Iain McGilchrist has written a response to my post about his book The Master and his Emissary and about the RSA workshop that discussed it. Since it is a long reply, Iain asked me whether I could publish it as a post, rather than as a comment, which I am happy to do. I have appended my own response at the end. (And just to avoid any confusion, while I have set up the discussion in the form of two open letters, Iain’s piece was written as a straightforward essay, not in letter form.)  I am slightly puzzled, as I observe in my reply, by the tone of Iain’s piece. He seems to suggest in places that my original was written in bad faith and that I seem not to have not read his book or the RSA document. Whether I have adequately understood either is, of course, a matter for debate. But my post was written in good faith, and while critical of Iain’s thesis was also, in my eyes at least, respectful of his work. I wrote it to engage in the kind of debate for which I had hoped that Iain himself had written his book, and the RSA had held its workshop.  I am publishing Iain’s essay in the spirit of such debate, I have written my response to it in that spirit, and I hope that people will engage in that spirit with both sets of arguments.

Dear Kenan…

When Jonathan [Rowson, Director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre] and I agreed to attempt this short publication we did so with a degree of foreboding. We knew that the attempt to abbreviate an argument that is, for the most part, carefully articulated, and already somewhat compressed, in its original 350,000 word form, was inviting difficulties. One such difficulty was that in further compression much would be lost: subtlety, nuance, complexity of argument, qualification of expression, and that I would be taken as saying something cruder than I am. Another was that the casual reader might be lead to think that they could substitute an acquaintance with the paper for a careful reading of the book. Yet we were encouraged by the advice of many readers from many academic disciplines and from many walks of life to think that it was worth risking such casualties in order to engage readers who otherwise might not have come across it at all, trusting that, at least before passing judgment, they would be led to do the book justice by reading it for themselves.

But perhaps even the RSA document is too long for today’s reader. Our fears would appear to have been more than justified. It is a little dispiriting that most, if not all, the comments and objections that KM raises are addressed, sometimes at considerable length, in the course of the document. Of course, those responses might still not satisfy KM, but at least if he had read them the debate would be at a higher level.

I am sure that, as a scientist, KM would agree that science involves acquainting oneself with the facts, keeping an open mind, and trying to maintain balance in considering the whole picture.

On that last matter, it is interesting, and not a little sad, that KM refers to the contribution of only one participant at the RSA workshop, probably the only one out of the 20 or so present who appeared largely unconvinced, Ray Tallis. Dissenters to any proposition are to be expected. And indeed Ray and I are nowhere near as far apart as this might suggest: our standpoints on all the big issues involved here are almost identical, and it is in fact only by attributing beliefs to me that I do not hold that he could find targets to criticise. You would not think from KM’s account that I had in fact responded, as did several others, to every one of the points that Ray is quoted as making. Similarly the only review KM refers to, that of Owen Flanagan, is also the only truly negative review the book has received out of about 50 or so published reviews or commentaries, most of which have been to say the least, positive. It is also the weakest review – of course I would say that, wouldn’t I? But anyone who has read my book and reads that review will realise what a shameful piece of writing it is. The review appeared the same week that the book came out, and so one could hardly expect the author to have read it (most thoughtful readers say that it takes about two or three months to get properly to grips with). But ignorance doesn’t make a promising basis for an informative review. You can see how well Flanagan understood his subject by the fact that he does not seriously engage with anything in it – not the science, the philosophy, the cultural history or anything else, manages to misunderstand the primary metaphor of the book by getting the Master and the Emissary the wrong way round (you only have to get to p 14 to get that right), accuses me of wanting us all to ‘sit on the beach and sing Kumbaya’, and thinks I want to reduce human history to brain events. A cursory read would have saved him such howlers. The entire drift of the book is against such reduction of human phenomena to brain events. It would not be the first time that shoddy invective made up for lack of care and ignorance of one’s subject, but one might have expected better of a journal with Science in the title. In fact Professors Alwyn Lishman and Mary Midgley wrote to take issue with such a travesty, but the New Scientist, which clearly does not like to be exposed, was apparently not able to find space for such distinguished writers to attempt objectivity.

master and emissary

On the hypothesis of The Master and his Emissary, balance in treating this tertiary evidence – what people generally say about the book and its hypothesis – would have been one way KM could have displayed an open mind. Another would have been balance in treating the secondary evidence – reading the book and being fair to its arguments. I get no sense that KM has read my book, but if he has, he would appear not to have understood it. I am very definitely not a critic of reason. Quite the opposite. I am a critic of what has in our time come to take the place of reason, a mindless rationality which neglects judgment and experience. In most languages other than English, certainly in German, Greek and Latin, there are different words for these kinds of reason (eg Vernunft versus Verstand, nous versus logos/dianoia, intellectus versus ratio). As Mary Midgley pointed out in her Guardian review, it is not about thinking versus feeling, but about two kinds of thinking. The difference is similar to that made by Aristotle between phronesis and techne: I have never heard Aristotle accused of being a New Ager. Just because I believe that certain questions do not have answers that could ever be proved to be true does not mean that I think anything goes, and that we are condemned to the realm of the purely subjective. Absolutely not. I could not have made this point clearer in my writings. On all these matters I am KM’s ally. I am also a defender of the proper use of language in an age where both reason and language are too often travestied. But, in turn, it would be sloppy thinking to assume that that meant that there were no limits to what language can precisely express.

Analysis itself shows the limits of analysis, reason shows the limits to reason. As Pascal said, ‘the ultimate achievement of reason is to recognize that there are an infinity of things which surpass it. It is indeed feeble if it can’t get as far as understanding that.’ This famous mathematician also wrote: ‘Plenty of things that are certain are mutually contradictory; plenty of things that are false contain no inconsistency. Contradiction is not a sign of falsehood, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth.’ He also wrote: ‘it is equally excessive to shut reason out and to let nothing else in’. The mistake that some readers make is to think that I see no place for reason if I argue the case for carefully nurtured intuition (people who reason well have better intuitions, people who have good intuitions reason better) in a world that has ceased to respect it. We need both. One hemisphere difference KM would read about in my book is that this black and white, either/or, ‘if it isn’t this, it must be that’ attitude is characteristic of the left hemisphere’s exclusive, precision-directed outlook, when compared with the ability of the relatively inclusive right hemisphere to see more than one option and to hold them together.


But what about balance in treating the primary evidence – the scientific data? I don’t know how well KM knows the literature on hemisphere asymmetry. I say that merely because there are not many people these days who really know it well, partly because of the very prejudice which has led scientists to neglect the issue for the last approximately 30 years. He does say with an air of authority that I have ‘cherry-picked data’, so maybe he is well-versed in it (although I suspect he may have borrowed this idea from the insightful Flanagan). In my case, it took 20 years to familiarise myself with this literature, in so far as I can say I have. I did not speak about hemisphere asymmetry, nor write about it except in the context of a few technical papers reporting research data, until I had spent two decades pondering the material and being fairly sure I was not misrepresenting it. (Incidentally, it would be quite counterproductive for me to attempt misrepresentation, since my only interest is in finding out what is actually the case. That is all that has kept me going: not having a large budget or the likelihood of a prestigious chair to pursue, there have been no temptations in my path.) It is a rather too simple dismissive comment to say ‘he’s cherry-picked the data’. In reality most people can’t have that kind of knowledge of the area. I quote from about 2,500 papers, and I am not sure how many more would have satisfied. I didn’t pin my argument on a handful of unrepresentative findings. It’s also somewhat underhand, if I may say so, to talk of cherry-picking, because it involves the critic in no work, can’t be answered except by silence or indignation, depending on one’s mood, and casts aspersions which cannot easily be dispelled, while giving the impression that the critic is far more knowledgeable than his critical object. Quite a reward for little effort! Unless the critic is willing to demonstrate a knowledge of the asymmetry literature and show me what he is talking about in the context of the whole, it is not a remark that should be made. And, by the way, a study or even a brace of studies, that do not chime will not in themselves do. Nothing in the biological sciences yields entirely consonant data. One must see the whole. A finding can be perfectly valid, and even of the greatest significance overall, and yet admit of contrary findings. The average temperatures in Iceland and Indonesia are clearly very different, which goes a long way to explain the wholly different characteristics of the vegetation, animal life, landscape, culture and economy of these two regions, as well as no doubt much else that differentiates their ‘feel’ and the ways of life there. But it is still true that the lowest average annual temperature in Indonesia is lower than the highest average annual temperature in Iceland – and of course the average temperature varies considerably from month to month, as well as, less predictably, from day to day, and indeed from place to place within each region. The nature of generalisations is that they are approximate, but they are nonetheless of critical importance for understanding what is going on. A misplaced need for certainty may stop the process altogether. I know that that means that the critic would have to address the whole of the data, not just pick off bits, but that is the price of fairness and objectivity.


Having said all of that, it is not as though I do not refer to contrary data. Originally I did so in the body of the text, but my editor, I think wisely, suggested that all such excursus should be put in the notes, in order not to lose the thread of an often complex argument. So KM should read the footnotes too, I am afraid. I might add that many who do really know this literature – Colwyn Trevarthen and James Wright, both of whom researched split brains with Roger Sperry at Cal Tech, Jaak Panksepp, VS Ramachandran, Michael Trimble, Alwyn Lishman, Jurg Kesselring, Todd Feinberg and others – think I represent it well enough.

Let me just remind the reader that the brain is not only profoundly divided, but profoundly asymmetrical. There are clear, subtle but significant, observable differences at every level. The two hemispheres are different sizes, shapes, and weights (the right hemisphere is bigger and heavier in all social mammals); have different gyral conformations on the surface, and in places different cytoarchitecture – that is to say the arrangement of the cells; different proportions of grey matter to white, different sensitivity to neuroendocrine influences, and rely on different preponderances of neurotransmitters. And in psychometric testing they consistently yield different results, which is in keeping with something any clinician could tell you: when there is damage to one hemisphere or the other, through injury, tumour or stroke, there are consistent differences in what happens to the subject and his world depending on which hemisphere suffers the lesion.

So before we move on to look at specifics, let me ask KM some questions.

1) Given that the brain consists in a mass of connections, whose power depends on the number and complexity of those connections, why is it divided? Or is that just random, and we should give up trying to find a pattern which make sense in terms of evolutionary advantage? (Animal ethologists have already found that asymmetry is an evolutionary advantage, and some of the reasons why – I take those into account in the book.) 
2) Is it logical or just a prejudice to dismiss the idea that there are significant hemisphere differences? 
3) If it is logical, why? If it is not logical, should we not all be interested in what sort of difference this might be? 
4) If not, why not? If so, what sort of difference would he himself suggest? 
5) Failing any suggestion of his own, why is he opposed to others making suggestions? 
6) Since it is in the nature of a general question that the answer will be general, what sort of criticism is it that an answer that has been offered is general in nature (though highly specific in its unfolding of the many aspects of cerebral function involved, of the implications for the phenomenological world, and in the data that are adduced)? 
7) It is in the nature of generalisations that they are general. It is also almost always the case that there will be exceptions. Does that mean that no generalisations should ever be attempted for fear of being called generalisations or because there are exceptions? 
8) I have never tried to hide the difficulties surrounding generalisations. My book is replete with caveats, qualifications, and admonitions to the reader. Does either KM or Ray Tallis think they have said anything substantial by calling a generalisation ‘sweeping’? What kind of generalisation is not, other than one that is qualified?

divided brain rsa

Turning to specifics, KM quotes Ray Tallis as follows.

McGilchrist’s thesis, a thesis that is ‘highly systematising, linguistic, explicit etc’ and is built upon ‘massive quantities of painstakingly acquired, precise data, 2,500 sources’, looks, Tallis suggests, ‘rather left hemisphere according to his own characterisation’. The left hemisphere, according to McGilchirst [sic], is ‘out of touch with reality’. ‘Doesn’t this make it rather odd’, Tallis asks, ‘that he relies on the neurological data presumably gathered by that hemisphere to support his extraordinarily ambitious account of ‘reality’, a reality that encompasses the history of mankind?

There are a number of points to make here.

First, I have no quarrel with using the left hemisphere. We all use the left hemisphere all the time! Civilizations, as I again constantly remind people, are founded on it. It is the same old basic mistake to suppose I am arguing against the usefulness of the left hemisphere. I myself rely on the world as revealed by the left hemisphere very substantially, as Tallis says. My quarrel is not with the left hemisphere per se. It is with a lack of balance between left and right. My suggestion is that the left hemisphere is not aware of its own limitations – this is a neurological as much as metaphorical truth. Sometimes people say, ‘you’ve depicted the world according to the left hemisphere – what would the right hemisphere world look like, then?’ To which I answer, ‘very balanced’. Because the right hemisphere is more aware that it needs the left hemisphere than the left hemisphere is aware that it needs the right. This idea is embodied in the parable of the master and his emissary.

Second, reliance on data and evidence is at least as much in keeping with the right hemisphere’s take on the world – with what is actually the case, rather than with what accepted opinion tells us is the case, which tends to be more typical of the left hemisphere’s stance.

Third, the left hemisphere is only out of touch with reality when it fails to work in partnership with the right. Tallis’s point is, once again, illogical, since I use strategies of the left hemisphere – yes – and of the right, to convey the complexities of the world as the right hemisphere is aware of it – a difficult thing to achieve because the language that is available naturally construes things in the left hemisphere sense, but necessary because it is no use expressing the right hemisphere’s perceptions only in right hemisphere ways – implicit, rather than explicit ways – if you want to reach people who are currently, for cultural reasons, over-reliant on the left hemisphere’s take on the world. If you, then, as I have done, make heroic efforts to speak to the left-hemisphere culture in terms it will understand, you are accused of using left hemisphere strategies … not an accusation I feel at all concerned about.

Fourth, I am not trying to give a comprehensive account of ‘reality’, or of the history of mankind – which would be an overambitious undertaking for a team of scholars working for centuries. I am trying to do something much more modest. I am pointing to differences in the ways our cerebral hemispheres attend to the world, to the differences this makes to the way we construe the world, and to how reconciling these conflicting, but nonetheless both necessary, ‘versions’ of the world might be expected to be reflected in the history of ideas. I deal with the history of the West, true, but only in that one respect – whether we see something new or thought-provoking emerge when we look at each of the great epochs of the history of ideas in the light of what we know about the cerebral hemispheres.


I have commented on the problem of what seem to be ‘sweeping’ generalisations. Personally, I love the unique and particular, and if KM were to read my book, he would find it contains many examples of both. But in a short document one can only speak shortly. To talk of the left hemisphere ‘using’ the world is shorthand, which makes more sense to those who have read why I reach that conclusion. It refers to a point argued at some length that the left hemisphere’s narrowly focussed attention has evolved in response to an evolutionary need, manipulation of the external environment (which is incidentally why the right hand, which it controls is the tool-utilising hand, and why its contributions to language are the parts which enable us to ‘grasp’ something (cognates of ‘grasp’ exist in almost all languages). There is a mass of (to me at least) fascinating data about this which fleshes out the picture: for example, the current mainstream hypothesis that speech evolved from bodily gestures, in particular hand gestures (located in the same part of the left frontal cortex near Broca’s area).

Equally the point about Far Easterners in comparison with Westerners is a shorthand for the exposition of a fair number of studies over the last 20 years that suggest that we differ not only in the ways in which we think, but even in what we perceive (which is what one would expect from the fact that there are attentional differences). This is dealt with at greater length in the book. In relation to this, it is not accurate to say that ‘McGilchrist has taken a long-standing dubious argument about cultural differences and modernized it by locating it in the brain’. First, the old cliché was that the West was ‘left-hemisphered’, and the East was ‘right-hemisphered’. What the data suggest is more interesting: that people in the Far East use strategies of both left and right hemisphere equally, whereas Western responses have become strongly skewed towards the left hemisphere point of view only. It’s not a point about some oddity of Easterners, but yet another sign, if such a sign be needed, that our culture has become less balanced in its outlook. Second, I report studies which show such differences in experimental situations. Does KM dispute the studies? Only if so, can I see the problem here. If he does, on what basis does he dispute them? Does he think they do not really demonstrate any difference?

brain MRI

One point KM makes is, however, quite legitimate. ‘But McGilchirst [sic] insists that the Master and Emissary, and the idea of the one usurping the other, are more than simply metaphors. What could this mean? … clearly McGilchrist is saying more than simply that we are over-relying on one hemisphere. He is suggesting that the way the two hemispheres operate has somehow allowed the emissary to usurp the Master, the left hemisphere to usurp the right, and to colonize our experience. And it has done so independently of our desires or needs or wishes. For only then would the neuroscience be relevant to the social issues that McGilchrist raises. But in what way is it operating independently? Presumably, McGilchrist is not suggesting that the hemispheres are agents in their own right. So what is he suggesting? He does not say.’

In fact I do, and many others have helped articulate it. I would draw KM’s attention especially to the response of John Wakefield, included in the RSA report, which KM would seem not to have read along with much else. The point is a difficult one to convey because we think – I would say ‘in left-hemisphere fashion’ – only in terms of linear causation. Either the brain must ‘cause’ events in the phenomenological world, or the phenomenological world ‘causes’ the brain to be the way it is. A constant theme of my book is the importance of the hermeneutic circle. Indeed it is a primary point of understanding for the whole hemisphere hypothesis that there is not a naively realist, objective world that exists apart from our knowing it, but also that there is not a naively idealist, subjective world, equally omnipotent and impotent, post-modern fashion. Brain and the world – each shapes the other, and various worlds with different characteristics come into being as a result of the nature of the attention we pay to whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves. There is a constant dialogue between brain and environment, which is traceable, if one wishes to do so, at the level of the synapse, but is also traceable at the phenomenological level. Each helps to mould the other. And so the answer to the left hemisphere question ‘which causes which?’ is – right hemisphere fashion, ‘both and neither’. But out of that relationship everything that we know, or can know, ultimately comes.

You can find JW’s subtle and rewarding piece on pp 71-76 of the RSA document.

Iain McGilchrist

Dear Iain…

I am sorry that you should seem so irritated by my post, and somewhat puzzled as to why you should be so. The original post was written in good faith and while it is critical of your argument, it is also, it seems to me, respectful of it and of your work. I had assumed that it was precisely this kind of debate that you wanted to generate with your book. Perhaps I was wrong.

A couple of minor points before I answer some of your questions. First, you suggest more than once that I have not read The Master and his Emissary. Given that I quote at length from the book (and you must know that all the quotes from you in the post were taken from The Master and his Emissary, apart from one which came from your website), it is difficult to see how I could not have read the book. It is striking that you seem to think that only those who agree with your argument have actually read the book properly.  That is perhaps an understandable sentiment (I feel the same way sometimes about criticisms of my books). All I would say is that it is quite possible to have read the book thoroughly and still disagree with your argument.

Second, you suggest that ‘it is interesting, and not a little sad, that KM refers to the contribution of only one participant at the RSA workshop, probably the only one out of the 20 or so present who appeared largely unconvinced, Ray Tallis’. What I actually wrote was that

McGilchrist’s argument has won considerable support and praise, not least from the participants at the RSA workshop. The workshop opened, however, with a critical review of the argument from Ray Tallis.

I acknowledged, in other words, the support your thesis has won (elsewhere I mentioned ‘the praise showered upon The Master and his Emissary’) but sought deliberately to pick up on Tallis’ criticisms. Why? Because, first, it was the key response at the RSA workshop and in the RSA document itself; and, second, because it chimed with concerns I have with your argument. I was writing a blog post, not a comprehensive review of all the responses to the book or the thesis.


So, what of that thesis? You ask a series of eight questions. In order to keep this response to a moderate length, let me collapse those eight into two key sets of questions:

Is it logical or just a prejudice to dismiss the idea that there are significant hemisphere differences?
 If it is logical, why? If it is not logical, should we not all be interested in what sort of difference this might be?

I am not sure where I might have suggested that there are no significant differences between the hemispheres, or that we should not be interested in such differences. All I did was to query the kinds of labels you hung on the two hemispheres – for instance that one is ‘narcissistic’ and ‘driven forward by a desire for power and control’, while the other possesses ‘ideals’ consonant with an outlook that is ‘essentially local, agrarian, communitarian, organic’. These, it seems to me, are labels that belong to the whole person in a social context, not things that one can attribute to an isolated hemisphere.

It is in the nature of generalisations that they are general. It is also almost always the case that there will be exceptions. Does that mean that no generalisations should ever be attempted for fear of being called generalisations or because there are exceptions?
 Does either KM or Ray Tallis think they have said anything substantial by calling a generalisation ‘sweeping’? What kind of generalisation is not, other than one that is qualified?

We all make generalisations. But it is nature of the generalisations in your book that I was questioning. When someone suggests that the distinction between the ideas animating the French and American Revolutions can be understood in terms of hemispheric differences, then I get queasy. Similarly when you suggest that early Jeffersonian democracy was ‘in harmony with the ideals of the right hemisphere’ but that later democracy ‘came to be swept away by the large-scale, rootless mechanical forces of capitalism, a left-hemisphere product of the Enlightenment’. The ideological differences between the French and American Revolutions, or the changing character of democracy, are immensely complex issues; to reduce them to the left hemisphere-right hemisphere distinction seems to me to be, to say the least, unwarranted and unhelpful.

I have no doubt, even though my first degree was in neurobiology, that you have a vastly superior knowledge of brain lateralization. That does not mean, however, that I cannot criticize either your use of data or, more pertinently, your interpretations of that data,  and the generalisations you draw from them.  I am sorry if my line about ‘cherry-picking and idiosyncrasy in the presentation of [the] data’ upset you. I was not trying to question your knowledge or impugn your integrity. I was simply pointing out that the kinds of unwarranted generalisations to which I have just alluded requires one to be highly selective and idiosyncratic in one’s interpretation of the data.

connected brain

In any case, my key criticism was not about the data on lateralization. It was, rather, about the link you make between the neuroscience, on the one hand, and, on the other, the social and philosophical problems you raise, and your insistence that the first is an explanation of the second.

You seem to think that you (and John Wakefield) have answered this criticism. And not for the first time you insist that I disagree with you only because I ‘seem not to have read [the RSA report] along with much else’. Let me say again: It is quite possible to have read your book and the report thoroughly and still disagree with you. Since you flag up John Wakefield’s comments as addressing my points, let me say a few words about those comments. According to JW

[McGilchrist] insists that his book provides no ‘causal explanation’ of what may be going on in the world. He says that when asked what the book tells us about the world that could not be discovered by other forms of human inquiry his answer is: ‘Nothing’.

If this was the case then we would, indeed, have nothing to debate. But this is not how I understand your argument. As you put it your book, ‘I believe [the hemispheres] are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture’ [p3]. If the ‘power struggle’ between the hemispheres ‘explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture’, then clearly you are providing a ‘causal explanation’ and suggesting, if not insisting, that ‘what the book tells us about the world… could not be discovered by other forms of human inquiry’.

JW continues:

What exasperates Iain is that Ray [Tallis]  is saying nothing (Iain claims) that he has not himself said in the book.

Your critique of Tallis (and of me) is, in fact, more than simply that we repeat what you have already said. It is that we are mistaken in many of our claims.

JW also suggests:

[McGilchrist] is telling us that in inhabiting the world we inhabit we are increasingly in thrall to the left hemisphere’s ‘take’ and that this is radically affecting our behaviour and, as a consequence, the very substance of the actual world we are living in.

If this means that we are increasingly in thrall to a decontextualized, mechanistic culture, or that we are over-relying on one hemisphere, then, as I wrote in the post, I partly agree. But, as I suggested above, you seem to mean much more. You seem to want to provide a causal explanation, to insist that the left hemisphere’s ‘power struggle’ with the right, the emissary’s usurpation of the Master’s role, is somehow driving the social and intellectual changes. That is where I disagree.


Finally, JW suggests:

Iain’s thesis provides us with ‘an understanding’ that is metaphoric and that may (or may not) one day come to be regarded as literal.

Insofar as the thesis is metaphoric, I do not have a quarrel with it as such (though I would question both the over-generalisations and some aspects of the presentation of the intellectual history). But I was, in my post, pointing out some of the conceptual problems in thinking about your thesis as providing a ‘literal’ account. For instance, you write in your post, in response to Ray Tallis’ criticisms:

My suggestion is that the left hemisphere is not aware of its own limitations – this is a neurological as much as metaphorical truth.

What does it mean to say that the ‘left hemisphere is not aware of its own limitations’? It is, after all, not an agent in its own right. It is not aware of anything. It is only the person who is aware.

I am not, of course, suggesting that the structure of the brain has no impact on the character of our perception or understanding. Clearly it does. What I am suggesting is that part of the conceptual problem in your argument is the constant elision between brain (or hemisphere) and person, an elision that allows you to attribute agency to a hemisphere while denying that you are doing so.  If what you mean by the sentence above is that ‘the person embodying the left hemisphere is not aware of that hemisphere’s limitations’ in the sense that he or she is unaware of the limitations of ‘left hemisphere kind of thinking’, then I would agree with you, but it would seem to be a truism. But if what you mean is that the left hemisphere ‘is unaware of its own limitations’ as an agent in its own right, independently of the person embodying it, then it becomes far more than a truism. But it also becomes a highly implausible account of agency, consciousness and personhood. Your thesis, it seems to me, rests to a large degree upon this ambiguity in the understanding of agency.

Kenan Malik


  1. Dear Kenan,

    You misunderstand me. It’s not that I need you to refer to the fact that pretty much everyone else found my hypothesis at least partly convincing, or that it has been praised. That wasn’t my point. You needed to take into account what they said – if, that is, you are really interested in a debate (rather than a hatchet job). If you had, you would have found the problems you raise dealt with at length, and it would then have become much more interesting when you tried to show why they were wrong, too.

    The reason I asked the questions I asked in the form that I asked them – which you have cleverly elided – was that I am interested to know (if you do accept that there are going to be important differences between the hemispheres and it behoves us to try to find out what they are) what sort of differences you think there might be, or you would be willing to countenance? Because in their nature they are going to be general. They will then be dismissed as ‘generalisations’. You seemed to be more than ‘querying the kind of labels’. If that were the case, it would presumably be easy to change the labels to ones that you might be willing to accept.

    And what of these labels? “Narcissistic” – where did that come from? I have word-searched the book and the RSA document and cannot find it. So you will be doing me a favour if you can alert me to it. I have also tried a couple of online interviews, just in case it slipped out there – it is easy to mis-speak in an interview, where one is much less formal than in a book – but I can’t find it there, either. “Driven forward by a desire for power and control”: this refers to the evolutionary pressure for distinction between the hemispheres and its result in a hemisphere which prioritises control over, power over, the ability to manipulate, the environment – however you like to put it; while the other hemisphere prioritises vigilance for predators, seeing the whole picture and seeing how the parts relate. Unobjectionable, I would have thought, were it not for the personalisation implicit in the phrase – which I will come to in a minute. “Essentially local, agrarian, communitarian, organic”: sounds odd as a description of a hemisphere, I agree – which is why one needs to quote in context: “Democracy as Jefferson saw it, with its essentially local, agrarian, communitarian, organic, structure, was in harmony with the ideals of the right hemisphere. But in time it came to be swept away by the large-scale, rootless, mechanical force of capitalism, a left-hemisphere product of the Enlightenment” (The Master and his Emissary p346). To understand why the one should be more representative of thinking according to the right hemisphere, and the other representative of thinking according to the left hemisphere, one would need to read the rest of the book to find out. But fortunately you have read it. So I imagine, once again, that it is the personalisation implicit in the words that upsets (“these, it seems to me, are labels that belong to the whole person in a social context, not things that one can attribute to an isolated hemisphere”); as well as the idea – not mine, but your interpretation – that there is just one ‘cause’ of all the complex phenomena in human history.

    Rightly you refer to these historical movements as “immensely complex issues; to reduce them to the left hemisphere-right hemisphere distinction seems to me to be, to say the least, unwarranted and unhelpful”. You say you are surprised that I could imagine you have not read the book; it is this sort of remark that makes me wonder. Let me quote (The Master and his Emissary p242): “To the historian, a multitude of social and economic factors will inevitably be involved in the process whereby many events unfolded which led to such cataclysmic movements in the history of ideas, and I have no doubt that, as always, chance also played an important role. However, such social and economic factors inevitably exist in an inextricably involved dynamic relationship with changes in the way we look at the world, and are indeed simply part of another way of describing the process. Each aspect that we choose to bring into focus makes a different aspect stand forth out of a nexus in which no one element can be said to have caused all the others, since what look like ‘elements’ are simply facets of the indivisible human condition. If one holds one set of factors steady – say, the economic – then one appears to have accounted for everything in those terms. But hold another set steady – whether social, institutional, intellectual, or of any other kind – and the picture may look equally convincing. The fact is that nothing can in reality be ‘held steady’ in this way: all is in a constant state of dynamic interaction. And one of the factors in this interaction, I suggest, has been the need to resolve the inherently unstable relationship between the worlds delivered by the two hemispheres.” In other words, there are a multitude of interlocking factors which express one another – a social scientist might see social changes reflected in economic changes, where an economist might see economic changes reflected in social changes – there isn’t ‘one right answer’ – they are involved in and reflect one another. Once again it is simplistic to think in terms of a chain of causation – we are looking at a mutually-arising nexus of factors, each influencing and influenced by the others.

    And I fail to see how anyone could read my book and come away with the impression that I am a reductionist – the fact that I am so clearly not will cause problems in some other, mechanistic-materialist circles, but the whole tenor of the book and its philosophy is that we can never reduce anything to anything else. Again let me quote, in case you doubt me (The Master and his Emissary p157): “Wittgenstein was sceptical of the scientific method for two main reasons: its tendency to ‘reduce’, and the deceptive clarity of its models. He referred to the ‘preoccupation with the method of science . . . reducing the explanation of natural phenomena to the smallest possible number of primitive natural laws’. Though ‘irresistibly tempted to ask and answer questions in the way science does . . . it can never be our job to reduce anything to anything.’ (Cf. Joseph Needham: ‘nothing can ever be reduced to anything’.) One of his favourite sayings was ‘Everything is what it is and not another thing’, an expression of the right hemisphere’s passionate commitment to the sheer quiddity of each individual thing, through which alone we approach the universal, and its resistance to the reductionism inevitable in the system building of the left hemisphere.” But the entire drift of my book is opposed to the belief that one can reduce people to a bunch of neurones.

    The personalisation point is related. Let me quote the RSA document: “I am the last person to believe that wholes can be reduced to their parts – as you know, one of the persistent themes of my book is precisely that this is a fallacy. People like Bennett and Hacker are obviously right, in a literalistic sense, that the left hemisphere doesn’t ‘believe’, ‘intend’, ‘decide’, ‘like’ or anything else of the kind, since these are all predicates of the mind of a person, not the brain – of course I agree. But I think the point is relatively trivial, and easily resolved, in relation to the hemispheres. For example, when I say that ‘the left hemisphere likes things that are man-made’, this could be paraphrased as ‘a human being relying on his left hemisphere alone likes things that are man-made’. All that happens is that every time you say ‘the left hemisphere’ you substitute it with ‘a human-being-reliant-solely-on- his-left-hemisphere’. But this is tedious. Everyone understands the point, which is why all neuroscientists invariably commit this fallacy (and, yes, it is a fallacy, I agree) to some degree. But we enter the realms of unsatisfying pedantry here, in my view. I don’t think there is a devastating philosophical issue here waiting to explode in my face. I had either to talk about the hemispheres as machines, as scientists usually do, which is also to commit a fallacy, or as having concerns, interests and values, which suggests they are at least part of a person. I prefer the latter, and am unrepentant.”

    The fact is that science cannot function without teleological and personalised language. Are genes really selfish? Yet Dawkins was making a valuable (perhaps mistaken, but perfectly comprehensible) point. Do genes compete? Do cells migrate? Do particles choose a certain path? A 30-second browse produces this quote from Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw’s latest book on quantum mechanics: ‘it is energetically favourable for atoms to fill their energy levels with electrons, even if that is achieved by sharing with a neighbour. Their “desire” to do this, which ultimately stems from the principle that things tend to their lowest energy state, is what drives the formation of everything from water to DNA.’

    More importantly, when we talk about the brain, we have to choose between one of two models. When we describe or try to understand anything whatsoever, we do it by likening it to something else we think we already understand better. There are only two models available for the brain: the machine and the person. In the end we don’t have a language specifically for hemispheres. We only have the language we developed for people or for machines. Using the machine model is an approximation: so is the person model. A single hemisphere is capable of sustaining human life – and therefore being involved in the processes of ‘wanting’, ‘aiming’, ‘desiring’, ‘liking’, having ‘values’ – this is no more of a distortion than pretending it is simply a machine. When we see two hemispheres in the same person treating things quite differently – clearly valuing and favouring some things more than others – as can be seen in split-brain subjects, for example, it is almost perverse not to allow one to speak of the hemisphere as at least having some of the qualities of the person that relies on it. The fact is that we don’t know what sort of thing the brain is – or even what a single neurone is. The neurone is often modelled as a wire or a chip: however it is a vastly complex self-regulating partially autonomous system, with tens of thousands of channels and ports interacting with one another and the whole context of the body in which it lies, manufacturing, transmitting – it isn’t fully modelled as a wire or chip. Much is left out. Still less is the whole brain fully modelled as a machine.

    You ask: “What does it mean to say that the ‘left hemisphere is not aware of its own limitations’? It is, after all, not an agent in its own right. It is not aware of anything. It is only the person who is aware.” Well, see above. But let me just explain, briefly for your readers, what I meant by this. First, people suffering from right hemisphere damage, therefore relying on their left hemisphere, are harder to rehabilitate than those with left hemisphere damage because the ‘left hemisphere-only’ individual underestimates his disabilities and overestimates his capacities. ‘Right-hemisphere only’ individuals don’t. Second, individuals with one hemisphere at a time inactivated were given personality inventories to complete about themselves. The inventories were also given to families and friends of the subjects. Compared with the score awarded by their family and friends, the left hemisphere had a very much inflated idea of the subject’s good qualities – not so the right hemisphere, which was much closer to what others thought. Third, loss of insight into illness is associated with right frontal hypofunction, and when right frontal function returns to normal, so does insight. Fourth, people with gross losses – such as hemiparesis or paralysis – will actually deny it altogether if they have right hemisphere damage (therefore relying on their left hemisphere), but are all too aware of it if they have left hemisphere damage: if forced to confront the immobilised limb, they will not infrequently deny ownership of it, and say it belongs to ‘the bloke in the next bed’. Fifth, the right hemisphere communicates more, and more quickly, with the left hemisphere than the left hemisphere does with the right. Sixth, the left hemisphere is better able to inhibit the right hemisphere than the right hemisphere is able to inhibit the left.

    Then there’s cherry-picking. You say: “I have no doubt, even though my first degree was in neurobiology, that you have a vastly superior knowledge of brain lateralization. That does not mean, however, that I cannot criticize either your use of data or, more pertinently, your interpretations of that data, and the generalisations you draw from them. I am sorry if my line about ‘cherry-picking and idiosyncrasy in the presentation of [the] data’ upset you. I was not trying to question your knowledge or impugn your integrity. I was simply pointing out that the kinds of unwarranted generalisations to which I have just alluded requires one to be highly selective and idiosyncratic in one’s interpretation of the data.” Of course you can criticise the ends to which I put the data, but the argument here is confused. Criticising use of data, or (‘more pertinently’) interpretations of data, is not what cherry-picking implies. It is not about the use or the interpretation: it is about the selection. Knowing about the selection would involve knowing about the field as a whole. It inevitably impugns integrity, but, hey, let that pass. Whether a ‘generalisation’ is ‘unwarranted’ – rather than perhaps misapplied to the French Revolution, as you might want to say – is what we are trying to decide, so the assumption that a generalisation is unwarranted before we have looked at the data issue is begging the question. A generalisation is unwarranted if the data don’t support it. You can’t then say: ‘this generalisation is unwarranted, so you must have cherry-picked the data’, because it is only by knowing for certain that I have cherry-picked the data that you can be sure the generalisation is unwarranted. And how do you know that these ‘generalisations’, whether warranted or not, ‘require one to be highly selective (an issue about choice of data)’ unless you do not have a greater knowledge of the data I am relying on than I have?

    Lastly, and this is lastly in the sense that I am not going to post further whatever you may say in reply, you still seem to want me to say that the brain causes human history to be the way it is, or that human history causes the brain to be the way it is. I cannot state it any clearer than this: neither is the case. The brain and the environment, including the intellectual environment, are in constant dialogue, ceaselessly giving feedback to one another, and modifying one another. My point is absolutely not that history can be reduced to the brain, replaced by the brain, or accounted for by the brain. I absolutely deny any such thing. The brain merely constrains the options of experience, including feeling and thinking. In this way, knowing about the brain, and the way its structure and function constrain the possible ways in which we experience and think about the world, enables us – I believe – to see the world we inhabit in a new way. Some people – rather a lot of people – have found this helpful. You don’t. That is a position that you are entirely entitled to, and one that I am powerless in any way to influence.

    • Iain, I find it extraordinary that anyone might imagine, after I set out your argument in my first post at length and entirely fairly, and then allowed you the privilege of publishing your response as a post rather than as a comment (a response that was considerably longer than my original), and subsequently gave you space to write a 2500 word comment on my reply (again a response far longer than mine), that somehow I am not interested in debate, only in a hatchet job. I’m not sure if you’ve ever encountered a hatchet job, but what I’m providing here is not even a pale imitation. Or perhaps you imagine that anyone who disagrees with you is doing a hatchet job?

      You ask where the description of the left hemisphere as ‘narcissistic’ comes from, and imply that I must have made up the quote. It comes from page 438 of The Master and His Emissary (‘The Conclusion: The Master Betrayed’, section ‘The Left Hemisphere’s Attempts to Block Our Exit from its Hall of Mirrors’, subsection ‘The Body’) where you write ‘The left hemisphere’s world is ultimately narcissistic’. It is more than a little ironic that someone who constantly complains that his critics are only critical because they have not read his book seems not to have read his own book himself.

      Since this comment is going to be long enough as it is, let me deal with just one issue, perhaps the most important. You write that ‘that science cannot function without teleological and personalised language’. I agree. You go on to suggest that

      When I say that ‘the left hemisphere likes things that are man-made’, this could be paraphrased as ‘a human being relying on his left hemisphere alone likes things that are man-made’. All that happens is that every time you say ‘the left hemisphere’ you substitute it with ‘a human-being-reliant-solely-on- his-left-hemisphere’. But this is tedious. Everyone understands the point.

      I’m not sure it’s that straightforward. In my previous post I wrote of your line ‘My suggestion is that the left hemisphere is not aware of its own limitations – this is a neurological as much as metaphorical truth’ that:

      If what you mean by the sentence above is that ‘the person embodying the left hemisphere is not aware of that hemisphere’s limitations’ in the sense that he or she is unaware of the limitations of ‘left hemisphere kind of thinking’, then I would agree with you, but it would seem to be a truism. But if what you mean is that the left hemisphere ‘is unaware of its own limitations’ as an agent in its own right, independently of the person embodying it, then it becomes far more than a truism. But it also becomes a highly implausible account of agency, consciousness and personhood.

      In other words, I am perfectly aware that ‘When I say that “the left hemisphere likes things that are man-made”, this could be paraphrased as “a human being relying on his left hemisphere alone likes things that are man-made”’. What I am suggesting is that if this is how you wish read it, then your thesis is robbed of much of its force.

      Again, you write:

      Are genes really selfish? Yet Dawkins was making a valuable (perhaps mistaken, but perfectly comprehensible) point. Do genes compete? Do cells migrate? Do particles choose a certain path?

      Of course Dawkins was making a valuable point. But he was clear (in most part anyway) that the ‘selfish gene’ was a metaphor and nothing but. Those (like Mary Midgely) who attacked Dawkins for his literalism were gravely mistaken. If your thesis and your descriptions of the hemispheres were merely metaphoric I would, as I have pointed out in both my posts, have no quarrel with it. The trouble is that you insist that your thesis is more than simply a metaphor, as do those, like John Wakefield, whose interpretation of your work you laud. In fact Wakefield, in the RSA document, asks:

      So is Iain trying to eat his cake and have it here – by constructing what appears to be an explanatory theory only to deny it is explanatory; and by attempting to defuse specific objections to the perceived explanatory theory by himself embracing those objections as though they were part of his argument? [p71]

      He suggests not, and affords an ingenious way through the conundrum:

      His insistent and surely incontrovertible point is that we should not think of the metaphoric as being opposed to the literal but rather as a stage in the evolution of our understanding of a phenomenon that may (or may not) lead to a later stage we refer to as literal understanding. It seems to me that Iain’s thesis provides us with ‘an understanding’ that is metaphoric and that may (or may not) one day come to be regarded as literal.

      This is, as I say, an ingenious attempt to find a way out. But not one that is, to me at least, particularly convincing. Insofar as the thesis is metaphoric, I do not have a quarrel with it as such. But insofar as it attempts to provide a literal account, there are major conceptual problems, some of which I have already pointed out in my two posts, and don’t wish to repeat again here.

      This desire to ‘eat your cake and have it too’ seems to me to run through your thesis. So it is true that you talk of a complex network of historical causations. You equally want, at other times, to reduce historical differences to hemispheric differences, to suggest, as you do right at the start of the book, that the hemispheres are ‘involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture’. You seem to think that sentences such as

      Democracy as Jefferson saw it, with its essentially local, agrarian, communitarian, organic, structure, was in harmony with the ideals of the right hemisphere. But in time it came to be swept away by the large-scale, rootless, mechanical force of capitalism, a left-hemisphere product of the Enlightenment

      reveal the intricacy of historical causation, and the complexity of your argument. I am afraid I can see there neither the intricacy nor the complexity.

      As I wrote at the end of my previous post, your thesis, it seems to me, rests to a large degree upon ambiguity, and not in a useful sense.

  2. Gentlemen, gentlemen- this is getting a bit tit-for-tat, like my kids insisting each other started it. A bit ad hominem for my taste.

    – I like the thought around the role of metaphor- a neutral evaluation of whether it’s paramount, or just useful in pointing at the overall theory. That seems worthy of treatment.
    – I don’t like the implication by Dr. McGilChrist that closer reading was required. I have seen him do this elsewhere as a critique, and, while understandable, I wish he’d avoid it. I don’t care how complex the theory (and this one is, by definition of the author, largely irreducable by definition): when a critic evidences at least reasonably careful reading, it seems more mature, and certainly more helpful, to ignore what seems to be obtuseness or breeziness, on the odd chance that it is no such thing, and to focus on concepts. A thank you might even be apropos, especially once it becomes clear that such reading took place.
    – I think it’s interesting that there’s such a grave reaction on the part of Mr. Malik that personalization of the hemispheres is involved, as if that fact somehow makes the whole business a non-starter- and having such rejection assumed to be appropriate with little explanation. I don’t see personalization as either allowed or disallowed, per se, yet the discussion seemed to go there quickly and end there. Can’t personalization be a nuanced dimension, one that might be considered? If so, how- when?

    I’ll stop there- my ideas might not be enormously interesting to others. No- I’m wedging in without being asked because there are STILL enormously interesting dimensions within your contrasts that are sitting there unnoticed by you (and us) because of a veering away from good will. This exact type of tit-for-tat escalation is explained quite easily within the simplest, now 80-year-old framing of naive realism and the bias blind spot (The Objectivity bias), where it’s been shown that we tend to moralistically see any nastiness as an unwarranted unilateral escalation of wrongdoing. With this last round, the Fundamental Attribution Error has joined the cause in full flower, where differences of opinion have been evaluated by each of you primarily as evidence of your respective personality weaknesses. I’m annoyed that a discussion that started out at least somewhat scientific has become an exercise in beginning bias theory, when I think you both have absolutely fascinating perspectives, with contrasts that would fuel a great deal of learning for us. This flailing bias, so predictable and categorizable, when set within a scientific discussion is a ready irony.

    For the record: tit-for-tat is easily backed off of. One successful technique is to sincerely seek out one’s own evidence of such behavior, such as natty phrasing, (you each have the good fortune of being able to easily find several), and apologize about it. Another is to find something you like about the other person or their concepts, and sincerely, fruitfully highlight it. Another is a wholesale apology, and an explicit attempt to start again with a different set of questions or assertions. Surely, gentlemen, we are not suffering from the remarkable coincidence that everyone’s every concept brought forth in the back-and-forth is worthy of wholesale rejection- is there no decent point, or half-point? Or, might any of your own points contain useful weaknesses or controversy to discuss? Such points are essential to find now, as bias has taken over; a hole will need to be climbed out of. You see no understandable misalignment of your views- no point to possibly concede or elucidate differently? Must we be left with the impression that ready descent to now-repetitive misapprehension is the best either of you can do? I believe that of neither of you.

    • Oh to be so wise…

      Actually, Scott, I disagree with you. The debate is important, though the niggling is not (and my apologies if I’ve been so). It’s not a matter of tit-for-tat, or entrenched bias, or wholesale rejection – there are many aspects of McGilchrist’s take that are fascinating, many that I agree with, and I’ve said so (read particularly my first post). I would not bother engaging in a debate if I did not think that there was something worthwhile to debate about in McGilchrist’s thesis.

      When you ask

      Can’t personalization be a nuanced dimension, one that might be considered? If so, how- when?

      I agree. I mentioned, for instance, that Dawkins’ idea of the ‘selfish gene’ is both a memorable metaphor and an immensely useful way of thinking about genes (and that is true even if you disagree with Dawkins’ concept of the gene). What it isn’t is a useful way of thinking about human behaviour. What I am suggesting is that the same may be true of McGilchrist’s argument, and that is why I keep returning to the question of the relationship between the metaphorical and the literal in his thesis.

  3. Wow … quite some response. Animus and anima, the yin yang of our inner world, from which the term animosity derives. All animosity in the world starts inside and then looks for suitable characters and imaginal causes to be a screen for projection, as if nothing had actually started inside at all.
    Similarly, all harmony is projected. The environs of the mental, both individual and collections forms our environment.
    Change in the collective accumulates from individual inner change, manifesting.

  4. Thanks much for the considered reply, Kenan. I’ll forgive you in advance if you need to set this aside to address later, in the interest of finishing your book. I thank you for the consideration so far of this interesting subject. And let’s go with your opinion re my bias lecture- let’s call it a rant and move on.

    Re personalization: you make an excellent point toward McGilchrist’s work potentially being more powerful and useful as metaphor. But you seem to misunderstand my complaint about your treatment of hemispheric personalization. I meant that you simply seem extremely uncomfortable with personalizing hemispheres, yet you conspicuously avoid any explanation whatsoever as to why you can’t brook it. Maybe your argument is implicit somewhere, and I’m missing it. Here are the four portions of your first response to Dr. McGilchrist that left me confused on this point:

    ‘[the right hemisphere is…] communitarian, organic. These, it seems to me, are labels that belong to the whole person in a social context, not things that one can attribute to an isolated hemisphere.’ No explanation of why such hemispheric attribution can’t happen, or why it’s important that it shouldn’t, or even why it ‘seems’ improper to you to house such traits below the level of overall personality. The statement seems to imply a self-evident point that ain’t to me.

    ‘ What does it mean to say that the ‘left hemisphere is not aware of its own limitations’? It is, after all, not an agent in its own right. It is not aware of anything. It is only the person who is aware.’ Again, this is a quick-seeming implication that hemispheric personalization is just plain bad, or misguided, when in fact I find it quite reasonable to imagine a neurologic (not metaphoric) model where hemispheres act and ‘think’ independently, where they are aware of separate states they don’t necessary pass across to each other efficiently, and where they even have limited characteristics of agency, but are nevertheless successfully negotiating/interacting with one another to form an ‘overall’ approach for a whole person.

    ‘if what you mean is that the left hemisphere ‘is unaware of its own limitations’ as an agent in its own right, independently of the person embodying it, then it…becomes a highly implausible account of agency, consciousness and personhood.’ Again- how did we get so quickly to the highly implausible part? His model’s main approach is to establish a working relationship between two sub-personalities that have many characteristics of whole personalities- to speculate on when and how a hemisphere can/does/should ‘surface’, if you will, to control or influence overall thought/behavior. I have no idea how McGilchrist could posit hemispheric influence on individual or cultural events if he can’t talk about sub-personalities. Which, in turn, would seem to me quite able to incorporate hemispheric perceptions of agency- great or small, right or wrong, stunted or clever- within a given context. I suppose one could even reasonably construe a model that implied overall personality only exists as response to specific stimuli, as synthesized in real time by the two ‘real’ (hemispheric), stable, underlying personalities.

    ‘These [personality traits], it seems to me, are labels that belong to the whole person in a social context, not things that one can attribute to an isolated hemisphere.’ Again, drum roll, aannd…fade to credits. Why the heck not? What precludes such isolated personalities from figuring in a unified theory of processing, especially when we have scads of split-brain studies that show hemispheres _typically_ having whole-seeming, independent personalities immediately after severing the corpus callosum connection between hemispheres?

    Dragging in such hemispheric personalization to make points does not in and of itself constitute the ‘constant elision between brain (or hemisphere) and person’ you purport to see in his work. His theory necessitates a merging of quite complete sub-personalities to form a whole personality. He’s not sliding around between the partial and whole personalities: he’s proposing a tight, sometimes relatively direct relationship. In fact, the book proposes a proper path to synthesis of whole personality from the sub-personalities, though his model is missing almost all of the rich processing detail a full neurological understanding will require.

    He certainly does leap from hemispheric viewpoints and personality to assigning hemispheric and brain processing influence on giant cultural phenomenon. That’s a much more remarkable elision. The breadth of his hypothesis should give any careful thinker pause, no matter how many footnotes they close read, or how many months are taken to ‘digest’ the book.

  5. I’m amazed and impressed at Kenan’s patience: Iain has been enormously patronising, rude, and mean-spirited throughout each of his absurdly long-winded posts. Yet he hasn’t made a dent in any of the key criticisms Kenan outlined in his first post.

    I can see why Iain retreats to the metaphoric plane so readily in his defences – taken literally, the argument is obviously preposterous. But if the brain, in Iain’s book, is simply a metaphor, then it’s hard to see why he bothered with all the supporting neuroscience at all. The only question should be a literary one – whether the metaphor works well to illuminate the book’s grand but hopelessly vague arguments.

    Iain can’t have it both ways. The book cannot borrow the authority of neuroscience, or any other kind of science, just because of the metaphor it uses.

    At root, The Master and his Emissary is simply one man’s view of how the world is going to hell in handcart: a taxi-driver rant, dense with footnotes. For those who share his sentiments, it will give pleasure. But those who seek arguments based in scientific evidence need to look elsewhere.

  6. Iain McGilchrist

    Dear Kenan,

    I said I wouldn’t post again, but I am going to go back on that, if I may, simply to apologise. We cannot see ourselves as well as others can: I have to accept, from the comments here posted, that I have been patronising and rude. I have and had no such intention, Kenan. Others here may have been rude and dismissive, but you have not. Looking back, now that the dust has settled, I can see that what threw me was your use of Flanagan’s review, which in itself was patronising and rude, sloppy and unprofessional, and unworthy of a man who calls himself a scientist. Though you quoted him, I was wrong to see you as voicing his point of view. I also bridled at ‘cherry-picking’, because it seems unfair, given how comprehensive I have tried to be, is so easy to say and so hard to refute, and seems to impugn one’s honesty and credibility; but I am sure that was not what you meant, and I reached that conclusion too hastily.

    I have also been reading your book ‘in the making’, on morality, and finding it fascinating and hugely readable. You may have a convert to your blog! I hope one day we can meet and talk calmly about the issues we tried here to deal with, which are interesting and important.

    All best wishes,


    • Iain, thank you, that is very generous. I do hope we do get a chance to discuss some of these issues in the future. In the meantime, I had better crack on and finish my book…

    • Patrick S. O'Donnell

      For the record, Flanagan is not a scientist but a philosopher, albeit one who writes on topics in science.

      • Iain McGilchrist

        Well, it’s just that in this country you couldn’t call yourself a Professor of Neurobiology without being a scientist. But his conduct is no more creditable in a philosopher …

    • Thanks, Jonathan, for flagging up the discussion on the RSA blog, and for developing it. I am, as you suggest, up to my neck trying to finish a book, but I will keep an eye on the debate there.

  7. Michael Fugate

    I would conclude that anyone claiming the past was better than the present or the reverse, for that matter, is cherry-picking.

    AC Grayling commented about a right-hemisphere dominated future in his review of the book :

    Unfortunately, if one accepts the logic of his argument that our Western civilisation has declined from a right-hemisphere to a left-hemisphere dispensation, we do not have to imagine what the former would be like, because history itself tells us: in it most of us would be superstitious and ignorant peasants working a strip farm that we would never leave from cradle to grave, under the thumb of slightly more left-hemispheric bullies in the form of the local baron and priest.

    I, for one, have no desire to go backward – even if I could. Why try, when we can only live today and go forward? The past was different – do some things seem better looking back? Sure, but many look much worse. Would I like to have the natural history knowledge of a people living sustainably in one place for thousands of years? Without a doubt. Would I like to live in a thatch hut with a central hearth, wear animal skins covered with lice and fleas, and lack modern medical care? No.

    As for agency, this does seem to be a characteristic of living things no matter the level. A cancer cell in our body is an agent much at odds with the other cells. Evolutionarily, could left-brain domination confer higher fitness – especially in a finite world?

    Grayling concludes with what I think is the biggest problem – we just don’t know enough about the brain to make sweeping conclusions. We still have people arguing that our own minds are unobservable, immaterial objects – not to mention undetectable cosmic minds influencing our universe.

    The fact is that the findings of brain science are nowhere near fine-grained enough yet to support the large psychological and cultural conclusions Iain McGilchrist draws from them. Absorbing and fascinating though the book is, it does not persuade one that returning our Western civilisation to the government of such supposed right-hemisphere possessions as religion and instinct would be anywhere near a good thing.

    • jswagner

      > As for agency, this does seem to be a characteristic of living things no matter the level.

      A very good point, Michael- makes it helpful for me to think of it as a matter of definition of agency and its limits, as opposed to whether hemispheric agency exists or not.

      I must also side with you regarding your view that dragging in temporality and a thesis of a migration leftward is problematic.Not that I see how talking about whether you want to live in a hut or not is pertinent (how mechanized/primitive/stupid/dirty we were as we evolved into consciousness and modernity isn’t much applicable to hemispheric differentiators). My argument is more that we must recognize the fundamental left-side leverage of bias, certainty-chasing, boundary (us-versus-them) assumptions, and hierarchy evident in the past, as an obvious, continuously-present offset to the parallel gestalt-driven orientation so emphasized in the work, I’d submit that Stephen Pinker’s recent brilliant work on happiness is a powerful response to contentions about historic increasingly left-hemispheric ‘usurpation’.

      That said, I can’t accept your ‘it’s too soon’ summation that his kind of theory isn’t doable yet, for a few reasons. First, rejecting McGilchrist’s claim about temporal considerations has zero implications in any argument about where we are on the arc of brain science usefulness- you’ve put forth a bit of a bait-and-switch argument there, as ‘it’s too soon’ is not a different form of ‘McGilchrist’s wrong about…’ You then end with a quote rejecting a return to religion and instinct that’s a rather flailing reduction of McGilchrist’s contentions. This is a subtle form of patronizing that lifts us away from any argument whenever we like (note your complete lack of evidence or examples, as if this was a prima facie contention). That’s a common error in brain science because we’re understandably leery of high-level discussion of any kind: the field is at the apex of pop pronouncements about behavior, and has been for 40 years. Acceptance of the technique doesn’t always excuse it. If you think it’s too early, I’d submit you should feel a bit of a burden to justify your opinion, as usual. I’d especially appreciate knowing what you contend we’re waiting for that will allow us to proceed with the necessary minimal accuracy or insights.

      Second, bilaterality is much broader than human neurology-, it is a life-and-death response to reality’s challenges, as evidenced by its presence across nearly all large biology- a successful, well-honed, highly unintuitive model which busily re-presents reality to get a lot of stuff done (module models, old/new brain models, and others also have efficacy, of course). Because of this ubiquity and unintuitive structure, we know an absolute boatload about these re-presentments, and about laterality implications on thought and behavior. Just sticking with Sperry’s work and ignoring everything since then was plenty to start with worthy high-level theoretical efforts like McGilchrist’s.

      Third, this whole business of cultural implications of bilaterality is much more importantly an exercise in philosophy and related soft sciences than it is an exercise in biological science. For those fields, it stopped being too early in the ’60’s, when basic conclusions an implications on individual and social behavior started to become clear. It’s important for a broad audience to be guided by what we suspect about techniques that mammal brains settled on to interpret and respond to reality, so that we can apprehend in a richer way.This is the top-down effort typified by Julien Jaynes’ and much lesser work that is so off-handedly rejected by the neurobollocks crowd. It is a wide-ranging body of hugely important parallel work that should be afforded a place at the table. It’s such important work that we speculate greatly to do so, assuming errors. Waiting is very expensive sociologically. Neuroscience’s view of itself as a kind of separate high priest of the keys of the brain kingdom is an unfortunate perspective. A legitimate, important response to “We don’t know that yet” is quite often “Well, what do you think?”, or “well, how about this idea from our field?” Early science should be speculative, not always definitive.

      One way of seeing the McGilchrist and Ramachandran work is that they are trying to ‘come up’ from the science to ground such top-down work much better in science. Unlike Ramachandran, McGilchrist has tried to aggressively both frame and connect the bottom-up and part of the top-down coherently. Which is probably a more scientifically ambitious effort than General Relativity, because it’s an (early) theory that encompasses parts of neuroscience, psychology, cultural anthropology, history, and philosophy. The fact that he may have come up short here and there on either the top-down or bottom-up side of that effort is, from my perspective, a given. The fact that many will reject the effort or conclusions out of hand is also a given, for reasons that have more to do with psychology than science. Yet many aspects of his oeuvre are compelling, important, and useful. A bit miraculous, actually. I also feel that there are many details that can fruitfully be discussed and perhaps improved upon with currently known science from the related fields.

      Potential errors do not make such a comprehensive work worthless, or merely ‘stimulating’: the science foundation is way too strong for that. And “Early” is way, way different than “too soon” in science.

      • Michael Fugate

        I agree that psychology is useful and that we must make decisions on what we know now – not what we might learn. I just don’t see how wishing for a past that never existed is useful. I don’t see how using neuroscience to support this wish is useful. We can’t go back – not to mention that fully conscious humans were living in thatch huts not long ago – and, even if we could go back, we would bitch that it was better a generation or two before. Read the Bible for a good example of exactly the same kind of rose-colored history – wasn’t it better to be a slave in Egypt than free and starving in the desert? Do you really need me to list examples of religious intolerance from the past? Perhaps the Bible might be the place to start.

  8. May I humbly, as a nonenglish Nonscientist, add that a “return” to a more right-hemispheric society can and will not mean going back to rural huts, but instead discover the next upward development on the evolutionary spiral of man. I am working with managers for years now who almost lost their lives being excessively left-hemispheric in all aspects of their life, now regaining a healthy existence by rediscovering their full potential. It leads to connectedness and consciousness, in my view a good example of the fight to end the usurpation of the left hemisphere. They become independent and self-conscious members of their individual social surroundings and will help evolve a future in balance.

  9. I think that because it is the brain, ie this organ that is so powerful and powerfully a part of us, it cannot be just a metaphor, and at the same time, because of the difficulty of explaining everything that we know of human society and history on the basis of brain function, it cannot be a literal, cause and effect thesis either. And as a layperson, not a scientist, I took that away from Iain’s book. I understood the emphasis – that he was not making a cut and dried case, but that on the other hand the parallels between the cultural symptoms he so lucidly names and the functions of the two hemispheres, and their implications, were too extraordinary to not be unabashedly pointed out – now
    that we knew enough about the brain to be able to do this.

    Part of what resonates for me in Iain’s work is the idea that there might be a kind of
    fundamental pattern that gets replicated, like a fractal, to form a larger condition, because this parallels insights that I explore in myth. Specifically, the grail legend, in which a wounded king rules over a wasteland kingdom where the crops fail, the cattle cannot reproduce, and the land is ravaged by war and conflict. The wasteland is a reflection of the wound. And this means that the way to deal with all the problems is to understand the wound and heal it. In other words, there is a deep pattern, that gets replicated in complex systemic ways. But if you can understand the wound, you can sort out the problems.

    I interpret the wound in the myth as suggesting a partial identity, one that has forgotten the springs and deeper forces of the world and of humanity. Whether or not this has happened to everyone in society is impossible to argue. Obviously though there are symptoms of a wasteland, both literal and metaphorical, and among these I would count a certain ‘mindset’, a prevailing cultural/intellectual orthodoxy, that does – on the whole – belittle the sense of the world that is more the domain of the right brain. The ability to see the whole, the childlike sense of wonder, the condition of soulfulness, the sensibility of beauty, and the ability to know that whatever current ‘map’ we use, it can never be the whole thing.

    Theoretical physicist David Bohm was not only one of the leading physicists
    of his day, with a profound understanding of quantum physics, he was also a radical and imaginative thinker, who wanted to explore the social and philosophical implications of quantum theory. And in the process he was very aware of the perils of thought itself, particularly the idea that our ideas are literal representations of something:

    “ … a theory is primarily a form of insight, i.e. a way of looking
    at the world, and not a form of knowledge of how the world is….
    .. all our different ways of thinking are to be considered as
    different ways of looking at the one reality, each with some
    domain in which it is clear and adequate….
    When we deeply understand that our theories also work in
    this way, then we will not fall into the habit of seeing reality and
    acting toward it as if it were constituted of separately existent
    fragments corresponding to how it appears in our thought and in
    our imagination when we take our theories to be ‘direct
    descriptions of reality as it is’.”

    Theory can quickly form into belief, and belief is a very interesting and invisible force – which is obviously tied to brain function, and to our experiences. Beliefs are how we shape reality, and whatever the timbre of our beliefs, they will continue to reinforce themselves. Here is another quote from Bohm:

    “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we
    believe. What we believe is based upon our perceptions. What we
    perceive depends upon what we look for. What we look for depends on
    what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”
    David Bohm, from a lecture given at UC Berkeley 1977

    I think in many ways it is valid to suggest that as human beings we are being conditioned to think of ourselves as very smart machines, and to therefore act and think like machines, which means dismissing anything that is not machine-like, which include things that are not explainable on the basis of our existing machine assumptions.

    I also think that if we are going to debate the implications of ‘The Master and His Emissary’ we will have to be comfortable with being able to say things that are
    incomplete! Because the landscape is so vast, and so subtle, – but equally,
    so worthwhile.

    • jswagner

      Diane, thank you for the provocative quotes, which shave nicely at the edges of what we call a theory. And your discussion of partialities as essential is very apt to me. Very well put. I started to make an answer or followup, and it became too large and broader than your point. So I stuck it on my blog . For professional reasons, this stuff is quite important to me, and I have to get the approach to the science clear. Anyway, if you have time to read it, please let me know what you think.

      I think your perspective is a kind of an opposite of those mostly shared here on this subject, though I suspect your view is at least as common as those who think the metaphors are secondary, poor, deceptive, potentially misleading. If we speak in terms of a metaphor, people get dismissive or uninterested– not necessarily meanly or even narrowly, but simply because points like the one you’re making seem to have so little to do with either the scientific method or neurons. And while I think your tie-in is pertinent and important, it doesn’t convince such people so readily. There is also the understandable problem that people have done some very strange things with even good metaphors, i.e., creeping away from science leaves us mercilessly in the hands of our clever little brain, which ranges wide of the mark rather easily.

      There’s also a way that inspiration fits in sideways to your argument for metaphors, which you didn’t cover, understandably. Talk of inspiration and motivation seems a jagged fit in a science-soaked conversation, but that’s just because our notion of reason is so strait-jacketed. So let me close with a little song in praise of inspiration. Metaphors often enact implementation of ideas by virtue of their ability to inspire and light the imagination. No metaphor, no quick uptake. May not be scientific, but it is marketing, and potentially something much, much more. Like a nice big change in the world.

  10. Michael Fugate

    I for one don’t think metaphors are “secondary, poor, deceptive, potentially misleading” – this discussion was not about metaphors in general, but a specific metaphor. Plenty of individuals who would be called “left-brained” have used metaphors effectively and those labeled “right-brained” have dismissed those metaphors as nonsense.

    Instead of brains and minds, let’s discuss evolution. Richard Dawkins produced the very compelling metaphor of the selfish gene. Many have misunderstood its biological implications and how Dawkins himself viewed its implications for human society. Mary Midgley, who I noticed praised McGilchrist’s book in the Guardian, rejects the selfish gene because she refuses to accept that mindless nature can create mind. To throw in another “left-brained” metaphor by Daniel Dennett, she demands “skyhooks” while evolutionary biologists have convincingly shown “cranes” are sufficient. She wants an agent to be planning and guiding the universe – and is convinced something more than matter and physics exists “out there.”

    Another metaphor of much longer standing is Tennyson’s nature red in tooth and claw. This rankles many longing for a more spiritual path (also evident in the discussion of human societies Kenan refers to in his post on Napoleon Chagnon). The problem here is how people view the world – has nature been spoiled by human action (biblical or industrial)? Individuals want cooperation to be the guiding principle of human societies and ecosystems. The problem is nature is full of seemingly horrific predatory examples – as Darwin commented on the ichneumon injecting its eggs into a living caterpillar and the larvae eat the caterpillar from the inside out. On the theory side, it takes little effort to show that any positive feedback system like cooperation will spiral out of control and need to be limited by predation or competition in a limited world. Lions don’t lie down with lambs – they eat them. This doesn’t mean cooperation isn’t an important interaction structuring communities – it just can’t be the only one.

    I don’t have a problem necessarily with the split-brain metaphor, but I do have a problem with the implications that a more “right-brained” focus will lead us to nirvana. The conclusion that we are more “left-brained” now than ever before, implies that human society was better in the past, no? If we look at history, is this true? Is there a time when you think human society was better – if so, when and how? I don’t see it. Some things are better now and some are worse. As I was trying to get at with my comment on living in huts (I obviously failed due to a bad job on my part), an ecological world is a world of limits and therefore trade-offs. A perfect organism evolutionarily would start reproducing as soon as born and produce infinite offspring equal in size to itself – an impossibility in a finite world governed by thermodynamics. In the same way, we can only gain the level of knowledge to sustainably live in one place by living in one place with no outside help – you can’t do it theoretically – this is no back-to-nature scheme with trips to the DIY and grocery once each month. It is an intimate association of being one with an ecosystem.

    I certainly agree a more “right-brained” focus will produce a different world, but will it by necessity be a better one? What will we lose if we shift focus – will it only be the negative?

  11. Returning to the original post: Kenan Malik raises three fundamental questions. For me personally, the first two are quite unconvincingly treated, furthermore the closing discussion on Western Orientalism while interesting does not have core relevance to the work being critiqued/attacked. The fundamental question for me is, then, what were the needs behind the improper response?

    • jswagner

      Sorry, Christopher- are you asking “what were [McGilchrist’s psychological needs that resulted in] the improper response? If so, I think he answered that a bit- he’s quite defensive after the Flanagan review, which Kenan quoted (more like a sideswipe, though I thought the point Kenan used was valid). The book was a 20 year effort- he didn’t quite clear the internal eruption from seeing the Flanagan-related point before responding, and subsequently apologized. He’d tell you he’s a sensitive guy, very passionate about his ideas.

      Let me try to explain why the word unconvincing is a bit hard for me- why I think the difference between “meh” and “could be” is important. Based on 50 years of research, we have a pretty robust set of personality characteristics of the left and right sides (by my count, 11 on the left, and 4 on the right, across many studies). Versions of these hemispheric predilections show up in the personalities of most people I know- and I don’t think that’s very controversial for me to say- the evidence, to me, is pretty straightforward for over half those traits. Setting aside neurology and brains for a moment: if I had evidence that unique characteristics that were only in a component showed up in an integrated whole, in statistically identified patterns, I would be comfortable saying that those characteristics of the whole had a good chance of resulting from those characteristics in the respective parts. What’s interesting is that, if you say such a thing in a public forum in the context of the brain hemispheres and personality, many scientists blow whistles, cry foul, and excoriate gleefully. Moreover, most that do so, like Flanagan (and, I’d submit, Tallis), do so in a most unscientific way, often with a systematic nay-saying highly prominent, muttering in their beard “we know nothing”, “the whole brain is used for everything we do”, “neurobabbler”, “hemispheres can’t have personalities”, “which hemisphere told you that?”, and other non-sequiters as an answer.

      Further: if you assume there’s correlation between hemispheric and whole personalities, it’s quite easy to extrapolate individual behavior to clumps of individuals, i.e., to potentiate an individual’s personality correlates with cultural phenomena (that’s already been done, after all, with other personality characteristics). Such a link would tie culture back to hemispheres. Again, a contention that seems reasonable, but that we find “unconvincing” because- why, exactly? How the heck does one get to unconvincing? Technically, that would mean we view any potential amount of influence- in percentage terms, a .0001% influence- as problematic. Can we really go there?

      I respect if you can, but I can’t. I think that both personality and culture are significantly affected by hemisphere-related dimensionality- I’d say the anecdotal evidence is compelling, because the hemispheric and actual personality traits involved are broad and fairly well-defined. On the other hand, I’d also say we don’t know:

      – anything about causation (from hemisphere to personality, from personality to culture);
      – how the characteristics relate to each other correlatively at each level (individually/orthogonal? Are they in clumps/patterns?);
      – what accurate framing of hemispheric approaches would mean in a given situation, personally or culturally- do we have to settle with framing hemispheric influence solely via any correlated characteristics, or is it possible, as McGilchrist does, to talk about being gestalt-driven, goal-focused, etc.?

      What am I missing that renders this relatively modest contention automatically tossed somewhere between unconvincing and worthy of ridicule? McGilchrist and I differ on many points, but ‘I find it all unconvincing’ is so common, and so far from the terms arguable, compelling, partial, or possibly a factor that, given the evidence, I’m led to think that bias is a part of the perspective among many. Recall that the anti-neurobabble brigade is on full alert over hemisphere studies: they’re in the background, leaning into the argument, and we admire them as our high priest overview of anything brain-related. Over the years, I have never heard an actual argument any stronger than “who knows?” that made any sense as complete refutation. On the other hand, there are a myriad of arguments that question particular assertions by McGilchrist and Ramachandran very well, as I’d argue Kenan did here and there. One objection I do like, which Kenan made, is that these characteristics have no neurological significance. There’s a lot of truth to that, in that all practical implications are not neuroscience- they’re psychological or anthropological. The tests on patients were often psychological (the hemispheres of patients were often psychologically evaluated as if they were “people”, particularly immediately after segregating the hemispheres surgically, when the hemispheric characteristics were starkest). I wish that neuroscientists could find it in them to push these results out of their bed and have done. We could then perhaps take a logical approach to my simple question above, without starting up the whistle blowing and mantras of those guarding the neuronal keep.

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