On 22 March 2016, psychiatrist and author of the acclaimed The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist, gave a public lecture at Cumberland Lodge and made a bold claim: "humans are turning into machines".
The reason, McGilchrist argues, is that modern society prioritises and rewards “left brain” mechanical, narrow, abstract reasoning and penalises contextual, empathetic and broad “right brain” reasoning. The result is that we, as a society, are losing the sort of well-rounded interaction with the world that makes us truly and fully “human”.
McGilchrist is undoubtedly a psychiatrist par excellence and his analysis of the brain is compelling. He dispels the common myth that the different sides of the brain serve different functions, instead establishing that they provide different perspectives. The left hemisphere approaches the world in a focused manner. It facilitates reasoning that is explicit, fragmented and abstract, in other words, much like a machine. The right hemisphere provides context. It allows us to understand levels of meaning, empathise and understand.
To flourish as humans, McGilchrist argues, the two hemispheres should work together in a balanced way. Yet, he claims, modern western society creates an imbalance by increasingly privileging the left over the right. And so, in our increasingly mechanised world, humans are increasingly encouraged to act as machines as well.
McGilchrist supported his claim with several examples. From his own profession, medicine, he argued that the role of the doctor is shiftingfrom diagnostician to technician. Another example is our increasing reliance on technology to communicate, to the detriment of more perceptive forms of communication which engaging a non-verbal in addition to forms of interaction. 21st Century society is controlled and surveiled to an unprecedented extent, representing a state of social paranoia.
McGilchrist’s lecture was deliberately provocative. For example, he showed a photo of an Ebola victim, lying in the street while passers-by take photos on the iPhones, to demonstrate the absence of empathy that results from reliance on such a mechanistic form of communication. Yet it is worth noting that social media played a vital role in raising awareness of the crisis amongst civil society in the west.
He also cited increasingly strict social norms for interaction with children, and the practice of issuing guides for conduct in sex and relationships to undergraduates, as evidence of a trend away from trust in empathy and understanding as a guide to social situations. But it could equally be seen as an example of a greater social awareness. Ultimately, therefore, it is not obvious that McGilchrist’s evidence is as clear-cut as he suggests.
While we may not be fully convinced by McGilchrist’s argument that we are turning ourselves into machines, he demonstrated clearly how our minds can be shaped by social factors.
At a time of rapid change such as ours – not least through the pervasive use of digital technology – his plea that we use our brains holistically is surely an important one, and vital if we are to ensure we flourish as individuals and as societies.