holy of Holies. And again a voice responded “Who’s there?”. “Thou!” answered the yogi, and the door opened. This is the teaching of anatman. It is also Blake’s teaching.

There is a very similar parable from even the secular world, which seems to have been directed at Descartes as the brunt of the joke. It tells of how a scholar, desirous of knowing the truth, locked himself away in a dark closet (much as Descartes himself did) vowing not to leave until he had discovered the truth. Truth, having noted the man’s devotion to her and feeling sympathy for his efforts, approached the closet and knocked. “Go away!” yelled the man inside the dark closet, “I’m looking for Truth”. Truth, duly turned on her heals and departed. That’s pretty much a parable about the two attentions.

We are this “truth” already. We just don’t know it, or we’ve forgotten it, largely for the reasons McGilchrist has given — awareness has become too narrowly focussed in the second attention — Gebser’s “perspectival consciousness”. As Bolte-Taylor herself told it, we are whole, we are perfect already but, like the parable of the Prodigal Son, we’ve somehow forgotten who and what we really are in our sense of apart-ness or dis-memberment. There was evidently some purpose to this and to the “divided brain”, but we seem to have carried it too far by centrifugal force, as reflected in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming“, and as Seth also puts it, the ego-consciousness must now become familiar with its roots or risk destroying itself and the Earth by the sheer momentum of the increasingly eccentric orbit of its inherent centrifugalism, which is pretty much what we call “culture of narcissism”. Narcissism and nihilism are companions.

And that’s all there is to it.

That is another oddity of Mr. McGilchrist’s book. Only once does he speak explicitly of the “narcissism” of the mode of attention of the left-hemisphere of the brain, whereas this is the chief problem, isn’t it? Narcissism is the all-too human condition at our “end of history”. It’s the chief problem of the second attention or “emissary”. Odd, then, that it doesn’t come in for greater attention in the book.


5 responses to “McGilchrist’s Divided Brain and “the Other””

  1. dadaharm says :


    The description of the two modes of attention somehow reminds me of the concept of divergent problems. As described in E.F. Schumacher’s “Guide for the Perplexed” these are problems that are not meant to be solved. They require an awareness and understanding that different aspects or views of the problem exist. Somehow one needs to balance these different aspects or sides of the problem in a creative manner. (His example in the book is about education. There one needs order and discipline, but also freedom and creativity.)

    Similarly the two modes or types of attention are both necessary. So one needs to consciously balance the two modes of attention. Of course, one must be aware of these two modes of attention if one wants to balance them.

    Schumacher’s book also describes four fields of knowledge. The first is self-knowledge based on contemplation and introspection. His second is about being aware what other people experience. With some creativity and imagination these two fields of knowledge might well help to stimulate the first mode of attention.

    His third field of knowledge is about what other people think about you. His fourth field of knowledge is about the external material world. So the third and fourth field of knowledge basically describe the second mode of attention.

    Interpretated in this way, one could say that Schumacher’s book is actually about how to balance the two modes of attention. Of course, Schumacher does not base his ideas on the theory of the divided brain. He seems to base it somehow on a rather creative and personal interpretation of christianity.

    I have been reading your blog for quite some time. It took me some time to fully comprehend what it was about. (Of course, that is because I have never read Gebser.)

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for dropping by, and for the comment. Guide for the Perplexed is a book I read some time ago, in my undergraduate days at the Uni. I’ve been meaning to read it again, and am particularly inspired to re-read it (and much else besides) after reading McGilchrist’s work on the divided brain (in fact, I’m just now continuing to read the equally rich Royal Society interview with McGilchrist that Mike McDermott provided a link to in an earlier comment:

      Very worth the while.

      As you can see, I’ve become a McGilchrist enthusiast, even if I have some reservations about some of the things he wrote in The Master and his Emissary. There’s often a tone of melancholia and nostalgia for some lost past, which is understandable — fairly typical of ages of transition. But it can become a bit morbid.

      Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed more often brings to mind Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral logic and his “cross of reality”. Not sure if you were around for that discussion in the Chrysalis at that time. I’ve been meaning to go back to Schumacher and bring his own book into the discussion of “the fourfold vision” and the “cross of reality”. But that’s still on hold.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    For those interested, Mary Midgley’s review of McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary from the Guardian is located at

    It’s a pretty good summary. So far, I haven’t read a review from McGilchrist’s detractors that makes any sense. The objectors seem to proceed from the assumption of metaphysical dualism, still (an entrenched habit of thought it seems that has become a compulsion) that mind and body occupy separate worlds, and they can’t seem to suspend that or shake it when trying to assess evidence that this assumption is wrong.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    It is fascinating to watch the human thoughts and feelings meandering through themselves and the world in such diverse and imaginative fashions helped or hindered as Midgley said by the ethic that prevails in the culture around them. When the human forgets the divine plan and that he is in this earth on trial to find out who will follow the right path, or the first attention in the language under discussion or the crooked path, the second attention, and that he is returning to a god who will ask him about what he has done to be thanked or reproached. When we start with a philosophy that postulates that that there is no original premise to start from and each human eats from the forest whatever he desires and that he is a part of the whole and not a separate entity, it is expected to face the crisis we are facing. We have not subjected them to oppression but they themselves oppressed themselves, the oppression that has extended its malady to the earth and to everything on the earth. Faith is a starting point that will help you to engender the right attention or be the victim of the left attention It is simple and complex at the same time.

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