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Publisher's Summary

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.

©2009 Iain McGilchrist; Introduction copyright 2018 by Iain McGilchrist (P)2019 Tantor

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The Master and His Emissary

Excellent narration. Pretty much perfect.

McGilchrist's work here is majesterial in depth and scope. I was somewhat overwhelmed by his knowledge of the classics, philosophers and poets, and his ability to synthesise them into his explanation of the how the brain's hemispheres function. There's a lot to think about, and I'll mull over it for a while. I may read this again sometime.

That said, I'll jump to the criticisms. By the end of the book I got the feeling that his hemispheres-hammer started to see hemispheres-nails everywhere. It's the theory to explain everything, and becomes somewhat unfalsifiable. I appreciate the difficulty in using the left hemisphere to explain (ie, writing an academic book) the workings of the (uncapturable world of the) right hemisphere, thus according to his theory his explanation is going to be lacking something that academic writing can never capture. I'm not sure of the solution to that. I also think his rose coloured glasses view of bygone eras is a bit myopic, and becomes a powerful narrative by which to interpret human history. Were 'humans' 'really' 'happier' 'back then'? I have to qualify every word in that sentence, because it's not straightforward - which humans? Measured by what? Starting from when?

McGilchrist mostly speaks glowingly of ancient peoples and their myths and religions, but never mentions the horrors, fears and suppression that they brought, and this is, I think, the mistake of searching for explanatory narratives. It ultimately leads to hit counting and confirmation bias.

But back to the positives.... It was really helpful to see how the different parts of the brain worked, and I was able to recognise those different patterns in myself, and the oppositie pulls of the left and right hemispheres. McGilchrist takes a somewhat negative view of scientific reductionism, yet dividing consciousness into the activities of separate brain hemispheres seems like the ultimate in reductionist thinking. Did that thought cross his mind (minds?).

I also thought it fascinating to think about how ancient humans may not have had an inner dialogue, and when that started to develop they had no mytho-cultural norms for interpreting that, and thus there was an explosion of 'god-whisperers' - people hearing an inner dialogue, not knowing what it was, and concluding they were hearing voices from beyond. Today we have narratives and precedents for interpreting this phenomenon ("It must be me talking to myself in my head, which is what everyone else is experiencing and is totally normal, and science backs that up"). I'm not sure how we could ever 'prove' that this is the case, but it's an interesting hypothesis that has a bit of explanatory power.

Another interesting concept was the paradoxical nature of the left hemisphere's inability to articulate the right hemisphere's activity, and all the different phenomena that are 'destroyed' by the left hemisphere's attempt to codify the uncodifiable, such as 'freedom', or 'spontenaity', or 'authenticity'. I've felt this tension my whole life, and intuitively known that there's something paradoxical and unsolvable about it, but didn't have a framework by which to explain it. Now that I have a framework I wonder if my left hemisphere will simply latch onto that at every possibility....

Related to that, his description of the American Revolution and the movement toward 'small government' explains in part my general preference for conservative politics despite my sympathies with liberal issues. I think that government is not really able to legislate true freedom, but in a left-brained way tries and tries, and ties up 'freedom' in legislation and laws which are the antithesis to freedom. That's not my only reason, but it's a significant one.

I thought it was interesting that in mentioning the sensation that language is inadequate for articulating all of one's thoughts about something, he identified the three dots '...' as a marker of the right hemisphere's resistance to closure and certainty. Those dots represent the 'inexaustability' and 'unembraceability' of articulation, and I personally use them a lot when not constrained by formal writing standards.

Hyperconsciousness is something I'm curious about. I definitely have leanings toward that, and I agree that too much consciousness is a bad thing in that it ruins an experience. It's hard to have a sense of awe and wonder while having a sense of having a sense of awe and wonder. It's hard to belly laugh while 'observing' one's own response to a funny situation, analysing it, and being aware of one's own physiological response. It seems that there's a happy balance between consciousness and ignorance. IIRC, McGilchrist suggests that ancient authors rarely describe schizotypal behaviours and perhaps it's a modern phenomenon, the ultimate ascendance of the left hemisphere. This is basically the conclusion of TMAHE. There's definitely a movement toward algorithmic driven life, and according to McGilchrist, this is the left hemisphere's attempt to control the phenomena experienced through the right hemisphere. We see this even more as AI takes over more and more aspects of human life and may, according to some critics of AI, end up taking over everything - a universe of paperclips. I don't know what the solution is, because any attempt to solve it is likely to be a left hemisphere driven solution.

Anyway, great book, with lots to ponder. Almost 5 stars, but for the romanticising of history and lack of addressing relevant academic criticisms.

9 people found this helpful

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Hypnotic and heady

One of the best books I’ve heard. Comprehensive analysis of how our dependence on logic is shaping society, and how this dependence is leading to a value shift which may be linked to overgrowth and over dependence on the left brain.
Very much appreciate the breadth and depth of the author’s landscape from neuroscience to history, philosophy and back again.

3 people found this helpful

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Wonderful

Having stumbled across this book is one of the great fortunes of my life. I listened to it while wandering aimlessly around the rural roads of western Pennsylvania, getting both literally lost, and lost in my thoughts. If only I could do it all again.

2 people found this helpful

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Most important book of our lifetimes

Honestly, I think McGilchrist might just be right, and if so, the contents of this book are exactly what each person needs to understand themselves, and the world we've built. I wish I had heard about it sooner and that more people have read it.

2 people found this helpful

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Insightful

This book has been very helpful. I learned a lot about myself and other people. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand themselves better.

2 people found this helpful

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Irritating errors of oral expression

The reader consistently mispronounces key words, especially the noun “affect,” which he stresses on the second syllable as if it were a verb. At one point, he read “panoply” as if it were written “panalopy,” and his phrasing often seemed skewed, as if he were not really tuned into the author’s meaning. I admire this book greatly, but I could not trust the oral interpretation. I had to constantly check back with the printed text to follow the author’s argument.

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Infuriating to listen to.

75,000 words on his opinion on everything. To my ears not a penny's worth of useful information in any of them.

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Long and well worth

This book was suggested to me by a good friend years ago. It was daunting in length, but well well worth the time. Incredibly well thought and enlightening. Every investigation necessary and informative: giving you a new perspective on all aspects of the world you live in.

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Detailed and engaging.

This work covers a lot of material including neuroscience, history, philosophy, poetry and the arts. The work is very dense but incredibly well organized.

The narrator did an outstanding job.

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An Amazing Journey

Dr. McGilchrist, with painstaking research and historical reference, weaves the story of our left/right brain structure and it’s interplay with society throughout the ages. Most chillingly fascinating were his predictions for the future (published in 2009) which are showing themselves true today.