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Bailey on Books: An intriguing study of brains in balance

WHICH HEMISPHERE IS MASTER? AND WHICH THE EMISSARY?

At a time when neuroscience is making huge advances in the understanding of consciousness and regular updates on the physical workings of our brains are proliferating (see Susan Greenfield’s latest thinking on A Day in the Life of the Brain in our next review), it is timely to look at a landmark publishing event in neuroscience advancement.

The Master and his Emissary, first published by Yale University Press in 2010, provides a perfect introduction to brain functionality with a remarkable prescience about developments in neuroscience since its publication.

Author Iain McGilchrist’s comprehensive review of brain power and how the left and right hemispheres work singularly and together to best effect, has been an extremely reliable guide to current thinking and has no doubt fuelled many further advances.

His belief “that many of the disputes about the nature of the human world can be delivered to us by the two hemispheres, both of which can have a ring of authenticity about them, and both of which are hugely valuable; but they stand in opposition to each other and so need to be kept apart – hence the bi-hemispheric structure of the brain” has the simplicity and elegant writing style that is a virtue throughout this book of revelations. Added to this there is a constant philosophical element that supports the author’s thoughts, ideas and explanations.

First reading can give an impression of denseness but this is a reflection of the depth of analysis and the novel intricacies of brain function first encountered. The idea that each hemisphere has fundamentally different sets of values and priorities so that at some stage they are likely to come into conflict is not a concept easily accepted. However, McGilchrist’s exhaustive research and his engaging rationale make it an undeniable matter of fact.

Apart from why the structure of the brain is so relevant to how we experience the world, perhaps most important is the increasing and concerning dominance of the left hemisphere. This and its worrying consequences for our increasingly mechanistic view of the world, is addressed in straightforward terms but with the full authority of an expert in his field.

For a clear understanding of the structure of the brain and its functionality, this publication must rank as the set text. It also scores highly as a source of entertainment as well as being a rich source of the experimental research that it has no doubt promoted.

 

Iain McGilchrist author of The Master and his Emissary, The Divided Brain and Making of the Modern World, is a former Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical director at the Bethlem Royal & Maudsley Hospital. Readers looking for more about, and from him can go to his website, which includes an animated lecture which is also available on the TEDTalks website.

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Books editor John Bailey was for many years one of London’s best known journalists and spent most of his career in what was Fleet Street. He is an avid bibliophile and record collector, champion advocate for press freedom, and a student of history whose guided tours of London are known to and fondly recalled by exhausted walkers on all five continents.

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