Sunday, September 23, 2012

McGilchrist: A little right-brain music, please, Maestro!

A literary scholar morphed into a psychiatrist, with a profound interest in the human brain, and its neuroscience, Dr. Iain McGilchrist, has attempted in his work, The Master and his Emissary, to analyze both the biology and the relational functioning of the two hemispheres of the brain, given their obvious asymmetry, and their clearly differentiated functions. However, according to McGilchrist, we need both hemispheres to function adequately, appropriately and wholistically.
 McGilchrist posits the view that both hemispheres deal with all subjects, but from a different perspective. The big broad strokes, those offered by the artist, the musician and the philosopher, according to McGilchrist, come primarily from the right hemisphere, while the left is the 'get-the-job-done-function', almost devoid of the capacity for contextualization.
Although I have not read the work yet, (I listened to my first McGilchrist lecture  this weekend!) I can see that his work is an overt and disciplined effort to restore the humanities and the arts to their 'rightful' place in the midst of a tsunami of science, mathematics and literalizing perfection, the latter unavailable to the right hemisphere.
By Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, from tvo website, September 22, 2012
A Brief description--
The left hemisphere, though unaware of its dependence, could be thought of as an 'emissary' of the right hemisphere, valuable for taking on a role that the right hemisphere - the 'Master' - cannot itself afford to undertake. However it turns out that the emissary has his own will, and secretly believes himself to be superior to the Master. And he has the means to betray him. What he doesn't realize is that in doing so he will also betray himself.
The book begins by looking at the structure and function of the brain, and at the differences between the hemispheres, not only in attention and flexibility, but in attitudes to the implicit, the unique, and the personal, as well as the body, time, depth, music, metaphor, empathy, morality, certainty and the self. It suggests that the drive to language was not principally to do with communication or thought, but manipulation, the main aim of the left hemisphere, which manipulates the right hand. It shows the hemispheres as no mere machines with functions, but underwriting whole, self-consistent, versions of the world. Through an examination of Western philosophy, art and literature, it reveals the uneasy relationship of the hemispheres being played out in the history of ideas, from ancient times until the present. It ends by suggesting that we may be about to witness the final triumph of the left hemisphere – at the expense of us all.
One review--
The Master and His Emissary, while demanding, is beautifully written and eminently quotable … a fascinating treasure trove of insights into language, music, society, love, and other fundamental human concerns. One of his most important suggestions is that the view of human life as ruthlessly driven by “selfish genes”, and other “competitor” metaphors, may be only a ploy of left brain propaganda, and through a right brain appreciation of the big picture, we may escape the remorseless push and shove of “necessity.” I leave it to the reader to discover just how important this insight is.’
-- Gary Lachman, writing in The Los Angeles Review of Books

Another review-
‘To call this monumental achievement an account of right and left brain hemispheres is to woefully misrepresent its range and power … McGilchrist persuasively argues that our society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative ‘master’ the right. Brilliant and disturbing.’
--- Salley Vickers, 'Book of the Year', writing in The Observer

In his tvo lecture, September 22 and 23, Dr. McGilchrist pointed out that when a person suffers a stroke in the right hemisphere, and the left brain is the only hemisphere left working normally, the person is able to see only the micro-details of any situation, and has no broader context into which to place those details.
He also points out that an individual who suffers from borderline personality, or from  schizophrenia, also suffers from a deficit in the right hemisphere.
Culturally, he sees the world suffering from an over-dominant left hemisphere, in many ways:
  • in our obsessive pursuit of perfection
  • in our bureaucratizing of all social exchanges
  • in our literalist interpretations of events, writings and experiences
To counteract this cultural trend, he says we have to and can recover the right hemisphere to bring back into focus the 'big picture'. Metaphor, for example, is the natural component of language, in which we capture the essence of an event, or a situation, while the left hemisphere is our resource to outline the details of any task. His discussion of the left hemisphere reminded me of the Freudian description of the super-ego, although that comparison would not likely fit compatibly with McGilchrist's picture.

And this review--
By reflecting more deeply on dimensions of mind and culture, he coaxes us to understand how the supposedly “non-dominant” right hemisphere, deeper in both feeling and wisdom, has long guided the best of human life, often to be undone by the chattering and confabulating servant on the other side. This is a profound analysis of the divisions within our higher mental apparatus that have been writ large in the history of our species. No wonder the other animals do not speak. They still socialize more through their right hemispheres, allowing the servant in the left to pursue food and facts, and chattering in humans, rather than the more intimate experiences of mind.
--- Professor Jaak Panksepp, Baily Professor of Animal Well-Being Science at Washington State University, and author of the classic works Affective Neuroscience, and A Textbook of Biological Psychiatry

Another review-
McGilchrist lays out a startling, novel account of the importance of the right hemisphere of the brain, and what is more, he turns this into a gripping and dizzying account of the trajectory of the whole of human (but especially of Western) civilisation and offers, in the course of this, the most powerful argument penned by any living author of the importance of the arts and humanities (including philosophy, properly understood, the social studies and ‘les sciences humaines’)
Dr Rupert Read,
Reader in Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, writing in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

Another review--
This is clearly the most scholarly and inclusive book of the study of brain lateralization and its significance yet written, and makes an extremely strong case for the importance of this research for virtually every field of the humanities and human sciences … brings into focus the problematic state of the arts, of disciplines within the humanities and the human sciences and of science generally, and underlies all the major problems currently facing civilization … McGilchrist’s book, providing new insights into the minds and modes of operation of those who undermine civilizations and a clearer idea of what constitutes healthy culture and the flourishing of civilization, is a major contribution to wisdom.'

Professor Arran Gare, Professor of Philosophy & Cultural Inquiry, Swinburne University, Melbourne, writing in Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

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