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Our Two “Takes” on the World

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These ideas come from The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist.  Links below.  (Article – not particularly funny!)

What can the way a bird pecks at a seed tell us about ourselves and society?

This is the big idea that’s exciting me right now:  That the two hemispheres of our brain process the world in different, competing ways.

This isn’t the old misleading idea that the left hemisphere does language and the right hemisphere does imagery.  Both hemispheres are involved in everything.  But they do it differently.  And the competition between them creates different kinds of experience and thinking.


  • a micro-summary
  • what associations come up for me
  • suggestions if you want to find out more

Micro Summary

To condense 400 pages into a few paragraphs:

Our left hemisphere sees parts, not the whole.  It splits and abstracts experience into details, symbols and maps.  A narrow focus on what it already knows.  It makes things explicit. It sees the world as tools to get things done.  This is the hemisphere birds use to focus on a seed it already knows is there.

Our right hemisphere is the opposite.  It sees the whole, not the parts.  It experiences things implicitly.  It “gets” humour, music, beauty and intuition in a way that can’t be explained.  It is open to new information.  This is the hemisphere birds use to be aware of what else is going on around them.

One hemisphere isn’t better than another.  Their different “takes” on the world each have uses.  But they compete with each other.  As well as connecting the two halves of our brains, one of the corpus callosum’s main jobs is to allow one hemisphere to inhibit the other so we end up experiencing a situation in a particular way.

Patients who had their corpus callosum severed to ease debilitating epilepsy – so-called “split-brain” patients – found their different hemispheres doing different things.  For example, one hand would reach for an item of clothing while the other hand, controlled by the opposite hemisphere, would put it away again.

Seeing It Everywhere

So many associations and ideas coming up!  Here are some of the thoughts pinging around my mind.

To me, it points to the different ways we can understand.  Our right hemisphere can “get” humour, poetry, art and dance implicitly without words.  If we try to explain a joke or poem, we lose its essence because we’ve switched to a left-hemisphere way of seeing it.  You can “understand” something (left hemisphere) without “getting” it (right hemisphere).  Equally, you can “get” something without “understanding”.  Like when you find something funny or beautiful but can’t explain why.  These are the right and left hemispheres competing.

The map is not the territory.  The left hemisphere distances itself from the world to think with symbols, while the right hemisphere is more closely in touch with immediate experience.  It’s the difference between knowing “that’s a tree” and being able to experience being with it particular tree.  The left hemisphere’s way of abstracting into symbols can be very useful:  A map makes it easier to navigate.  But the symbolic world can feel empty.  McGilchrist says “You can laugh, cry, eat and sleep in New York but you can’t do those things in a map of New York.”  This is like when our thinking and analysing can get in the way of having the experience.

You can’t see the parts and the whole at the same time.  The left hemisphere sees the world as separate parts, like cogs in a machine.  The right hemisphere sees the context.  We can look at a mountain as a whole or look at a tiny part under a microscope, but we can’t do both at the same time.  They’re different experiences of a mountain.  This reminds me of how we can sometimes get lost obsessing over a tiny detail and can help ourselves by pulling back to see the big picture.  Or sometimes the opposite!

We make up any old nonsense.  The left hemisphere loves to find reasons to explain why things are the way they are.  But left to its own devices it will make up any semi-plausible explanation.  For example, patients with right hemisphere damage have been known to deny their arm is theirs, insisting instead that it must belong to someone else.  This reminds me of how we can come up with a story that justifies anything – whether pleasant (“I’m so great!”) or unpleasant (“I’m so awful!”).  It’s the left hemisphere coming up with a plausible explanation, but it’s not reality.  That’s why we need to be cautious of the stories our left hemisphere creates.

It also reminds me of crazy improv characters.  The character believes their story of the world and there’s usually some kind of logic to it.  Seeing that very human madness is what makes it funny.  It shows us a left hemisphere logical loop disconnected from reality.

It points out the dead end/blind alley of overthinking.  To me, this is why we humans can sometimes overthink to the point that nothing makes sense any more.  The left hemisphere thinks if it can analyse enough, it will eventually find an answer.   Overthinking is the discovery that there is no satisfying answer to be found that way.  Excessive symbolic, explicit thinking cuts us off from the holistic experience that gives us the feeling that A, B or C is the right thing for us.

A bit like the Einstein quote at the top of this email, McGilchrist sees modern society as skewed towards the left hemisphere’s preferred way of thinking:  Analysing, seeing fragments instead of the whole, assuming linear cause-and-effect relationships, and seeing the world as a tool to be used.  Some find this debateable but I find it a fascinating way of thinking.

Aaaaa!  So much to explore!  It’s giving me a super useful frame to understand others and myself.

Have you read it?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Ways to Explore

Great introduction to Michael Gazzaniga’s work with split-brain patients

The Master and His Emissary book and audiobook is McGilchrist’s main work and is excellent and buzzing with ideas.  But it’s veeery long!  And not always written in the most engaging way.  Maybe try it if you’re excited about the ideas or enjoy reading. Available everywhere.

Some more accessible ways to explore.  I’ve put them in order of recommendation.   Let me know if you find any other good ones.

This illustrated 11-minute RSA Animate talk hits some of the main points very quickly (although maybe too quickly to follow).

RSA ANIMATE: The Divided Brain

McGilchrist’s 20-minute TEDx talk in Ghent.  Mainly on the social aspects and he’s not a particularly charismatic speaker, but a good overview.

Anyone with half a brain can see that! Iain McGilchrist at TEDxGhent

RSA talk The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.  This is the 30-minute talk that the animation was taken from.  More neuroscience in this one.

Iain McGilchrist - The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

There is a film The Divided Brain here and also on Amazon.  It’s mainly focused on personalities and the social implications of McGilchrist’s work and skips the fascinating science.

In researching this I also noticed several conversations between McGilchrist and Mark Tyrrell, who was my first hypnotherapy teacher!

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