Right versus Left - Dennis Hamley

Last month I went  to a college reunion.  It was great. To meet again people I remembered as callow youths now grizzled, grey-bearded and sometimes, like me, bald, yet still be able to recognise them, was not only very pleasing but also a great relief.

Chapel Court, England, photo

'Quiet, ever-honoured Jesus College' - ST Coleridge

In the bar after dinner I spent much time talking to someone who, like me, read English.  We drifted round to the almost inevitable subject, the rise of ebooks. He was so dead against them. They devalued literature, they usurped the real book, they encouraged mediocrity, yadda, yadda, yadda. 'I bet you won't find the most important book written so far this century on your Kindle,' he confidently said.

'I bet I will,' I replied. 'What is it?'

'The Master and his Emissary,' he replied. 'By Iain McGilchrist. Kindle wouldn't publish a book like that.'

'Oh yes they would,' I said, forbearing to say that Kindle don't do the publishing. When I got home, I looked. Of course I found it and emailed him to say so.

Well, he was wrong about the Kindle. But he was absolutely dead right about the book. I really think it is the most important book so far of the century. I sincerely hope it will be the most influential. I shall always be grateful to my good friend  Rogan MacLellan for telling me about it.

Product Details

It was first published in 2009 by Yale University Press. It won so many accolades in 2010 that I'm ashamed of not knowing of it before. I expect all you reading this will have read it three times already. Well, I can't help it if you have. The central drift is so radical, so tightly argued, so packed with experimental and empirical evidence, so mind-clearing and yet so simple at root that it's making me see the world's possibilities not only in a different way but also in a way which I've always desperately wished might be true.   I now tentatively feel that, with just a small shift in human consciousness (whatever, McGilchrist asks, that is) it could be. But that small shift is also a stage in the evolutionary pattern which humanity probably won't have the wit or the will (if those two are what propel evolution) to make. In Darwinian language, the present position has enabled the 'fittest', whoever they are, to prosper and rule with a seeming moral and psychological imperative which may have passed a point of no return.

It's a simple proposition. The brain has a left hemisphere and a right hemisphere. They have different functions. We all know that. They seem designed to work together and one would hope they would. But they don't. The left hemisphere deals with function, reality (or what it perceives as such), detail, the immediately observable. The right hemisphere deals with the whole gestalt, with breadth, imagination, metaphor, feelings and emotions, a different understanding of reality. McGilchrist's contention is that the left hemisphere has taken charge. Irrevocably? Surely not. It's the wrong way round. The right hemisphere should be the master because it represents what makes us truly human.  The left should be its emissary to the outer world, using its instrumental  capability to set the insights of the right side into motion. But it doesn't: it's usurped power to itself. What has been the outcome? How's this for a quotation?

A increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness has come about, reflecting, I believe, the unopposed action of a dysfunctional left hemisphere.

Do we recognise that? McGilchrist is no new age guru and this is not a self-help book. He read theology, philosophy and  English at university, became a fellow of All Souls, Oxford, then studied medicine, became a psychiatrist, researched neuroimaging and was consultant at the Maudsley Hospital in London, at the cutting edge of mind/body relationships. He really is a person at home in both of the 'two cultures' about which CP Snow and FR Leavis argued so many years ago. And he's dealt with real people, not just books in his study. This is a big, dense book and even now I haven't finished it. I have to take it one chapter at a time. But help came suddenly. Yale have issued a series of short books by the authors of some of their long ones and here is the first. And, as I've already assured Rogan, it is, so far, only an ebook and it only costs 61p.

The Divided Brain and the Search for Meaning

It's not just a summary. It stands on its own, making the main argument even more clearly and urgently in hardly 10,000 words. Unlike most summaries it's a triumph of 'showing', not 'telling.' The other day Kay and I sat down each with our separate Kindles and started reading it at the same time. We finished it an hour later and looked at each other almost shell-shocked. Our view of the world hadn't been skewed but the way we interpreted it certainly had.

McGilchrist asks in his subtitle: Why are we so unhappy? What are the signs of the divide? Well, at the simplest level it's the Qualitative against the Quantitative. The left hemisphere's world is that of targets and tick-boxes, 'the price of everything and the value of nothing,' of bureaucracy and the 'jobsworth' mentality, of most policies of the present, the previous and, inevitably, the next government. It is characterised by a dangerous lack of empathy for the governed by the governors. We don't just have divided brains: we have a fatally divided society. I could make out a case for asserting that thirty or forty years ago, publishing was a profession inhabited by people who were guided by their right hemispheres. Tragically for literature, aesthetic understanding and the the intellectual and emotional health of society - and, incidentally, for us as writers - it's now, except for a few shining exceptions, dominated by the left hemisphere.

So what of the right hemisphere? All I can say is that I'm thankful that all the people I regard as friends, all the people in Authors Electric, all the Writers in Oxford, all the family, college and professional friends I have made over the years and still keep in touch with, are essentially right-hemisphered. Well, you know who you are so I needn't itemise your virtues.

But this is superficial, observable stuff. Can we look a little deeper? I sometimes think my blogs are becoming short travelogues because I keep on telling you where we've just been. Well, sorry, but I'm doing it again. We've just come back from a Baltic cruise. It was marvellous. We'd never been before to Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki and Tallinn. All were lovely. But the highlights of the cruise were the two incredible days we spent in St Petersburg.

I had a fairly good idea of what we were going to find. The reality was even more staggering.  Marvellous architecture. Wonderful riverscapes. Wide spaces - almost 'superstitious vistas', as a long-ago Cambridge don stigmatised the interiors of most churches. And then, as we were just coming to terms with the superstitious vistas of gold leaf in the Peter and Paul church, we were shepherded into a side chapel where seven black-cassocked Orthodox monks appeared and gave a fifteen-minute a capella concert of Russian church music, complete with a uniquely awesome deep bass Russian voice at the end, which made the hairs on the back of my neck, such as they are, rise and tears sting my eyes. Utter magic. That night, Swan Lake in the exquisite Hermitage theatre. Next day, room after masterpiece-laden room in the Hermitage museum. Triumphs of the human mind at its finest.

Before we left home, a friend who had spent some years in Russia told me that all anyone needed to understand the country was encapsulated in two lines of poetry.

Peter, with unspeakable cruelty and brutality, built his City.
Which of us will leave such beauty to our children?

The paradox in those two lines really grabs the mind. Who wrote it? Was it Pushkin? If anyone knows, please tell me. And what does it mean for the human mind and its fatal hemispheric division?

An image which I took away with me was of the battle-cruiser Aurora anchored off the Peter and Paul Fortress. On the deck towards the bows is the very cannon which fired the shot which started the October Revolution. Even as we looked, a sailor hoisted the flag of the fort over it. And it suddenly made me think of just how profound the divided brain's fissure is. What righteous anger, what hope, what expectation of the perfect society there must have been as that cannon was fired? But look what happened. Was a whole great right-hemisphered enterprise destined to be utterly perverted by the left hemisphere? Is this how it will always be?

The Aurora, with its fatal cannon at the bows.

St. Petersburg is to me the supreme metaphor of the divided brain and the key to our existential unhappiness.


I heard him speak at a conference a couple of years ago. He was the keynote speaker and excellent. Also seemed a nice and quite diffident man. I was so impressed by him that I bought the book but haven't read it yet. Now I will! But I'll buy the short paper first. I remember thinking that his thesis explained so much including the way all our so called Creative Industries have gone and the way our universities are structured. Too bad it's the kind of idea that is so often picked up by the likes of the Daily Fail and oversimplified. Thanks for an inspirational post!
Kathleen Jones said…
Wow, Dennis - that is quite a post! Your quote absolutely nailed it. I'm off to buy the book . . .
Kathleen Jones said…
P.S. Also recommend Pieces of Light by Charles Fernyhough as a wonderful account of how our mind handles memory. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Pieces-Light-The-science-memory-ebook/dp/B008LRLW6A/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1400048790&sr=1-1&keywords=pieces+of+light
Jan Needle said…
fascinating stuff, dennis, thanks. i'm prepared to lash out 61p with the best of em. and you can tell your mate that i find reading long books easier on Kindle. not sure why yet, but it's true. maybe the lack of knowledge that you've still got two hundred thousands words to go neutralises the bleeding hell will i ever make it element?
Lydia Bennet said…
beautifully written and argued post Dennis, it's wonderful how books can profoundly change how we think and feel. I've always been uncomfortable with the constant dividing into two that goes on, mind vs body (that one goes back a long way), logic vs intuition, left vs right, science vs arts...
Nick Green said…
It sounds like it must be a very well-written and persuasive book, and I'm still tempted to check it out - but I'm put off by his left-brain/right-brain premise.

It's pretty much established in neuroscience that lateralization of the brain in those terms that he uses is pretty much a pop-science myth. This sums it up fairly well:
That's only Wikipedia, but you get the gist.

Perhaps one can still use 'left brain' and 'right brain' as metaphors, but one shouldn't fall for the simplistic and ultimately false model of the left and right sides being fundamentally different in approach. We have one brain; it does most things as a whole entity.
Mari Biella said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mari Biella said…
Great post, Dennis, and one that expresses something I’ve been wrestling with for a while – that somehow we’ve allowed one aspect of our own personalities or mentalities to ride roughshod over another, and that it’s made us miserable. I’m not at all knowledgeable about neurology so I can’t comment on whether it’s a case of right hemisphere/left hemisphere. I’ll be sure to download the book – which, to my shame, I haven’t yet read.
Bill Kirton said…
All I can do is echo what the others have said - great, provocative post which makes it essential that I get and read the book. Thanks, Dennis.
Dennis Hamley said…
Nick, that's why I said 'We all know that.' I know that the left/right business has been simplified into a pop-science myth and before reading these books I would have agreed with you. But McGilchrist's reasoning takes us far away from such simplistic nonsense for which I have no time. His work shows the most convincing understanding of our crisis of our crisis that I've ever seen and I feel on my pulses that it's true. Even in the short book it's backed up by persuasive experimental and observational evidence, for removed from anyone who dweserves the epithet 'pop' could ever come up with.
Dennis Hamley said…
And, Catherine, 'nice' and'quite diffident' are qualities which seem to shine out of his writing. His conclusions are expressed with an unassuming indignation which is all the more impressive because it doesn't go over the top, as a lesser writer might have done
Nick, Dennis is right. This is NOT what he says. Not at all. He's a scientist and a serious one. That's why I commented that it's the kind of thing that is picked up and over-simplified by the likes of the Daily Mail. In fact in his lecture at what was a serious academic conference, he himself debunked the 'pop-science myth' reporting of his complex subject. Strongly suggest you get hold of the book. It's immensely persuasive.
Dennis Hamley said…
Also, Nick, the latest references to the work in this respect of, say, Hines, who is obviously a brilliant scientist, that I can find are between 1984 and 1987 and McGilchrist's first book was published in 2009.
julia jones said…
Fascinating - thanks Dennis

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