Leading from the right: understanding the divided brain

By Martin Vogel

It’ll be ten years in October since Iain McGilchrist published The Master and His Emissary, his magisterial study of the division of the brain into left and right hemispheres and the impact of this division on Western civilisation. I began reading it in 2013 and have finished it in time for the tenth anniversary. Although McGilchrist writes well and lucidly, and although I devour books, I found this one a challenging read. I needed to take pauses from reading it to let its argument sink in. This isn’t just a reflection of my cognitive abilities. McGilchrist writes in ways that draw on both left- and right-hemisphere orientations. My struggle perhaps exemplifies his thesis that we have become inured to left-dominant ways of comprehending.

The outcome of 25 years’ polymathic scholarship, The Master and His Emissary cites 2,500 sources of neuroscience, provides a potted history of Western culture and philosophy from the Greeks to the present day, and displays refined critical appreciation of art, literature and music through the ages. Despite its challenging nature, it is widely cited in coaching and leadership circles, though often erroneously by those who take it to be a confirmation of pop psychology constructs of the left and right “brains” as having different functions: left for language, right for creativity, etc. McGilchrist presents the hemispheres as being involved in all experience, but contributing differentially in how we apprehend and understand the world. At the risk of debasing his subtle and lengthy argument, I summarise my understanding as follows. The right hemisphere, more attuned to the body, deals in the raw data of how we interact with the world, sees things holistically and comes to contingent conclusions. The left hemisphere processes what the right apprehends, benchmarks it against what it already knows and categorises it into abstractions. It reaches a sense of conviction which, ideally, is passed back to the right hemisphere to be held in a more uncertain state with reference to the context of a changing and complex whole. But, and this is the heart of McGilchrist’s argument, that completion of the circle has been interrupted as the duality of processing by left and right has become more of a power struggle. The left’s preference for categoric conclusions is at risk of crowding out the right’s contextualisation.

While the first half of the book describes the scientific evidence, the second half presents the cultural history: the epochs through which the left hemisphere has come to operate more autonomously from the right, and the impact this has had on how we shape the world. The trend has not been a linear progression. The left hemisphere became more influential in the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Modern era. The right was more privileged in the Renaissance and the Romantic era. McGilchrist concludes that we have reached a point where the left hemisphere is close to dominating how our minds work. This is a state in which: rationality is untempered by intuition; utility is prized above stewardship; instrumentalism displaces empathy; binary thinking overwhelms nuance; and certainty trumps possibility. (You see how it’s doing it now: presenting a sequence of binaries?)

I found the cultural history section easier to read but, in some ways, harder to understand. As McGilchrist presents it, the way Western culture has developed is both an outcome of how hemisphere interaction has evolved and evidence of it. The way our minds work shapes our influence on the world. And this in turn shapes how our minds develop.

Why does this matter? At the end of the book, McGilchrist presents a dystopia in which the left hemisphere has succeeded in dominating how we think. Here’s a flavour of it:

The left hemisphere prefers the impersonal to the personal, and that tendency would in any case be instantiated in the fabric of a technologically driven and bureaucratically administered society. The impersonal would come to replace the personal. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living. Social cohesion, and the bonds between person and person, and just as importantly between person and place, the context in which each person belongs, would be neglected, perhaps actively disrupted, as both inconvenient and incomprehensible to the left hemisphere acting on its own. There would be a depersonalisation of the relationships between members of society, and in society’s relationship with its members. Exploitation rather than co-operation would be, explicitly or not, the default relationship between human individuals, and between humanity and the rest of the world. Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people. Such a government would seek total control – it is an essential feature of the left hemisphere’s take on the world that it can grasp it and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed. Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm.

It’s a moot point whether he is imagining a world yet to be realised or the one in which we already live. The issue is that an environment in which the left hemisphere’s take on the world is unmitigated by right-hemisphere qualities is antithetical to the richest aspects of being human. McGilchrist is not – to be clear – denigrating the left hemisphere’s contribution, which has driven great strides in human progress. He is warning against its breaking free from the right hemisphere’s holistic and contextual take on life.

There’s an imperative for us – individually and culturally – to rekindle the right hemisphere’s contribution: to close the circle by which the left hemisphere hands back to the right the output of its processing of the right’s initial apprehension. Language plays a critical part in this. The left hemisphere is the superior hemisphere for language. It is the realm of “more explicit and more conscious processing”; of representation, “in which signs are substituted for experience”. It is comfortable with linear, logical discourse: the domain of rationality and the manipulation of ideas. But it’s a myth to imagine the right hemisphere is not involved in language. While it specialises, according to McGilchrist, in non-verbal communication, with respect to language its strengths are in understanding meaning, metaphor, the implicit and ironic.

It’s instructive to consider how these aspects of language show up in organisational and corporate life. While the official discourses of organisations lean towards the preferences of the left hemisphere, the subcultures of organisations are often framed in terms of those of the right. Managerialism, with its emphasis on the needs of the organisation above those of the individual or the community, is a manifestation of left-hemisphere ascendancy.

This has particular relevance to coaching – in which language, in dialogue, plays such a pivotal part. It’s all too easy for coaching to collude with managerialism’s leaning towards logic, instrumentality and binary certainties. Coaching is replete with models and toolkits to channel coachees towards “solutions” which optimise their “effectiveness” to the organisation. There are times when this may have its place. But coaching is also an opportunity to insert more reflective and intuitive ways of being into the rhythms of organisational life. This calls for dialogue that reaches for metaphors and more creative forms of discourse, for experiences that disrupt the corporate ritual of people having a discursive business meeting, for non-verbal ways of interacting that enable the right hemisphere to make its contribution.

In characterising the risks we face, McGilchrist portrays contemporary culture as more polarised by the consequences of left-hemisphere dominance than I recognise. But perhaps this is a consequence of the broad brush strokes by which he produces such a sweeping survey. Immersed as I am in coaching culture, I notice modes of being that counter the prevailing instrumentalism: mindfulness, embodied leadership, working with art. Approaches to group work such as open space emphasise our interdependence and broaden enquiry rather than narrowing down to solutions prematurely. McGilchrist is dismissive of the emphasis on utility with which mindfulness has been taken up by the corporate world, which is a fair criticism. But, for the most part, people I observe developing a mindfulness practice are motivated to open to an “other” aspect of life: more embodied; more relational. This is precisely the kind of orientation he advocates to counter succumbing to left-hemisphere dominance. And, great as his familiarity with Western culture is, McGilchrist shows little familiarity with aspects of 21st Century popular culture which support transcendent experiences in a secular world. The book betrays some nostalgia for old style religion. But perhaps these attempts to find a different way of being within the contemporary context are the pockets of right-hemisphere engagement that provide hope that all is not lost.

The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. Available from Amazon.

Image courtesy Jason Leung.

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