The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World - Iain McGilchrist (2009)



All the miseries of man but prove his greatness. They are the miseries of a great lord, the miseries of a king that is dispossessed – Pascal1

ARE THERE DRIVES BEHIND THE DIFFERENCES I HAVE OUTLINED BETWEEN THE hemispheres? The hemispheres appear to stand in relation to one another in terms that ask for human understanding and the application of human values – just as the competition of genes appears ‘selfish’. Putting it in such human terms, it appears essential for the creation of full human consciousness and imagination that the right hemisphere places itself in a position of vulnerability to the left. The right hemisphere, the one that believes, but does not know, has to depend on the other, the left hemisphere, that knows, but doesn't believe. It is as though a power that has an infinite, and therefore intrinsically uncertain, potential Being needs nonetheless to submit to be delimited – needs stasis, certainty, fixity – in order to Be. The greater purpose demands the submission. The Master needs to trust, to believe in, his emissary, knowing all the while that that trust may be abused. The emissary knows, but knows wrongly, that he is invulnerable. If the relationship holds, they are invincible; but if it is abused, it is not just the Master that suffers, but both of them, since the emissary owes his existence to the Master.


Let us try to imagine what the world would look like if the left hemisphere became so far dominant that, at the phenomenological level, it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere's world altogether. What would that be like?2

We could expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focussed, restricted, but detailed, view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview. The broader picture would in any case be disregarded, because it would lack the appearance of clarity and certainty which the left hemisphere craves. In general, the ‘bits’ of anything, the parts into which it could be disassembled, would come to seem more important, more likely to lead to knowledge and understanding, than the whole, which would come to be seen as no more than the sum of the parts. Ever more narrowly focussed attention would lead to an increasing specialisation and technicalising of knowledge. This in turn would promote the substitution of information, and information gathering, for knowledge, which comes through experience. Knowledge, in its turn, would seem more ‘real’ than what one might call wisdom, which would seem too nebulous, something never to be grasped. One would expect the left hemisphere to keep doing refining experiments on detail, at which it is exceedingly proficient, but to be correspondingly blind to what is not clear or certain, or cannot be brought into focus right in the middle of the visual field. In fact one would expect a sort of dismissive attitude to anything outside of its limited focus, because the right hemisphere's take on the whole picture would simply not be available to it.

Knowledge that came through experience, and the practical acquisition of embodied skill, would become suspect, appearing either a threat or simply incomprehensible. It would be replaced by tokens or representations, formal systems to be evidenced by paper qualifications. The concepts of skill and judgment, once considered the summit of human achievement, but which come only slowly and silently with the business of living, would be discarded in favour of quantifiable and repeatable processes. Expertise, which is what actually makes an expert (Latin expertus, ‘one who is experienced’), would be replaced by ‘expert’ knowledge that would have in fact to be based on theory, and in general one would expect a tendency increasingly to replace the concrete with the theoretical or abstract, which would come to seem more convincing. Skills themselves would be reduced to algorithmic procedures which could be drawn up, and even if necessary regulated, by administrators, since without that the mistrustful tendencies of the left hemisphere could not be certain that these nebulous ‘skills’ were being evenly and ‘correctly’ applied.

There would be an increase in both abstraction and reification, whereby the human body itself and we ourselves, as well as the material world, and the works of art we made to understand it, would become simultaneously more conceptual and seen as mere things. The world as a whole would become more virtualised, and our experience of it would be increasingly through meta-representations of one kind or another; fewer people would find themselves doing work involving contact with anything in the real, ‘lived’ world, rather than with plans, strategies, paperwork, management and bureaucratic procedures. In fact, more and more work would come to be overtaken by the meta-process of documenting or justifying what one was doing or supposed to be doing – at the expense of the real job in the living world. Technology would flourish, as an expression of the left hemisphere's desire to manipulate and control the world for its own pleasure, but it would be accompanied by a vast expansion of bureaucracy, systems of abstraction and control. The essential elements of bureaucracy, as described by Peter Berger and his colleagues (see p. 390 above), show that they would thrive in a world dominated by the left hemisphere. The authors list them as: the necessity of procedures that are known, and in principle knowable; anonymity; organisability; predictability; a concept of justice that is reduced to mere equality; and explicit abstraction. There is a complete loss of the sense of uniqueness. All of these features are identifiable as facilitated by the left hemisphere.

So much for the tendencies towards abstraction. But there would also be the tendencies towards reification. Increasingly the living would be modelled on the mechanical. This would also have effects on the way the bureaucracies would deal with human situations and with society at large. When we deal with a machine, there are three things we want to know: how much it can do, how fast it can do it, and with what degree of precision. These qualities summarise what distinguishes a good machine from a bad one: it is more productive, faster and more precise than a less good one. However, changes in scale, speed and precision in the real world all change the quality of the experience, and the ways in which we interact with one another: increasing them no longer gives a clearly positive outcome – it can even be very damaging. In human affairs, increasing the amount or extent of something, or the speed with which something happens, or the inflexible precision with which it is conceived or applied, can actually destroy. But since the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of What, quantity would be the only criterion that it would understand. The right hemisphere's appreciation of How (quality) would be lost. As a result considerations of quantity might come actually to replace considerations of quality altogether, and without the majority of people being aware that anything had happened.

Numbers, which the left hemisphere feels familiar with and is excellent at manipulating (though, it may be remembered, it is less good at understanding what they mean), would come to replace the response to individuals, whether people, places, things or circumstances, which the right hemisphere would have distinguished. ‘Either/or’ would tend to be substituted for matters of degree, and a certain inflexibility would result.

Berger and colleagues emphasise that consciousness changes its nature in a world geared to technological production. It adopts a number of qualities which again are clearly manifestations of the world according to the left hemisphere, and therefore in such a world technology could be expected to flourish and, in turn, further to entrench the left hemisphere's view of the world – just as bureaucracy would be both a product of the left hemisphere and a reinforcement of it in the external world. In a society dominated by technology, Berger and colleagues predict what they refer to as: ‘mechanisticity’, which means the development of a system that permits things to be reproduced endlessly, and enforces submergence of the individual in a large organisation or production line; ‘measurability’, in other words the insistence on quantification, not qualification; ‘componentiality’, that is to say reality reduced to self-contained units, so that ‘everything is analysable into constituent components, and everything can be taken apart and put together again in terms of these components'; and an ‘abstract frame of reference’, in other words loss of context.3 The philosopher Gabriel Marcel speaks of the difficulty in maintaining one's integrity as a unique, individual subject, in a world where a combination of the hubris of science and the drive of technology blots out the awe-inspiring business of conscious human existence, what he refers to as ‘the mystery of being’, and replaces it with a set of technical problems for which they purport to have solutions. He warns that in such circumstances we would be too easily persuaded to accept the role thrust upon us, to become an object, no longer a subject, and would connive at our own annihilation.4

Philosophically, the world would be marked by fragmentation, appearing to its inhabitants as if a collection of bits and pieces apparently randomly thrown together; its organisation, and therefore meaning, would come only through what we added to it, through systems designed to maximise utility. Because the mechanical would be the model by which everything, including ourselves and the natural world, would be understood, people in such a society would find it hard to understand the higher values in Scheler's hierarchy except in terms of ultimate utility, and there would be a derogation of such higher values, and a cynicism about their status. Morality would come to be judged at best on the basis of utilitarian calculation, at worst on the basis of enlightened self-interest.

The left hemisphere prefers the impersonal to the personal, and that tendency would in any case be instantiated in the fabric of a technologically driven and bureaucratically administered society. The impersonal would come to replace the personal. There would be a focus on material things at the expense of the living. Social cohesion, and the bonds between person and person, and just as importantly between person and place, the context in which each person belongs, would be neglected, perhaps actively disrupted, as both inconvenient and incomprehensible to the left hemisphere acting on its own. There would be a depersonalisation of the relationships between members of society, and in society's relationship with its members. Exploitation rather than co-operation would be, explicitly or not, the default relationship between human individuals, and between humanity and the rest of the world. Resentment would lead to an emphasis on uniformity and equality, not as just one desirable to be balanced with others, but as the ultimate desirable, transcending all others. As a result individualities would be ironed out and identification would be by categories: socioeconomic groups, races, sexes, and so on, which would also feel themselves to be implicitly or explicitly in competition with, resentful of, one another. Paranoia and lack of trust would come to be the pervading stance within society both between individuals, and between such groups, and would be the stance of government towards its people.

Such a government would seek total control – it is an essential feature of the left hemisphere's take on the world that it can grasp it and control it. Talk of liberty, which is an abstract ideal for the left hemisphere, would increase for Machiavellian reasons, but individual liberty would be curtailed. Panoptical control would become an end in itself, and constant CCTV monitoring, interception of private information and communication, the norm. Measures such as a DNA database would be introduced apparently in response to exceptional threats and exceptional circumstances, against which they would in reality be ineffective, their aim being to increase the power of the state and diminish the status of the individual. The concept of the individual depends on uniqueness; but according to the left hemisphere's take on reality, individuals are simply interchangeable (‘equal’) parts of a mechanistic system, a system it needs to control in the interests of efficiency. Thus it would be expected that the state would not only take greaterpower directly, but play down individual responsibility, and the sense of individual responsibility would accordingly decline.

Family relationships, or skilled roles within society, such as those of priests, teachers and doctors, which transcend what can be quantified or regulated, and in fact depend on a degree of altruism, would become the object of suspicion. The left hemisphere misunderstands the nature of such relationships, as it misunderstands altruism as a version of self-interest, and sees them as a threat to its power. We might even expect there to be attempts to damage the trust on which such relationships rely, and, if possible, to discredit them. In any case, strenuous efforts would be made to bring families and professions under bureaucratic control, a move that would be made possible, presumably, only by furthering fear and mistrust.

In such a society people of all kinds would attach an unusual importance to being in control. Accidents and illnesses, since they are beyond our control, would therefore be particularly threatening and would, where possible, be blamed on others, since they would look like a threat to one's capacity to control one's life. The left hemisphere, as will be remembered, is in any case not quick to take responsibility, and sees itself as the passive victim of whatever it is not conscious of having willed. In the Renaissance, as in the nineteenth century, when the right hemisphere was in the ascendant, death was omnipresent in life and literature, was openly spoken of, and was seen as part of the fabric of life itself, in recognition of which alone life could have meaning. According to the left-hemisphere view, death is the ultimate challenge to its sense of control, and, on the contrary, robs life of meaning. It would therefore have to become a taboo, while, at the same time sex, the power of which the right hemisphere realises is based on the implicit, would become explicit and omnipresent. There would be a preoccupation, which might even reach to be an obsession, with certainty and security, since the left hemisphere is highly intolerant of uncertainty, and death would become the ultimate unspeakable.

Reasonableness would be replaced by rationality, and perhaps the very concept of reasonableness might become unintelligible. There would be a complete failure of common sense, since it is intuitive and relies on both hemispheres working together. Anger and aggressive behaviour would become more evident in our social interactions, since of all emotional states these are the most highly characteristic of the left hemisphere, and would no longer be counterbalanced by the empathic skills of the right hemisphere. One would expect a loss of insight, coupled with an unwillingness to take responsibility, and this would reinforce the left hemisphere's tendency to a perhaps dangerously unwarranted optimism. There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one's mind.

The sense of autonomy is complexly related to both hemispheres, but crucially dependent on contributions from the right hemisphere.5 An equivalent to what is called ‘forced utilisation behaviour’ in individuals might be seen: an increasing passivisation and suggestibility (if it's there, you must use it, do it). There would be a lack of will-power in the sense of self-control and self-motivation, but not of will in the sense of acquisitive greed and desire to manipulate. In relation to culture, we would expect people to become increasingly passive. They would see themselves as ‘exposing’ themselves before culture, like a photographic plate to light, or even think of themselves as ‘being exposed’ to such things.

We could expect a rise in the determination to carry out procedures by rote, and perhaps an increasing efficiency at doing so, without this necessarily being accompanied by an understanding of what they mean.

We would expect there to be a resentment of, and a deliberate undercutting of the sense of awe or wonder: Weber's ‘disenchanted’ world. Religion would seem to be mere fantasy. The right hemisphere is drawn forward by exemplars of the qualities it values, where the left hemisphere is driven forward by a desire for power and control: one would expect, therefore, that there would develop an intolerance of, and a constant undercutting, ironising, or deconstructing of such exemplars, in both life and in art. Pathos, the characteristic mode of the right hemisphere, would become impossible, perhaps shameful. It would become hard to discern value or meaning in life at all; a sense of nausea and boredom before life would be likely to lead to a craving for novelty and stimulation.

Experiences or things that we would normally see as having a natural, organically evolving, flowing, structure, would come to seem composed of a succession of frames, a sum of an infinite series of ‘pieces’. This would include the passage of historical or cultural, as well as personal, time, and organically flowing shapes or forms, and ultimately the development, growth and decay of all things that are alive. This corresponds to the Zeitraffer phenomenon. It is coupled with the loss of the sense of uniqueness (see discussion in Chapter 2). Repeatability would lead to an over-familiarity through endless reproduction.

As a culture, we would come to discard tacit forms of knowing altogether. There would be a remarkable difficulty in understanding non-explicit meaning, and a downgrading of non-verbal, non-explicit communication. Concomitant with this would be a rise in explicitness, backed up by ever increasing legislation, de Tocqueville's ‘network of small complicated rules’. As it became less possible to rely on a shared and intuitive moral sense, or implicit contracts between individuals, such rules would become ever more burdensome. There would be a loss of tolerance for, and appreciation of the value of, ambiguity. We would tend to be over-explicit in the language we used to approach art and religion, accompanied by a loss of their vital, implicit and metaphorical power.

We would become, like Descartes, spectators rather than actors in all the ‘comedies’ the world displays. Art would become conceptual, having lost the capacity for eliciting the metaphorical power of its incarnate qualities. Visual art would lack a sense of depth, and distorted or bizarre perspectives would become the norm. Music would be reduced to little more than rhythm; art music would attempt to transcend it, but harmony and melody would be lacking. Dance would become solipsistic, rather than communal. Above all, the word and the idea would come to dominate. Cultural history and tradition, and what can be learnt from the past, would be confidently dismissed in preparation for the systematic society of the future, put together by human will. The body would come to be viewed as a machine, and the natural world as a heap of resource to be exploited. Wild and unre-presented nature, nature not managed and submitted to rational exploitation for science or the ‘leisure industry’, would be seen as a threat, and consequently brought under bureaucratic control as fast as possible. Language would become diffuse, excessive, lacking in concrete referents, clothed in abstraction, with no overall feel for its qualities as a metaphor of mind. Technical language, or the language of bureaucratic systems, devoid of any richness of meaning, and suggesting a mechanistic world, would increasingly be applied across the board, and might even seem unremarkable when applied to descriptions of the human world, and human beings, even the human mind itself.

This is what the world would look like if the emissary betrayed the Master. It's hard to resist the conclusion that his goal is within sight.


I promised earlier that I would look at the results of adopting the more disengaged stance towards the world of the left hemisphere and assess them by the standards of the left hemisphere itself, not those of the right by which it was undoubtedly likely to be found wanting. What has happened to the world so far, and to ourselves, through treating the world as a mechanism? Does the evidence to date suggest that the left hemisphere could succeed in realising its own purpose, the maximisation of happiness? Following the left hemisphere's path has already involved the destruction and despoliation of the natural world, and the erosion of established cultures, on a scale which I scarcely need to emphasise; but this has been justified in terms of its utility in bringing about human happiness. Is a greater capacity to control and manipulate the world for our benefit leading to greater happiness? If not, it is hard indeed to see what its justification could be.

I am aware that, if one adopts the left hemisphere's view, what I am about to say will be difficult to accept, but the fact remains that increases in material well-being have little or nothing to do with human happiness. Obviously poverty is an ill, and everyone needs their basic material needs to be met, and, for most of us, a little more than that. But, if observation and experience of life are not enough to convince us that, beyond that, there is little, if any, correlation between material well-being and happiness, objective data demonstrate it. Over the last twenty-five years, levels of satisfaction with life have actually declined in the US, a period during which there has been an enormous increase in prosperity; and there may even have been a significant inverse relationship between economic growth and happiness there.6 Since those blessed with employment spend much of their life at work, the quality of that experience matters. According to Putnam, in 1955 in the US, 44 per cent of all workers enjoyed their working hours more than anything else they did; by 1999 only 16 per cent did. Of course that might be because we are now enjoying ourselves more outside of work, but that clearly isn't the case, since overall levels of satisfaction have declined. In Britain the story is the same. According to Gallup poll data, throughout the 1950s the British were happier than they are today, despite now being three times richer in real terms. In 1957, 52 per cent of the population considered themselves ‘very happy’, compared with 36 per cent today. Most countries studied show either a decrease or at least no change in well-being despite an increase in prosperity; and no relationship can be found between happiness and economic growth.7 The main determinants of happiness, as one might have expected, are not economic in nature. As two researchers in the area remark, with some restraint, given the huge increases in material prosperity over the last half century for which robust data exist, ‘the intriguing lack of an upward trend in happiness data deserves to be confronted by economists.’8

Perhaps the most remarkable example is that of Japan. In 1958, Japan was one of the poorest countries in the world, comparable with India and Brazil as they then were, with an average income in real terms about one-eighth of that enjoyed in the USA in 1991. Over the last 40 years or more, Japan has enjoyed an astounding, and unprecedented, increase in per capita income, of about 500 per cent in real terms. Yet a repeated finding is that levels of happiness among the Japanese have not changed at all, and the latest data, before the current global economic crisis, showed a slight downturn.9

More recent evidence in Europe displays the same effect. The so-called Euro-Barometer surveys of satisfaction with life, covering fifteen European countries during the decade to 2000, shows four clusters, in each of which the consensus trend is horizontal or slightly negative.10 The hedonic treadmill makes sure of that: modern consumers everywhere are in a ‘permanent state of unfulfilled desire’.11 As usual Sam Johnson got there about a couple of centuries before the research: ‘Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.’12

Geoffrey Miller, a psychologist who has specialised in research into happiness, has found that

a person's age, sex, race, income, geographic location, nationality, and education level have only trivial correlations with happiness, typically explaining less than 2% of the variance. An important exception is that hungry, diseased, oppressed people in developing nations tend to be slightly less happy – but once they reach a certain minimum standard of calorie intake and physical security, further increases in material affluence do not increase their happiness very much.13

Even in the affluent West, happiness reaches a plateau at an average national income that is remarkably low compared with most people's aspirations, variably estimated as between $10,000–$20,000 (£7,500–£15,000) per annum.14

So what does make a difference to happiness? ‘The single most common finding from a half century's research on the correlates of life satisfaction, not only in the United States but around the world’, writes Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, ‘is that happiness is best predicted by’ – let's guess: if not wealth, then health? No, not that either, but – ‘the breadth and depth of one's social connections’.15

Even now, rates of depression do differ markedly between cultures, probably by as much as 12-fold, and such differences in rates of depression appear to be linked to the degree of stability and interconnectedness within a culture.16 Even being uprooted from your own culture, provided you take with you the way of thinking and being that characterises the more integrated social culture from which you come, is not as disruptive to happiness and well-being as becoming part of a relatively fragmented culture. For example, rates of psychological disturbance in Mexican immigrants to the USA start at a low level, but increase in proportion to the time spent in the US. The lifetime prevalence of any mental disorder in one large study was 18 per cent for Mexican immigrants with less than thirteen years in the US, 32 per cent for those with more than thirteen years, but only for those born in the US did it approximate, at 49 per cent, the national rate for the whole US.17

Over recent years, urbanisation, globalisation and the destruction of local cultures has led to a rise in the prevalence of mental illness in the developing world.18 A massive study involving data regarding nearly 40,000 people across North America, Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Rim found that depression is being experienced more often, and at younger ages, with more severe and more frequent episodes, in younger birth cohorts generation by generation, and in the USA had doubled since the Second World War.19

In a demonstration of the integrity of mind and body, it is not just mental health, but physical health that suffers when we are not socially integrated. ‘Social connectedness’ predicts lower rates of colds, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, depression, and premature death of all sorts.20 In fact the positive effects of social integration rival the detrimental effects of smoking, obesity, high blood pressure and physical inactivity.21 According to Putnam, ‘statistically speaking, the evidence for the health consequences of social connectedness is as strong today as was the evidence for health consequences of smoking at the time of the first surgeon general's report on smoking.’22 The protective effect of community is demonstrated by the interesting case of Roseto, a close-knit community of Italian immigrants in Pennsylvania, with largely traditional cultural ties – both the formal ones of churches and clubs, and the informal ones that form the fabric of traditional Italian daily life. This community attracted medical attention in the 1940s because of a mysterious anomaly: here was a rate of heart attack less than half the national average, despite having higher than average risk factors. After the relationship with social connectedness was discovered, it was predicted that once the mobile younger generation moved away and ‘began to reject the tight-knit Italian folkways, the heart attack rate would begin to rise’. By the 1980s this prediction had come true.23

All this, one can't help feeling, would be understood easily enough by the right hemisphere, even if it remains opaque to the left hemisphere. Happiness and fulfilment are by-products of other things, of a focus elsewhere – not the narrow focus on getting and using, but a broader empathic attention. We now see ourselves in largely mechanistic terms, as happiness-maximising machines, and not very successful ones at that. Yet we are capable of other values, and of genuine altruism and, in another Gödelian moment, the Prisoner's Dilemma demonstrates that altruism can be, incidentally, useful and rational. In the real, practical, everyday world what I have called the ‘return to the right hemisphere’ is of ultimate importance.

I do not underestimate the importance of the left hemisphere's contribution to all that humankind has achieved, and to all that we are, in the everyday sense of the word; in fact it is because I value it, that I say that it has to find its proper place, so as to fulfil its critically important role. It is a wonderful servant, but a very poor master. Just as those who believe that religions are mistaken, or even that they have proved to be a greater source of harm than good, must recognise that they have given rise to many valuable and beautiful things, I must make it clear that even the Enlightenment, though I have emphasised its negative aspects, manifestly gave rise to much that is of enduring beauty and value. More than that, the right hemisphere, though it is not dependent on the left hemisphere in the same way that the left is on the right, nonetheless needs it in order to achieve its full potential, in some sense to become fully itself. Meanwhile the left hemisphere is dependent on the right hemisphere both to ground its world, at the ‘bottom’ end, and to lead it back to life, at the ‘top'; but it appears to be in denial about this.

I have referred to the fact that a number of thinkers have observed, often with a sense of unease, that over history intuition has lost ground to rationality; but in general their unease has been tempered by the feeling that this must be in a good cause. I also referred to Panksepp, who posits an evolutionary process involving the disconnection of cognitive from emotional processes. That might appear to be true, and even confirmed by my interpretation. But the reason it may look like what is happening is, I suggest, because we have already fallen for the left hemisphere's propaganda – that what it does is more highly evolved than what the right hemisphere does. This shift is not about evolution, nor even about emotion versus cognition: it is about two modes of being, each with its cognitive and emotional aspects, and each operating at a very high level. It is not about something more evolved competing with something more primitive: in fact the losing party in this struggle, the right hemisphere, is not only more closely in touch with emotion and the body (therefore with the neurologically ‘inferior’ and more ancient regions of the central nervous system) but also has the most sophisticated and extensive, and quite possibly most lately evolved, representation in the prefrontal cortex, the most highly evolved part of the brain.

It seems, then, that, even in its own terms, the left hemisphere is bound to fail. That will, however, not stop it from persisting in its current path. And the task of opposing this trend is made more difficult by the fact that two of the main sources of non-materialistic values, which might therefore have led to resistance, are both prime targets of the process that the left hemisphere has set in motion. We have no longer a consistent coherent tradition in the culture, which might have passed on, in embodied and intuitive form, the fruits of experience of our forebears, what used to form the communal wisdom – perhaps even common sense, to which modernism and post-modernism are implacably opposed. The historic past is continually under threat of becoming little more than a heritage museum, whereby it becomes reconstructed according to the stereotypes of the left hemisphere. And the natural world used to be another source of contact with something that still lay outside the realm of the self-constructed, but that is on the retreat, and many people in any case lead lives almost completely devoid of contact with it.


The left hemisphere is nonetheless subject to paranoia. Internally reflective, or self-reflexive, as the surfaces of its world are, there are points of weakness, potential escape routes from the hall of mirrors, that the left hemisphere fears it may never take hold of completely. These points of weakness in the self-enclosed system are three rather important, indissolubly interlinked, aspects of human existence: the body, the soul and art (which relies on body and soul coming together). Although the left hemisphere plays a part in realising each of these realms of experience, the right hemisphere plays the crucial grounding role in each of them: the ‘lived’ body, the spiritual sense, and the experience of emotional resonance and aesthetic appreciation are all principally right-hemisphere-mediated. What is more they each have an immediacy which bypasses the rational and the explicitness of language, and therefore leads directly to territory potentially outside of the left hemisphere's sphere of control. These areas therefore present a serious challenge to its dominion, and they have evoked a determined response from the left hemisphere in our age.


Although it might seem that we overvalue the body and physical existence in general, this is not what I deduce from our preoccupation with exercise, health and diet, with ‘lifestyles’, concerned though this is with the body and its needs and desires. Nor does it follow from the fact that the body was never so much on display, here or in cyberspace. The body has become a thing, a thing we possess, a mechanism, even if a mechanism for fun, a bit like a sports car with a smart sound system. That mechanistic view derives from the nineteenth-century scientific world picture, which has lingered with us longer in biology and the life sciences than in physics. The body has become an object in the world like other objects, as Merleau-Ponty feared. The left hemisphere's world is ultimately narcissistic, in the sense that it sees the world ‘out there’ as no more than a reflection of itself: the body becomes just the first thing we see out there, and we feel impelled to shape it to our sense of how it ‘should’ be.

In his too little known book Symbol and Metaphor in Human Experience, Martin Foss writes:

The body is not so much an obstacle to life, but an instrument to life, or, as Aristotle rightly put it, a potential for the soul … but indeed life and soul are more than the body and its functions. Soul transcends body and makes one even forget the body. It is the meaning of the body to be transcended and forgotten in the life for which it serves. It is the most essential characteristic of the body that it disappears as an independent thing the more it fulfils its service, and that we get aware of the body as such only if something is wrong, if some part does not serve, that is in sickness or tiredness.24

In this the body performs like a work of art. Just as Merleau-Ponty says that we do not see works of art, but see according to them, so that although they are vital for what we see, it is equally vital that they become transparent in the process, we live in the world according to the body, which needs its transparency, too, if it is to allow us to be fully alive. Merleau-Ponty called this the necessary transparency of the flesh. The current tendency for flesh to remain opaque, in the explicitness of pornography, for example, bids to rob sex of much of its power, and it is interesting that pornography in the modern sense began in the Enlightenment, part of its unhappy pursuit of happiness, and its too ready equation of happiness with pleasure. Like most answers to boredom, pornography is itself characterised by the boredom it aims to dispel: both are a result of a certain way of looking at the world.

Undoubtedly greater openness has brought its benefits, and mechanistic science very clearly has too, and these should not be under-estimated. But they have eroded, along with much else, the power of the body in our lives, by reducing it to a machine. Such a tendency to see the body as an assemblage of parts, or an illness as a series of discrete issues, without reference to the whole (including often vitally important emotional, psychological and spiritual issues), limits the effectiveness of much Western medicine, and drives people to seek alternative treatments which might in other ways be less powerful to help. It is significant that the ‘normal’ scientific materialist view of the body is similar to that found in schizophrenia. Schizophrenic subjects routinely see themselves as machines – often robots, computers, or cameras – and sometimes declare that parts of them have been replaced by metal or electronic components. This goes with a lack of transparency of the flesh. No spirit is seen there: ‘body and soul don't belong together – there's no unity’, as one patient eloquently puts it. This results in the body becoming ‘mere’ matter. As a result, other human beings, too, appear no more than things, because they are walking bodies. Another patient described by R. D. Laing ‘perceived the actions of his wife – a vivacious and lively woman – as those of a kind of robot, an “it” devoid of inner life. If he told his wife a joke and she ("it") laughed, this showed no real feeling, but only her “conditioned” or mechanical nature.’25 It's hard not to think of Descartes, looking from his window on the world, and seeing not people, but walking machines.

There has, in my view, been a tendency to discount and marginalise the importance of our embodied nature, as though it were something incidental about us, rather than essential to us: our very thinking, never mind our feeling, is bound up with our embodied nature, and must be, and this needs to be acknowledged.26 So does the converse: that the material world is not wholly distinct from consciousness in some way that remains elusive.

Everything about the body, which in neuropsychological terms is more closely related to and mediated by the right hemisphere than the left, makes it a natural enemy of the left hemisphere, the hemisphere of ideal re-presentation rather than embodied fact, of rationalism rather than intuition, of explicitness rather than the implicit, of what is static rather than what is moving, of what is fixed rather than what is changing. The left hemisphere prefers what it has itself made, and the ultimate rebuff to that is the body. It is the ultimate demonstration of the recalcitrance of reality, of its not being subject to our control. The left hemisphere's optimism is at odds with recognising the inevitable transience of the body, and its message that we are mortal. The body is messy, imprecise, limited – an object of scorn, therefore, to the fastidiously abstracted left hemisphere, with its fantasies of human omnipotence. As Alain Corbin has argued, we have become more cerebral, and retreated more and more from the senses – especially from smell, touch and taste – as if repelled by the body; and sight, the coolest of the senses, and the one most capable of detachment, has come to dominate all.27

The left hemisphere's assault on our embodied nature is not just an assault on our bodies, but on the embodied nature of the world around us. Matter is what is recalcitrant to the will. The idea that the ‘material’ world is not just a lump of resource, but reaches into every part of the realm of value, including the spiritual, that through our embodied nature we can commune with it, that there are responses and responsibilities that need to be respected, has largely been lost by the dominant culture. Fortunately, plenty of people still care about the natural world, and there would undoubtedly be an outcry if national parks were targeted for industrialisation; but even here I am afraid that too much of the discussion would be in terms that are reductionist – those of ‘the environment’ – and the arguments, if they are to carry any weight, would have to be made in terms of jobs saved or ‘recreational’ benefit (the benefit being to the economy, principally), and appeals made to ‘biodiversity’, or the ‘viability of the biomass’. The natural world has been commodified, as has art.


The left hemisphere's attack on religion was already well under way by the time of the Reformation, and was taken further by the Enlightenment. With the rise of Romanticism, there was, it is true, as might be expected with a shift of equilibrium towards the right hemisphere, a growth in religious feeling and a sense of the transcendental. Romanticism was in itself a reaffirmation of the importance of the transcendental; affirming, not so much religion, as a sense of the holy, in what is best thought of as a form of panentheism (by contrast with pantheism, which equates God with the sum of things, panentheism sees God as in all things).28 But in the West religion has declined in force in the twentieth century, withering away under the advances of capitalism as the state was advertised to do under Marxism. In early twentieth-century Russia, however, it was still a living power that called forth an intemperate reaction. When the Stalinists replaced the cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan in Moscow with a public lavatory, the left hemisphere (never subtle when it comes to metaphoric thinking) pissed on religion, as it had pissed on art when Marcel Duchamp exhibited his notorious urinal (interestingly one of the charges against the Puritan Cromwell was that his troops used religious buildings as lavatories). The persistence of this left-hemisphere metaphor, such as it is, of urine and faeces in modern art would be remarkable, if one did not know that the left hemisphere lacks metaphorical subtlety and is highly conventional.29

When we decide not to worship divinity, we do not stop worshipping: we merely find something else less worthy to worship. As Nietzsche put it:

Did one not finally have to sacrifice everything comforting, holy, healing, all hope, all faith concealed in harmony, in a future bliss and justice? Did one not have to sacrifice God himself and out of cruelty against oneself worship stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, nothingness? To sacrifice God for nothingness – this paradoxical mystery of the ultimate act of cruelty was reserved for the generation which is even now arising: we all know something of it already.30

The Western Church has, in my view, been active in undermining itself. It no longer has the confidence to stick to its values, but instead joins the chorus of voices attributing material answers to spiritual problems. At the same time the liturgical reform movement, as always convinced that religious truths can be literally stated, has largely eroded and in some cases completely destroyed the power of metaphoric language and ritual to convey the numinous. Meanwhile there has been, as expected, a parallel movement towards the possible rehabilitation of religious practices as utility. Thus 15 minutes Zen meditation a day may make you a more effective money broker, or improve your blood pressure, or lower your cholesterol.

I have tried to convey in this book that we need metaphor or mythos in order to understand the world. Such myths or metaphors are not dispensable luxuries, or ‘optional extras’, still less the means of obfuscation: they are fundamental and essential to the process. We are not given the option not to choose one, and the myth we choose is important: in the absence of anything better, we revert to the metaphor or myth of the machine. But we cannot, I believe, get far in understanding the world, or in deriving values that will help us live well in it, by likening it to the bike in the garage. The 2,000-year old Western tradition, that of Christianity, provides, whether one believes in it or not, an exceptionally rich mythos – a term I use in its technical sense, making no judgment here of its truth or otherwise – for understanding the world and our relationship with it. It conceives a divine Other that is not indifferent or alien – like James Joyce's God, refined out of existence and ‘paring his fingernails’ – but on the contrary engaged, vulnerable because of that engagement, and like the right hemisphere rather than the left, not resentful (as the Old Testament Yahweh often seemed) about the Faustian fallings away of its creation, but suffering alongside it. At the centre of this mythos are the images of incarnation, the coming together of matter and spirit, and of resurrection, the redemption of that relationship, as well as of a God that submits to suffer for that process. But any mythos that allows us to approach a spiritual Other, and gives us something other than material values to live by, is more valuable than one that dismisses the possibility of its existence.

In an age in which conventional religion does not appeal to many it may be through art that ultimate meanings can be conveyed. I believe art does play an invaluable role in conveying spiritual meaning. Schumann once said of Bach's chorale prelude Ich ruf’ zu dir – chosen by Andrei Tarkovsky to open his extraordinary poetical exploration of the relationship between mind and the incarnate world, Solaris – that if a man had lost all his faith, just hearing it would be enough to restore it. Whether we put it in those terms or not, there is no doubt that here, as in Bach's great Passions, something powerful is being communicated that is of a spiritual, not just emotional, nature. Something similar could be said of the extraordinary depiction of Christ and his mother in the ancient church of St Saviour in Khora in Istanbul (see Plate 3).


Here I must speak for myself, since these matters are nothing if not personal. When I think of such works of art, and compare Tracey Emin's unmade bed, or even, I am afraid, so much other post-modern art, just as when I think of Bach and compare him with Stockhausen, I feel we have lost not just the plot, but our sense of the absurd.31 We stand or sit there solemnly contemplating the genius of the artwork, like the passive, well-behaved bourgeois that we are, when we should be calling someone's bluff. My bet is that our age will be viewed in retrospect with amusement, as an age remarkable not only for its cynicism, but for its gullibility. The two conditions are not as far apart as they may seem.

The left hemisphere having mechanised the body, and ironised the soul, it seems to me, has here set about neutralising or neutering the power of art. As I suggested in the last chapter, there is little evidence that tastes in art are purely social constructions. Though one could hardly expect a universally uncritical acceptance of every innovation, it was not the norm, until the advent of modernism, for people to find new styles of music unpleasant or incomprehensible. The first listeners to Monteverdi's great choral works were enrapt; Handel had to keep the place of rehearsal of his coronation anthems secret because of a fear that too many people wished to attend, and there being a consequent threat to public order. Liszt and Chopin were mobbed and swooned over, more like today's pop idols than their successors in contemporary art music. Music has been neutered indeed.

What about the great music of the past? That cannot exactly be abolished, and the success of the left hemisphere's drive to impede the composition of new music might be undermined by the sheer power of such music to convince us that there is something beyond the self-enclosed, self-invented space of the left hemisphere's world. But it need not worry. Here the commodification of art that Adorno predicted has continued apace, taming and trivialising it, and turning it into mere utility for relaxation or self-improvement.32

It's odd what's happened to beauty. Beauty is not just whatever we agree to call it, nor does it go away if we ignore it. We can't remake our values at will. There may of course be shifts in art theory, but that is distinct from beauty itself, and we cannot rid ourselves of the value of beauty by a decision in theory. In this, beauty is like other transcendental ideals, such as goodness. Societies may dispute what is to be considered good, but they cannot do away with the concept. What is more the concept is remarkably stable over time. Exactly what is to be considered good may shift around the edges, but the core remains unchanged. Similarly, exactly what is to be called beautiful may vary a little over time, but the core concepts of beauty remain, which is why we have no difficulty in appreciating the beauty of mediaeval or ancient art despite the passage of centuries. Art theory can pronounce the death of beauty, but in doing so it revives memories of King Canute.

Nonetheless beauty has been effectively airbrushed out of the story of art, like a public figure that has fallen from favour in a brutal regime. Beauty is rarely mentioned in contemporary art critiques: in a reflection of the left hemisphere's values, a work is now conventionally praised as ‘strong’ or ‘challenging’, in the rhetoric of power, the only rhetoric in all our relations with the world and with one another that we are now permitted. It has become somehow unsophisticated to talk of beauty – or of pathos, which relies on a belief that there is a reality from which, however painful and incomprehensible it may be, we cannot isolate ourselves. Pathos, which in modernism is replaced by Angst, becomes in post-modernism just a joke. In its place there is a sort of ironic jocularity, or ‘playfulness’ – except that suggests a sort of innocence and joy that are totally inappropriate to the facts. Once again the words of Nietzsche come to mind, in this case his own later reflections on his early masterpiece, The Birth of Tragedy:

those things which gave rise to the death of tragedy – Socratism in ethics, the dialectics, smugness and cheerfulness of theoretical man – might not this very Socratism be a sign of decline, of exhaustion, of sickness, of the anarchic dissolution of the instincts? And might not the ‘Greek cheerfulness’ of later Hellenism be simply the red flush across the evening sky? Might not the Epicurean will to oppose pessimism be mere prudence on the part of someone who is sick? And science itself, our science … is scientific method perhaps no more than fear of and flight from pessimism? A subtle defence against – truth? Or, to put it in moral terms, is it something like cowardice and insincerity?33

Purely intellectualised, consciously derived art is congenial to the age, because it is easy, and therefore democratic. It can be made to happen on a whim, without the long experience of apprenticeship leading to skill, and without the necessity for intuition, both of which are in part gifts, and therefore unpredictable and undemocratic. Skills have been de-emphasised in art, as elsewhere in the culture. The atomistic nature of our individuality is made clear in Warhol's tongue-in-cheek ambition for us each to be ‘famous for fifteen minutes’. We've all got to be as creative as one another: to accept that some people will always be exceptional is uncomfortable for us. Instead of seeing great art as an indication of what humanity can achieve, it comes to be seen as an expression of what another being, a potential competitor, has achieved. But a society is, or should be, an organic unity, not an assemblage of bits that strive with one another. It is as if every organ in the body wanted to be the head.

I would see interesting parallels with the Reformation, the last time there was a major assault on art, though its target then was somewhat different: not ‘the beautiful’, but ‘the holy’. There are, I believe, parallels that merit exploration between the Reformation and the modernist insistence on art being ‘challenging’. This was the defence of the new religion, that people had become complacent and comfortable with the old ways. The reformers cut away the basis of religious worship, in metaphors, rituals, music and works of art, and replaced them with ideas, theories and statements. But complacency and inauthenticity were never far away, and the Church was soon once again open to abuse as a vehicle of wealth and status. The problem, as Luther realized, lay not in the statues, the icons, and the rituals themselves, but in the way they were understood. They had lost their transparency as metaphors, which are always incarnate and therefore must be left to act on us intuitively – neither just material or just immaterial, but bridges between the two realms. Nonetheless, they were destroyed and swept away, in the mistaken belief that religious meaning had better not have to do with the material realm at all.

Art, too, can be abused in a variety of ways – can easily become glib, too comforting, or used to announce wealth or status – and therefore become inauthentic. And so we are involved in doing away with incarnate works of art: metaphor and myth have been replaced by the symbolic, or worse, by a concept. We have an art of ideas, theories, and statements – or of resounding emptiness, that we are invited to fill with our own meanings. And the belief that the power of art could ever lie in a theory about art, or a statement about art of any kind – whether that be a protest against the commodification of art or even a statement that art cannot make a statement – does nothing to rescue the situation, but compounds it, and contributes to the demise of art. After all that, the new art is just as capable as the old of being glib, too comforting, or an announcement of wealth or status.

In the Reformation, though the attack was on the very concept of holiness, it is noteworthy that it did not need to attack holiness directly. It contented itself with attacking the shared acceptance in the culture of what was holy: shrines, icons, statues – even most of the saints (die Heiligen, the holy ones) were dispensed with. The democratic insistence that worship had nothing to do with place, since religion is anywhere and everywhere, as long as it is in the subjective experience of the participant, struck at the root of the holy: the reformers didn't even need to say ‘everything and everywhere is equally holy’ (which would have had the same effect – that therefore nothing was especially holy). They did not have to say it because, so successful were they, the very terms had moved on. People no longer believed in the holy at all: that was for the foolish and old, those who had not heard, or could not hear, the news.

So it is with ourselves. The art of the past is ‘placed’, ironised, or rendered absurdly incongruous. And if art can be anywhere or anything – literally a pile of garbage, perhaps – this aims to abolish the beautiful, without needing even to say ‘everything and everywhere is equally beautiful’.

I have talked here as though the beautiful were confined to art, but it is of course present in each of the realms that the left hemisphere wishes to neutralise: in the realm of the body, too, and of the spirit, as well as in nature, and in any living culture. Our relationship with the beautiful is different from our relationship with things we desire. Desire is unidirectional, purposive, ultimately acquisitive. In the special case of living beings, desire can be mutual, of course, so when I say ‘unidirectional’ I do not mean, obviously, that it cannot be reciprocated. I mean that it is a movement towards a goal, like an arrow flying from a bow. In the reciprocated situation, there are two unidirectional lines of flow, in opposite directions, like arrows that pass in mid-air. Our relationship with what is beautiful is different. It is more like longing, or love, a betweenness, a reverberative process between the beautiful and our selves, which has no ulterior purpose, no aim in view, and is non-acquisitive. Beauty is in this way distinguished from erotic pleasure or any other interest we may have in the object. This is surely what Leibniz meant by beauty being a ‘disinterested love’.34 In fact, so central is this idea that one finds it also in Kant, who spoke of beauty as a ‘disinterested pleasure’,35 and in Burke, who saw it as a form of ‘love [that is] different from desire’.36

What ultimately unites the three realms of escape from the left hemisphere's world which it has attacked in our time – the body, the spirit and art – is that they are all vehicles of love. Perhaps the commonest experience of a clearly transcendent power in most people's lives is the power of eros, but they may also experience love through art or through spirituality. Ultimately, these elements are aspects of the same phenomenon: for love is the attractive power of the Other, which the right hemisphere experiences, but which the left hemisphere does not understand and sees as an impediment to its authority.

Through these assaults of the left hemisphere on the body, spirituality and art, essentially mocking, discounting or dismantling what it does not understand and cannot use, we are at risk of becoming trapped in the I–it world, with all the exits through which we might rediscover the I–thou world being progressively blocked off.


My theme may seem pessimistic. I do think that there are, nonetheless, reasons for hope. As will be obvious, I think we need, for one thing, urgently to move on from our current, limiting preconceptions about the nature of physical existence, spiritual life and art, and there are some small indications that this may be happening. Art and religion should not become part of the betrayal.

Another reason for hope lies in the fact that, however much the left hemisphere sees progress as a straight line, it is rarely so in the real world. The very circularity of things as they really are, rather than as the left hemisphere conceives them, might be a reason for hope.

Linear progression versus circular

At the end of Part I, I spoke of the progress of the sleepwalking left hemisphere, always going further in the same direction, ‘ambling towards the abyss’. The tendency to keep on progressing, inflexibly, always in the one direction may have to do with a subtle feature of the ‘shape’ of the world as seen by the left hemisphere, compared with that experienced by the right hemisphere. It has often been said that the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of ‘linear processing'; its cognitive style is sequential, hence its propensity to linear analysis, or to mechanical construction, taking the bits apart, or putting them together, one by one. This is in keeping with its phenomenological world being one of getting, of utility – of always having an end in view: it is the reaching of the right hand towards its object, or the flying of the arrow from the bow. Its progress is unidirectional, ever onward and outwards, through a rectilinear, Newtonian space, towards its goal.

This incidentally coheres with its mechanistic view of living organisms, and not simply because machines tend to be rectilinear, while living beings are not. Think of something as basic as classical conditioning, whereby a stimulus (ringing a bell, previously associated with the provision of food) produces a ‘conditioned response’ in Pavlov's dog (salivation). This is thought of as a linear process, the arrow hitting its target. Thus the dog is reduced to a machine. But a slightly different way of thinking of this would be that there is a context to everything, context being a circular, concentric concept, rather than a linear one. If one imagines Pavlov's dog, in a different experiment, having repeated experience of the bell being rung after it has started eating, rather than just before it gets food, one would have to say that, when the dog hears the bell in the absence of food, it experiences an association (a mini-context) in which these two events tend to co-occur. It would have as much reason to start to salivate when it heard the bell, but in doing so it would appear less mechanical, less as though its behaviour were caused by the bell. The dog is reduced to a mechanism by the temporal sequencing, an essential part of the concept of causation, and by the stripping away of the context to focus on a sequence. Imagine the smell of alcohol to an alcoholic. Does the smell cause the alcoholic to take a drink – or set up a set of associations, a surrounding context, in which wanting, and having, a drink are part? The dog, too, is appreciating associations or contexts (a right-hemisphere function), not just acting like a left-hemisphere machine: we know, for example, that the sound of its master's voice evokes to a dog an image of its master's face, not because the voice ‘causes’ the face but because they are part of a whole experience.37 Perhaps all cause and effect might be thought of in this way. A bat striking a ball necessitates the ball flying off suddenly at great speed in a certain direction. But equally the ball flying off suddenly at great speed in a certain direction necessitates the bat striking it in a certain way. One could say that the bat and the ball have a sort of stickiness, a tendency for their movements to cohere in a certain kind of context.

Be that as it may, the left hemisphere loves straight lines, not curves or circles. It can approximate a curve, however closely, only by the expedient of laying ever more tangents. No straight lines are to be found in the natural world. Everything that really exists follows a series of curved shapes to which the logical products of the human mind can only ever approach tangentially – flow, once again, reduced to a series of points. Leonard Shlain has pointed out that the only apparently straight line in the natural world is that of the horizon; but of course that too turns out to be a section of a curve.38 Even space, it turns out, is curved. Rectilinearity, as Ruskin had similarly demonstrated of clarity, is illusory, and can only be approximated, like clarity, by narrowing the breadth, and limiting the depth, of the perceptual field. Straight lines are prevalent wherever the left hemisphere predominates, in the late Roman Empire (whose towns and roads are laid out like grids), in Classicism (by contrast with the Baroque, which had everywhere celebrated the curve), in the Industrial Revolution (the Victorian emphasis on ornament and Gothicism being an ultimately futile nostalgic pretence occasioned by the functional brutality and invariance of the rectilinear productions of machines) and in the grid-like environment of the modern city, where that pretence has been dropped.

By contrast the shape that is suggested by the processing of the right hemisphere is that of the circle, and its movement is characteristically ‘in the round’, the phrase we use to describe something that is seen as a whole, and in depth. Circular motion accommodates, as rectilinearity does not, the coming together of opposites. Cognition in the right hemisphere is not a process of something coming into being through adding piece to piece in a sequence, but of something that is out of focus coming into focus, as a whole. Everything is understood within its penumbra of significances, in its context – all that encircles it. There are strong affinities between the idea of wholeness and roundedness. The movement of the right hemisphere is not the unidirectional, instrumental gesture of grasp, but the musical, whole-bodied, socially generative, movement of dance, which is never in a straight line towards something, but always ultimately returns to its origins. In Shakespeare's comedies the values of community – a community that pre-existed and will outlast, and serves to ground and to contextualise, the individual life – are often celebrated at the end of the play in the ring-dance. Whereas the melancholy Jaques in As You Like It accentuates the tragedy of the individual life, working its inevitable way through the seven ages of man to be ultimately ‘sans everything’, the other characters teasingly aim to help him see beyond this to the bigger picture that suggests that the part, whose trajectory is linear, is taken up into the whole, whose path is in the round.

The images of movement within stasis, and of stasis within movement, are reflected in the circle, as they are in the movement of water, ever flowing, and ever the same; and in the stars that circle and always return. Dante sees this movement as the result of the gravitational effect of love, love ‘that moves the sun and the other stars’. To Shakespeare this movement is also the movement of human life – ‘our little life is rounded with a sleep’. Sir Walter Ralegh speaks of his love occupying a position in his mind ‘yeven as the center in each perfait rovnde’.39 To Donne his love for his mistress means that when he is away from her he moves so that he is always in conjunction with her, never more distant, but like the arm of the compasses circling its centre point. For Donne, the love of God, too, meant that the created world circled the divine Being: ‘God himselfe who had that omni-sufficiency in himselfe, conceived a conveniency for his glory, to draw a Circumference about the Center, Creatures about himselfe’.40

Roundness and the image of the sphere come and go with the influence of the right hemisphere. They were central to Romanticism. I have mentioned Blake's ‘Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy’ before: it suggests not just the idea that ‘Energy’, the vital force of life, is like a sphere, but that reason is always just on the outside, never on the inside – always approximating, however nearly, the circumference, with ever more tangents. Shelley speaks of the phenomenological world as a sphere: ‘The devotion to something afar / From the sphere of our sorrow’. The idea of the roundness of the phenomenological world is in some of Wordsworth's most famous and mysteriously pregnant lines: ‘the round earth and the living air’, ‘rolled round in earth's diurnal course’, phrases which convey much more than the banal fact that the earth is a sphere and that it rotates.41 Van Gogh went as far as to say that ‘life is probably round’;42 and it was Jaspers who gave it as his view that ‘jedes Dasein scheint in sich rund’: every Dasein seems in itself to be round.43

The individual life was seen in the past as more than just a line leading to – what? Its shape had the qualities of a circle: in my end is my beginning, and in my beginning is my end. Like many complex and apparently paradoxical dispositions to the world, this belief is better expressed in music than in words. Guillaume de Machaut's rondeau Ma fin est mon commencement, et mon commencement ma fin, written in the mid-fourteenth century, is not only remarkable for its beauty, but images its spiritual meaning in the form of the piece, in that the second voice part is the reverse of the first part, and the third is a palindrome. Reverting to an earlier discussion, this is something that is not merely clever, but is appreciable by the listener and taken up (aufgehoben) into the whole, where it adds to the meaning. The text expresses a truth about life in this world as well as in the next, death being a gateway to life; for our relationship with the world leads us constantly back to what was already known, but never before by us understood, circling and searching our own origins.

This reflected the shape of the cosmos, the universe, and ultimately of the Divine. The idea that God is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere has a long history. It is at least as early as the Corpus Hermeticum, a body of early Christian texts from Hellenic Egypt dating back to the third century. After an interval of a thousand years, it was picked up by a thirteenth-century bishop, Alain de Lille, and is found throughout the Hermetic tradition in the Renaissance, notably in Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century and Giordano Bruno in the sixteenth, who wrote of ‘an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere’, an idea that was given its most famous expression by Pascal in the seventeenth century.44

To the early Greeks, the sphere was the perfect shape, expressive of eternity and divinity. Aristotle's universe consisted, in fact, of fifty-five nested spheres. After more than a millennium, the sphere once again became important in the early Renaissance, with the publication in around 1230 of the Tractatus de Sphaera, or Sphaera Mundi, a compilation of ancient texts by Johannes de Sacrobosco (‘John of Holywood’), which was still in use until the end of the seventeenth century. Spheres first began to figure prominently in painting during the Renaissance, both for symbolic reasons and because of a fascination with depicting the curved lucency of the surface. The idea that the spheres of the heavens gave rise through their movements to an inaudible music probably originated with Pythagoras, and was based on his understanding of the mathematical proportions underlying harmonic intervals; in the Renaissance this idea was much elaborated by Kepler's Harmonice Mundi, published in 1610.

With the Enlightenment, however, interest in the sphere waned. It was left to the Romantic poets to intuit its importance, until the phenomenologists came on the scene: not just Jaspers (see above), but, for example, Kierkegaard, who conceived of four value-laden ‘spheres of existence’, and Heidegger, who spoke of the ‘sphere of the real’.45 In view of what I have said above about longing and its parallels with gravity in the physical universe, it is pleasing that Copernicus thought of gravity as a ‘natural inclination … to combine the parts in the form of a sphere and thus contribute to their unity and wholeness’, what Arthur Koestler refers to as ‘the nostalgia of things to become spheres’.46

Ultimately these intuitions accord with the cyclical views of history and the universe in most cultures other than in the West (until Vico – see p. 504, n. 31), for example in Hindu cosmology – but indeed the myth of the eternal return is a cultural universal.47 Even in the Christian West it is a curious fact that representations of the cosmos, long before there was any idea of the roundness of the earth or the curvature of space, tend to be represented in the curved roundness of the ceiling of the apse, or of the dome of the church, or of the tympanum over the great west door, rarely on the flatness of a wall.

The glint in the maiden's eye

Similarly in the fruitfulness of opposition, of dialectical growth – what Nietzsche, like Heraclitus, simply calls war – there is hope, since the worse it gets, the better it gets. He quotes, as having long been his motto, Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus: ‘The spirit grows, [and] strength is restored, by wounding.’48 And the obvious inauthenticity of the left-hemisphere world we have come to inhabit may in itself lead us to seek to change it. In the past that would appear to have been the most important factor, and I hope I may be wrong in seeing the present situation as different. In any case, understanding the nature of the problem has to be the first step towards change. Change, however, would require a willingness to accept being seen as naïve for not getting caught up in the dialectic of the clever ironies, on the one hand, or of scientific materialism, on the other.

Now, says Hegel, that ‘the oracles … no longer speak to men’, and ‘the statues have become stone corpses’ (there is much in that phrase alone), the remnants of the past, the glories of its art, history and culture, are like ‘beautiful fruit broken off a tree; a kindly fate has passed those works on to us, much as a girl might offer us such fruit’.49 The tree, and the earth in which it grew, and the climate in which the fruit ripened, are no longer available to us except as a ‘veiled remembrance’, something we represent to ourselves by picturing it. Yet, Hegel says, the knowingness with which we now have to recapture this, is like the ‘glint of self-awareness’ in the eye of the beautiful maiden who offers us the fruit; it is the same Nature that produced those fruit, but ‘at a higher level’, and it can add as well as take away.

The contrast is like that between the country folk at the fair which Wordsworth sees from Helvellyn, and Wordsworth's poem on the subject, which, though it lacks an unrecapturable quality of the ‘self unseeing’ that is still available to its subject, is itself a great work at a higher level of self-awareness, which the country folk could not achieve. Of what the ancients were happily unconscious, we are necessarily conscious, Hegel seems to say, but we see more: perhaps as the innocence of the adult, where it is achieved, is greater than the innocence of a child, though bought at the cost of much painful awareness.

But such innocence is rare. Age has a chance of bringing it only if we are very lucky or very disciplined. Wordsworth's achievement, like that of Blake and Keats, is that he retains a degree of innocence despite his experience, an innocence which all three evidence in what one might call their vulnerability. Through it alone they are enabled to achieve an inspired quality which could be mistaken by the foolish, at times, for foolishness. The price of their achievement is that they must make themselves open, even to ridicule, rather than shelter behind a self-protective carapace of ironic knowingness and cynicism.50

Excessive self-consciousness, like the mental world of schizophrenia, is a prison: its inbuilt reflexivity – the hall of mirrors – sends the mind ever back into itself. Breaking out of the prison presents a problem, since self-consciousness cannot be curbed by a conscious act of will, any more than we can succeed in trying not to think of little green apples. The apple of knowledge, once eaten, cannot become once more ‘unbitten in the palm’. Nonetheless conscious reflection, the root of the problem, may itself provide the antidote to its own effects. Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and Merleau-Ponty, all of them critics of reflection, embodied in their writing a reflective attempt to surmount reflection. Hölderlin's lines once again come to mind: ‘Where there is danger, that which will save us also grows’ (see p. 232).

This is because philosophy does not answer our questions but shakes our belief that there are answers to be had; and in doing so it forces us to look beyond its own system to another way of understanding. One of the reasons reading Heidegger is at the same time so riveting and such a painful experience is that he never ceases to struggle to transcend the Cartesian divisions which analytic language entails, in order to demonstrate that there is a path, a way through the forest, the travelling of which is in itself the goal of human thinking. Though we can emerge into a ‘clearing’, we cannot hope to reach the clear light of the Empyrean, which as Hölderlin's devastating poem Hyperions Schicksalslied makes plain, is reserved only for the gods. Perhaps inevitably Heidegger's last writings are in the form of poems. Wittgenstein also saw the true process of philosophy as a way of transcending or healing the effects of philosophy in the philosophical mind: philosophy is itself a disease, as Karl Kraus said of psychoanalysis, for which it purports to be the cure.51 Merleau-Ponty, more explicitly than either, held out the hope that we could learn to see things again by a process of surréflexion, hyper-reflection, which would help to redress the distorting effects of consciousness by making us conscious of them. This idea had already occurred to the Romantics. At the end of his famous essay ‘On the Puppet Theatre’, Kleist offers the possibility that the crippling effects of self-consciousness may be transcended through a form of still further heightened consciousness, by which we might regain a form of innocence.

‘Grace appears purest in that human form which has either no consciousness or an infinite one, that is, in a puppet or in a god.’

‘Therefore’, I said, somewhat bewildered, ‘we would have to eat again from the Tree of Knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?’

‘Quite right’, he answered. ‘And that's the last chapter in the history of the world.’52

With that his essay closes. In this last phrase Kleist may be warning us, as Hölderlin does, that what we crave can be had only in another world, where there are gods. But his essay also confirms that we can move only onward, not backward, and that by doing so we might transcend our situation and in this way return to something lost. Perhaps the very emptiness of self-reflection, what Vico called ‘the barbarism of reflection’, may push us towards the necessary leap of faith that alone will allow us to escape. After all, even the emptying out of consciousness achieved by Zen is not a random gift but achieved by years of consciously embraced self-discipline.

Reflection, self-reflection, surréflexion: what we are talking about clearly has something to do with the plane of vision that we adopt. Gombrich writes that ‘the true miracle of the language of art is not that it enables the artist to create the illusion of reality. It is that under the hands of a great master the image becomes translucent.’53 I have used the language of transparency and translucency – of ‘seeing through’ – repeatedly: because as Gombrich says of the work of art, as Jean Paul says of metaphor, as Kerényi says of myth, and as Merleau-Ponty says of the body, our vision must not stop there at the bounds of the ‘thing’ – but neither must it be replaced by something else. It is the function of such translucent, or semi-transparent, beings to remain transparent rather than draw attention to themselves, because in doing so they achieve their goal. But talk of transparency, and seeing through, could easily suggest a false line of thought. Water is distinct from ice, but in the ice cube it is present: not as a fly might be trapped there, but in the very ice. It is the ice. And yet when the ice cube is gone, the water remains. Although we see water in the ice, we do so not because it is there separately, to be seen behind or apart from the cube. Body and soul, metaphor and sense, myth and reality, the work of art and its meaning – in fact the whole phenomenological world, is just what it is and no more, not one thing hiding another; and yet the hard thing is the seemingly easy business, just ‘seeing what it is’. The reality is not behind the work of art: to believe so would be, as Goethe put it in an image I referred to earlier, like children going round the back of the mirror. We see it in – through – the mirror. Similarly, he says, we experience the universal in, or through, the particular, the timeless in, or through, the temporal.

What we might learn from Oriental culture

These ideas would be more intuitively understandable within an Oriental culture. Another reason for hope is that we are probably more open to the remaining cultures of the world that have not yet been completely submerged by the West, though for the same reasons we are increasingly prone to influence them to become more like our own. The pattern of psychological differences between Oriental people and Westerners suggests the possibility of a different relationship between the hemispheres. It is striking, for example, that the Japanese language does not have an established method for composing abstract nouns, and has no definite or indefinite articles, considered to be a crucial step in the emergence of abstract nouns in Greek.54 The Japanese have nothing that corresponds to the Platonic Idea, and in fact no abstractions in general: they have never developed the dichotomy between the phenomenological world and the world of ideas.55 Nakamura writes:

The Japanese are willing to accept the phenomenal world as Absolute because of their disposition to lay a greater emphasis upon intuitive sensible concrete events, rather than upon universals. This way of thinking with emphasis upon the fluid, arresting character of observed events regards the phenomenal world itself as Absolute and rejects the recognition of anything existing over [and above] the phenomenal world.56

The sharp dichotomy in our culture between the ways of being of the two hemispheres, which began in Ancient Greece, does not appear to exist, or, at any rate, to exist in the same way, in Oriental culture: their experience of the world is still effectively grounded in that of the right hemisphere.

The Japanese also preserve a healthy scepticism about language, and this goes hand in hand with the rejection of a reality that must, or ever could, be arrived at purely by reason. In Zen Buddhism, according to Soiku Shigematsu, the abbot of Shogenji temple, ‘a word is a finger that points at the moon. The goal of Zen pupils is the moon itself, not the pointing finger. Zen masters, therefore, will never stop cursing words and letters.’57 In general the Japanese place far more emphasis on individual existing things than on generalities, are more intuitive, and less cognitive, when compared with Westerners, and are not so easily swayed by logic or system-building.58 Understanding comes, according to Ogyu Sorai, a Japanese Confucian of the early eighteenth century, through knowing as many individual things as possible: ‘Learning consists in widening one's information, absorbing extensively anything and everything one comes upon.’59 This attitude would have been immediately comprehensible in the Renaissance in the West, but was lost as the systematising and specialisation of knowledge, through which observation of nature becomes more markedly subjugated to theory-building, became increasingly important with the Enlightenment.

The recognition of absolute significance within the phenomenal world relates to the traditional Japanese love of nature.60 Shizen, the Japanese word for nature, also links it clearly to the right-hemisphere way of being. Its derivation means ‘of itself’, ‘spontaneously'(it is in fact an adverb, not a noun), as opposed to whatever is brought about through calculation or by will.61 It is all that is ‘just as it is’. Everything about the Japanese attitude to nature, expressed both in mythology and in everyday life, suggests an attitude of mutual trust, dependence and interrelationship between man and nature. While shizen does, of course, refer to the natural world of grass, trees and forest, it also means the land and the landscape, as well as the ‘natural self’ considered as a physical, spiritual and moral being, something perhaps akin to Dasein: thus, though there is a distinction between man, with his will, and nature, the opposition between man and nature implied in the West is absent in Japanese.

A reverent attitude toward shizen, now absent in the West, is characteristic even of the Japanese scientific education system. The term shizen implies that nature is the root of life in a spiritual or religious sense.62 A famous Japanese anthropologist Iwata argues that among the Japanese as well as most southeast Asian people, whether the people are formally Buddhists or Christians, there exists an intuition of animism. Everything surrounding human life, including mountains, hills, rivers, plants, trees, animals, fish and insects, has its own spirit (kami), and these spirits communicate with one another as well as with those who live there. Apparently most Japanese are familiar with such spirits, and experience them: natural things cannot, therefore, be seen by them merely as objects, as in Western science.63 We should be careful before we patronise or dismiss any element of this sophisticated culture, in which there have been high standards of education and literacy for centuries during which half our populations could barely sign their name.

What Oriental cultures also emphasise is the value of what is fleeting, something that has been appreciated in the West only rarely, that is to say during the Renaissance and in the Romantic period. The impermanence of nature (shizen) is seen as the Buddhahood, or essence of the divine.64 In the West, with our recording apparatus of every kind, we value what we can grasp and hold. But life and everything living refuses this approach. It changes as we hold it. Japanese temples are seen as still the same temple though they are rebuilt every 20 years: presumably the Japanese would have had no problem answering the paradox of the Ship of Theseus (see p. 138 above), because they naturally see the world as a process rather than a collection of things – like Heraclitus’ river, always changing, but always itself.

Why do we in the West think that ultimate value lies only in the immutable, in what is eternally the same? The idea emerges with Parmenides, and Plato gave wider currency to this view of the world derived from the left hemisphere, where all is static, known, unchanging. But once again at the Renaissance and in Romanticism one does see intuitions in the West that life, and everything of value, lies not in a static state of being, as understood by the left hemisphere, but in becoming, as understood by the right hemisphere. To take just one example, at the end of Spenser's great masterpiece, The Faerie Queene, in the so-called ‘Cantos of Mutabilitie’, we see Spenser divided between his loyalty to the abstract principle that what is fixed and eternally unchanging must be ‘right’, and his imaginative intuition in favour of mutability, the individuality of created beings, the variety of the created world, the liberation that comes from unpredictability, which his work everywhere attests. He reconciles the two when he puts into the mouth of Nature, after the suspense of a long silence in which she appears to be deep in thought, deliberating her verdict, these words:

… all things stedfastnes doe hate

And changed be: yet being rightly wayd

They are not changed from their first estate;

But by their change their being doe dilate:

And turning to themselues at length againe,

Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate …

In this formulation Spenser suggests, through the persona of Nature herself, that, though things change, they thereby ‘dilate’ their being, becoming in some sense more themselves, and return eventually into themselves, so working ‘their own perfection’. This is the expression of the mysterious circular motion that the right hemisphere descries in things, whereby there is movement within stasis, and stasis within movement. It also suggests the process whereby things ‘dilate’ their being by their contact with the left hemisphere, provided they are then returned to the right. Nietzsche was vehement in setting ‘against the value of what remains eternally the same (see the naivety of Spinoza, also of Descartes), the value of the shortest and most fleeting, the seductive flash of gold on the belly of the snake vita’.65

If it were true, as one might surmise, that cerebral organisation in Oriental peoples is different from that in Westerners, without the same polarisation of the hemispheres, it might suggest another way in which we could consciously set about influencing the hemispheric balance. What scientific evidence could there be of that?

Hardly surprisingly there is in fact much evidence that East Asians and Westerners perceive the world and think about it in very different ways. In general, East Asians have a more holistic approach. For example, if asked to group objects, East Asians make comparatively little use of categories.66 They are more likely to attend to the broad perceptual and conceptual field, noticing relationships and changes, and grouping objects according to family resemblances, based on an appreciation of the whole, rather than on membership of a category. Westerners are significantly more likely to give one-dimensional, rule-based responses, based on individual components of the stimuli.67 East Asians also rely less on formal logic, instead focussing on relations among objects and the context in which they interact. They use more intuitive modes compared with Americans of European origin.68 They see events as arising from an entire context, and tend to think in a much less linear, and more global way, about causation. By contrast Westerners tend to focus exclusively on the object as cause, and are therefore often mistaken. Westerners are more analytic, and pay attention primarily to isolated objects, and the categories to which they belong. They tend to use rules, including formal logic, to understand their behaviour.69 These effects remain when language is controlled for.70

East Asians use a more ‘dialectical’ mode of reasoning: they are more willing to accept, to entertain, or even seek out contradictory perspectives on the same issue. They see the world in which they live as complex, containing inherently conflicting elements. Where Chinese students try to retain elements of opposing perspectives by seeking to synthesise them, American students try to determine which is correct so that they can reject the other. Presented with evidence for two opposing positions, Easterners are more likely to reach a compromise, whereas the fact of opposition tends to make Westerners adhere to one position more strongly. Westerners adopt a more ‘either/or’ approach. In one experiment, Chinese volunteers particularly liked proverbs, whether Chinese or American, that presented an apparent contradiction, such as the Chinese saying ‘too humble is half proud’. US participants preferred proverbs without contradictions, such as ‘half a loaf is better than no bread’.71

Westerners are inclined to attend to some focal object, analyzing its attributes and categorizing it in an effort to find out what rules govern its behaviour. Their attention is drawn by the constant features of entities in isolation. East Asians attend to the whole context, including background and global aspects of a scene, whereas American students focus on a few discrete objects salient in the foreground. In one study, Japanese volunteers who saw a cartoon of underwater life later remembered it as an integrated scene, such as a pond with a large school of fish and a clump of seaweed, where their US counterparts mostly recalled a few fish that they had seen in the foreground.72

It has often been noted that these cognitive differences are reflected in the differences between Western and Oriental society. Similarly with art: Oriental art emphasises the field, and tends correspondingly to de-emphasize individual objects, including people, by comparison with Western art.73 Further, a study of photographic scenes from small, medium, and large cities in Japan and the United States demonstrated, by both subjective and objective measures, that Japanese scenes were more ambiguous and contained more elements than American scenes. In a further twist, both Japanese and American participants primed with Japanese scenes attended more to contextual information than did those primed with American scenes.74 This last finding, in particular, is fascinating, and tends to confirm my view that the brain creates its own projections in the outer world, which in turn help to influence the workings of the brain in a mutually reinforcing, and self-perpetuating, way. This would suggest that the nature of the modern Western urban environment may be exaggerating the tendencies that the left hemisphere has projected there, as well as suggesting one reason why the natural environment is felt to have such a healing influence.

Eastern cultures, and in particular the Japanese, have been characterised as ‘interdependent'; in other words, individuals are less seen in isolation than they are in the West, instead forming part of an interconnected social web. For them, the sense of the self (as we saw for the right hemisphere) develops through understanding its influence on others. Self-improvement in such cultures has far less to do with getting what one wants, and far more to do with confronting one's own shortcomings, in the interests of harmony, at home, at work, and amongst friends.75 Westerners perform better on tasks with independent demands than on tasks with interdependent demands.76 East Asians make stronger efforts to justify their choices if they have been made on behalf of a friend, Westerners if made for themselves.77

The Japanese word for self, jibun, implies a share of something which is both separate and not separate, individual and yet still shared. It is a common Western misconception that Japanese culture does not value the individual.78 On the contrary, originality, self-direction, and autonomy are all highly prized.79 In fact, if anything the Japanese have a more highly developed sense of private self-consciousness than their American counterparts, with at least as much concern for hidden thoughts, feelings, and motives.80 But they are also more sensitive to their obligation to belong, rather than seeking only to feel good because of unique qualities that make one stand apart from others.

Emphasis on high self-esteem as a sign of mental health is a relatively recent, Western phenomenon, and is far from being an unmixed good. Having low self-esteem, certainly in the West, is an obvious cause of anxiety and depression; but high self-esteem is positively correlated with a tendency to be unrealistic, to take offence too easily, and to become violent and demanding if one's needs are not met.81 Whereas in America students seek positive self-regard, the Japanese are more self-critical, an attitude which they sense to have a natural wisdom.82 The need for positive self-regard, as it is currently conceptualized, is not a universal, but rooted in significant aspects of North American culture.83 People in the West characteristically over-estimate their abilities, exaggerate their capacity to control essentially uncontrollable events, and hold over-optimistic views of the future. In fact, so much does our happiness depend on such illusions, that, in the West, lacking them is even correlated with psychiatric problems.84

This is not true in Japan, where self-worth is not predicated on thinking highly of yourself, but on being a good citizen and member of your social group. Although the Japanese report being proud and happy to be associated with a prestigious college or organisation, they do not hold unrealistically positive opinions about the group to which they belong. Although they set higher standards for themselves, and aspire to higher personal goals, than, for example, Canadian students, they more rarely feel depressed about their failures to measure up. In the West, failure tends to lead to discouragement; in the East, to a determination to do better.85 The espousal of unrealistic expectations in the absence of a readiness to make sacrifices may be one of the most significant factors in the escalating rates of depression in developed, and developing, countries referred to above.

Beliefs about the left and right sides of the body in China make an interesting contrast with those in the West. Though there were some interesting exceptions in Roman culture, where the left hand was associated with healing and religion,86 in general we have associated what is on the left with what is sinister or gauche, associations reinforced by the holy scriptures of Christianity and Islam.87 This may have to do with the fact that danger is more likely to be apprehended by the left visual field (see Chapter 2), since the right hemisphere is more vigilant; or with the fact that the left hand is weaker; or with the fact that left-handedness is disproportionately represented among those with mental impairment. It might simply reflect the prejudices of the verbal left hemisphere: why is there in many cultures deliberate mutilation or restriction of the left hand or arm, as for example among the Nuer people of the Southern Sudan?88 There are occasional exceptions: for example, among the Zuñi Indians of North America the left and right sides are personified as brother gods, of which the left is the elder and wiser; but generally the associations are opposite.89

However, among the ancient Chinese the left was yang and therefore superior, the right yin and inferior. The Chinese honour both hands: the ideogram for ‘right’ consists of ‘hand’ plus ‘mouth’ (the hand for eating); the ‘left’ consists of ‘hand’ plus ‘square’, which in China symbolises the arts, particularly religious and magic arts. Chinese people generally educate themselves to be right-handed and right-footed, but as regards eyes and ears, they prefer the left side. The right hand prevails over the left hand, but the left ear and eye over the right. Archers aimed at the enemy's left eye.90

Can imaging tell us anything about the differences between East Asian and Western minds? Not much, perhaps, as yet. In terms of structure, cerebral asymmetries in Chinese populations are apparently similar to those of North Americans, though slightly less marked.91 Some structural differences in the left frontal and bilateral temporal lobes have been detected, which would appear from fMRI evidence to be involved with language production.92 Chinese speakers activate more strongly in the right temporoparietal region than American English and Spanish speakers, with language function displaying less asymmetry overall in the Chinese.93 However, the majority of Chinese in Hong Kong (mostly Cantonese-speaking Chinese) have, at least structurally speaking, asymmetrical cerebral hemispheres similar to those of Europeans.94

What, if anything, can we deduce from all of this? I think there is by now enough consistent evidence, from a variety of sources, and of a variety of types, for us to accept something which seems intuitively likely: that there are differences between the way in which Westerners and East Asians see the world, and that these have something to do with the balance of the hemispheres. More specifically, in the case of every single difference listed above, it takes the same form, a greater reliance in the West on the left hemisphere, and there is not even a single difference suggesting a greater reliance on the right. It would be tedious to go though them all again here, as there are so many, but to any reader who has got this far I hope they will be obvious. This merely confirms what the great biologist and scholar of Chinese history of science, Joseph Needham, repeatedly observed – that there was a fondness for particles in Western thought, to which the Chinese were ‘perennially averse’.95 What this does not, of course, demonstrate is that East Asian culture relies on the right hemisphere, and Western culture on the left. We both rely on each. What the evidence suggests, if reviewed in greater detail than I have here, is that the East Asian cultures use strategies of both hemispheres more evenly, while Western strategies are steeply skewed towards the left hemisphere. In other words, the emissary appears to work in harmony with the Master in the East, but is in the process of usurping him in the West.

What one also has to accept is that, just as the marked difference between the performance of the two hands in right-handers is associated with a slight improvement in the right hand, but the price for this is that ‘the left hand declines dramatically’,96 there are slight advantages in being so skewed towards the left hemisphere. In some tasks, the rather unbalanced take on things that it offers does increase efficiency. For example, lack of interest in context makes one worse in some respects, but better where context needs to be ignored. Like schizophrenics, Westerners are better than East Asians at learning arbitrary rules for categorisation: they are less distracted by common sense.97 But the price is that they lose dramatically in other respects. One interesting observation is that Asian Americans approximate more closely to the US model:98 being exposed to Western patterns of thought leaves them somewhere between the two positions. Provided one can rely on a reciprocal process, this would suggest the possibility of acculturating ourselves in the West to a more balanced way of using our brains, if we are willing to learn from the East – and if we can do so before its cultures are Westernised beyond redemption.

Of course there is a wealth of wisdom in Western culture itself, and it has unequalled strengths, as well as never before seen weaknesses, of its own. But we are increasingly alienated from its history, and, for reasons I have surmised, as things are now, learning from our past seems to present huge problems for us. One possibility is that music, which brought us together before language existed, might even now prove effective in regenerating commonality, avoiding the need for words that have been devalued, or for which we have become too cynical.99 Let's not forget that it was with music that Orpheus once moved stones. But such a renaissance would require a complete change in our attitude to what we are doing in art, and where it is going. It would require a return to something as patient, attentive, skilled and beautiful as the work of the surgeon in James Kirkup's poem ‘A Correct Compassion’, who ‘… with a curious nervous elegance laid bare / The root of life’, and puts his ‘finger on its beating heart’.

Ultimately what we cannot afford to keep deferring is a regrounding of both art and science in the lived world. Both need to be more human, and more humane. In science this means moving away as far as possible from the worn-out mode of scientific materialism with its reductive language. The words we use to describe human processes are highly influential for the way we conceive ourselves, and therefore for our actions and, above all, for the values to which we hold. With a rising interest in neuroscience, we have an opportunity, which we must not squander, to sophisticate our understanding of ourselves, but we can only do so if we first sophisticate the language we use, since many current users of that language adopt it so naturally that they are not even aware of how it blinds them to the very possibility that they might be dealing with anything other than a machine.


As Richard Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos opens, we see the preparations for the entertainment of a mysterious man of wealth, who has commissioned a serious opera from a young composer. A commedia dell'arte troupe has also been engaged to perform: such players are called maschere, ‘masked ones’, and represent stock characters from low life. As the various actors and musicians prepare behind the scenes, the young composer, whose opera concerns the tragic plight of Ariadne abandoned by her lover Theseus, is horrified to learn that these interlopers are to perform their tawdry burlesque on the theme of infidelity immediately after his own heart-rending work. What an outrage! But that is as nothing to what he learns a few minutes before the performers are due on stage. At the last minute, their patron changes his plan, and now insists that, for lack of time, both are to be performed simultaneously. Their plots are ‘with a few trifling alterations’ to be ‘served up together’. The resulting farrago, sometimes moving, sometimes comic, always incongruous, forms the second part of Strauss's opera.

At the time Hugo von Hofmannsthal was writing the libretto for Ariadne, he was also reading Milton, certainly L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, his meditations on the comic and tragic muses.100 But the fact that the structure of Ariadne seems so like the brain cognising itself makes one wonder if he was influenced unconsciously by his reading of Paradise Lost. For Paradise Lost seems to me precisely that – a profound self-exploration of the divided human brain: the relationship between two unequal powers, one of which grounds the being of the other, and indeed needs the other for its fulfilment, and which therefore has to make itself vulnerable to that other; who, through blindness and vanity, rejects the union that would have brought about the Aufhebung of both, and prefers instead a state of war without end. The fallout from this war is that man and woman, Adam and Eve and their offspring, are turned out of paradise.

In the opening pages of this book, I wrote that I believed it to be profoundly true that the inner structure of our intellect reflects the structure of the universe. By ‘profoundly’ I meant not just true by definition, as would be the case for those who believe that the universe is in any case a creation of our brains. I think it goes further than that. I believe our brains not only dictate the shape of the experience we have of the world, but are likely themselves to reflect, in their structure and functioning, the nature of the universe in which they have come about.

What the neuropsychological data I have considered in this book exhibit are some underlying tendencies – tendencies that can, however, be ultimately highly revealing. Overall a picture develops from a mass of small details, not necessarily by summing them all, left-hemisphere fashion, but perhaps by seeing the pattern, as the Dalmatian emerges from the blur of splashes and dots, right-hemisphere fashion.101 If I am wrong, the picture I discern in the dots and splashes will simply not be recognised by others; if there is any truth in it, it may awaken thoughts. As Karl Popper put it, ‘bold ideas, unjustified anticipations and speculative thought, are our only means for interpreting nature: our only organon, our only instrument for grasping her.’102 Or, perhaps, reaching out a hand to her.

I would also like to put in a word for uncertainty. In the field of religion there are dogmatists of no-faith as there are of faith, and both seem to me closer to one another than those who try to keep the door open to the possibility of something beyond the customary ways in which we think, but which we would have to find, painstakingly, for ourselves. Similarly as regards science, there are those who are certain, God knows how, of what it is that patient attention to the world reveals, and those who really do not care, because their minds are already made up that science cannot tell them anything profound. Both seem to me profoundly mistaken. Though we cannot be certain what it is our knowledge reveals, this is in fact a much more fruitful position – in fact the only one that permits the possibility of belief. And what has limited the power of both art and science in our time has been the absence of belief in anything except the most diminished version of the world and our selves. Certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong. The difference between scientific materialists and the rest is only this: the intuition of the one is that mechanistic application of reason will reveal everything about the world we inhabit, where the intuition of the others leads them to be less sure. Virtually every great physicist of the last century – Einstein, Bohr, Planck, Heisenberg, Bohm, amongst many others – has made the same point. A leap of faith is involved, for scientists as much as anyone. According to Max Planck, ‘Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with.’ And he continued: ‘Science cannot solve the ultimate mystery of nature. And that is because, in the last analysis, we ourselves are part of nature and therefore part of the mystery that we are trying to solve.’103

In a famous passage Lessing wrote:

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to what lies behind the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, vain – If God held enclosed in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand the ever-living striving for truth, although with the qualification that I must for ever err, and said to me ‘choose’, I should humbly choose the left hand and say ‘Father, give! pure truth is for thee alone.’104

Lessing, like Goethe, wrote a Faust, though only fragments remain. In his poem, too, Faust is redeemed by his endless striving. Note, incidentally, that it is the left hand, the servant of the right hemisphere, that contains the ever-living striving for truth.

In this book certainty has certainly not been my aim. I am not so much worried by the aspects that remain unclear, as by those which appear to be clarified, since that almost certainly means a failure to see clearly. I share Wittgenstein's mistrust of deceptively clear models: and, as Waismann said, ‘any psychological explanation is ambiguous, cryptic and open-ended, for we ourselves are many-layered, contradictory and incomplete beings, and this complicated structure, which fades away into indeterminacy, is passed on to all our actions.’105 I am also sympathetic to those who think that sounds like a cop-out. But I do think that things as they exist in practice in the real world, rather than as they exist in theory in our representations, are likely to be intrinsically resistant to precision and clarification. That is not our failure, but an indication of the nature of what we are dealing with. That does not mean we should give up the attempt. It is the striving that enables us to achieve a better understanding, but only as long as it is imbued with a tactful recognition of the limits to human understanding. The rest is hubris.106

If it could eventually be shown definitively that the two major ways, not just of thinking, but of being in the world, are not related to the two cerebral hemispheres, I would be surprised, but not unhappy. Ultimately what I have tried to point to is that the apparently separate ‘functions’ in each hemisphere fit together intelligently to form in each case a single coherent entity; that there are, not just currents here and there in the history of ideas, but consistent ways of being that persist across the history of the Western world, that are fundamentally opposed, though complementary, in what they reveal to us; and that the hemispheres of the brain can be seen as, at the very least, a metaphor for these. One consequence of such a model, I admit, is that we might have to revise the superior assumption that we understand the world better than our ancestors, and adopt a more realistic view that we just see it differently – and may indeed be seeing less than they did.

The divided nature of our reality has been a consistent observation since humanity has been sufficiently self-conscious to reflect on it.107 That most classical representative of the modern self-conscious spirit, Goethe's Faust, famously declared that ‘two souls, alas! dwell in my breast’ (‘Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust’).108 Schopenhauer described two completely distinct forms of experience (‘zwei völlig heterogene Weisen gegebene Erkenntniß’);109 Bergson referred to two different orders of reality (‘deux réalités d'ordre différent’).110 Scheler described the human being as a citizen of two worlds (‘Bürger zweier Welten’) and said that all great European philosophers, like Kant, who used the same formulation, had seen as much.111 What all these point to is the fundamentally divided nature of mental experience. When one puts that together with the fact that the brain is divided into two relatively independent chunks which just happen broadly to mirror the very dichotomies that are being pointed to – alienation versus engagement, abstraction versus incarnation, the categorical versus the unique, the general versus the particular, the part versus the whole, and so on – it seems like a metaphor that might have some literal truth. But if it turns out to be ‘just’ a metaphor, I will be content. I have a high regard for metaphor. It is how we come to understand the world.