Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Matter With Things’

The Matter With Things Iain McGilchrist

I’m half-way through The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by psychiatrist and scholar, Iain McGilchrist. The book is an epic exploration of the impoverishment our culture’s strictly left hemisphere view of the world compared to the right-brain’s—which sees a reality that is infinitely more rich and holistic. As the subtitle of the work suggests, it is a big picture journey through the human condition and describes where we’re headed as a race unless we change our mode of thinking. It is an astounding and profound work.

McGilchrist’s magnum opus, ten years in the making, builds upon his other notable work entitled, The Master and His Emissary. That preceding book lays the foundations about the relationship and differences between the brain hemispheres and their impact on human culture across the ages.

McGilchrist argues in both books that in a healthy mind the left and right hemispheres work in tandem, but that the right brain—or “master”—should be dominant over the left—”the emissary.” This is because the right brain has much greater gravitas and capacity to both “see” and make decisions. It experiences the world more broadly, is more receptive, and aims at understanding, whereas the left hemisphere is grasping, controlling and focused on detail. In other words, the right brain has a wider view of reality. However, western culture has been hijacked by left-hemisphere thinking, which has de-throned right brain, causing endless problems and dysfunction due to its autistic nature when functioning largely on its own.

McGilchrist recently appeared in an interview with Mark Vernon on YouTube in which he discussed certain features of our left-brained world. The below quote from the Q&A about linear thinking  struck me as poignant and describes one aspect of the left-brain’s approach to the world. But it also defines the root of many long-term problems that imperil humanity: the idea of endless economic growth, deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl, identity politics, social justice, artificial intelligence, Covid-19 policies, the Ukraine war, and a lot more:

There is a good point at which to stop pushing in a certain direction. That is something we absolutely don’t understand anymore. We think that things are just linear and if you keep on pushing in a certain direction you’ll achieve further and further distance from what you wanted to leave behind. Actually and unfortunately space is curved and mental space is curved and time is curved. And what happens as you push is that you achieve the precise opposite of what it was you meant to achieve. So, as you say, there is a part of our brain that is devoted to helping us to survive. It is a bit of an irony that it is actually that part of our brain that is now making us effectively soon extinct.

You can watch his excellent interview with Mark Vernon, here.