In Iain McGilchrist’s stupendous work, The Master and his Emissary, the author argues that the right and left hemispheres perform similar functions, but in very different ways. McGilchrist contends that the right brain is the superior of the two, hence the name of the book. The subtitle of his book is, The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.
First of all, I personally do not accept the idea that we think only because we have a brain. In my worldview, the brain is a machine, a computer, that filters our experience, and helps us survive in a very dangerous world. I believe we think with our entire being, body and soul. If we were to be fully aware of all knowledge and comprehend all mysteries, which we are certainly capable of, we would not be able to live a practical life here on earth. We would be so entranced by the knowledge of being one with all things that we wouldn’t be able to function in a practical manner. I am reminded of the story told by Plato about the philosopher, Thales, where he fell into a well while gazing up at the stars.
The Roman poet Ennius summed up the lesson to be learned from the story in the line Quod est ante pedes nemo spectat, caeli scrutantur plagas (No one regards what is before his feet when searching out the regions of the sky). -Wikipedia
We are indeed divine, but if we fully experienced all knowledge all the time, we would not be able to carry on our lives. Our brain filters out what we don’t need to know at any given moment, and it brings things to consciousness when we need them.
McGilchrist believes the right hemisphere of the brain has precedence over the left hemisphere, in that it “underwrites the knowledge that the other comes to have, and is alone able to synthesize what both know into a usable whole” (McGilchrist 4739).
The history of Western thought has been a wrestling match between the two hemispheres. Western philosophy began as an amazement, an astonishment at the wonder of Being, which is characteristic of the right brain. Around the time of the Stoics, it was in vogue for philosophers to not be astonished or amazed at anything, as if this were a sign of a true thinker. After the left brain becomes predominant, the consensus is that
The mark of the true philosopher becomes not the capacity to see things as they are, and therefore to be awestruck by the fact of Being, but precisely the opposite, to keep cool in the face of existence, to systematise and clarify the world, so that it is re-presented as an object of knowledge. The role of the philosopher, as of the scientist, becomes to demystify (ibid. 4785).
The left brain became predominant around the time of Aristotle, with his emphasis on analytical, calculative thinking. From then until the twentieth century, the left brain, having won the wrestling match, brought us to a world that was devoid of wonder and amazement, that was totally materialistic, being composed of cold, dead matter. But then certain twentieth-century thinkers, such as Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Whitehead, began to write from a sense of wonder and astonishment of the world. Even prior to this, Goethe, Coleridge, Schelling,and others began to think in a different way. And with the discovery of quantum mechanics, we became aware that the world was not a mechanistic machine, as many previous thinkers believed. The world was once again mysterious and filled with wonder. The right brain had regained its rightful place, but there was still a long road ahead.
McGilchrist’s theory is not an either/or situation; it is both/and. Both hemispheres work together, but the right brain is meant to be predominant. The right brain “presences” something, and the left brain re-presents it. That’s they way things are supposed to work, but when the left brain attempts to mimic its sibling, things go downhill. McGilchrist’s proof of the right brain’s “primacy of experience” involves the “left hemisphere’s most powerful tool, referential language…[it] has its origin in the body and the right hemisphere: a sort of primacy of means” (ibid. 4814). One proof is that all language is metaphorical, and metaphor is the domain of the right brain.
With that in mind, the soul spelunker will be very interested in the topic of metaphor, since Soul operates in the realm of imagination and metaphor, or, as Henry Corbin called it, the mundus imaginalis.
In his book, The Secret Teachers of the Western World, Gary Lachman makes the case that the right brain is the realm of esotericism. This also concerns Soul. The esoteric tradition
believes in a living, organic, spiritual, even conscious universe, rather than a dead, mechanical oblivious one. It is also concerned more with the whole than with the part, with the “correspondences” between things–the “network of connections that links everything with everything else”–than with what separates them. It is also more attuned to kind of simultaneity associated with the the right brain than with the sequential thought associated with the left (Lachman 12).
Furthermore, the left brain is obsessed with time and the future, while the right brain is more concerned with the eternal and timelessness. According to some split-brain theorists, the right brain is much older than the left, having evolved earlier.
As McGilchrist points out, “The major difference between the hemispheres lies in their relationship with the unconscious mind…” (McGilchrist 5040). As investigators of Soul, this is really our main concern. Does communication with the unconscious mind come via the right hemisphere, which is then re-presented to the conscious mind by the left hemisphere? Why does such communication occur less now, in general, than in the past? My next post will examine these questions.
Lachman, Gary. The Secret Teachers of the Western World. Penguin, 2015. Kindle ed.
McGilchrist, Iain (2009-12-15). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Kindle ed. Yale University Press.