The Master and His Emissary

The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Iain McGilchrist

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Why is the brain divided? The difference between right and left hemispheres has been puzzled over for centuries. In a book of unprecedented scope, Iain McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent brain research, illustrated with case histories, to reveal that the difference is profound—not just this or that function, but two whole, coherent, but incompatible ways of experiencing the world. The left hemisphere is detail oriented, prefers mechanisms to living things, and is inclined to self-interest, where the right hemisphere has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity. This division helps explain the origins of music and language, and casts new light on the history of philosophy, as well as on some mental illnesses.

In the second part of the 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 Aeschylus to Magritte. He argues that, despite its inferior grasp of reality, the left hemisphere is increasingly taking precedence in the modern world, with potentially disastrous consequences. This is truly a tour de force that should excite interest in a wide readership.

Iain McGilchrist is a former Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, where he taught literature before training in medicine. He was Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at the Bethlem Royal and Maudsley Hospital, London, and has researched in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. He now works privately in London and otherwise lives on the Isle of Skye.

“A work of grand ambition, brilliantly achieved; eloquent, moving, and remarkable for the depth and scope of its scholarship.”—Professor Louis Sass, Rutgers University

"McGilchrist describes broad [intellectual] movements and famous figures as if they were battles and soldiers in a 2,500-year war between the brain’s hemispheres. . . A scintillating intelligence is at work. . ." - Economist

"Few books this year can match this one in breadth of erudition, scope, and ambition. . . .  [A] highly stimulating read."—A. C. Grayling, Barnes and Noble Review (Best of 2009)

"A landmark new book. . . It tells a story you need to hear, of where we live now."— Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times

"A giant in his vital field shows convincingly that the degeneracy of the West springs from our failure to manage the binary division of our brains." — Book of the Year choice, David Cox, Evening Standard

"This is a very remarkable book. . . McGilchrist, who is both an experienced psychiatrist and a shrewd philosopher, looks at the relation between our two brain-hemispheres in a new light, not just as an interesting neurological problem but as a crucial shaping factor in our culture. . . splendidly thought-provoking. . . . I couldn’t put it down."--Mary Midgley, The Guardian

"A beautifully written, erudite, fascinating, and adventurous book. It goes from the microstructure of the brain to great epochs of Western civilisation, confidently and readably. One turns its five hundred pages . . . as if it were an adventure story." — A. C. Grayling,  Literary Review

"It is no exaggeration to say that this quite remarkable book will radically change the way you understand the world and yourself. . . . It is a genuine tour de force, a monumental achievement."--David Lorimer, Scientific and Medical Network Review

"Absolutely fascinating."--Jessa Crispin, Editor of

"At last! A book on neuroscience that is a thrilling read, philosophically astute and with wonderful science."--Mark Vernon, Philosophy and Life blog


‘Though neurologists may well not welcome it because it asks them new questions, the rest of us will surely find it splendidly thought-provoking. And I do have to say that, fat though it is, I couldn’t put it down.’ — The London Review of Books

“Hugely ambitious.”--Jonah Lehrer, Bookforum


‘Remarkable book…. McGilchrist is immensely erudite. He writes with great clarity, and while the book develops an argument it is also a treasure chest of fascinating detail and memorable quotation.’ — Adam Zeman, Standpoint

'McGilchrist is a remarkable person…he has an unusual insight into art and philosophy and writes lucidly…. Voices such as McGilchrist are essential.' — Salley Vickers, Daily Telegraph

'McGilchrist writes well, with a direct engaging style, so that a reader with no background in neuroscience could easily follow his descriptions of brain function…This is a very good book, both informative and erudite.' — Ian Gibbins, Australian Book Review

"To call Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary. . . an account of brain hemispheres is to woefully misrepresent its range. McGilchrist. . . persuasively argues that our society is suffering from the consequences of an over-dominant left hemisphere losing touch with its natural regulative 'master,' the right."-- Salley Vicker, The Guardian

"This insightful, erudite and thought-provoking examination of the brain's hemispheres can change how you see (or think you see) the world."--PopMatters

"McGilchrist, for whom certainty is the greatest of illusions, has produced an absolutely convincing narrative of who we are."—Nicholas Shakespeare, Daily Telegraph

“This book is a dazzling achievement….Just as a read, it’s an immense pleasure.”—Charles Foster, Contemporary Review

". . . a thought-provoking book that deserves a wide readership."—Randolph Roth

“In his fascinating, groundbreaking, relentlessly researched, and eloquently written work, Iain McGilchrist, a consultant psychiatrist as well as professor of English—one wants to say a 'scientist' as well as an 'artist'—challenges this misconception. The difference between the hemispheres, McGilchrist argues, is not in what they do, but in how they do it. And it’s a difference that makes all the difference.”—Gary Lachman, Los Angeles Times

"A landmark new book. . . It tells a story you need to hear, of where we live now."— Bryan Appleyard, The Sunday Times

"A giant in his vital field shows convincingly that the degeneracy of the West springs from our failure to manage the binary division of our brains." — Book of the Year choice, David Cox, Evening Standard

"That a book can lead me to question myself is praise indeed—I can think of no higher recommendation. Like any really interesting book, it is to be valued more for this than for any answers it gives."—Felix Dux, Parabola

"[An] intelligent, stimulating book which presents the reader with something of a tour de force in its survey of the functioning of… the left and right cerebral hemispheres… {The Master and His Emissary] will be very much enjoyed both by Jungians and by the general reading public, not just for its culture… but also for the sheer sweep and breadth of its intelligence."—Michael Cullinan, Journal of Analytical Psychology

"A challenging, inspiring and important book, which by exploring the embodiment of our knowledge in our divided brains, and then mapping this onto the history of Western culture, raises sharp questions about the spiritual atrophy which can result when the left brain (the emissary) usurps the place of the right brain. I have profited greatly from it."—Geoffrey Rowell, The Times

"Besides being a brilliant work, this book is an event. McGilchrist lays out a startling, novel account of the importance of the right hemisphere of the brain, and what is more, he turns this into a gripping and dizzying account of the trajectory of the whole of human (but especially of western) civilisation and offers, in the course of this, the most powerful argument penned by any living author of the importance of the arts and humanities… The Master and His Emissary is a work of extraordinary erudition. McGilchrist seems to be a polymath, who has managed to feel his way into a vast array of different ‘literatures’… What I found in reading his book is that there are gems on virtually every page, and that… the way of thinking and of seeing that McGilchrist here offers is itself compelling, rich and fertile."—Rupert Read, Springer

Selected by Barnes & Noble Review as one of the best books of 2009 in history and philosophy

Shortlisted for the 2009 Bristol Festival of Ideas Book Prize

Longlisted for the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books

Named one of the best books of 2010 by The Guardian
ISBN: 9780300170177
Publication Date: December 15, 2009
608 pages, x
15 color + 20 b/w illus.
The Master and His Emissary

The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Second Edition, New Expanded Edition

Iain McGilchrist

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