The Divided Brain and the Search For Meaning

I read a blog post yesterday that referred to a book that I had started to read a few months ago but had stopped due to the heavy nature of its subject matter. The book was called “The Master and His Emissary”  by Iain McGilchrist.

I decided to try and reread the book following the recommendation of the blog’s author and found that McGilchrist had written a short e-book called “The Divided Brain and The Search For Meaning”. where he effectively summarises his book in simpler language as a sort of introduction to his magnum opus.

At the huge cost of 99p I electronically purchased this book and spent a useful few hours reading it. The book presents McGilchrist’s arguments about the importance to the development and decline of western civilisation of left cerebral hemisphere dominance.


He examines the evidence that he had collected over a twenty year period in writing his original book  about the significant differences of the two cerebral hemispheres. These two hemispheres are asymmetrical and in evolutionary terms could only have developed to oversee different main jobs. (McGilchrist though goes into great detail to debunk the “Split Mind” theory made  popular in the 1970’s by Roger Sperry and others. The hemispheres do tasks collectively but have a broader specialisation).

In evolutionary terms McGilchrist explains how the development of different-tasked hemispheres of the brain came about by giving an example of a bird. The bird needs to focus on his small grains of food in the midst of dirt and grit but at the same time if his concentration is specific to that action alone he may become some other creature’s lunch! There is therefore a need for specific attention and a roaming “broad” attention that works at the same time.

Thus we have the right hemisphere that thinks in pictures, not language, that has an all-encompassing approach to examining the environment and there is the left hemisphere that is about specifics, language, logic and end result.

The ability of the left hemisphere to abstract is a great strength but also a huge weakness according to McGilchrist. He finishes his excellent short e-book with a concern that our western society has gone far too far down the road of left-hemisphere dominance by concentrating on end-result to the detriment of the bigger picture. A great example would be the massive mining of the world’s resources causing pollution. climate change and (in the past) massive health damage.

I am fascinated by the ideas that McGilchrist puts forward. He himself is a remarkable intellectual having studied literature originally and then become a doctor so that he could become a psychiatrist!

To get a really good visual and linguistic appreciation of some of his ideas I would ask you to watch the short RSA video below. Read the e-book and, if you’re brave, attempt the big book!


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