Two Ways of Understanding Things

A Conversation with Iain McGilchrist about What Matters

with Bonnie Badenoch

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In April of 2013, I was privileged to spend an hour with Iain McGilchrist, author of a seminal book on the relationship between the two hemispheres, The Master and His Emissary (2009). He was speaking from his beloved home on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. The kindness and wisdom that flow through those writings are also very evident in the way he shared the personal process that is at the foundation of this transformative work and other important areas of his life, including what the future might hold.

Bonnie: I was wondering if we could start with talking about how you got drawn into this fascination with the two hemispheres.

Iain: It goes back a long way. I suppose in a way I have always been interested in the two ways of understanding things. And I have always been particularly concerned about the value of the implicit, and how making things explicit just destroys them, how it’s taking things out of their context. That was at the back of my mind long before I approached the brain at all.

In fact, I wrote a book (Against Criticism) in the 1970s, published by Faber in ’82, which is really about this problem in literary criticism. When you approach the work of art, you find yourself having to make things explicit and take things out of context in order to say this is going on with the meaning or that is going on with the form. In the process, the whole life of the thing just disappeared. Interestingly, the very things that in the context of the work of art were part of its excellence and part of the reason why you loved it, seemed like imperfections once they were taken out of the context of the whole. So you were left with this heap of nothing at the end of the process. And yet, there had been something there that spoke to you, deeply. This was a bit of a conundrum.

When I was in Oxford as a young academic, I was fortunate to have a colleague who was an eminent sinologist, David Hawkes, and he was asking me one day what I was writing about. I was trying to explain to him this problem in criticism. I was saying, “The trouble is there aren’t the right words. When you start using words to describe the problem, the very words betray you because they don’t seem to apply to the sort of thing it is you are talking about.” And he said, “Well, you know, the Chinese would understand entirely what you are talking about. There are concepts in Chinese that describe many of the things you’re struggling to express in English.” So he put me onto looking at Oriental literature, in a very amateur way.

But there still seemed to me, at the core of the problem, a difficulty about the mind–body relationship. Works of art, including great poems, music, sculpture, or whatever they might be, are just exactly what they are, in the embodied form they find themselves, and can’t be recast in a set of abstractions, or paraphrased. They are unique and unrepeatable, embodied entities, more like living beings than things; and the process of criticism makes them general, abstract, disembodied and ultimately lifeless. I studied the philosophers on the mind-body problem, but they all seemed to me too disembodied; and I thought I’d better go and study the problem in a more embodied way. So it was that I went off to study medicine, in order to understand more about the relationship between mind and body. And that took me into the interface between neurology and psychology.

Then I came across John Cutting’s work on the right hemisphere of the brain. He was a colleague at the Maudsley Hospital in London. This was 1990, and he had just published his amazing work, The Right Cerebral Hemisphere and Psychiatric Disorders. It was the fruit of long, careful and detailed observation of people who had right hemisphere deficits of some kind. In the general neurological literature, these were treated as no more than a bit of a curiosity, because on the whole, these people seemed not to have anything like the same degree of problems that people with left hemisphere deficits had. People with left hemisphere deficits couldn’t speak or use their right hand, which was all very obvious and striking, of course; but, it turned out, people with right hemisphere deficits had subtle but devastating changes in their experienced world, which actually constituted a greater handicap—as demonstrated by the fact that it is easier to rehabilitate people with left hemisphere strokes than people with right hemisphere strokes, despite the fact that those with left hemisphere strokes usually have problems with speech and their dominant hand.

John Cutting didn’t know anything about my interest in literature, but as I was listening to him talk, I was thinking, “This is extraordinary. The right hemisphere is interested in manner. It’s interested in tone, irony, humor, metaphor. It’s interested in all that is implicit. It’s interested in the embodied. This is what is missing, the other part, the other side.” So that was how I came to study this whole matter of hemisphere difference, and it stemmed from a life-long interest, from at least adolescence onward, anyway, with these two ways of thinking about the world.

Bonnie: We have an interesting overlap in that my early work was in comparative literature in college, both a bachelor and master’s. Then I left my doctoral program because I couldn’t take the literary criticism part of it. I couldn’t have voiced it as well as you have, but I knew I didn’t like it. So I went and got a doctorate in comparative religion with an emphasis in mysticism, trying to feel my way back into what is living. At an embodied level, I understand what you are saying.

Iain: I think it’s something that is increasingly important in mainstream philosophy as well. People are waking up to the idea that embodiment is a very important idea. Waking up slowly. I take The New Yorker because I think actually it often has some very interesting articles, but I love the cartoons. There’s one that I saw recently. It has these two sort of down-and-outs standing on the street talking. One of them is saying to the other: “Good news. I hear the paradigm is shifting.” Well, yes, it’s good news. I think the paradigm is actually shifting.

Bonnie: Thank heavens. So you have spent 20 years deeply looking at the two hemispheres.

Iain: Yes.

Bonnie: How do you sense it’s changed you, or do you sense it has changed you?

Iain: Well, of course, it’s notoriously hard to see oneself and what is happening, especially when change is gradual, so I don’t know. It doesn’t feel like a discontinuous sort of track at all. I feel it’s all of a piece with the way in which my intellectual and spiritual life—which are not easy to disconnect from one another—started to grow in my early teens. They always have been side by side, and it’s been continuous with that. But in learning more and more about how the brain does see the world—if you can put it that way, or, better, how the constraints of brain structure change the way in which we see the world—so many things have fallen into place. It was like having a very strong sense that something is going to happen. And it happened. Something I was dimly aware of that just became more and more clear.

I knew that I just had to write about this before I died. The problem was how was I going to do that. First of all, I was very busy. I was a full-time practicing clinician with very hefty clinical commitments. There was also the fact that intellectually speaking, the more I learned, the more impossible it was to know how to marshal this in a book or even in a series of books. The problem was that everything seemed to imply and connect with everything else, so that it was a bit like a cat’s cradle. How do you straighten it out? I couldn’t make a nice linear argument because to explain A, I really needed first to explain B, which was fine. To explain B, I needed first to explain C. But unfortunately, to explain C, I had to explain A.

That was one difficulty, knowing where to get a way into this. That took me a long time. It didn’t always have the organization it has now, which people say seems to unfold like a story and has its own structure and momentum. It wasn’t like that. At one stage, it was 60-something pieces of paper on the floor of my living room, little pieces of paper I was moving about, aggregating and clustering. I tried to link them together and ended up with something that looks like the Krebs cycle, only more complicated. So it wasn’t straightforward.

Bonnie: No. But by the time you get to the concluding chapter of The Master and His Emissary, there’s so much heartfelt embodied poetic expression that is just deeply moving.

Iain: It’s lovely that you feel that. It’s a very personal book. I don’t think that conflicts with the idea that I tried to be very true to a vast body of literature in as objective a way as I can. One thing that upsets me is that, when people don’t like the conclusions I draw, they say that I must have, as they put it, “cherry-picked” the data. That is such an easy thing to say and such an impossible thing to refute. I want to say, “Look, perhaps you’d like to dedicate the next 20 years of your life getting to know the literature on laterality and asymmetry, and then you might be in a position to make that remark.” Most people wouldn’t. I imagine there can’t be very many people alive who have spent so much time on it, because it’s a largely unpopular and unfashionable way to think about the brain. Hemisphere difference became so tarnished for a long time that nobody could be bothered, no serious scientist would be bothered to look at it. There just aren’t that many people who really know the literature. I do think it’s awfully cheap to suggest that one may have cherry-picked the literature. One thing I’d like to say is I have absolutely no interest in doing that, because what impassions me is the truth. If I were kidding myself by having made it up, it wouldn’t excite me or interest me!

In the original text, I put in little excursuses, little digressions, wherever there were data that might look, at first glance, to be in conflict. And I discussed the findings. But it’s already a very long and very complex book. So, my editor said, “That’s fine, but you can’t leave these in the body of the text. You must put them in the footnotes.” I put them in the footnotes, but, fair enough, people find it a long book to read already without delving into the footnotes. If they do, however, they will find that I don’t disregard what might look like conflicting evidence. I deal with it as dispassionately as I can, as befits scientific work, but that is not to say that I am not impassioned about what I have found. In that sense my book is indeed a personal statement.

Bonnie: It especially comes through toward the end. I often read the opening paragraph of the concluding chapter when I teach, and people frequently tear up. They sense it. They sense that vulnerability of the right.

Iain: You know, I could honestly never have anticipated in my wildest dreams that people would respond to it the way they have. I get such beautiful emails from people who never met me, but just want to say, “This book has meant so much and has changed my life.” People say things like that quite often, which I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t imagine it would be widely read at all, but especially didn’t anticipate that kind of response.

I expected intellectual responses that would be either, “Well, okay, there might be something here,” or “This is complete piffle,” which I also get. But I didn’t really anticipate this very moving connection, which has made it easier for me, since one of the consequences of writing the book has been that I had to stop clinical work. I just need to have more space and time to deal with the things that people ask, and talking and writing further. To have lost that connection with people’s lives and not to feel that I have made a difference would have been a price I didn’t want to pay. As it turns out, I haven’t had to pay that price, in that it seems that I carry on helping people in some sort of way that they are kind enough and generous enough to say and to write to me about. It’s really lovely.

Bonnie: You said earlier that this has also to do with your spiritual life, and I don’t know if you feel any inclination or willingness to talk about that aspect and how it weaves in for you.

Iain: Yes. I don’t know what it is that I know, so I’m not very good at signing up to any particular creed. If there’s anything I do know from living at all, it is that the version of the world offered to us by reductionist materialism is not adequate. It doesn’t begin to cover it. My feeling is that I naturally conceive of life in terms other than the material (as well as the material). I see the material as being perhaps a special case of the spiritual.

People say there’s this problem of mind. “What is mind? Where does mind come into the picture?” I’m often tempted to say, “I don’t know about mind being the problem: it seems to me that mind is not a problem at all. Mind is clearly where we are.” What is problematic is the nature of matter. What the dickens is matter? Matter is a kind of element that offers resistance. That is the best thing we can say about it. It’s a kind of element in one’s consciousness that offers resistance. I suppose I think of the relationship between matter and mind as a bit like different phases of one and the same thing. So, I don’t see a dualism there. Much as ice and water and water vapor are not the same, and you could easily think of them as three separate things, they are, of course, the same thing in different phases, and not discontinuous at all—I’m using the word “phase” in the way chemists use it.

In fact, another thing I would say is this. If it were possible to succeed in reducing everything to matter, then one would end up having to admit that matter was pretty extraordinary stuff. If it could, of itself, generate something like Bach’s St Matthew Passion, that certainly would be remarkable. We’d need to reconfigure our ideas about matter. It’s obviously something very special. You can’t get over it by reducing spiritual life to matter. All you have done is say, “Now we have to think of matter as a very complex spiritual thing, too.” You just kicked the can down the road.

I’m not a paid-up member of any religion at all. Although I think all religions offer their fascinating insights, I was born and brought up in the Christian tradition, and I find increasingly, as I live, enormous wisdom in it. I know how strong its roots are in Judaism, and learning about Judaism and the Kabbalah has been fascinating to me, too. I used to be very interested in Buddhism, and as time goes on I get less and less interested in Buddhism and more interested in Hinduism, actually. As one’s life changes, one sees different things. All of it must be just little chinks of light coming through, just what one can pick up of something much more than we can know. I’m not claiming to have any knowledge of anything, but at least to be uncertain seems to me a more fruitful state than to be certain.

Bonnie: Yes. Going back to what you said about matter, I don’t know if you know Brian Swimme. He’s a mathematical cosmologist.

Iain: I don’t.

Bonnie: One of my favorite quotes from him says roughly this: “You take hydrogen, and you leave it completely alone, and it becomes rose bushes and giraffes and human beings.”

Iain: Yes, that is a very nice quote. It’s a most extraordinary business. Only the most incredible blinkering can result in people being blind to that. Children automatically see how extraordinary the world is. One of the things that I love is a little piece of research done by David Hay and Rebecca Nye on following children from preschool up through school in their attitudes to what you might call the spiritual, the religious, or whatever you like. Contrary to what Richard Dawkins says, which is that children wouldn’t naturally have these ideas, that they are indoctrinated in them by the culture, Hay and Nye found precisely the opposite: that children naturally think in these terms and naturally have a sense of these things, of a religious awe and a sense of a realm beyond this that is mystical or mysterious. As they grow up through school, they have that, as it were, knocked out of them and learn that it’s not smart to think or talk like that, and that clever people don’t.

Bonnie: When my daughter was born, we were part of a yoga center that was mainly centered on a meditative tradition. She would sit on my lap at two and three and say, “It’s all light, Mommy.” She was having this kind of oceanic experience just naturally. Because I was open to hearing it, she could speak it, you know.

Iain: Yes, yes. I have just been unpacking some boxes—because my life has been a bit peripatetic in the last few years. I found some sayings I had written down of my son James when he was three. I was completely amazed by some of these. He was asking, “How did God begin?” and then he said, “I know. He was a hand, and then he drew himself in.” I thought, “He has seen the truth behind that Escher drawing, which I often start my lectures with, the idea that there isn’t a road into this. Something emerges out of the something. And that is so beautiful.”

Bonnie: (quiet pause) Do you feel ready to change directions a bit?

Iain: Yes.[Content protected for subscribers only]

Putting it in such human terms, it appears essential for the creation of full human consciousness and imagination that the right hemisphere places itself in a position of vulnerability to the left. The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn’t believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to submit to be delimited—needs stasis, certainty, fixity—in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible; but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master.”

Iain McGilchrist

The Master and His Emissary, p. 428


This has been an excerpt from The Neuropsychotherapist Volume 6 Issue 12 – for the full text and more great content please subscribe to our magazine.


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