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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Thank You Iain McGilchrist

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

Finally. Finally!! I've received an explanation.

You see, many things plague me about Wendell Berry.

Why don't others respond to him the same way I do? How can someone be so adept at both poetry and philosophy? Why do such air-tight arguments have so little societal power? How is it that he can be both left and right, politically? Why isn't my mind, after studying Berry for three decades, sculpted more iike his? I'm still mostly an admirer. Certainly a student. Never will I truly behold what he understands. Why not?

Finally, I have an explanation, thanks to one Iain McGilchrist, a former Oxford english professor who relatively late in life entered medicine and became a pyschiatrist. What he's most famous for, however, is authoring the book I just finished, The Master and His Emissary, which is one of those unified theory of everything books that I just love. I don't recommend you read it --- it's 460 pages of really small type and enough dependent clauses to make your brain hurt. Which it would anyhow, even without having to reread sentences three times, since it's a book about neuroscience, the mind, western civilization, art, philosophy and religion.

Good news for you though: you can get a quick synopsis of the book's thesis on YouTube here or, if you really want to go for it, you can watch a documentary for $4.99 here. Or just keep reading and I'll give you the ten cent version.

The book is divided in two parts. In Part One, McGilchrist patiently explains, using more than a thousand citations, why everything we've been taught about the brain's two hemispheres is wrong. The big mistake is thinking that one side does "this," and the other side does "that." Like that language is handled by the left side and visual thinking by the right. Apparently both sides are involved all human cognition. But the two sides, though dually involved, cognize VERY differently.

If these hemispheres were people, we'd notice that the left side is concrete, goal-oriented, focused, abstract and utterly convinced of its clarity and correctness on all things. It's Mr. Overconfident. Right side guy is observant, relational, curious, present-focused, comfortable with ambiguity and always contextual. The right side is the seat of empathy and metaphor, since the right side is where we make connections between our sense of self and the "other," between this and that.

The left side enables us to utilize the world -- to grasp it (both mentally and physically) so we can manipulate it to our ends. The left is the side that "knows," and that's because it only deals with what's man-made, that which can be manipulated and controlled. The right is the side that "believes." Since the world is infinitely complex, changeable and flowing from moment to moment, it can never be known the way, say, a machine or software program can be known.

So it's not "what" the hemispheres do that matters. It's "how" they operate. I've watched a few McGilchrist talks and he starts every one by asking the same fascinating question: why is the brain, the organ of connection, not just in humans but in all animals, so definitively divided? It's because, he goes on to explain, all organisms need both the highly focal attention that allows, like in the case of a bird, picking out the seed from the surrounding pebbles, and the sustaining attention of panoramic vigilence, so to be ever aware of one's surroundings with its threats and opportunities. (I've had a lot of time to study the birds outside the windows of my home office this year, by the way, and I can attest they do behave just this way. Apparently they do their pecking with one eye and their scouting with the other, simulataneously).

The second part of the book elaborate's McGilchrist's thesis that we are living in a left-hemisphere dominated world, and that we're suffering for it. (He reports that our current culture exhibits the exact same qualities of societal behavior that are repeatedly documented in the reported consciousnesses of individuals suffering from schizophrenia). Walking through the eras of western civilization, starting with the ancient Greeks and moving through the Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Romantic, Modern and Post Modern eras, he argues, based on the art, poetry and philosophy of each epoch, that our brains are responsible for making those eras what they were. Some were left brain dominated like the Enlightenment. Some were right brain dominated like the Romantic. The Renaissance was balanced. The evidence that he cites throughout is impressive, if not a little esoteric, but the book is a tour de force in its diagnosis of artistic and philosophical trends and tendencies throughout the long course of western civilization.

The jaw dropper for me, however, was this one great big idea: the hemispheres are not "equal" in importance. The right side, where experience is first processed, where the world "as it is" is accepted while never fully understood, and where knowledge is formed through gestalt processing of wholes that are ever-changing, ever-flowing -- is the Master. It is where we are present to the actual world. The left side uses that which is taken in by the right and forms systems of re-presentation. Like denotive language. Like the scientific method. Like reductionlsm, materialism, utilitarianism. All good stuff, if done in service of the right -- as Emissary. Alas, the left side does not know what it does not know. And it does not know its limitations. It doesn't want to be an emissary. It sees itself as master. And the result of the takeover is the world we've constructed, the world that I've been complaining about in this blog, and which we all struggle with every day.


Listen, that's the best I can do in a few short paragraphs. It's a fascinating theory and apparently McGilchrist has raised both ardent believers and detractors with the book's publication about ten years ago. But what I need to emphasize here is just how much this book reminded me of Wendell world. I mean, it was everywhere. Not in the type of book it is (it's nothing like anything WB has written), but in so much of its argument and substance.

For starters, all of Wendell's people were in here. It was striking. Wordsworth, Blake, Milton, Shakespeare. I mean, yeah, both McGilchrist and Berry are former English professors so that might not surpise, but they're in here because, like the authors themselves, and like me to a much, much tinier extent, they are exemplars of right brained contributors -- people unwilling or unable to defect to the tyranny of the left. Everything that Berry notices and decries --- our alienation from nature, from communiity ties, from memory, from cultural storehouses of wisdom -- these are all right brain features and casualties of a left-brain dominated world. And everything that Wendell is so damn good at -- seeing beyond utliity values, recognizing the creaturiiness/belongingness in all things, using language poetically and metaphorically but never confusing re-presentation for the lived presence of the world, and on and on -- all these are all apparently evidence of a supremely well developed (and readily accessible) right hemisphere.

I came away from The Master and His Emissary with a new clarity about so much that I've intuited over my lifetime (intuition -- underrated!); that "life" is destroyed when we try to break it into component parts; that the extreme mechanisation and specialization of our time is embedded in something much deeper than any economic or political system (i.e. our very minds); that we are trapped in something we instinctively know is wrong but from which we cannot escape. (McGilchrist says the left side, threatened as it is by anything it can't control, and seductively clever in blocking exits from its own self-made system, is incredibly effective at tricking us into substituting signs for reality. Our digital age is handing us all sorts of evidence of this).

As I read the book, I developed a sub-theory of my own, which I glommed on to the big theory of the author. This is informed by so much of what I've done in my life, and with what I've struggled to do. I'm thinking here of my lifelong zen practice, and my efforts to share that with my children and other loved ones, and my now legendary Jerry Maguire course, which readers of this blog are well aware of. The sub-theory is this: right brained people (meaning those whose right hemispheres are still uppermost and undeterred by the reductive left) are only decipherable to other right brained people, and only insofar as the right brain function remains intact as "master." Put another way: what "makes sense" (interesting colloquiallism there) follows from your brain's lateralization habituation. We're brain-wired to certain other people, is what I'm trying to say.

Meaning I will always be able to appreciate Wendell Berry, but, because my right brain function is weaker than his, I will never be able to comprehend the world as he does. My loved ones will only "get" my Jerry Maguire course to the extent their right hemispheres make it possible for them to make sense of it. Some people are drawn to Zen practice, like I am, which is nothing more than right brain exercise, but for most others it's just a bore. Taoism makes intuitive sense to me. But that's just me. And the Taoists.

I've oversimplified so much here that's it's disgusting, and for that I apologize to Dr. McGilchrist and my readers. But there it is. Hit those links and see what you, ahem, think.


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