You’ve probably come across websites that show you the difference between functions of the left side of your brain versus the right. The left side uses logic, thinks strategically, and focuses on details, facts, words, math, and science. The right side depends more on feeling, intuition, takes risks, and focuses on symbols, images, and imagination. Common knowledge, right?


These lists of “functions” are false. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist shows why.

Building on more than two decades of research on why the brain is divided into two hemispheres, McGilchrist has discovered that nearly every “function” associated with one hemisphere is actually mediated by both. Why, then, are there two sides to the brain? McGilchrist believes each side provides a different orientation or perspective on the world: the right side taking in the big picture and seeing (and responding emotionally to) the whole, and the left side taking an object apart in order to see its details and then communicating that knowledge through language.

In The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist argues that reducing the idea of “real knowledge” to what can be studied scientifically is an overreach, in which one orientation to the world is promoted to the exclusion of the other. Although he steps back from making a case for God, religion, or free will, he recognizes the dehumanizing philosophy of materialism in the West that loses the value of symbol and metaphor

Importance of Attention

Two areas of McGilchrist’s book stood out to me as having immediate relevancy to conversations among church leaders about discipleship. The first is the importance of attention, and the second is the need for imitation. We’ll look at the first in this article and the second in the next.

Attention changes us more than we realize. What we pay attention to, and how we pay attention matters. McGilchrist writes:

“Our attention is responsive to the world. There are certain modes of attention which are naturally called forth by certain kinds of object.” (133)

He offers a study in contrasts:

“We pay a different sort of attention to a dying man from the sort of attention we’d pay to a sunset, or a carburetor. However, the process is reciprocal. It is not just that what we find determines the nature of the attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find. In special circumstances, the dying man may become for a pathologist a textbook of disease, or for a photojournalist a ‘shot,’ both in the sense of a perceived frozen visual moment and a round of ammunition in a campaign.” (133)

Attention Alters the World

When you pay close attention to something, you are helping to define it. You are changing the way you see it, and depending on the way you talk about it, you are altering the way others see whatever is the object of your study. Even the decision to focus on something at all assigns to it value that whatever you are not studying does not have.

“Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it, and in what way. . . . Attention has consequences.” (133)

Attention and Discipleship

How might this research on attention apply to discipleship?

The importance of attention is something we see all through the Scriptures. Again and again, the psalmist speaks of meditating on God’s law (Psalm 1, 119). Solomon urges his son to “pay attention” to his words and “listen closely” to his sayings (Prov. 4:20). Consider the attention given by a member of a despised minority to a dying man on the Jericho Road in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

Our attention does have consequences. McGilchrist writes:

“How we see the world alters not just others, but who we are. We need to be careful what we spend our time attending to, and in what way.” (167)

Attention not only matters for how we see the world, but how we see ourselves within the world. Here’s a test with fascinating results:

“Participants in a general knowledge quiz were primed in one of three ways, by engaging in activities that made them think about the stereotypes of professors, secretaries or hooligans.

  • Those primed with the professor stereotype scored 60%, those primed with the hooligan stereotype scored only 40%, and those primed with the secretary stereotype scored somewhere in between.
  • In another test, those primed with ‘punk’ stereotypes were more rebellious and less conformist than those primed with ‘accountant’ stereotypes.
  • Similarly, after playing a realistic and aggressive video game, participants, especially young men, became more likely to respond aggressively if provoked.
  • People primed with stereotypes of elderly people (such as ‘sentimental,’ ‘grey-haired,’ ‘playing bingo’) become more conservative in their opinions; those primed with politician stereotypes become more long-winded.
  • If primed with positive associations of the aging process (such as wise and experienced), elderly people perform better on memory tests than those primed with negative associations (such as ‘senile’ or demented).” (167)

McGilchrist’s conclusion?

“What we attend to, and how we attend to it, changes it and changes us. Seeing is not just ‘the most efficient mechanism for acquiring knowledge,’ as scientists tend to see it. It is that, of course, but it is also, and before anything else, the main medium by which we enact our relationship with the world. It is an essentially empathic business.” (167)

Perhaps this is one reason we see an emphasis on attention in the Scriptures. Consider Jesus’s haunting question to Simon the Pharisee after a woman entered the house and washed Jesus’s feet with her tears: “Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44). Not “see” in the acquiring knowledge sense, but see with the eyes of attention, to see with spiritual intuition. It’s the kind of sight that demands paying attention while stirring up in oneself the kind of empathy that destroys any attitude of superiority and changes the one looking.

What receives our attention? What is it we see? What are we missing? The Bible would have us be more attentive to where we give our attention.