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

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  1,477 ratings  ·  186 reviews
Why is the brain divided? The difference between right & left hemispheres has been puzzled over for centuries. In a book of unprecedented scope, McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent brain research, illustrated with case histories, to reveal that the difference is profound—not just this or that function, but two whole, coherent, but incompatible ways of experiencing t ...more
Hardcover, 608 pages
Published December 15th 2009 by Yale University Press (first published October 30th 2009)
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Douglas Macrae Smith Only made it half way - too much Latin, german, repetition and sentences that had to be read 3 times - keep me posted if there's a surprising plot twi…moreOnly made it half way - too much Latin, german, repetition and sentences that had to be read 3 times - keep me posted if there's a surprising plot twist at the end!(less)

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Chris Lynch
Jul 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This will be a lengthy review, but no less than is deserved. You may even feel, after this review, that you have no need to read the book! This would be a mistake - all I am doing here is summarising in very broad terms, and giving some of my own thoughts on McGilchrist's opus.

This is certainly the most remarkable non-fiction book I have read this century. You know the 'diamond bullet' quote from Apocalypse Now? This book was like a machine gun firing diamond bullets, straight into my skull, thu
Jay Kamaladasa
Oct 05, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
I'm being a bit harsh giving this 3 stars because it is a really good book and everyone should read it. But there are inherent flaws on Iain's arguments that I cannot come to terms with. The first being that he treats the Right Brain as superior to the Left brain (the master and the emissary), which in itself is a hierarchical (left brain) way of thinking. Second, the author doesn't realize that religion is mostly left brain oriented. The inability of the left hemisphere to deal with uncertainty ...more
Ade Bailey
Apr 13, 2011 rated it did not like it

It took McGilchrist 20 years to write.

From the author's website, , comes a brief description of the book which you may be best to read first or only.

Now I was very sniffy about even picking this book up. The author had been doing the publicity tour and several people after about the five minutes or so minute interview they may have heard, were waxing lyrical to me about how a real scientist confirmed what the ancients have always known. Such knowledge o
Jim Coughenour
Jan 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Ian McGilchrist's thick book on the "divided brain" is the most interesting book I've read this year. I'd come to regard the fabled right brain/left brain antithesis as so much entertaining pop psychology (e.g., Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind) — handy for provoking corporate robots, but hardly more than a convenient fiction. McGilchrist has convinced me that it's a metaphor worth taking seriously, that in fact it may be the fundamental metaphor for a scientistic age.

McGilchrist's thesis is simpl
Emma Sea
Feb 22, 2018 marked it as dnf
I quit at 46% (which is actually 2/3 of the way through as the ebook finished at 68%) and watched the crib notes

Very well written, thoroughly researched, but I found it a drag read.
Apr 14, 2011 added it
I find it impossible to rate this book. The author is astonishingly erudite, and this book must be the culmination of a lifetime of research and study. The problem with the book is not just that it’s difficult and dense, but, more importantly, that it’s difficult to put the pieces together and get a coherent picture. McGilchrist is making an enormous claim, and he has written a magnum opus to prove it. The individual chapters offer amazing information and insight into not just brain and neurolog ...more
Erik Graff
Oct 07, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Julian Jaynes fans
Recommended to Erik by: Tom Miley
Shelves: psychology
This is an ambitious work, reminiscent of Hegel's Phenomenology of Mind, but without the happy ending. The first half is a review to date of research in the hemispherical differentiation of the human brain. The second half is a survey of Western history since Homer, told in terms of presumed shifts of hemispherical dominance. One is also reminded of C.G. Jung's Psychological Types, another survey of Western history related to psychological theory, focused primarily on the history of ideas.

Oct 06, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: psychology
Interesting subject matter, unconvincing conclusions.
Note to self: The first chapters are a real slog to get through, with a litany of neurobiological and psychological differences between the left and right hemispheres, but after McGilchrist sets down all the facts as he found them, it's a fascinating read. Though he repeatedly cautions the reader that the hemispheric differences are not to be considered absolute in any way (as they depend on each other and we are almost always using both hemispheres in our day-to-day lives), his book ironically ...more
Gary  Beauregard Bottomley
Nov 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ (the last line from the movie ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance’). It doesn’t really matter if the metaphor (the legend) is scientific, what really matters if you learn and grow from it as I did with this book. This book is flawed but it can be liberating for those who strongly fit into his main metaphor and no longer feel the need to justify themselves to the world because they can now say “that’s just the way I am and I’ve got the metaphor to pr ...more
Vagabond of Letters, DLitt
Jul 20, 2018 rated it did not like it
Shelves: dont-own
2/10. A terrible book which could be profitably, and with little loss, compressed from its current 600-page bloat to no more than the 40 or 60 pages of a short thesis, and even more profitably then have its thesis inverted. I save the appellation 'truly terrible', which I don't believe I've used before, to denote that if someone were to write the exact inverse of this book - interpreting opposite to the author in a framework inverted from that present - that someone would probably have a four-st ...more
Nov 18, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: neuroscience
This book had a lot of potential. Clearly other people feel as if it reached it potential. I am in the minority of people who rated fewer than 5 stars, but I was so happy to reach the end. The introduction spent pages and pages telling me what I should think. Just show me the data and the methods by which the data was acquired. He went on and on... and on about how it's not respectable to study hemispheric differences. This book was written in 2009. Students and highly respected professors alike ...more
Randy Fertel
Jul 12, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Magisterial treatment of left and right brain hemispheres by a psychiatrist and neuroscientist who read English lit (and apparently philosophy) at Oxford. This is where neuroscience comes of age. McGilchrist offers a readable account on the workings of the hemispheres, then a sweeping account of how in history since the Greeks -- reflected in literature and philosophy and science -- they have come to dysfunction, the rationalistic left brain usurping the intuitive gestalt function of the right. ...more
Dec 19, 2011 rated it it was ok
Part 1 is great and would get 4 stars on its own, but I'm left wishing I hadn't invested so much time reading part 2. The principal thesis of the book is a defense of the right brain against the mainstream view of it as a flaky, playful, and less competent portion of the brain. Part 1 does this on the grounds of the latest science, which provides fascinating revelations. For example, a right-brain stroke is more debilitating than an equivalent left-brain stroke, and many of common psychiatric il ...more
Mar 24, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This work is not for everyone, but I give my highest recommendation. If you have ever had an interest in the brain, consciousness, or how we all perceive and engage the world, this might your cup of tea. Iain McGilchrist does an incredible job with developing our current understanding of the brain from a hemispheric point of view. The work completely altered my understanding of the right and left hemispheres. The way the right and left sides work are not what you may think. The book then takes y ...more
I picked up the idea of the left and right side brain through the well-regarded book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by art teacher Betty Edwards. In her book, the left-brain handles the perceiving and processing verbally and analytically. In describing the right side of the brain, however, she instructed students to understand and draw of edges and lines, space between items, perspective, and proportion between things, light and shadows and the whole (gestalt) as the first four. The left ...more
William Schram
Aug 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
In his book The Master and His Emissary Iain McGilchrist delves deep into the brain and what it tells us about ourselves. McGilchrist mainly focuses on the differences between brain hemispheres that everyone has. Most people have heard of the differences between the right brain and the left brain. These are often far too generalized to be of use to anyone and there are always exceptions. McGilchrist speaks of the myths and facts of the different brain hemispheres and attempts to answer a simple ...more
Ronin Winter
Wow... a beautiful and erudite book. It starts off with the statement that the common perception between the dichotomy of the left and right hemisphere is a myth yet holds some truth. The left and the right hemisphere have opposing viewpoints and perspectives on the nature of reality; the left sees the world as mechanistic, sequential and analytical, it breaks down reality bit by bit delving towards conceptual and metaphorical frameworks of the world. The right on the other hand sees the world i ...more
Richard Newton
A long slow read for me. McGilchrist seems to be one of those people who really does have a brain the size of a planet - few people could be a consultant psychiatrist, have done scientific research at John Hopkins and taught English at Oxford. His wide spanning knowledge shows in this book where he flows effortlessly between discussions about the structure of the brain, philosophy, literature, poetry, art and history. This is intellectually impressive stuff.

This is a disturbing book, well argued
Mar 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
This is a phenomenal book, perhaps one of the best I've ever read. It is neither short nor an easy one. There are more than 500 pages of very dense text that could easily span above 800 in a bit more conventional typesetting... But the true challenge comes from the author; a true erudite, a modern day polymath, who effortlessly combines neuroscience, with philosophy, with literature, with arts, with social sciences and humanism, and even things that are completely in between, to create a coheren ...more
Darin Stevenson
Dec 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: neuroscience
This book is a key element in understanding the modern milieu in which our species has become 1/10th of our ordinarily accessible intelligence, and think ourselves deities. McGilchrist has done a promethean task; ironically, too — he has sketched with incredible insight and detail the nature of the hemispheres as their are peculiarly organized for producing distinct worlds, and what happens when the dominant ‘twin’... attempts to usurp sovereignty. Essentially, cognitive, relational, social, pol ...more
Tiago Faleiro
This book is brilliant. On one hand, I feel bad for delaying reading it. But on the other hand, the wait allowed me to get into other topics which made me get a lot more out of McGilchrist's work.

The book starts by clarifying some myths about the brain hemispheres, mostly coming from pop-psychology books, especially old ones. For example that the left hemisphere uses logic, words, and language, while the right hemisphere uses feelings and symbols. Some even reduce the whole hemisphere to binary
Siddarth Gore
Mar 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The defining features of the human condition can all be traced to our ability to stand back from the world, from our selves and from the immediacy of experience.

Boy what a book. I would just love to talk about this with anyone who is brave enough to bring it up.

The right hemisphere's particular strength is in understanding meaning as a whole and in context. It is with the right hemisphere that we understand the moral of a story, as well as the point of a joke.

In short one part of our brain looks
Chris Durston
May 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Five stars here not necessarily because I believe that every claim McGilchrist makes is literally true, nor because it's an incredibly enjoyable read, but rather because despite its flaws this must be one of the most thought-provoking works I've come across.

Others have given their observations (at length) of the not-good-nesses, and those things are probably all worth taking into account, but I think paying close attention to what this book says - without feeling compelled to take all or any of
Aug 31, 2019 rated it liked it
462 page, plus footnotes, scholarly work by psychiatrist on what the left and right hemispheres of the brain actually do and how both sides work together to deal with reality. Examines thinking in patients (and societies) that have damage to one or the other hemispheres. Left brain: the self, knowledge of facts, winning/optimisim, language, precision, absolute control, repetitive skills, predictability, statistics, hierarchy, who, what, gaslighting, gambling, addiction, anger, paranoia, dominanc ...more
Feb 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: psychology
“Time is running out,” writes Iain McGilchrist, “and the way we think, which got us into this mess, will not be enough to get us out of it.”. As the philosopher, linguist and poet Jean Gebser stated, we are now in the late-stage [left-brain], deficient mode of the mental-rational structure of consciousness, and there is no guarantee that we'll successfully evolve to the next predicted stage, that of the integral – for as McGilchrist sees, our remaining escape routes to a more right-hemisphere, o ...more
Roxann Howard
Mar 25, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
The fact that are two brain hemispheres are divided to me is an amazing fact. What about a divided brain makes us more likely to survive than a brain that is not. Amazing. There are lots of pages in this book explaining the talents of the right and left side of our brains. And, the theory stated succinctly is the left side is gaining more and more power in this world, and is not serving us well, not serving us as an emissary should. If this were written in five pages, I would have loved it. But, ...more
Jul 23, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wow--while I found this book completely fascinating, it is NOT an easy read. It took me a long time to finish it, though I'm very glad I did. I am intrigued by the workings of our brains and this book was a very thought provoking, informative way of looking at current brain research and how it applies to history.

This book points out the complexity, the divided nature of thought itself and asks about its connection with the structure of the brain. McGilchrist looks at the relation between our tw
Like a religious tome-- need to own, re-read & contemplate.

Can't help but think of Leonard Schlain's work positing that the rise of alphabetic language fueled domination by the left hemisphere, resulting in changes in culture. (Also seems like this book explains why we are Predictably Irrational and Strangers to Ourselves, etc.)

Oddly, reading this (& others) prompted me to ponder Fiction (perhaps because have taught Romeo & Juliet to 9th graders). That is, Fiction's domination over worldview is
Nov 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
Goes way beyond what science currently is able to tell us; the authors makes some sweeping, grandiose claims and generalizations while giving the false impression that the views described are backed by solid, incontrovertible data, instead of disputed, controversial, or even nonexistent facts. The author is sometimes guilty of presenting myth as fact,
On the plus side, it's an interesting read and a welcome respite from the torrent of popular neuroscience and popular psychology works arguing that
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Brain Science Pod...: The Divided Brain 2 32 Apr 29, 2012 12:31PM  

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