I was introduced recently* to the work of Iain McGilchrist, philosopher, poet, psychiatrist, polymath, best known for his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary, in which he explores the current neuroscience regarding the hemispheric functions of the brain, and considers how those brain functions have shaped western culture.
I’ve spent some time this past week listening to his lectures and presentations. Turns out Dr. McGilchrist has a Youtube channel.
What is relevant about the ways in which the two hemipsheres deal with the world? It’s not that one of them does logic and science and maths and the other one does painting and makes pretty pictures and hums little tunes like Pooh Bear. It’s actually nothing to do with what they do because they both do everything. It’s the way in which they do it.Iain McGilchrist, The Dangers of a Mechanistic Philosophy
The left hemisphere he describes perceives a world made up of bits, disconnected and static and fixed. It evolved as such because that’s what allowed us to select, capture, and manipulate the world in order to ensure our survival. In the search for food, for example, it helps to know the seed from the pebble.
The right hemisphere, meanwhile, knows that a global awareness of one’s surroundings is also necessary for survival, that nothing is ever completely distinct, that things constantly flow and change, and that we are intimately connected to it all.
We are the seed. We are the pebble.
These give two completely different pictures of the world. One is a bureaucrat’s dream — that’s the left hemisphere one — the other is a bureaucrat’s nightmare, because it’s very hard to pin it down.
He posits that western culture has diminished its capacity to flourish by heavily favoring the processes of the left hemisphere over the right, producing societies of atomized individuals trained to select, capture, and manipulate, at the expense of pretty much everything else.
It’s not the old left brain/right brain dichotomy. It’s about perception, vision, worldview, and which wolf gets fed.
If you’re drawn to the ideas but prefer a more casual interaction with them, you might enjoy Gilchrist’s conversations with John Cleese in which the two discuss, among other things, the importance of playfulness in getting anything done.
Speaking of playfulness and getting things done, I don’t bake much, and my repertoire is generally limited to chocolate chip cookies and the occasional loaf of bread. But I found this video of Flo Braker and Julia Child making Genoise cake to be satisfying to watch even if I never attempt the thing myself. There is something infinitely patient about baking, with its specificity and attention to detail, the prep work of greasing pans, of sifting and combining, the getting on with things so the melted butter doesn’t cool and harden and the beaten eggs don’t deflate from sitting too long.
Also: I love that Flo does all the measuring, sifting, folding, pouring, piping, slicing and instructing; Julia is there to peer into the mixing bowl and make approving noises while nibbling bits of cake.
*Turns out, I’ve mentioned him before, in 2015, in a quote from a film by Carol Black. He was smart then, too.