Book Review Tuesday

The Master and his Emissary: the Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Iain McGilchrist takes you on a long but satisfying quest to discover a radically new way to see ourselves and Western Civilization. It really is two books in one. The first explains in detail how the asymmetrical aspects of our two cerebral hemispheres work in decidedly different ways to determine how we perceive the world around us. For example, McGilchrist shows that the right hemisphere is better at processing new, unique perceptions, and in so doing, seeing the whole rather than an object’s various parts. The right also focuses on the personal instead of the impersonal.

The left side of the cortex, however, is good at creating abstractions from these initial right-sided perceptions in order to better categorize reality so we can act upon it. Both sides need to work in concert to engender a balanced approach to the world. When the brain’s functions are not in balance, particularly when the left-side’s perceptions dominate, we see the world askew.

To demonstrate how this can occur, the author uses the second section of the book to review several historical periods, showing how these two brain strategies are reflected in many aspects of Western culture such as music, art, literature, philosophy, science, and technology. This section concludes with a stinging critique of our modern and post-modern worlds. For McGilchrist, the ways the cerebral hemispheres cooperate, or not, determine how well balanced we act out our perceptions of reality.

This is not an easy read, but well worth the effort. The SPU Library’s call number for this tome is QP 385.5 .M36 2010.

-by Gary Fick, Librarian for the Sciences and Psychology

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