The Divided Brain: Can we agree about where we differ?

February 26, 2013 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

I am bored by reading people who are allies, people of roughly the same views.  What is interesting is to read the enemy; because the enemy penetrates the defences. – Isaiah Berlin

While seeking advice on whom to invite to a workshop examining the potential practical relevance of the ideas in Iain McGilchrist’s critically acclaimed book, The Master and his Emissary, Matthew Taylor recommended writer, lecturer and broadcaster, Kenan Malik. In addition to significant media profile as a broadcaster and award winning writer, Kenan has informed opinions on a wide range of social and cultural issues, and a relevant background in Neurobiology, and in the History and Philosophy of Science. 

(Image via

So it’s a pity he couldn’t make it! But thankfully Kenan expressed an interest in receiving our recently released report Divided Brain, Divided World and over the last few days he has generously given his time and web platform to discuss some of the questions arising from it. I am very grateful for this contribution, and read Kenan’s initial posting in the spirit in which I think it was intended, namely critical inquiry; being interested in the substance of the work, but sceptical about the conclusions reached. 

Iain McGilchrist swiftly responded with an extended comment(4000+ words, plus a reference to another 4000+ word piece – the final feedback piece from John Wakefield, on pages 71-76 of our report) that he asked Kenan to promote to a full posting. Kenan kindly did so, and added his response to Iain’s comment in a fresh post Split Brains, Split Views: Debating Iain McGilchrist which led to a further comment from Iain and a further response from Kenan….which all sounds good.

the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions.

However, as somebody who gets on well with Iain and broadly believes in both the soundness and importance of his ideas, I was surprised by the combative tone he took in his responses to Kenan’s points, which felt much too strong, and which Kenan nonetheless generously accommodated and responded to in detail.



In Iain’s defence, Kenan’s first post could be viewed as provocative, not so much for the substance, but for the sources he chose to quote in support of his position. It makes sense that he drew upon the thoughts of Neuro-Nemesis Ray Tallis, whom I was very glad to include in the RSA workshop and report, and who wrote an extended critique of Iain’s work for our report (pages 51-53) but I suspect what Iain reacted to most vehemently was quoting (with tacit approval) Owen Flanagan’s review for the New Scientist magazine which I think Iain rightly refers to as ‘shameful’ (in this first reply to Kenan). This review featured a very strong negative judgement about a significant work of scholarship in a high profile magazine, and yet it appears to have been written very casually, without any significant attempt to engage with the book’s content. However, attacking Kenan for drawing upon that source does feel a bit like shooting the messenger.

Iain’s response might look odd to those not familiar with the ideas, so it’s worth remembering what is at stake is the coherence and relevance of a grand theory that might (or might not!) help to inform how we understand and tackle some of the major issues of our time. In our report we focus mostly on climate change, mental health and education, but from the 14 response pieces we published, you can see it also has potential relevance to, inter-alia, Behavioural Economics, Art, The Patent System and NGO campaigning.

I trust the minor contretemps will be swiftly forgotten, and I am glad the ideas generated by it have been useful. 

Four Questions to help people agree on where they differ:

On substance, I imagine there is limited appetite for further qualifications on the thousands of words already written about the matter in Iain’s book, in our report, and now on Kenan’s site. However, as I say in the introduction to the report, the issue is not just about appraising Iain’s book, but trying to develop a relatively mature discussion on the relevance of neuroscience to social, cultural and political questions. In this respect, I see four useful questions emerging from the discussions on Kenan’s site. These are all relatively philosophical in nature, but feel to me like the key sources of disagreement. 

1) Can you believe the brain is fundamental without being a reductionist?

Iain must be tired of saying he is not a reductionist. As I mention in the report, the value of his approach for those working on social innovation is that the link between brains and behaviour is not direct, reductive and causal, but rather mediated by phenomenology and values. Viewing the hemispheres of the brain as if it they had the qualities of experienced personhood, in which they pay particular kinds of attention gives you a very different reference point to the more conventional model, in which we view the brain as a kind of biological machine with rules governing inputs and outputs.

However, if you place the brain centre stage in any explanatory theory (as I think even Iain would have to concede he does!) people are going to assume it serves as a kind of touchstone. So the question is valid: If you are not reducing your explanation to the brain, in what way is what you are saying about the brain important?

Iain might say you need to understand how the functional and structural asymmetries in the hemispheres constrain attention, that our patterns of attention circumscribe what and how we value, which predisposes (rather than determines) us to act in certain ways. But such an explanation is likely to disappoint the questioner who is looking for the brain to build them some explanatory foundations!

Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist.

The charge against Iain is therefore that his argument relies for its rhetorical force on the epistemic esteem of neuroscience, but that esteem is grounded in a reductionism that he strongly repudiates. That curious equation is hardly Iain’s fault, but it does create some explanatory discomfort! Iain’s work relies on a sophisticated non-reductionist theory, but one that is nonetheless successfully surfing on a relatively reductionist Zeitgeist. 

2) Is the equivocation over brains ‘causing’ social phenomena resolvable?

Similarly, Iain appears to most to be a bit equivocal about whether the brain is driving social and political changes. He would probably say he has shown the optimal amount of equivocation! Consider part of his answer to Kenan:

“There is a constant dialogue between brain and environment, which is traceable, if one wishes to do so, at the level of the synapse, but is also traceable at the phenomenological level. Each helps to mould the other. And so the answer to the left hemisphere question ‘which causes which?’ is – right hemisphere fashion, ‘both and neither’. But out of that relationship everything that we know, or can know, ultimately comes.”

Still sounds pretty equivocal, right? But it also sounds about right to me. So is there a better way to express the relationship between our hemispheric division, in particular the growing the left hemispheric ‘dominance’ in a way that makes it socially and culturally relevant but not strictly causal?

Before taking that plunge, compare the question: Does climate change cause irregular weather patterns? The answer, of course, depends on what you mean by ’cause’…and good luck with that.

3) Is it appropriate to sharply differentiate the science from the metaphor?

It is widely accepted that it is almost impossible to speak about scientific ideas without resorting to metaphors and the role of metaphors in science is therefore somewhat unclear. For some, developing a good metaphor reflects a depth of understanding of what something is like, and how it works, that cannot be attained in any other way. It is not merely a superficial analogy, and yet it’s not the ‘thing in itself’ either.

Iain seems to want to pitch his argument somewhere between literal and metaphorical truth, but many want to force a binary between science and metaphor, which feels like an uncomfortable choice in this context. The answer to the question: Is your thesis science or metaphor? Appears to be ‘both’. Is that a satisfying answer?

4) How much does the ambiguity over agency matter? 

Given a certain definition of ‘persons’ (again, good luck with that) are the hemipheres like persons or is it truer to say they are persons? The latter option feels absurd, but we need further clarity on what kind of agency a whole person has that a single hemisphere doesn’t. In other words, is there an emergent property of additional agency that arises from the cooperation/conflict between the hemispheres in ordinary consciousness? Is is 1+1=2(working as one) or is it more like X+Y=Z?

These questions arose from the following query by Kenan:

“What I am suggesting is that part of the conceptual problem in your argument is the constant elision between brain (or hemisphere) and person, an elision that allows you to attribute agency to a hemisphere while denying that you are doing so.  If what you mean (…) is that ‘the person embodying the left hemisphere is not aware of that hemisphere’s limitations’ in the sense that he or she is unaware of the limitations of ‘left hemisphere kind of thinking’, then I would agree with you, but it would seem to be a truism. But if what you mean is that the left hemisphere ‘is unaware of its own limitations’ as an agent in its own right, independently of the person embodying it, then it becomes far more than a truism. But it also becomes a highly implausible account of agency, consciousness and personhood. Your thesis, it seems to me, rests to a large degree upon this ambiguity in the understanding of agency.”

I think Kenan is right to raise this question but it is not yet clear to me how much hangs on it. Any thoughts? 


All of these questions were explored in our report, but they have all been given fresh impetus from the discussion with Kenan Malik and those who commented on the blogs, to whom I am grateful. And finally, I just saw that Iain posted an apology for overreacting to Kenan’s comments, so this important discussion is back on track in both substance and style…




  • Paul Brasington

    When I first read Ray Tallis’ contribution to the RSA paper I could only think that he really hadn’t understood what Iain McGilchrist was saying, so I think it was a tactical error for Kenan to pick up on that argument, and hardly surprising that Iain should have become irritable in his response (sorry but I’m going to use first names here, partly because they’re quicker to write, partly because I hope it will help keep the tone amiable). I don’t know Kenan’s work though from what I’ve read in these pages his views about current cultural malaise at least in the west are more in agreement with Iain than otherwise, so there’s something needlessly (but academically) accentuated in this spat.
    I’ve only read their respective blog posts once, and fairly quickly, but doing so prompted a few thoughts.
    Though there are parts of it I’d question (particularly the discussion of language in relation to thought) generally I found The Master and his Emissary utterly convincing, but then started worrying that this was because I shared Iain’s apparent unease at much that was being said by politicians, business people, scientists and cultural critics about the objects of their attention. I worried about the relationship between the two parts of the book, and though I think Iain goes to extraordinary and proper lengths to qualify his argument, I still felt some unease that I might be reaching for the neuroscience to validate some otherwise arguable cultural views (I find myself very tempted to argue for the worthlessness of most conceptual art because it’s the art of the left hemisphere, which apparently doesn’t understand art).
    This is my problem, not Iain’s, but it does go to Kenan’s point about the difficulty of thinking about brains, metaphor and agency. There is a circularity, or at least an uncertain dividing line between metaphor and literal/empirical truth, when it come to thinking about mind and brain. I have little doubt myself that mind is always embodied, and the first half of Iain’s book shows I think without any real question that our minds are literally contingent on hemispherical function. What we don’t (and maybe never will) understand is the relationship between brain function and mind, because that’s actually a conceptual rather than a functional question, and we struggle with the concepts. One of the reasons why I found Iain’s book so compelling is that he discusses these problems fully and insists on their complexity – which far from attempting to have his cake and eat it, is more about trying to tell the truth. It’s strange to see him being accused of reductionism, when it seems to me he’s entirely aware of the problems that Kenan raises, and which he himself would acknowledge we need to be very careful about.
    By the way, the Social Brain project is now asking about the practical implications of Iain’s work, and I would say that reading the book (alongside Bryan Appleyard’s The Brain is Wider than the Sky) has helped me to begin to articulate much more clearly my discomfort with the way managers routinely think about brand and change in business, about the false comforts of machine metaphors and why they might be comforting but wholly misleading, and I’m working on a piece to explain these ideas to the marketing/internal communication communities. I want to put some stakes in the ground which make that ground look very different ….

    • Jonathanrowson

      Dear Paul, many thanks for this thoughtful contribution which was good to hear- especially the ‘utterly convincing’ bit- which chimed with my own experience (and in recent days there haven’t been many supporters of Iain’s argument piping up!).

      I think Kenan was very fair-minded, and did what most of us would do which is reach for the quotes and arguments that appear closest to our own felt sense of the matter. Also, Ray entered the debate in person in a very congenial spirit, and while I also wondered whether he had read Iain’s book, I feel that line of argument is better avoided; there is a real danger of sounding like “If you disagree with me, it must be because you don’t understand me”…which doesn’t help move the argument forward.

      You seem to understand that well already- none of us read the same book in the same way, and the more complex the argument, the more scope there is to assimilate the same information while accommodating it very differently.

      And I very much liked the line:

      “One of the reasons why I found Iain’s book so compelling is that he discusses these problems fully and insists on their complexity – which far from attempting to have his cake and eat it, is more about trying to tell the truth.”

      Although perhaps Iain’s detractors might say that means the only true cake is the one that can be both had and eaten!

  • Jonathanrowson

    Dear Scott, many thanks for the extended comment. Your last point rang true, and I struggled with how to handle it in conceiving of the whole undertaking to led to our report project. It feels premature to reach after practical implications of the ideas before deciding if they are broadly correct, but the argument is so intricate and multi-faceted that is also feels foolish to wait for universal assent on every aspect of it before proceeding. John Wakefield’s contribution (end of reflections section) was useful in this regard, because he worked hard to make sense of what the ‘argument’ or ‘thesis’ precisely refers to when you are considering practical implications.

    The way I structured the report and the workshop was to first ask, broadly, ‘is this right?’, then ask, ‘what does it mean if so?’ and then, ‘what follows?’. Since I broadly accept Iain’s argument, and did what I could to make sense of what it means, I was hoping people might help to make sense of what follows. But instead, as you indicate, we get stuck mostly on the first part- is it right?- which is frustrating because the answer is basically ‘it depends’ (on the meaning of agency, metaphor, cause etc) and I don’t think the answer can ever be stated in a way that it might need to be stated to have a bigger impact in mainstream debates (Matthew Taylor made this point in the workshop- see appendices).

    • Scott Wagner

      Thank you, Jonathan. I feel we need to sharpen and clarify our understanding of hemispheric personalization and agency, causality, etc., i.e., that there are definitional and contingency mandates, less an acceptance of versions of ‘it depends’ as response to critics. In that sense, people like Tallis and Malik are needed to ask questions that sharpen the arguments. I believe in that process, and don’t think that effort is doomed to failure- or, rather, that it’s doomed to fail with individuals, but that the science, clarity and promulgation can benefit greatly by that effort. That’s exactly what I like about you picking up these four metathemes about hemispheres from the IM/Malik discussion and jogging with them. It will help us define what we know, what we don’t know, and any loose ends good minds might feel emboldened to pursue.

      My personal feeling is that the work is incredibly useful. I more or less agree, though, with your terrifically morbid-sounding “I don’t think the answer can ever be stated in a way that it might need to be stated to have a bigger impact in mainstream debates.” The advantageous end-around that dilemma is a resilient, robust model and set of metaphors that track high-level reality in a remarkable, pretty darned detailed way. They provide an individual a useful lens through which to see reality, and they do so pretty easily for many, without years of study, and without an IQ over 150. My advocacy for pushing the metaphors and model can and should sound a bit morally grey- if one is to ‘go pop’ with things, eyes and ears are right to perk up a bit. But here’s the issue, to me: we’re in an unusual situation, as science goes. The real opportunity we have is found at the level of the metaphor and high-level modeling, not within the underlying science. We will not use this model by running the public through magnetic erasers that shift impetus to the right hemisphere: we won’t snip away at Broca’s fold, or watch an fMRI of a bad guy marketing socially deleterious products. The metaphors and high-level assertions will instead simply inspire people with new perspective, because of robust, resonant, and arguably prescriptive reflections in reality. We will arrive at a bunch of who-knows-what that address and explain practical concerns at work, with our partners, or when planning our vacations. As Simon Christmas said in your review, Jonathan, while thinking about promulgation, “…we should not ask how Iain’s argument could have practical implications: it is already having them.” We’re in fact naturally changing our personal behavior by virtue of understanding ideas we trust to some degree about how to see reality. In the most important sense, these ideas that are changing us have absolutely nothing to do with the underlying assumptions that enabled the model. By ignoring so readily the high-level dimensionality in the name of the low-level issues, we bury an important contention of Iain’s, that bicamerality is best considered a post-hoc response to reality- a wildly successful model used by creatures for life-and-death struggles- not as an independent mystery of evolution that arose into existence pro forma, for random reasons. McGilchrist’s primary contribution, then, is to point out a specific high-level fault in an otherwise successful model, with some mapped out patterns of failure.

      We should assume that there will be negative fallout from popularizing and decoupling high-level ideas from the underlying science. Fortunately, we can have many tools to address such problems: a fervent group of scientists in agreement about some of the confusing or complicated concepts; a strong map between reality and model inference; the potential (despite what many seem to believe) to encapsulate most, if not all, of the key components of the hypothesis; increasingly strong societal information dissemination; and a body of agreeing and disagreeing scientists that will instinctively fight such negative fallout at every turn.

      These are ideas for everyone, dammit, which, to my lights, makes it quite unfortunate that they are coming out of the scientific community, since scientists have a remarkably ambivalent relationship with usefulness. It took my daughter about 4 minutes to get excited about the personal implications of two of McGilchrist’s basic metaphors. Resonance arises in this case because of a near-immediate recognition of practicality in action and attitude: the high-level fault in our hemispheric model can be apprehended relatively easily within context. Though it’s wise to fear the implications of actionable abstractions betimes, it’s also foolish to pretend such inspiration and clarity isn’t happening to good, smart people, as a result of a bunch of remarkable science it took a brilliant fellow 20+ years to birth.

      To deny the furtherance and influence of Iain’s most important conclusions because somebody’s still trying to figure out the subtleties of agency placed within bi-camerality is bad enough: to do it because people are still trying to sort out whether hemispheres have personalities or not is getting way, way too lost in the weeds.

      • Jonathanrowson

        I share some of the frustration, but we are writing in a context where mention of left/right differences is still considered a red flag of what Stephen Poole (popularly, persuasively, amusingly- and therefore effectively) calls ‘neurobollocks’. I think the Science of climate change might be a useful analogy here. There is no value is making people think it is all debated, unclear etc, but there is value in saying where the consensus is, and where it isn’t- current opinion polls indicate that people get that. However I do take the point that for most people that is already lost in the weeds….So I guess I would say we need both things – Scientific/philosophical clarity and precision where possible, but also advocacy which is less hamstrung by those things- to work in tandem…Is there any reason that you think one actually undermines the other?
        I can see from your interests that you are a fan of Haidt. Perhaps he would talk about the authority frame here- science functions as a from of authority and cognitive outsourcing. I’m not sure that will ever change.

        For what it’s worth I think the relationship between weather and climate is a good one. The question is how distal/proximate the cause is. For scientists that matters a great deal, for most others, not so much. This link is a good starter on that question:

        • Scott Wagner

          >.Is there any reason that you think one actually undermines the other?

          Not at all- my point is that we need to do both, but that we’re doing the one, and not the other because we’re deathly afraid of not being scientific. Hence my regret that this model was birthed from a scientific perspective- now scientists are misapprehending that it’s their gig entirely, and that it must be made fast well before being sent down the river. The irony is that the one we’re doing is not only doomed to partial failure (or that we’ve won enough of the field, and should be moving resignedly to standard definition and contingency labeling), but it also doesn’t contain the power/practicality of the whole affair.

          The undermining, as you put it, is one of targeting, in the marketing sense. We’re spending energy on the the least important, least efficacious of our two required approaches.

          • Kiljoy

            >”that we’re doing the one, and not the other because we’re deathly afraid of not being scientific.”

            I’m assuming that by being scientific you’re thinking mainly of the noble enterprise focused mainly on pin-pointing causal relations, as best as possible anyway.

            Yet if the recent book Big Data is anything to go by, and I’m sure it is (it’s a topic that’s been around for some time now) correlation, probabilities and, more controversially, propensities (I’d say proclivities) these aspects of life, phenomena, are apparently rapidly gaining relevance as never before really imagined – so not so much pin-pointing as taking a far, far broader overview.

        • Scott Wagner

          Jonathan, I read the interesting distal/proximate article you linked to at the end. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t understand your point in your final paragraph as it relates to Iain’s work.

          Yes, Haidt might well point to the authority moral “foundation” to frame the issue. You seem to be implying that significant use of the high-level model is effectively contingent on (much) broader neuroscientist acceptance of Iain’s ideas, i.e., before the ‘authority’ will allow it. Do you thus think that Iain must convince a large portion of the scientists who reject bilaterality personality effects of his hypothesis before high-level considerations of his model can be accepted and used outside of the scientific community?

  • Brad Peters

    I think my difficulty with Iain’s proposal is best summed up by your question: “If you are not reducing your explanation to the
    brain, in what way is what you are saying about the brain important?” Note: I did not read the book. I believe you should be able to summarize your main argument and have someone understand it without having to read the whole thing front to back. It seems like there is an implicit assumption that ‘balance’ between the hemispheres is ‘better,’ but is that an argument based on biology, or culture? Presumably culture, since that’s where our values ultimately come from… we are a symbolic species that habitually invent meaning within what Tallis calls that ‘community of minds’ or shared subjectivity. So in what sense is the biology important here, so far as it could help us better understand culture, history, and social processes?

    And for the record I would argue that the metaphor issue is in fact a problem if only due to its likelihood for confusion. No one is going to think that gene’s are capable of being ‘selfish’ because it would be absurd to believe that genes could be agents, but people do often think that they will find consciousness in the working mechanisms of the brain. I think Tallis and Malik are right to have concerns, though I must say, I am curious about his book and will likely pick it up.

    • Jonathanrowson

      Thanks Brad. Our report was designed for people like you who are interested in the argument but who haven’t yet read the book(a big but worthwhile commitment of time). The question of restoring balance, like the question of metaphor and virtually every other question about the argument is that it’s almost never either the brain or the world, but always about their relationship- see Paul’s response below. However, for what it’s worth science writer Rita Carter took a similar position in her feedback paper in our report (2nd reflection) suggesting that she followed Iain’s argument up to the point that he said we needed to rebalance, which she felt was a value judgement that went beyond the evidence.

  • Pingback: Reach the Right » » What Does the Brain Teach Us about Behavior?

  • Cat

    Does anyone know of a transcript of Iain’s RSA Animate feature “The Divided Brain” ? I’d love a copy. Thanks!

  • andyrwebman

    I feel that one thing that is missing from many of these discussions is a fair critique of the limitaitons of the right hemisphere.

    We have heard plenty of the left hemisphere’s tendency to go off on long convulted paths, but what about the right hemisphere’s emotional primitivism, the tendency to kneejerk belief and fear?

    I once read about someone who had their Corpus Collosum severed due to severe epilepsy – more truly a “split brain” than most of us. Their left hand – controlled by the right hemisphere – would randomly try to attack people while they watched horrified. Interestingly, it suggests that “they” were to a degree more in their left brain than right, or else even someone “more” in their right brain than left didn’t know why they were doing things.

    If you had a prejudice against someone – e.g. homosexuals – and someone calmly convinced you with rational argument that it wasn’t fair to do so, isn’t that a feature of left hemisphere open mindedness? In such a situation, wouldn’t we intellectually know the truth first, and only slowly come to believe in “in our gut” as the saying goes?

    If we had to do something like reach into a box of insects to get a key, wouldn;t the steely control required to do that be very much of a left brain activity, letting our reasoned awareness control the blind right brained fear?

    I have met people of the scatterbrained, highly right brained thinking type and they are very apt to trust their intuitions and emotions far more than is appropriate. They deserve, I think, at least the same amount of criticism as the obsessive left brainers.

  • Pingback: Modeling cognitive behavior at the neurochemical level – BonnieNadri.Com

  • Pingback: “Dear God, if there is a God. Save my soul, if I have a soul.” : RSA blogs