On April 3, 2024, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts hosted literary scholar, philosopher, and psychologist Dr. Iain McGilchrist for a public conversation with DITA Director Dr. Jeremy Begbie. The best-selling author of The Master and His Emissary and the two-volume work The Matter with Things, McGilchrist is known widely for his research on brain hemisphere theory—particularly as a lens for understanding Western culture over the last few centuries.

The conversation opened with an exploration of brain hemisphere theory—which is often dismissed as a pop myth. Contrary to what is often thought, the difference between the left and right brain has to do with attention. “The right hemisphere has sustained, vigilant open attention to whatever there is without any kind of preconception," said Dr. McGilchrist. "In the left hemisphere’s world, there are things. Things we know we want. That attention generates a world made up of isolation, fragments, bits.” The left brain, with its narrow focus, wants to “get and grasp,” but it needs the right brain if humans are to make sense of the world.

For McGilchrist, our culture has become dominated by left-brain attention, and this has impacted everything—from education to the arts, and (not least) “the sacred.” We imagine that we are “masters of creation” and lose our sense for awe and wonder. We have been bewitched by mechanistic models of what it is to be human, forgetting that “we are nothing like machines.” Somehow, we need to learn to see ourselves and the world differently.

We are nothing like machines

"The whole business of life," said Dr. Iain McGilchrist, "is infinitely creative from the word 'go.' And there’s a lot more I could say and a lot more I have said, but I want to make it clear that we are nothing like machines." Watch the full recording to learn more.
On April 3, 2024, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts hosted Dr. Iain McGilchrist for a public conversation with DITA Director Dr. Jeremy Begbie.

The arts, according to McGilchrist, are key to combatting this narrow outlook, as are all the humanities. Indeed, McGilchrist himself first encountered the sacred through the arts—he cited the music of Thomas Tallis, the architecture of Brunelleschi, and the fresco of the virgin and Christ in the Chora Church in Istanbul. From these encounters, he realized that the sacred plays a key role in integrating the brain, an intuition eventually supported by his later research. McGilchrist said his work and writing on the sacred “cost him more” than any other topic. “It is the most important thing that I have to help people see again,” McGilchrist said.

Like all McGilchrist’s work, this conversation was interdisciplinary and widely appealing: neuroscience researchers, psychiatrists, astrophysicists, and artists from both the university and the wider community filled the seats of Goodson Chapel. A delegate from the armed forces was also present, keen to learn about how McGilchrist’s work might impact trauma therapy for veterans.

Jeff Baker, director of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and the History of Medicine, commented, “I think that for many people Dr. McGilchrist’s work represents a first step in seeing the world as a more mysterious and more wondrous place than we usually acknowledge. And that intuition helps us to go beyond naming what’s wrong to imagining how it might be made right." DITA was thrilled to present a public opportunity to learn from this wise thinker.