Is Language Left or Right Brain? Why Both Hemispheres Matter

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.

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Is language left or right brain? What role does each hemisphere play in understanding language?

Despite the popular caricature of the right hemisphere as “silent,” psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist contends that it plays a crucial role in understanding language. He discusses the vital roles that both the left brain and right brain play in our use and interpretation of words.

Read more to learn what we understand about language and the brain.

Language and the Brain

Is language left or right brain? McGilchrist explains that the matter of language and the brain isn’t quite black-and-white. By examining the effects of injuries to the right and left hemispheres, he argues that, though the left hemisphere grasps formal linguistic rules, only the right hemisphere grasps the implicit meaning that language conveys.

He notes that, when people suffer from right hemisphere damage (and therefore rely on their left hemisphere), they often speak sentences that are syntactically and grammatically flawless but nonsensical. In a similar vein, children that suffer right hemisphere injuries struggle to understand entire sentences, even when they know each of the individual words. 

(Shortform note: By contrast, individuals that suffer left hemisphere brain damage often struggle to express grammatically coherent sentences and, in the case of children, often have difficulty retaining vocabulary. However, experts note that our brain’s plasticity—that is, its ability to modify its structure to perform different functions—makes it possible to improve speech and language skills even after a traumatic brain injury.)

McGilchrist concedes that the left hemisphere can understand denotative meaning; for example, it can understand that the word “chair” refers to a four-legged, inanimate object that we sit on. For this reason, the left hemisphere has a much larger vocabulary than the right hemisphere. But he reiterates that only the right hemisphere is able to understand the meaning of those terms in context. For example, only the right hemisphere understands that, when we call people “early birds,” we aren’t literally asserting that they’re birds. 

(Shortform note: Though denotative meaning is ubiquitous in language, philosophers and linguists have struggled to understand how denotative meaning works—that is, how do specific terms come to refer to specific objects? There’s no clear consensus as to the answer. For example, according to the descriptivist view, words refer because they’re associated with descriptions of certain objects; the word “rabbit” refers to rabbits, for example, because that’s just how we use the word “rabbit.” Other views, however, offer a more complicated picture; the intentionalist view, for instance, requires that we use words with a specific intention to refer to the object in mind—as when a speaker means to identify a specific individual animal.)

Likewise, McGilchrist asserts that only the right hemisphere can grasp metaphors because metaphors don’t depend on the denotative meaning of words but rather on their connotative meaning. For instance, the meaning of being “green with envy” doesn’t depend on the color green (the denotative meaning) but rather the association of green with jealousy (the connotative meaning).

The upshot, according to McGilchrist, is that the right hemisphere is crucial for understanding the world because we can’t understand the world without metaphors. After all, many aspects of life—such as beauty, love, and pain—can’t be described through denotative language alone. To understand and describe such phenomena, McGilchrist suggests we need to use metaphor.

(Shortform note: If it were possible to understand the world without metaphor, we might expect languages that don’t use metaphor to have developed. However, experts point out that all known natural languages use metaphors. Indeed, metaphor has long played a crucial role in human communication, as evidenced by the richness of metaphor in Homer’s epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad, which were composed around the 7th century B.C.)

Is Language Left or Right Brain? Why Both Hemispheres Matter

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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

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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