Film Reviews

Different Brainwaves: ‘The Divided Brain’

Doc explores how brain functions reflect, and perhaps shape, the world

Dr. Iain McGilchrist and John Cleese in the The Divided Brain
Divided Brain Media


The Divided Brain
(Canada, 78 min.)
Dir. Manfred Becker

The world, like the brain, is split between the left and the right. Left-wingers favour democracy and progress, while the folks on the Right tend to be more about numbers and bureaucracy. In the brain, however, things are reversed: the left hemisphere favours the analytical while the right hemisphere offers a creative drive. Science, colloquially speaking, says that a fine balance between both sides of the brain is good for a person’s cognitive skills, development, and self-expression. The same goes for politics with checks, balances, disagreement, and dialogue.

Dr. Iain McGlichrist writes in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World that the balance of the brain has shaped civilizations throughout the course of human history. He furthers the idea of “the divided brain” by suggesting that the left hemisphere favours details while the right hemisphere looks at the whole. He argues that one side of the brain, the left, is taking over as the world shifts towards social orders that favour details, processes, reductions, and mechanizations. The left-brain, he suggests, his stripping the world of its humanity and its ability to plan for the future. His theory is complicated and requires both hemispheres to process, but taking it in via a 78-minute movie, rather than a 600-page book, might be easier on the brain as a whole.

The Divided Brain, directed by Manfred Becker and produced by Vanessa Dylyn, follows Dr. McGilchrist as he engages the world with his theory and reflects on the relationship between hemispheric processes and shifts in society. Left brainers might prefer the elements of the film that are more expository as The Divided Brain sees Dr. McGilchrist outline his research in relatively accessible terms while actress Seana McKenna narrates (somewhat dryly) the extra odds and ends and implications of his findings. Right-brainers, on the other hand, might favour the elements of the film that look beyond the facts and figures to take in the whole. Much of The Divided Brain sees Dr. McGilchrist in conversation with great thinkers, and the doc is at its best when it engages in these deep, thoughtful conversations.

The doc features an impressive roster of experts and interviewees, some of whom appear in conventional talking heads interviews (mostly for the “left brain” kind of stuff), while other scenes see Dr. McGilchrist strolling through colleges, homes, and rolling hillsides to better expand our worldviews. Highlight interviewees include Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, the brain scientist and author who famously had an aneurysm and lived to tell the world about what a thrill it was. The doc takes audiences into Dr. Bolte Taylor’s very eccentric home where she makes stain glass brains and brain stone carvings—and has an entire room full of humongous brain statues. Like McGilchrist and the team behind The Divided Brain, the intricacies of the human mind fascinate Bolte Taylor endlessly. She recounts to McGilchrist the unique experience of undergoing an aneurysm as someone who has studied the brain. As anyone who’s seen her Ted Talk knows, she’s a great character. She colourfully relates her experience and research to McGilchrist’s findings and, like most interviewees in the film, she doesn’t take his opinion at face value. They exchange ideas and perspectives, and it’s fun to watch sparks fly between great minds.

The same goes for a jovial dialogue with Monty Python star and author John Cleese, who meets with McGilchrist in a museum exhibit surrounded by brainstuff to discuss all things about the machinery of the mind and world alike. Cleese, who co-authored the humorous book Life and How to Survive It, tells McGilchrist how he stumbled into comedy when his studies in law proved dry. Making people life excited his brain and stimulated those around him, and this conversation in particular highlights the nuances of The Divided Brain’s inquiry as Cleese and McGilchrist take a humorously unconventional approach to science. One can assume that Cleese’s presentation of DNA strands, such as the gene that makes a person like Nicolas Cage movies, is quack science. (And, hopefully, a rare gene.)

The doc also finds unique approaches to the way we perceive the world through creative ways and outlooks that encompass the whole. McGilchrist tours with actors and dancers, highlighting the importance of the arts and how elements of the brain collaborate to ignite creative sparks. The doc ends with a deep chat with Leroy Little Bear, who unpacks the meaning of the phrase “all my relations” in Indigenous communities to illustrate the interconnectedness of humans to their surroundings. The film operates on many levels as a science documentary, a philosophical debate, a political essay, and environmental film, drawing links from each field to further the conversation about the interconnectedness of our world and our ways of thinking.

The doc admirably includes many voices that disagree with McGilchrist’s findings. They challenge his methods and his conclusions, and even many of the participants who seem to be on the same brainwave as McGilchrist don’t seem to be with him entirely. By the end of The Divided Brain, one senses that McGilchrist doesn’t nail down the brain or the world entirely, but perhaps that’s also the point. Although he muddles it, he’s on to something. The Divided Brain invites audiences to dive deeper into the ideas proposed by these conversations. It encourages us to expand our ways of thinking to save the planet, and there’s no doubt that’s the first step we collectively need to take.

The Divided Brain screens in Toronto on Tuesday, April 9 at 7:00 p.m. at the Isabel Bader Theatre followed by a conversation with Dr. Iain McGilchrist (by satellite), Dr. Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself), and Dr. Jordan Peterson (12 Rules for Life).

Visit thedividedbrain.com for info and tickets.