The Master and His Emissary – 50 Years in 50 Books

The Master and His Emissary offers a pioneering exploration of the differences between the brain’s right and left hemispheres and their effects on society, history, and culture. Drawing upon a vast body of brain research, the renowned psychiatrist, author, and thinker Iain McGilchrist reveals the pround difference between these two sides of the brain.

In this blogpost, part of the 50 Years in 50 Books series for our 50th Anniversary, Iain McGilchrist tells the story of how his best-selling book The Master and his Emissary was born.

Article by Iain McGilchrist

The Master and his Emissary was only the second book I wrote, and I nearly didn’t get it published at all.  Indeed, I nearly didn’t write it. 

I had published a book in my twenties about the nature of literature, called Against Criticism (Faber 1982), and promptly left my fellowship at Oxford, and the world of literary studies with it, to train in medicine.  This was not as random as it might seem.  I felt that works of art were more like people than things; and I left partly because I loved literature so much that I didn’t want to spend my life operating on my friends.  But there was a more positive motivation.  I felt that the reason academic criticism failed literature so badly was that it saw it as disembodied – a vehicle for ideas, to be put through the mill of our theories.  With all its quirky thisness stripped away, it was deemed wanting in some respect compared with the supposed genius of the critic. This genius it seemed to me depended on a lack of imagination, which substituted something else for the work of art itself. The whole became no more than the sum of the parts, which gave no inkling of the vibrant whole. Taken out of context the ‘parts’ were meaningless abstractions. The unique became general.  The soul lost its body. 

I attended seminars on the so-called mind-body problem to see if this cast any light.  It didn’t.  The discussions were, once again all too – well, disembodied.  At around that time Oliver Sacks had published Awakenings, and reading it was indeed an awakening for me.  Here was someone who had approached what sounded like a theoretical problem in a fully embodied fashion, by observing what actually happened to a person’s mind when something changed in their brain or body, or when something happened to their mind that caused something to alter in their body or brain.  He entered, memorably, into his patients’ ‘thisness’, and by doing so was able to cast light on general truths.  He saw the general in the particular, not by turning away from it.  He saw the soul in and through the body, not by distancing himself from it.  He became my inspiration and my talisman.  I resolved to train as a physician.

I was ten years older than my peers. Once qualified, and eight years later, exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure by the process of learning so much, so vividly, I found myself training in psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London.  Almost at a whim, I happened to attend a lecture at the Institute of Psychiatry by Dr John Cutting on a book that he had just published called The Right Cerebral Hemisphere and Psychiatric Disorders. In it he explained, among many other things, that the right hemisphere is better able to appreciate the whole, where the left hemisphere tends to reduce it to parts; that the right hemisphere was better able to appreciate uniqueness, where the left hemisphere tended to categorise; and that the right hemisphere was more in touch, in a variety of respects, with the embodied self, where the left hemisphere tended to abstraction. Putting that together with the obvious fact that for most of us the right hemisphere has literally no voice, was a eureka moment: I saw why it had been so difficult to champion its view of the world against that of the left hemisphere.

Iain McGilchrist explains how our ‘divided brain’ has profoundly altered human behaviour, culture and society. Taken from a lecture given by Iain McGilchrist as part of the RSA’s public events programme.

After the lecture I approached John and mentioned the way in which this revelation helped make sense of the problem which had prompted my career switch to medicine. He immediately read Against Criticism, and seeing what I had seen, generously offered me the chance to join him in research. Thus began some thirty years research into hemisphere differences. I was lucky enough to be the protégé of Professor Alwyn Lishman, the author of the foundational work in neuropsychiatry, Organic Psychiatry: and he kindly advised me, as did all who had an interest in my survival, to leave the topic alone, as it had been ‘debunked’ and I would be dismissed as dealing in pop psychology. Fortunately what John had found and what I was finding was nothing like the story peddled by the pop psychologists, and I felt convinced the topic merited proper discussion.

In 1992, while involved in neuroimaging research at Johns Hopkins, I received an excited message from John Cutting about a book called Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought, by a professor of psychology at Rutgers called Louis Sass. I was gripped. Sass had seen that there were twenty to thirty aspects of the phenomena of modernism which were remarkably similar to aspects of the phenomena experienced and described by schizophrenic subjects. Why was this? Of course, we couldn’t all suddenly be suffering from schizophrenia. I happened to be working on abnormal symmetry in the brains of subjects with schizophrenia at the time, and what immediately struck me was the parallel, at the clinical level, between right hemisphere dysfunction and schizophrenia, coupled to both structurally and functionally abnormal lateralisation of the brain. It seemed to me clear that what we were witnessing was not an outbreak of schizophrenia, but the growth of an abnormal reliance on the mode of operation of the left hemisphere. I began to think about other periods in the history of ideas: were there examples of such abnormal reliance in the past, or of perhaps oscillations between over-reliance on one hemisphere or the other?

Thus was born the idea of a book that would explain the real differences between the two brain hemispheres – not in ‘what they do’, as if they were machines, but in how – the manner in which – they did it, recognising that they are parts of a person; and would attempt to follow the course of the history of ideas in the West, from the ancient Greeks to the present moment, looking at the turning points through the lens of hemisphere theory. This became The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

However the intervening years were not easy. I was working long hours at the hospital, which didn’t leave me much time for writing. I tried to start the book but always ended up jettisoning it – there are about 30 failed attempts somewhere on my computer. I even went into therapy to try to find out why a book I felt so passionately about, and had researched so thoroughly, refused to be written. I never did discover why, but the book did get written in the end, so perhaps that was the answer I sought. 

In the end, I had to kid myself into believing what I was doing was just writing an outline – and in doing so, I wrote the book. When I gave it to a friend to read, it was 1200 pp in Word, with the header reading ‘Draft of an outline for The Master and his Emissary’. We had just had dinner in a London restaurant and he looked in the shopping bag I had given him. His only comment was ‘some outline …’

I was an entirely unknown quantity.  In my 20s I had some recognition because of my academic record, as well as writing for the main journals such as the TLS and the LRB, and I had a book out. Then suddenly I vanished for about 30 years. My agent offered it to seven non-academic London-based presses, with no luck.  It took Yale to be brave. They were the second university press to consider it and, much to my delight, they offered me a contract: the reader’s reports were decisive. I worked closely with my editor, who was a terrific help. I began to wonder if it should not be published as two books, but she advised against it on the grounds that the scientists would read one and the arts people would read the other, so that the whole picture would be lost. She was absolutely right. 

I was not sure how the book would be received for all the reasons I have outlined.  To my genuine amazement, it has been a great success, going on to become one of Yale’s best-selling titles. It helped to have some warm responses from big names in the neurosciences, amongst them Jaak Panksepp, VS Ramachandran, Howard Gardner, Norman Doidge, and Colwyn Trevarthen. There is at last a willingness to accept the importance of hemisphere theory once again, as people come to understand that it has little in common with the version that entered the public consciousness through pop psychology. My work has continued into more philosophical considerations in my latest book, The Matter with Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World (Perspectiva 2021). In both these works, I am at pains to show the sciences and the arts need one another.  More than ever this seems important in the world we inhabit today.

Read an extract from The Master and his Emissary below:

About the Author:

Iain McGilchrist is a former fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where he taught literature before training in medicine. He now lives on the Isle of Skye, where he continues to write, and lectures worldwide.

About the book:

The Master and His Emissary
The difference between right and left hemispheres has been puzzled over for centuries. Drawing upon a vast body of brain research, the renowned psychiatrist, author, and thinker Iain McGilchrist reveals that the difference between the two sides is profound—two whole, coherent, but incompatible ways of experiencing the world.

In the second part of his book, McGilchrist takes the reader on a journey through the history of Western culture, illustrating the tension between these two worlds as revealed in the thought and belief of thinkers and artists from the ancient to the modern, from Aeschylus to Magritte. He ultimately argues that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in today’s world—with potentially disastrous consequences.

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Further reading:

Yale University Press is celebrating 50 years of publishing in London. To celebrate, we have selected 50 important Yale London books from our past, present and future to tell the story of our publishing through a series of articles and extracts.

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