In Two Minds

By way of initial introduction, the nature of the mind has long been debated in the historic context of metaphysics. However, in the modern context of materialism, we might assume that logic is all that is require to explain the functioning of the mind and the brain, based on physical laws, e.g. physics and biology. So, even within this simple introduction, we might understand that the sequence of cause and effect between the brain and the mind is obviously complex and therefore describing exactly how this ‘partnership’ functions might be difficult to say the least. Often, this partnership is likened to a computer model, where the brain takes the role of hardware, while the mind assumes the role of software, although most may accept that this model to be woefully inadequate to describe the complexity of the human brain.

How might we proceed from this point?

 This discussion is described as a ‘commentary’ rather than a review in that it will seek to ‘debate’ some of the ideas presented in a book by Iain McGilchrist entitled ‘The Master and his Emissary, first published in 2009. While the title of the book is used as a metaphor, the story of the master and his emissary is also an allegory used to convey a deeper meaning about the functioning of the brain. In brief, the story is about a ‘master’, whose role is complemented by that of an ‘emissary’, who performs certain functions on behalf of the master. However, over time, the emissary seeks to function independently of the master, such that the ‘partnership’ is put at risk. Exactly how the book maps the role of the master and emissary onto the structure of the brain requires the review of nearly 600 pages, such that the idea is simply being introduced at this stage. However, in the context of this commentary, we might wish to consider some preliminary questions as to whether there is any evolutionary rationale to support the idea that the brain might support two distinct functions, starting with a rather deep question. 

What is the evolutionary purpose of life?

While the cartoon is obviously a gross simplification of some 3.8 billion years of evolution, the sound-bite: ‘eat, survive, reproduce’ is not necessarily a ridiculous summation for most lifeforms on planet Earth, at least, until the appearance of homo sapiens. Of course, by the time homo sapiens appeared, evolution had already established most of the functional blueprint underpinning the physiology and neurology of most species. Within the long process of evolution, the ‘eat-survive’ component of the sound-bite has invariably taken place within what might be described as a predator-prey model, while also making reference to the evolutionary idea of survival of the fittest. However, by way of a generalisation, we might realise that most lifeforms can be both predator and prey, such that survival might have required the brain to develop two distinct modes of operation.

Note: When in predator mode, the conscious aspect of the mind may want to focus all its attention on the prey. However, we might recognise that this may not be the best survival strategy, if this focus leaves you open to becoming the prey of another predator. As such, we might perceive an evolutionary benefit for part of the brain being simultaneously aware of the wider environment without distracting attention away from the task at hand. As a slight aside, it might also be speculated that a rudimentary form of consciousness may have evolved within this predator-prey model, as without an awareness of self, it is difficult to define what is predator or prey. As such, both predator and prey, required some primitive form of self-awareness, long before consciousness, where the boundary of ‘self’ comes to define what needs to be protected in order to survive.

Again, only as a starting point, the book under review appears to develop the idea of a duality of brain function, as outlined in the note above, which corresponds to a functional difference between the left and right hemispheres. As such, each hemisphere possibly has a different attention span and perception of reality, which plays the role of the master and the emissary. The following note now attempts to extend the previous evolutionary predator-prey model towards the idea of a two-brain model that we might better recognise in ourselves today.

Note: When reading a book, each word has to be read in sequence from which we might construct an image. In contrast, a picture is first perceived as an image in its entirety, after which we may deconstruct the image by focusing on specific details. Of course, when we watch a film, it requires both words and pictures to be process simultaneously, such that the two previous abilities are somehow merged into a single perception. However, we might realise that the ability to process both words and pictures, as outlined, is a relatively new ability within human evolutionary history. Likewise, it is now known that separate functions of the brain can reside in different hemispheres.

While the note above might not be compatible with the author’s left-right brain model, it might provide an initial explanation of the title of this discussion, i.e. In Two Minds. Of course, whether in the form of words, pictures or a combination of both, homo sapiens appear to have increasingly evolved an ability to create an internal model of an external reality. Of course, this is only an abstract perception, which might be described as a metaphysical construct of some external reality. In this context, we might readily understand that what we perceived in the mind may actually be very different from the external reality that surrounds us. The following quote is taken from a book called 'Why We Feel: The Science of Human Emotions ’ and possibly articulates the potential scope of this difference between internal perception and external reality.

Most of us believe that the world is full of light, colours, sounds, sweet tastes, noxious smells, ugliness, and beauty, but this is undoubtedly a grand illusion. Certainly, the world is full of electromagnetic radiation, air pressure waves, and chemicals dissolved in air or water, but that non-biological world is pitch dark, silent, tasteless, and odourless. All conscious experiences are emergent properties of biological brains, and they do not exist outside of those brains.

In part, the reason for questioning the role of evolution before discussing the thesis of the book is that it might offer some initial causal rationale for the physical structure of the brain and the metaphysical structure of the mind. If we start with the assumption that physical reality exists and the brain physically exist within this reality, it does not necessarily preclude the idea that the evolution of a physical brain was not affected by the evolution of the metaphysical mind. Clearly, both aspects have evolved over time, such that we might perceive a ‘chicken and egg’ situation, although it is not unreasonable to assume that both were evolutionary adaptations to changes in the physical environment within a predator-prey model. As suggested earlier, we might also assume that the scope of human consciousness did not simply spring into existence fully formed, such that we might seek a staged process of evolution, possibly starting with a very limited form of self-awareness, which simply defined the physical boundary of what needed to be protected to ensure survival. Within this initial model, self-awareness did not have a purpose beyond ‘eat, survive, reproduce’, such that it might not have been able to consciously direct its own evolution, although this may now be a possibility for humanity. If so, the evolution of the human brain and mind might have to be considered within an expanding model of consciousness, where the initial stages of evolution were possibly a matter of random chance guided only by the survival of the fittest, but now subject to many other possibilities.

Note: The goal of these discussions is, in part, to debate the thesis presented in the book entitled ‘The Master and his Emissary’. However, it is often easier to get an outline by way of a video presentation. Therefore, the reader may wish to first review some of the following videos by way of an initial introduction of the ideas to be discussed. The first video is considered an excellent starting point both in terms of brevity and scope: The Divided Brain. The second video: An Interview with Iain McGilchrist then widens the scope of the previous video.

In addition, an appendix contains a critique of the book by Kenan Malik and a response by Iain McGilchrist in which he raises a concern that the reviewer may not have fully read the book and all its references. This criticism undoubtedly applies to this commentary process, although an honest attempt has been made to understand its primary arguments. Of course, misunderstanding and misinterpretation of all the arguments in a book, which contains some 350,000 words and 100’s of references, will have undoubtedly occurred. However, the purpose of this commentary is not really intended for the author, who in all probability will never read it, but rather for the more fundamental purpose of simply trying to understand, and debate, some of the issues under discussion.