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The One about Left and Right brain thinking

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant but has forgotten the gift.

Bob Samples (1976)


The standard description of our understanding of the left and right hemispheres of the brain is that the left hemisphere is the seat of reason and rational thinking, while the right hemisphere is primarily responsible for creativity and innovation. I think it’s fair to say that our thinking in higher and professional education, especially in the health sciences, has privileged the reason and analytical part of the equation, even while some are trying to bring in the creativity and innovation. But we may be approaching the problem in the wrong way.

In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist describes a different way of thinking about the left and right hemisphere’s relationship to each other, and to ourselves. He uses a story of the master of a community who is responsible for high-level oversight and management, who decides that he needs help managing the affairs of the community. He passes off some of his work to a trusted emissary who is able to focus on the daily work and operational demands of the community. In other words, someone to manage the discrete tasks that all need to happen but which, in isolation, say little about how the community is run. The short version of the story is that, over time, the emissary decides that he knows more about how the community ought to be run and so takes over. But since he – the emissary – only understands very discrete parts of the overall picture, he ends up presiding over the downfall of the community.

McGilchrist suggests that, rather than each hemisphere being responsible for logic and creative thinking respectively, it’s more accurate to think of them as being detail-oriented (left hemisphere) and whole-oriented (right hemisphere). And that our cultural and social privileging of rationality over creativity may, in fact, be pushing us to focus mainly on the discrete details of the world, at the expense of understanding the whole.

I was wondering if this idea may have some utility for how we think about health professions education.


Harris, S. (n.d.). The divided mind—A conversation with Iain McGilchrist (No. 234).

In this episode of the podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Iain McGilchrist about the differences between the right and left hemispheres of the human brain. They discuss the evolutionary history of the divided brain, research on surgically divided brains, popular misconceptions about the differences between the hemispheres, the left hemisphere’s propensity for confabulation, the prospect that consciousness might be partitioned in an intact brain, the difference between consciousness and attention, the boundary between the conscious and unconscious mind, how face-to-face encounters differ between the hemispheres, the unique deficits resulting from damage to the left and right hemispheres, the ascendancy of the left-hemisphere in modern culture, the possibility that the brain is a mere receiver of mind, the prospect of surviving death, and other topics.

See also Becker, M. (2019, April 9). The Divided Brain. Matter of Fact Media.


McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

In a book of unprecedented scope Iain McGilchrist presents a fascinating exploration of the differences between the brain’s left and right hemispheres, and how those differences have affected society, history, and culture. McGilchrist draws on a vast body of recent research in neuroscience and psychology to reveal that the difference is profound: the left hemisphere is detail oriented, while the right has greater breadth, flexibility, and generosity.

In the book, the master is the right hemisphere of the brain and the emissary is the left, and the story is about how we’ve fundamentally misunderstood the relationship between the two hemispheres, mistakenly allocating rationality and intelligence to the left hemisphere, and emotion and creativity to the right. McGilchrist argues that this reductionist view of the brain has changed the way we think about our relationship with others, and with our own place in the world. In a society where we privilege reason and intellectual pursuits over artistic ones (i.e. where the left hemisphere – the emissary – is interpreting our experience of the world), we may be putting too much faith in the hemisphere that literally cannot see the whole picture.

RSA. (2011, October 21). RSA ANIMATE: The Divided Brain.

The world of the left hemisphere is dependent on denotative language and abstraction; it yields clarity and the power to manipulate things that are known, fixed, static, isolated, decontextualised, explicit, general in nature, but ultimately, lifeless. The right hemisphere, by contrast, yields a world of individual, changing, evolving, interconnected, implicit, incarnate, living beings in the context of the lived world.

McGilchrist claims that it’s not true that the left hemisphere of the brain is involved primarily with reason and that the right is devoted to emotion. The left and right hemispheres are profoundly involved with both, each offering us different versions of the world that we then integrate.

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