The Triumph of the Left Brain?


Iain McGilchrist

by Bharat Azad

From the green wall on which they hang in London’s National Gallery, the two bearded men stare down their viewers with assured looks and satisfied demeanours. The two-tiered table, against which they lean languidly, contains the artefacts of Renaissance learning: a pair of dividers, a book on arithmetic, two globes and a sundial amongst others – all serving to give us that heady feeling that previously uncharted vistas of discovery tantalisingly await.

Yet behind the confident looks of these representatives of Renaissance humanism lies something darker. As well as the tropes of sophistication, the table contains a lute with a snapped string, giving us a literal sign of discord, a book by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther and, most astonishing of all, a large skull at the very bottom that can only be seen properly from the side. Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors is one of the abiding images of the Renaissance: its sitters the embodiment of a period of astonishing insight, creativity and individuality balanced out by intimations of mortality and dissension – here, the first rumblings of modernity are faintly audible. The knot has begun to be tied.

Just a few miles away, the British museum houses the Hungarian Surrealist painter Endre Nemes’s second World War drawing ‘Boy with paintings, globe and skull’ (1943), depicting a fatigued boy, marionette-like, pushing a table similar to that leant on by Holbein’s gentlemen, furnished with the quotidian relics of the workplace. The two paintings could be seen as bookends of the modern period where Holbein’s healthy, confident young prototypes are replaced by a faceless, hollowed-out gingerbread man straining under the very weight of modernity, the objects of the famed quadrivium have mutated into a clutter of dull paraphernalia, the boy drained of individuality and barely distinguishable from his surroundings, his body has become yet another thing amongst things. All that remains in common is the grinning skull, sitting now on the table, meek and silently satisfied. Now that we’re all ambassadors, it seems to ask of us, isn’t it a bore?


“One of the saddest things is that I go and talk to artists and dancers etc. and they expect that because I can tell them something about brain correlates, then I can tell them something more profound about what it is they do!”, Iain McGilchrist tells me. “And I keep saying to them, ‘No, you’re the ones that know the most about what you do, this is just an incidental way of thinking about it.’”

With his trim beard and extraordinary range of learning, reference and experience – in a previous life he was a literary scholar at Oxford, where he was a Fellow of All Souls College, who subsequently took up medicine and became a psychiatrist – McGilchrist could easily be mistaken for one of Holbein’s sitters. Despite his cheerful temperament, his tone contains notes of mourning; an undercurrent of sadness for a world gently but decisively drifting away from its mooring.

And he is not without reason. McGilchrist is the author of the most extraordinary book of this century, The Master and His Emissary, which provides us with a unique set of lenses through which to view the history of the modern West, the move from Holbein to Nemes. His book is divided in two parts, the first describing the takes of the two hemispheres of the brain, and the second expounding the audacious thesis – bolstered by a mass of data from psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, archaeology, literature and history – that the right and left hemispheres, contrary to the disrepute the idea has come into, give us two radically different, though necessary, takes on the world. And one of these takes is dominating and dragging us toward the abyss.

The left hemisphere provides a narrowly focused beam of attention, its outlook firmly, furiously, utilitarian, its stare Gorgon. It is what is needed for the mundane and necessary, for surviving, for selecting between the nourishing berry and the poisonous one. It is what allows us to build particle accelerators and computers (our use and understanding of machines are ‘encoded’ in the left hemisphere). It is the emissary, the office manager ensuring the smooth running of the minute and the particular. The right hemisphere, by contrast, has a wider span of attention, its view holistic and integrating; it sees the bigger picture and is forever holding out the promise of a real relationship with the world. It is what stops us getting eaten by the fox lurking in the bushes, whilst the left hemisphere buzzes efficiently and gets on with the business of survival.

The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein, 1533

The home of contextual understanding and metaphor, it is the right hemisphere that underpins much of our values. It is the master, the one who oversees the whole. As McGilchrist repeatedly makes clear, both hemispheres are required, not just for these two takes but for almost every single function, from language to vision. The traits that distinguish the right hemisphere from the left, according to McGilchrist, are sustained attention and the capacity for empathy. However, throughout modern Western history, he argues, these two hemispheres have been in conflict with one another and the left has now emerged triumphant: for instance, evidence suggests children and young people are losing the capacity for empathy. The emissary has overthrown the master.

Despite the astonishing nature of McGilchrist’s claims, the evidence he provides from the neuroscience literature and from his clinical experience is plentiful and endlessly fascinating. Take the example of people with their right hemisphere inactivated who, when asked to draw a flower or a person, are able only to produce reduced caricatures: a stick man for a person and a series of lines intersecting almost coincidentally for a table – the reductionist tendency, so widespread in contemporary culture, may have its origins here.

Those with their left hemisphere inactivated (i.e. with their right functioning) draw the objects no differently than normal. Most intriguing is the denial perpetuated by the left hemisphere as demonstrated by stroke victims. As McGilchrist notes, patients with right hemisphere strokes (leading to paralysis of the left side of their bodies) tend not to admit that half their body isn’t functioning properly – or that there’s anything wrong at all. And he is far from alone in highlighting or observing this. As Professor Sophie Scott, a neuroscientist at University College London writes: “Damage to the right hemisphere can lead to lasting problems with orienting attention in space and time, such as in left spatial neglect, where people do not pay attention to the left side of space, don’t talk to people who stand on that side of them, don’t eat food on that side of their plate and so on.” Now, as McGilchrist keeps reminding me, “there is no all-or-nothing in biology,” patients with left hemisphere damage also show patterns of similar denials with the right-hand side but, as Scott writes, “this is considered less common and patients tend to recover quickly”, suggesting a certain openness to things beyond its immediate scope, something the left hemisphere lacks.

But perhaps the most revealing, and most disturbing, is the evidence from experiments performed by the neuroscientist Marcel Kinsbourne. Patients had each hemisphere inactivated separately and at different times and were given a series of false syllogisms – a logical argument in which one of the premises is wrong. For instance:

1. all monkeys climb trees.
2. all porcupines are monkeys.

From these premises it follows that all porcupines climb trees.

Those with only their right hemisphere activated reacted as normal: the porcupine ain’t no monkey, therefore the proposition “all porcupines climb trees” is false. Those with just their left hemispheres available chose instead to endorse the conclusion, because that’s what it said on the piece of paper. “The left hemisphere is better at following out procedures according to a system”, McGilchrist says, and these experiments sum up “the left hemispheric world: it’s particulate, it’s atomistic and it’s competitive”. When left to its own devices, the left hemisphere displays a lack of a tempering element, an underlying force that provides a context and a route out of the ever-tightening net of algorithms and rationalised sequential systems that increasingly dominate Western life, a helping hand to understand the world. An absence of balance.


Balance is what the right hemisphere, in its simplest sense, is all about. In its absence, the left hemisphere’s triumph takes us to the world of Nemes – gone is the nuance of Holbein where the self-satisfaction that comes with leaning on the threshold of innumerable new discoveries was balanced out by the allusion to mortality and the darker side of the Renaissance. Instead, our culture has privileged one view above others, that of the selfish gene and the associated worship of atomistic competition. McGilchrist agrees:

“The idea of the selfish gene is another example of anthropomorphising something that can’t be selfish, even Dawkins says that. It’s the left hemisphere’s natural metaphor about things that are distinct and competing with one another. The right hemisphere, that sees that things are actually connected and that therefore it makes no sense to talk about pitting them against one another, is I think producing a different kind of image and [James Lovelock’s] Gaia is a perfectly good one. Of course, the hard-nosed scientist will say ‘it’s a myth’ without seeing that the selfish gene is also a myth and only a partial truth.”

“People often say to me, ‘you’ve depicted what a left hemisphere world is like, what would a right hemisphere world look like?’, and the answer is: very balanced, because the right hemisphere understands the need for the left, the master understands the need for the emissary”. This fine hemispheric concert is seen by McGilchrist in “6th century BC Athens, the Augustan era in Rome and that period we call the Renaissance…what strikes me about the Renaissance is that it exemplifies the values of the left and right hemisphere working together and I think that in a way something new arises when they work together, it’s not just summation, it’s a new level of something that emerges when this happens…Just about everything we value in the sciences and the arts seems to have originated, or was given this huge impetus, in this period in the West”.

The Enlightenment ushered in an era where the sense of balance began to slip away. Such a move was anticipated by other Renaissance masters such as Shakespeare and John Donne: “’tis all in piecesall coherence gone” – a perfect encapsulation of the left hemisphere’s take and an account similar to that given by people with schizophrenia, a condition that involves left hemisphere over activation and one that may be a product of the modern age.

From McGilchrist’s RSA animated lecture, “The Divided Brain“.

McGilchrist expounds at length the way other cultures understood the need for balancing out the different way of knowing and still managed to come up with great scientific advances and cites the examples of India, China and the Islamic world. In the past cultures and peoples “had enough richness and understanding and imagination about what they were experiencing to see that different ways of understanding things apply in different contexts. That got lost with the hubristic movement, the Enlightenment, which has much to its credit but also has, I’m afraid much to answer for.”

McGilchrist quotes Isaiah Berlin who was, like McGilchrist, another great critic, though certainly no enemy, of the Enlightenment: “he said the basic tenets of the Enlightenment were that all questions have answers and that if it doesn’t have an answer it’s not a question, that all answers must be compatible and that all these answers can be passed on as information to other people. But none of these things seem to me to bear any scrutiny when you look at life. And these things were known in other eras, certainly known in the Renaissance. And it has something to do with the loss of embodiment. It’s this cerebralisation and abstraction that went on and is still the key note, I’m afraid, in an awful lot of western philosophy such as, in my view, the entirely sterile Anglo-American analytic tradition.” His admiration for Romanticism and phenomenology–movements that tend to be largely ignored or scoffed at in much contemporary western philosophy– is refreshing and helps return the body back to its central position in our lives: “I think the phenomenological philosophers were aware of context, including the context of the body. They were aware of the fact that often truths are not necessarily easily compatible and that things were approached not by making this thing certain, and by adding another, but by allowing something to come to be seen more clearly”.


Nowhere is the left hemisphere’s triumph in the contemporary world clearer than in the furious explosion of interest in neuroscience that characterises much modern popular scientific discourse. This is exemplified by the appearance of a new discipline, seemingly every week, with the prefix ‘neuro’: neurotheology, neuroarthistory, neuroaesthetics, neurolaw and the like. If McGilchrist’s book sounds like yet another attempt at neuroimperialism, it’s an accusation he strongly rejects.

“I rather deplore it all”, he laughs, “and I’m chagrined that some people who haven’t read my book might think I’m part of the same movement, which is really a reductionist movement that is saying that when you’ve described something at the brain level you’ve got to the reality of it. Whereas you’ve just described it at another level – a rather less interesting level, in many cases!” As for the motivation behind this all-consuming urge to neurologise every aspect of our knowledge:  “I think it comes from the adulation of science in our culture. Scientists are often heard to complain that people nowadays don’t pay any attention to science. I don’t know if that’s right at all.” He concedes readily that this may be occurring in schools, but that’s “because anything that demands a lot of application and hard work seems to be veered away from. That includes the classics, history and many other things. I think in the absence of anything else to be our lodestar, science has become the Magus that will answer all our riddles.” Indeed. In the era of massive spending cuts and righteous austerity, science funding is often safeguarded. Its defenders have turned out to be guests in the winter palace rather than the outré revolutionaries at the palace gates.

The result is a culture of category errors, of appropriate ways of knowledge surrendered to the gleaming mandalas of the fMRI. “The tendency is to use this rather reduced and apparently objective way of describing things and apply them to areas where that type of description is not appropriate. Aristotle knew that different types of knowledge and different approaches are appropriate for different areas: a poet’s understanding of a poem is not the same as a doctor’s understanding of a patient is not the same as an accountant’s of a business plan. They’re different sorts of understanding, different sorts of knowledge, and we ask only for one kind of knowledge now.” This makes much of what is important to us in life very problematic from spirituality to personal relationships, encouraging the notion that “precise and explicit equals truth”, and in the book he dismantles, in several beautifully written passages, the fallacy of “the notion of clarity and of the explicit being truthful…I think we need to accept that many things, when made explicit, lose their whole meaning and that to see such things clearly is to see that they’re not the sorts of things that can be clarified in that way.”

One of McGilchrist’s favoured examples, and one of the things that can help return us to the values of the right hemisphere, is poetry. The return of the right hemisphere after the Enlightenment came with the emergence of Romanticism. Wordsworth is arguably McGilchrist’s greatest influence and one of the figures who did most to balance out the left hemisphere excesses of the Enlightenment. “Yes, it’s true of poetry and it was one of the things that frustrated me the most when I was, in a former incarnation, writing about literature. Really, the relationship with a work of art is like that with a human being: that it’s unique, that like a person it is embodied…if it hadn’t existed in that form you couldn’t have imagined it by putting it together from bits you can find somewhere else. And when you do start criticising a poem you inevitably start talking about what it’s saying, but what it’s saying turns out to be a handful of banalities that you’ve heard a thousand times over! How painful it is to lose somebody you love, for example. And then you can look at the form, play around with it and then you think ‘what’s that got to do with anything?’ But then when you actually experience the poem, it can change your life, so something incredibly important has just vanished when you try to do this”. This applies to all works of art, to people and, in fact, to anything that is meaningful to us. “We’ve lost the sense of the meaning of meaning!” he says ruefully. “There’s an interesting thing we say: ‘that person means a lot to me’…What do you mean? There’s nothing in words you can put to meaning. And a piece of music can mean an enormous amount: it can devastate, it can reduce you to tears or it can exalt you. And yet, what is it? You can’t tell me what the meaning is…it’s just a lot of sounds, in one way of looking at it. So meaning is something that is not found by getting more and more explicit and clear but by actually attending to the whole of an experience”.

McGilchrist speaks passionately and knowledgeably about this tangled left-hemispheric web but is there a way out of this mazy morass? Here he is calmer and more enigmatic: “Well, I think the first thing is to raise awareness. For people to become aware that they’ve been somewhat easily duped by scientism, which suggests it has the answer to everything. In fact, it’s a very simple-minded way of approaching the world and it has its appeal because it is so simple. And it makes it look like we can control things, which is a delusion. This is nothing about reasons vs. emotion, there are different kinds of reason, different kinds of emotion and they’re constantly intertwined with one another”. But the prospects for a return to the right hemisphere seems slim – and even undesirable to some – particularly as we’re in the grip of two typically left-hemisphere modes of understanding the world: the scientism propagated by Richard Dawkins and his fellow thinkers and the equally restrictive, hyper-reflexive postmodernism (another left-hemisphere take on the world that McGilchrist skilfully dismantles) emanating from many humanities departments; the one greedily clinging to the imperiously reductive mindset and the other “expanding” our conceptions and treating the world as something we can make into whatever we want it to be – a mere piece of metaphysical plasticine, a thing amongst things. The resulting technologies we have created are trapping us further and further in the mire. As Bryan Appleyard, journalist and author of another excellent critique of contemporary neuroscience The Brain is Wider Than The Sky, tells me: “the machines are closing in on us.” Because of the ever-increasing spread of information, something I have briefly discussed before, we “spend more time processing than synthesising. You can end up knowing less by knowing more. I find that very strange, like walking down a pathway with very high walls made of information which prevent you seeing the landscape.” Will we eventually forget the landscape exists altogether?

In The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist quotes research on patients with right hemisphere damage who “tend to grasp anything within reach, or even brandish their right hand about in empty space, as if searching for something to grasp”. The reactions of those with left hemisphere damage, by contrast, couldn’t be more different or more haunting: “When [the patient’s] hands are brought into action, it seems as if they are seeking not to remain isolated, as if trying ‘to find companionship in something that fills up the empty space’”. Perhaps the way back is permanently lost, Ariadne’s thread soiled and unrecognisable. Or perhaps we ought to loosen our grip and remember that our reach must exceed our grasp: as Friedrich Hölderlin, another important touchstone of McGilchrist’s, once put it: “Where there is danger, that which will save us also grows”.

About the Author:

Bharat Azad is an occasional writer based in London with a very wide range of interests including a love for Proust, Manchester United and scouring Google for ‘good hip hop nights’.