By Claire Warren of Work. Magazine
Before he took up medicine, psychiatrist, doctor and writer Iain McGilchrist was an Oxford literary scholar. After developing an interest in psychology, he retrained in medicine. His achievements since include (among other things) becoming a senior registrar at the National Psychosis Referral Unit and a research fellow in neuro-imaging at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, as well as running a community mental health team in an ethnically diverse and socially deprived part of London.
An unusual career change, then, but McGilchrist is not your average academic. He may have left the arts world behind, but it can still be seen in his approach to his work on the brain. In his groundbreaking 2009 book, The Master and his Emissary, he argued that we experience the world in two ways. While the brain’s left hemisphere helps us manipulate the world, the right helps us understand it as a whole – to make sense of it in context. Both are needed for us to function but, he believes, the left side has come to dominate and that explains many aspects of modern western culture.
John Cleese rates the book so highly he agreed to feature in The Divided Brain, a film about McGilchrist’s work that is currently in production. “I love this book above all others because it promises to help me understand paradoxes that have puzzled me all my life,” he tells Work. “For example, why do I experience myself, when I am sitting on a Mediterranean terrace enjoying the hills and trees, as a completely different person from the one who hurries around London, trying to get everything done? Or, why do most educated adults accept the concept of the power of the unconscious, without having any inclination to explore their own?”
McGilchrist, he adds, is unusually self-effacing for a genius: “He emanates a gentle, curious amusement that puts ordinary earthlings at their ease. I believe he’s one of those rare polymaths who’s more interested in finding the truth than he is in being right.”
How does your work differ from previous thinking on the division of the brain?
Hemisphere difference was a neglected topic when I started getting interested in the 1990s. It had been popular until neuroscientists got frustrated by the rather glib ideas that were being bandied around in management seminars. People approach the brain as if it were a computer and the question you’d ask about a computer is: ‘What does it do?’ I think we were asking the wrong question. The important one is: ‘In what way does it do it? With what sort of a disposition?’ The one thing we know for certain, and in that Descartes was right, is that we are conscious: the world changes depending on how we dispose our consciousness toward it.
What more can you tell us about the disposition of the two hemispheres?
The right hemisphere is interested in the unique, whereas the left wants to put things into categories and treat them as generally the same. The left hemisphere is full of abstract general things from which one is detached – one doesn’t understand exactly what they mean overall, but has an idea of how to use them. In the right hemisphere, we have constantly changing but unique things that are interconnected with one another. We used to think a right hemisphere stroke was not such a bad thing, because most people can’t speak or use their right hand if they have a left hemisphere stroke. But my colleague, [British psychiatrist] John Cutting, spent years with people who had had right hemisphere strokes and discovered they couldn’t understand implicit meaning: irony, humour and metaphor. They couldn’t understand poetry and tone of voice, and they couldn’t read faces and body language.
What are the implications of this for society?
If we are tending to neglect the way the right hemisphere looks at the world, as I think we are, we lose the broader picture. Knowledge is replaced by information and there is a tendency to lose the concepts of skills and judgement, and for them to be replaced by algorithmic procedures. The left hemisphere requires things to be familiar, predictable and certain; it can’t cope with data when it’s not clear how to interpret it. The trouble is, most of the really valuable things that we desire in life – to be creative, loving, imaginative or even clever – are not things that can be operationalised. I think reasonableness is a concept we have lost. We are becoming more and more like the logical processing that the left hemisphere carries out. Social cohesion begins to suffer, because that is right hemisphere based.
We’ve seen this before, haven’t we?
The three great civilisations of the west – the Greek, the Roman and the one we’re now in – follow a similar pattern from a hemisphere point of view. Initially the two work very well in balance, but after a period of time the left hemisphere stance seems to become stronger. Why? Because each of these civilisations had an empire, and within an empire you need military power, administration and distance from what it is you are manipulating. A completely different way of looking at the world takes over. Since the industrial revolution, we have externalised into the environment a vision of how the left hemisphere sees the world: artificial, rigid, concrete, devoid of anything natural. It’s why people have a hunger to get out of cities.
What should we do about it?
This way of being doesn’t bring any kind of happiness or fulfilment – we get our pleasures in life from relating to one another and to nature. We need to help people see how these things could be different: how unintelligent, uncreative and destructive the way we look at the world now is and how we need to find a balance. People always want a quick fix but it’s not really like that: you can’t do 10 minutes’ mindfulness and that will sort you out, although mindfulness is a good idea. What we need is a complete change of heart and mind – not a sticking plaster.
This article first appeared in the Autumn 2017 edition of Work., the magazine for senior members of the CIPD