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Updated: May 16, 2023

by Michael C. Patterson

In his wonderful book, The Master And His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist describes the relationship between the two hemispheres of the human brain with a story from Nietzche. As is true with any good story, the details change a bit with each retelling, as the teller takes the liberty to embellish according to his or her tastes. In that spirit, I have modified the story a bit and changed The Master and His Emissary into The Empress and Her Deputy. You, no doubt, will embellish the story with your own retelling.

So, here’s my version -


There once was a wise leader who led a small, but prosperous domain. She was known for her selfless devotion to her people and for her tireless stewardship of the land. The people and the land flourished under her guidance and the bounds of the domain grew. [Growth of the neocortex and the frontal lobes.]

As it grew, it became clear to the Empress that the domain was becoming too large for her to lead by herself. She was losing touch with her people and lost track of far-flung regions of the land. To solve this dilemma she worked out two strategies. First, she delegated much of the work of running the domain to a team of trusted deputies. Second, she spent more time among the citizens of her domain, often working side-by-side, sharing meals, birthing babies, burying the dead and so on.

She developed a communication system that would enable the far flung deputies to share their resources and to participate in the activities of the entire domain. She also gave her cleverest deputy the job of coordinating the activities of the deputies and of summarizing the important aspects of what was going in her realm. In this way she could make sure that the deputies were taking actions that served the best interests of her people and the land that supported them all.

Her Chief Deputy was very clever and developed and designed a bureaucratic system to insure that the lesser deputies knew what to do and when to do it. As the domain grew, so did the Deputy’s bureaucracy. He monitored the performance of these systems on a daily basis and, in so doing, felt that he understood, better than anyone, the workings of the domain.

Eventually, the Chief Deputy came to mistake this bureaucratic mapping of the domain for the domain itself and he saw his numbers and charts and graphs more meaningful and important than the people themselves. In this way, he came to see himself as the real leader of the land. He did all the work, after all. He ran the bureaucracy, while all the Empress did was walk silently among her people, sometimes joining them in their labors, sometimes sitting quietly in a field or or the bank of a bubbling spring. He thought the Empress lazy, inefficient and unproductive. He considered her concern for the wellbeing of the people and the land as a weakness. [LH’s limited perspective and propensity to believe its own fabrications and lies.]

The Deputy’s power grew and he eventually usurped the position of the Empress, making himself the final arbiter of all decisions. He limited communication with The Empress, stopped taking her advice and, instead, used his charts and graphs to guide him. As is so often the case, his rule became tyrannical and dictator. He systematically stripped away the people’s rights and concentrated all power and wealth in his own hands. The land was ruthlessly exploited and soon was robbed of its natural fertility. In short, the domain fell into ruin and eventually perished. [The flow of information from RH>LH>RH was interrupted, the LH came to dominate while the RH was inhibited, leading to a limited and skewed understanding of existence and our relationship to it.]

End of story. No happy ending. It is a cautionary tale.

Let me try to explain some of the reasons for my modifications to the original story.

For starters, I changed the gender of the Master, replacing the male ruler of the country with a female leader, The Empress. Our stories need more models of female leadership, after all. Further, the gender change suggests that the right hemisphere (The Empress) might have more of a female character while the left hemisphere (The Deputy) is more male. We shall see how this plays out as we explore more about the characteristics natures of the two hemispheres.

Human beings have two hemispheres with very distinct points of view. This diversification of the hemispheres is due to the evolutionary trend towards increased power and complexity of the human brain. A division of power in the brain, like a division of power between the Empress and her Deputy, leads to greater efficiency - as long as the two parties collaborate, and as long as the Empress (RH) which is grounded in reality, stays in charge.

To coordinate the running of the domain, the Deputy creates a bureaucracy that systematize the activities of the domain. This is role of the left hemisphere, as well. It creates a virtual representation (re-presentation), a symbolic map or blueprint, of real life that can be broken into component parts, rearranged and put into an orderly sequence - a stable and reliable system for running things. These systems should then be shared with the Empress to decide which ones to use, which to discard and how best to deploy the systems to serve the interests of her people and the land. Trouble starts when the Deputy starts running things himself.

These bureaucratic systems are efficient, but they separate the Deputy from the real life of the people and the land. He becomes more and more alienated from real life and begins to see his bureaucracy - his systems - as being the only valid way of relating to what is going on. His systems are neat, tidy and predictable - as he likes things to be. His job, as he sees it is to make use of the land and the people to generate growth and wealth. His impulse is to exploit and his bureaucracy is the perfect instrument for such exploitation.

The Empress, on the other hand, has no interest in exploitation. Her impulse is to explore the wonders of her land, to experience its richness, to experience the precious gift of living. She wants to become one with the people and with the flow of life as it naturally evolves.

McGilchrist’s hemispheric hypothesis makes it clear that we need both hemispheres to operate well. We need the Empress and her Deputy to work together. The Deputy’s bureaucracy (the left hemisphere,) can be quite useful and benevolent, but only when the Empress (the RH) makes sure that it serves to keep the people happy and protects the natural fertility of the land. The Empress must be in charge because she is the one that is in touch with the real domain, while the Deputy has become obsessed with the smooth operation of his virtual reality, his systems and charts and graphs and so on.

McGilchrist believes that in our modern culture, the left hemisphere has come to dominate our minds. This happens on a personal level and on a societal level. He believes that much of the conflict and confusion we experience is caused because we operate within the virtual reality world of the LH and have lost touch with the real, nature world as experienced by the RH. The Deputy has usurped power and keeps the Empress silent and without influence.

In the fable, the despotism of the Deputy leads the domain into ruin. How prophetic is this fable for the fate of our world?

The question of us is whether the dominance of LH ways of thinking have set modern society on a similar trajectory towards doom. It is not unreasonable to worry that modern economic and political systems, driven largely by greed and LH modes of thinking, are making our lives miserable and are putting the future of the planet in jeopardy.

If so, what can we do?

What we can doe is strive to regain hemispheric balance. Strive to reinstitute the coordination of the hemispheres in our individual brains and hope that, collectively, we can bend the arch of political and economic history ever in the direction of the common good.

In practical terms, we need to recognize when LH ways of thinking are become dominant and dictatorial and resist that trend with all our might. If the LH has taken over, we need to knock it off its pedestal of power. We need to escape from the virtual reality world of our LH and spend much more time experiencing the real world through our RH. We need to learn to tell the difference between living a virtual representation of our lives and really living our authentic lives.

In the MIND OVER MUDDLE podcasts we explore how we might make progress on these objectives. And, we explore how mind management systems across history have, in fact, developed effective techniques for balancing hemispheric influences. The hemispheric perspective is new, but the effort to un-muddle the human mind has a 2,500 year history. I hope you will continue to join me on this journey of discovery.

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