This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Master and His Emissary" by Iain McGilchrist. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.
Does it seem like we’re increasingly losing meaning in our lives? Are we prioritizing knowledge over wisdom?
Iain McGilchrist argues that the right brain hemisphere is more important than the left. The problem is that we live in an era when the left brain dominates. He makes three predictions about a world dominated by the left hemisphere and explains why such a world would diminish our happiness.
Keep reading to learn three ways that left-brain hemispheric dominance is detrimental to society, according to McGilchrist.
The Cost of Continued Left Hemisphere Dominance
McGilchrist believes the left hemisphere has grown increasingly powerful in the modern world. So, it raises the question: What would happen if the left hemisphere never relinquished its power? We’ll examine McGilchrist’s answers to this question, first addressing his speculation about the nature of a world of left-brain hemispheric dominance and then discussing his arguments about the possibility of happiness in such a world.
McGilchrist paints a multifaceted picture of the losses suffered in a left hemisphere-dominated world, but we’ll focus on three key losses: the loss of wisdom, the loss of contact with the “real world,” and the loss of meaning.
Harm #1: Losing Wisdom to Knowledge
According to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere’s world would prioritize “knowledge” to the detriment of wisdom, because the left hemisphere’s emphasis on narrower, minute details is incompatible with wisdom’s understanding of the bigger picture. McGilchrist reminds us that the left hemisphere is more detail-oriented, as evidenced by its capacity for selective attention compared to the right hemisphere’s capacity for global attention. The upshot, he contends, is that the left hemisphere’s world would exalt increasingly specialized forms of knowledge. By contrast, the more general wisdom that comes from broad experiences would be seen as less valuable—even illusory, since it can’t be broken down into the concrete details processed by the left hemisphere.
(Shortform note: McGilchrist doesn’t offer an explicit definition of “wisdom,” and traditional philosophical accounts of wisdom are varied. Plato, for example, arguably defined wisdom as a keen awareness of how little we actually know. By contrast, in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that wisdom is ambiguous, leading him to distinguish between theoretical and practical wisdom. On one hand, he equated theoretical wisdom with a combination of scientific knowledge and intuitive reason—a form of wisdom that actually requires the left hemisphere’s propensity for details. On the other hand, he held that practical wisdom requires understanding how to live a flourishing life, one guided by moral virtue.)
Harm #2: Losing the Real World to the Virtual World
Further, McGilchrist argues that the left hemisphere would prefer the virtual world to the real world because it prefers abstract representations of objects rather than actual objects. He points out that virtual realities are essentially collections of abstract representations, making them attractive to the left hemisphere. By contrast, the actual, tangible objects in the real world are associated with the right hemisphere, making them less attractive to the left hemisphere.
(Shortform note: Since The Master and His Emissary’s publication in 2009, the virtualization of the Western world has been undeniable. Indeed, virtual reality (VR) headsets—devices that connect us to a simulated environment from a first-person perspective—have become increasingly mainstream, and Meta (formerly Facebook) has even attempted to create a Metaverse, an interactive virtual reality accessible via VR headset.)
Harm #3: Losing Meaning to a Mechanistic Worldview
Finally, McGilchrist contends that the left hemisphere’s world would see a loss of meaning because it understands the world as a machine devoid of higher value. He reasons that, because the left hemisphere can only process parts rather than wholes, it reduces complicated wholes to mechanistic sets of parts that lack meaning. In the case of human beings, for example, it views them as collections of atoms rather than irreducibly complex wholes. Such a worldview, he argues, is incompatible with deeper values—such as justice, beauty, and holiness. Consequently, McGilchrist concludes that the left hemisphere’s mechanistic worldview can only accommodate base values, like pleasure and pain.
(Shortform note: The mechanistic worldview that McGilchrist laments is also known as physicalism, according to which everything is physical and thus governed by mechanistic physical laws. However, many physicalists deny McGilchrist’s claim that, if physicalism were true, then the world would be devoid of higher value. Instead, these physicalists often embrace moral naturalism—the view that true moral judgments (as well as other value judgments, like those about justice and beauty) are identical to physical facts—for instance, they might equate goodness with pleasure, meaning that goodness depends on the physical brain states that generate pleasure.)
Happiness in the Left Hemisphere’s World
Though these losses are significant, McGilchrist notes that the left hemisphere might justify them as necessary sacrifices for a greater goal—happiness. In turn, he considers a key question: Would the left hemisphere’s world maximize our happiness? Ultimately, he argues that the left hemisphere’s world would leave us far less happy because it exalts goals such as power and material success that aren’t strongly correlated with happiness.
To begin, McGilchrist points out that the left hemisphere’s inclination toward maximizing utility leads it to focus on generating economic gain. In practice, this means that the left hemisphere seeks to manipulate its surroundings for its own benefit—especially natural resources, whose beauty the left hemisphere cannot understand because it views the natural world as a mere mechanism.
However, McGilchrist argues that this capitalist focus on economic gain isn’t likely to make us happier. To show as much, he points to studies showing that in the US, life satisfaction has actually decreased since the late 20th century, despite economic prosperity increasing sharply. Moreover, he notes that the same is true of Great Britain, whose residents reported higher levels of happiness in the 1950s than they do today, despite being vastly more wealthy. McGilchrist points out that, according to several research studies, happiness is only correlated with salary up to a certain point (about $20,000 USD), after which it plateaus.
(Shortform note: The extent to which happiness is dependent upon salary is highly contentious. One influential 2010 study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found that emotional well-being—that is, the emotional quality of daily life—plateaus at around $75,000 per year, past which point no significant increase is detectable. However, in a 2022 article co-authored by Kahneman, researchers found contradictory evidence suggesting that for the large majority of Americans, emotional well-being tends to increase up to at least a $500,000 per year salary threshold.)
By contrast, McGilchrist asserts that our social connectedness is in fact most predictive of life satisfaction, according to researchers. However, forging social connections is a distinct strength of the right hemisphere, with its capacity for empathy and meaningful communication. So, it stands to reason that in a world dominated by the left hemisphere, we would be less happy, as we would struggle to form meaningful relationships.
(Shortform note: One key reason why social connectedness is predictive of happiness is that, within social networks, happiness is contagious. Researchers have found that being surrounded by happy people in your social network makes you far more likely to be happy yourself. However, the converse is also true, as participating in social networks full of unhappy people is likely to make you less happy.)
Exercise: Assess McGilchrist’s Historical Arguments
McGilchrist argues that the left hemisphere’s continued influence threatens to upend contemporary society and leave us without meaning or happiness. In this exercise, reflect on McGilchrist’s predictions and propose ways to address the left hemisphere’s undue power.
- In light of the hemisphere differences that McGilchrist cites, how would you describe your own relationship toward your left and right hemisphere? For example, do you resonate more with the specialties of one hemisphere in particular?
- To what extent do you agree with McGilchrist that the left hemisphere is dominant in society today? Explain your answer.
- Which ramifications of continued left hemisphere dominance are you most worried about? Why?
- Which steps do you think we as a society (or as individuals) should take to keep the left hemisphere in check? Why?
———End of Preview———
Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Iain McGilchrist's "The Master and His Emissary" at Shortform.
Here's what you'll find in our full The Master and His Emissary summary:
- How pop psychology has given us the wrong impressions of the brain's hemispheres
- Why the right hemisphere is actually more important than the left
- What would happen if left-hemisphere thinking took over the world