The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Modern World


There has been much confusion and misinformation about the brains hemispheres - how they operate and interact, what roles they play, etc. Not surprisingly, it is incredibly complex, subtle, and nuanced, and this book will help shed light on these topics

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Key Takeaways

  1. The world is becoming increasingly left hemisphere dominant. The last left hemisphere is focused on grabbing on utility on organizing while the right hemisphere is more empathic and big picture. The left hemisphere is seductive. It offers simple mechanistic answers to complex problems that makes the world less ambiguous complex and scary. However, in the past, the rise of this left hemisphere dominance has proven to be a precursor to the fall of that civilization as it cannot accurately account for the world at large. In addition, the left hemisphere is easy to vocalize. It is literally our center for speech whereas the right hemisphere has no speech. The left hemisphere is explicit and logical whereas the right hemisphere is more mythological which in today’s world is seen with increasing skepticism.
  2. The right hemisphere grounds experience, the left makes the implicit explicit, then the right integrates into a more cohesive and enriched whole. The right hemisphere is the master whereas the left is the emissary. However, the left can get overconfident and think it is the master. The right is responsible for synthesizing and is holistic but the left’s point of view is more linear and easier to articulate, which is why it is often more compelling
  3. The redundancy in function between the two sides puts a lot of the specialization hypotheses to the rest. The author is more interested in the how than they what, the manner in which the two hemispheres do what they do. The what is more left brained, more mechanistic
  4. The kind of attention we pay literally alters the world around us, we are partners in creation. We have a grave responsibility therefore to understand our relation to ourselves and the world around us. Structure and function are closely interwoven it is incredibly important to understand that too. Having a better grasp of the structure of our brains and how they interact across hemispheres and with the world will enrich our understanding of reality.
  5. It seems like evolution is titled towards bigger brains that are less interconnected. Asymmetry between hemispheres seems to be beneficial as well. It could be that the different hemispheres arose to be able to deal with two incompatible types of focus - left for narrow and spotlight type focus, right for broad and loose focus. Again, attention is deeply intertwined with value, so understand attention is key. How we pay attention to something changes how we see it and interact with it and, if applicable, how it responds to our attention. Understanding how the brain works changes the brain itself
  6. The right sees the whole, it is constantly searching for patterns. It is the right that gives emotional value to what is seen. The right enables us to read faces and empathize. It gives meaning to people, things, situations
  7. There is strong evidence that music and singing came before language. Music is simpler and arrives developmentally in children before language music is a communication of emotions which later spurred more specific and clear verbal communication skills. Music is a wonderful way to communicate I/thou ideas rather than language which focuses on I/it. Right hemisphere is responsible for the very flesh and blood of thinking. We associate language with that today, but that’s not truly the case. Thought is far older than words
  8. Language and the hand are very closely interconnected. When you say you understand some thing you often say I grasp it I get it I comprehend, all things which are associated with hand and hand movement. Language is for mapping and manipulating the world. Important to focus on the ”howness” and not the “whatness” - language a mode of thinking, not thinking itself. Language alone is great for information but not great for interpersonal connection. It is easy to manipulate with words but much harder with body language and other non verbal cue. Naming something allows us to own it
  9. The right is responsible for metaphor. This is hugely important, this is where language and life collide. Communicating through metaphor allows our whole being to understand it and hear it. When dealing purely with language, it opens up the possibility for our conscious, durable, rational mind to own it and dissect it. Everything has to be expressed in relation to something else and eventually that something else has to be related back to the body. We are embodied creatures and concrete physical body and our relation to the environment around us underpins our language and reality
  10. If there is one word to describe the left hemisphere, it is division. There needs to be distinct boundaries in order to manipulate and explicitly describe. The right is about cohesion.
  11. The right deals with new experiences. As it gets desensitized and normalized, it moves to the left hemisphere. This saves us a lot of cognitive energy but it also makes us prisoners of our own expectations. It is very hard to see things in a new light once we have categorized them a certain way. The strange and difficult part is that we consciously pay attention to the things we already know which means it gets harder and harder to see new things if it doesn’t fit the model of what we already know
  12. The right focuses on the gray, on “betweenness” whereas the left likes binary, black and white, certainty
  13. Our disposition towards the world changes how we perceive and act in it. The left hemisphere sees the world as a tool, it is concerned about use. The right, however, is more geared towards care than control. Static vs dynamic. Graspable vs ungraspable. Knowable vs unknowable.
  14. It seems like the progression is right hemisphere to left and back to right again. It starts with simply observing and being moves to grasping defining and understanding and then moves back to the right which is again open to all and non-control and non-judgment (myths and metaphors). It allows us to build depth and context rather than leaving things mechanical and stripped of life as the left hemisphere tends to do. The right is the bullshit detector, it uses common sense and sees the whole. The left is literal
  15. Feeling comes first and then reason. We see the whole and then rationalize certain parts to fit that whole. Primacy of effect
  16. It is estimated that only 1-5% of our activity is conscious, of left hemisphere. The rest is subconscious, of the right. Who is the true master?
  17. It is the right that is in direct contact with the real world, it is in tune and in touch with life. The left is a bloodless affair. It does not see life but rather a mechanistic set of inter-connections that it can use and define
  18. The scientific method has undoubtedly catapulted our world forward, but it is interesting to note that most of the major scientific breakthroughs came from serendipity and intuition, not structure and logic
  19. The Renaissance was a turning back to the right hemisphere, to a life focused on Holism and nature. The industrial revolution, post modernism, and scientific materialism may be the greatest assault the left has ever made on the right
  20. When you stop worshipping, you don’t really stop. You simply find something less worthy
  21. The left sees things as objects, as disembodied, as parts. Schizophrenics sometimes have a hard time seeing a human in their entirety, instead seeing mechanical pieces with no real life

What I got out of it

  1. A mind-blowing book. The way Iain describes this process, how the hemispheres work together (and against!) is simply fascinating and being aware of the progression from right to left and back to right again resonates with what I've experienced and learned about mastery

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