Dr Iain McGilchrist is a psychiatrist, best known for his book “The Master and his Emissary” which talks about the right and left hemispheres of the brain and how the overdependence of left-brain thinking in western culture is putting civilisation at risk. Freddie Sayers interviews him for the Unherd in this piece. The whole interview is a fascinating read with a prolonged Q&A with the audience but here are some excerpts to kindle your interest:

What exactly does he mean by left brain and right brain?
“The left hemisphere has a very narrow beam, targeted on a detail which it can see very precisely. It fixes it and grabs it (and the left hemisphere controls the right hand with which most of us do the grabbing and the getting). Whereas the right hemisphere has a broad, open, sustained vigilant attention, which is on the lookout for everything else without preconception. So on the one hand you’ve got an attention that produces a world of tiny fragments that don’t seem connected to one another — a bit here a bit there, a bit elsewhere — that are decontextualised, disembodied. Whereas with the right hemisphere we see that nothing really is completely separated from anything else — that ultimately, all this is on some level seamlessly interconnected, that it’s flowing and changing rather than fixed and static. Uniqueness is something the right hemisphere sees, while the left hemisphere sees just an example of something that it uses or needs. The right hemisphere is the world in which we live; the left hemisphere’s world is, if you like, a map, a schema, a diagram, a theory — something two dimensional. So we’ve got this one world, which is composed of things that are mechanical, useful, inanimate, reducible to their parts, abstracted, decontextualised, dead; and another world, which is flowing, complex, living, changing and has all the qualities that make life worth living.”

He says there are several reasons why we have become more dependent on our left brain?

“One is that it’s the one that makes you rich. It’s the one with which you do the grabbing and getting. Another is that it’s much easier to explain the left hemisphere’s point of view: “If we do this, it leads to that.” When you start to openly analyse what your civilisation is about, rather than getting on with it, then you lean more and more into this left hemisphere point of view.”

There is also a historical context for this development:
“After the Enlightenment came Romanticism — the name “Romantic” seems to imply that it’s not serious or important, but in fact, the thinking and the art that came out of the period is very great indeed. There was a correction. But then the power of the Industrial Revolution led to this machine-like way of thinking about living things, and we’ve never really lost that.”

Why is this a problem?
“…the left hemisphere has gone into overdrive, and the right hemisphere has been wound down or is not really being listened to, and this leads to delusions and hallucinations….There are aspects of our culture that have become very vociferous and very irrational, and very dogmatic and very hubristic. “This is right, and anyone who says otherwise is wrong.” That’s the way the left hemisphere likes to be. Cut and dried, black and white. But the right hemisphere sees nuances, gradation: there’s good and bad in almost everything.”

How do we fix it?
“…we adopt a different, less arrogant, less hubristic attitude to the world; that we have some humility; that we re-kindle in ourselves a sense of awe and wonder, in this beautiful world, and with it bring some compassion to our relations with other people. Not shouting them down, vilifying them, telling them they’re frightful, but reasonably talking and saying, “Okay, you disagree with me. I’m interested, explain your point of view.” What we mustn’t do is follow the strident shrieking voices, whatever they may be saying.”

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