Book review: the matter with things.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

You are probably familiar with the idea that the two sides of our brains are responsible for different functions of our personality. For example, that our left hemisphere is more analytical, maths-oriented, more reasoning and ordered, whilst the right side is more creative, artistic, intuitive.

Well this popular idea that our personalities are more dominated by one or the other sides…that artists are more right sided and accountants are more left sided is completely NOT what is going on.

The Matter With Things by Iain MGilchrist tries to explore what IS going on.

The latest research shows that there are differences in the two sides of our brain. And McGilchrist thinks that in today’s society the narrow-beam, desiccating, categorising left hemisphere has usurped the more holistic, synthesising, open-attention right side.
As a result we are more lost in our (re)representational maps generated by the left brain, than being actually embodied in the territory that can be appreciated by the right.
The left hemisphere has assumed mastery over the right side when it should be its servant.
In short: we are not in our right minds!
A situation that gives us, as a species, a very poor and unreliable window into the reality of things.

Speaking of the right hemisphere he writes….

[The left hemisphere presents a map whilst the right], as in the world the map represents, and in the world revealed to us by physics, by poetry, and simply by the business of living, things are almost infinitely more complex. Nothing is clearly the same as anything else. All is flowing and changing, provisional, and complexly interconnected with everything else. Nothing is ever static, detached from our awareness of it, or disembodied; and everything needs to be understood in context, where, if it is not to be denatured, it must remain implicit. Here, wholes are different from the sum of the parts, and beauty and morality, along with empathy and emotional depth, help us to intuit meaning that lies beyond the banality of the familiar and everyday.

Iain McGilchrist.

This is a MONSTER two volume set. 1,500 pages!
I am only half-ish way through the first volume so I cannot really review the whole thing as yet. The first volume is technical, it teases apart the two hemispheres of our brain examining and comparing them from a neuroscience viewpoint.

But don’t be put off. The writing is engaging and not too difficult a read (although some previous interest in neuroscience will be a definite advantage). There are plenty of fascinating case studies and thought provoking ideas. If you are a fan of the writing of Oliver Sacks (eg The man who mistook his wife for a hat, Awakenings) you are difinitely going to enjoy this first volume.

The next volume promises to open up this technical groundwork to ask some big metaphysical and philosophical questions:

  • Who are we?
  • What is the world?
  • How can we understand consciousness, matter, space and time?
  • Is the cosmos without purpose or value?
  • Can we really neglect the sacred and divine?

This book has been 10 years in the writing, and a lot of deep thinking smart people are saying that in the future it will be seen as having made a significant contribution to the way we appreciate ourselves as humans. That’s a big call.

For me, 4 out of 5 stars so far……

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