Iain McGilchrist is not alone in finding the current conglomeration of threats to the planet, and to human security, disturbing. Where the psychiatrist, philosopher and bestselling author is perhaps more unusual, is in his tracing of the root of many of these crises to a growing tendency for people to prioritise the left hemisphere of the brain, resulting in a collective inability to see the bigger picture.
“What I’m definitely not saying is ‘the brain causes everything’,” he clarifies. “I don’t mean that at all. Any socio-political or societal change has many, many causes. Some will be economic, some will be in other aspects of sociology, some will be to do with science and technology and so on. I’m definitely not saying that it’s causative. But what I’m saying is that if you have this way of thinking, it will allow these other causes to drift in a certain direction.”
McGilchrist came to public attention following the publication of his book, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World in 2009. The book laid out the conclusions of his extensive research into the two hemispheres of the human brain, asserting that their differing modes of perception have shaped human culture and impact on the world throughout history.
He was distinctively equipped to write the book, having developed two very different aspects of his own brain to an unusual degree. After completing an undergraduate degree in English Literature at New College, Oxford, during which he abandoned a long-held plan to become a monk, McGilchrist was offered a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College.
“This enabled me to do anything I liked for seven years, no questions asked,” he recalls. “Nobody was breathing down my neck.”
Initially he intended to pursue a doctorate in 18th and early 19th English Literature, but was dissuaded by the eminent philosopher Derek Parfit, who recognised McGilchrist’s ability to take a broader view.
“I took his advice and I explored a lot of things. I learned Russian, I went to lectures and seminars in the Philosophy faculty, and then I wrote a book on what was wrong, philosophically speaking, with what we did with literature, called Against Criticism. But I’d already decided at that stage that I wanted to leave, because I wanted to study Medicine.”
Having concluded that the academic approach to both literature and philosophy was “too disembodied”, McGilchrist jumped to the opposite extreme, attending medical school in Southampton. After qualifying, he progressed to the Maudsley Hospital in London, where he became a Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director of Acute Mental Health Services. But throughout his years as a doctor, he was increasingly preoccupied by the significance of the two sides of the human brain.
“During that time I found out so much more about the much reviled topic of hemisphere difference…I worked with a colleague, John Cutting, who had done masses of research – almost nobody in the history of medicine had done as much research as he had on hemisphere difference, and he was also philosophically inclined. And the light came on for me – I could see how this made philosophical sense to me. John very generously allowed me to join him in his research, and I then went on researching it really for 30 years. And here I am.”
‘Here’ is as the bestselling author of two books on hemisphere difference and its implications, The Master and his Emissary, and 2021’s The Matter With Things. Their global impact appears still to take their author by surprise.
“I didn’t expect anything of The Master and his Emissary. I expected that a handful of people would find it very interesting, and I might even get the odd letter. But I didn’t expect at all that it would become a bestseller. I think it’s sold a couple of hundred thousand copies, which for a fairly hefty book on neurology and phenomenological philosophy is a bit surprising! The reward of doing it is the number of people who write to me every day with the most extraordinary things to say, in terms of what it’s done for them.”
That connection with his audience is what gives McGilchrist hope that the solutions to today’s ‘metacrisis’ can be found in addressing the way we think.
“Whatever it is that I’ve been able to articulate in these two big books suggests to people a different way of thinking about what we’re experiencing now. Not just the odd crisis caused by a bad decision, but something interlocking that has happened and has deep roots. And my suggestion is it has deep roots in the way in which we now think.”
A prioritisation of the practical, problem-solving, acquisitive left hemisphere has, he argues, blinded us to the consequences of human behaviour.
“The right hemisphere has a broad vision, can see a bigger picture, and can therefore see what is missing. By definition, the left hemisphere isn’t interested in what is missing, it’s only interested in what it’s actually seeing. And from a Darwinian point of view it developed to enable us to fix something, manipulate it, grab it and get it, but not really to understand it, or to understand the context. That comes from the right hemisphere. And because we’ve got so committed to this particular way of thinking that enables us to control, and to get stuff, and to become materially rich, it has blinded us to what it is that we’re missing.”
In his lecture at Darwin, McGilchrist will spell out the implications of this blind spot, for human societies and the natural world. But he also hopes to galvanise his audience into being part of positive change.
“What I want people to come away with is that we need to understand ourselves. ‘Know thyself’ – you know, the famous Delphic utterance – and knowing ourselves means also understanding the way our mind works and understanding how our mind works is heavily dependent on knowing more about the brain. And when one comes to know this, certain things fall into place. One is that we’re constantly taken by surprise by the consequences of things we do…The destruction of the natural world, the destruction of the way of life of indigenous people, the reduction in complexity of species, the poisoning of the seas. But also the widening gap between the poor and the rich, the increasing burden of bureaucratisation, the difficulties posed by the advent of ever more technically proficient AI, the epidemic of mental illness. These things all look like separate elements, but actually what I’m suggesting is that it’s all entirely coherent… And so what I’m really saying is we have to change our way of thinking about ourselves and the world. Nothing less than a complete change of heart and mind has to take place.”
Iain McGilchrist’s lecture, A Revolution in Thought? How hemisphere theory helps us understand the metacrisis will take place at 5.30pm on Friday 9th February.