Most groundbreaking psychology text of the last decade?

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Although I am only 110 pages in, I think the answer is Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The book is ridiculously well researched. The second chapter alone, where McGilchrist synthesizes an enormous amount of data concerning the functions of each respective hemisphere, has a staggering 525 endnotes, each citing one or more scientific studies. The scholarly work that went into this book is epic.

What drew me to the book was its Jaynesian thesis: the brain, and hence the mind, is fundamentally divided. McGilchrist basically argues that we can make sense of the history of human civilization in terms of how the left and right hemispheres functionally developed over time, with the right hemisphere being the “Master” and the left hemisphere being the “Emissary”. This idea of a master-slave relationship is more or less similar to the Jaynesian distinction between the god-complex and the human-complex, respectively. The rise of modernity occurred when the Emissary increasingly isolated itself from the Master, locking itself into a self-determined logical cage, viewing the world through an objective, mechanical lens.

Like I said, I am only 110 pages in. But this book has already stunned me in its scope and significance. We can no longer talk about brain function without recognizing the fundamental asymmetries between the left and right hemispheres.


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4 Comments

Filed under Psychology

4 responses to “Most groundbreaking psychology text of the last decade?

  1. I have to say I’m intrinsically a little suspicious of any book that has a left brain/right brain distinction at it’s heart. It was an article of faith in the 90s that has, in recent years, lost most of it’s empirical support. I’ll assume the book is cleverer than that, but it still seems an odd place to begin.

  2. Gary Williams

    Andrew, I was pretty skeptical too when I first heard about the book. But any doubts I had about the empirical evidence stacking up were laid to rest right away. McGilchrist does a good job of dismantling the pop psychological claims about the left brain/right brain such as that the left brain is “logical” and the right brain is “creative”, or that the right brain is not involved in language or reason. The actual picture is much, much more complicated given that for almost any given cognitive activity, both hemispheres are going to be involved and interacting in complex ways. McGilchrist points out that pop psychological vulgarisations turned many neuroscientists off from studying hemispherical lateralization, and, as you said, most people assume the radical lateralisation theses lack empirical support. But, trust me, McGilchrist’s book should satisfy any skeptical reader right away. He approaches the issue with much caution and appropriately qualifies all his claims about left/right asymmetry. But he quotes the neuroscientist Tim Crow who says, “except in light of lateralisation nothing in human psychology/psychiatry” makes any sense”.

  3. The actual picture is much, much more complicated given that for almost any given cognitive activity, both hemispheres are going to be involved and interacting in complex ways.
    This is, of course, the source of my scepticism. I’m not convinced you can think this and then get all that carried away by what the hemispheres are up to ‘by themselves’.

    But still, if he’s being rigorous then more power to him 🙂

  4. Michael Davies

    This book is well worth reading – goes way beyond Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind and is not pop psychology.

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