Translating Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and his Emissary” into film posed some unique challenges. The most obvious was length – at 600 pages, with thousands of footnotes, this is a brilliant academic work that contained far more than could ever fit into a two-hour film. The book is also a love letter to the printed page. Most of McGilchrist’s information comes from written scientific journals, and from the writings of philosophers, poets and novelists. It’s not terribly visual stuff.
The challenge was how to translate an argument based on words and thought into an argument that could be expressed visually. Fortunately, Iain’s life presented a clear opportunity: he spends most of his time on the road delivering lectures to rapt audiences all over the world. Watching lectures can be a bit dull, of course, so we encouraged Iain to meet with experts whose work had influenced his thinking, as well as people who thoroughly disagreed with his approach. We filmed some fascinating encounters, where Iain is challenged, enlightened, and sometimes infuriated by the people he meets. In the film, we see Iain on the road in the UK, Europe, Greece, Canada and the U.S., in theatre rehearsals, in science labs, speaking with experts which included leading neuroscientists, religious leaders, artists and Aboriginal elders.
Much of McGilchrist’s theory rests on evidence from people whose brains have been damaged by strokes, so we wanted to get some patients on film. This was not easy. Experiencing a stroke is an instant crisis that can leave victims confused, very sick, and unable to speak. Few consider getting on film to be a high priority when their life is turned upside down. Fortunately, Dr. Michael Cusimano of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital was extremely helpful in finding patients who might want to participate. In the end, we followed one of his patients, Miriam, as she was recovering from her recent stroke. She gave us a fascinating glimpse into how strokes can reveal the unique personalities of each side of the brain, and the personal struggles patients endure as they try to retrain their brains.
Our final challenge was how to illustrate the effects of the left hemisphere’s way of thinking on Western society. In his book, McGilchrist was chiefly concerned with how we think. For our film, we needed to show the visual, physical consequences of a state of mind. To do this, we filmed cities using high speed cameras and time lapses. We also relied on art to show how the way we have depicted the world has changed over the centuries. It was particularly striking to see how Western paintings show the shift from balanced to left-hemisphere style thinking, culminating in the complete fragmentation of modern art in the hands of people like Picasso.
The film is a feast for the mind and the eyes. I can truly say that in following Iain’s odyssey, you will never see the world the same way again.
by Stephen Milton
Stephen is a Toronto-based writer and is the scriptwriter of the film, “The Divided Brain”