Separating The Hemispheres

in psychology •  2 months ago  (edited)

Political discourse in our public domain has become more divided than ever before, so it seems. The divides run along many lines, but I think it's safe to say that they're all concentrated on the mother of all divides; the one between the left and the right.


Brain_Motor&Sensory_small.jpg
source: Wikimedia Commons

Today however, I'd like to briefly discuss another left-right dichotomy, an internal one. Our own brains are separated into two distinct hemispheres that are connected to each other, and communicate with each other through the corpus callosum, a thick "bundle" of nerves through which enormous amounts of data are transmitted constantly. Split brain research became popular among neuroscientists in the 1960s when corpus callosotomy, the surgical separation between the hemispheres, was used for the first time as a last-resort measure to treat otherwise incurable cases of epilepsy. Epileptic seizures are caused by electrical surges through the corpus callosum, and cutting it in half prevented the surge to spread from one hemisphere to the other.

Beforehand, at least since the 1950s, it was already suspected that the left and right brain, specifically the left and right half of the neocortex, the outer shell of the brain where the higher functions reside, performed different tasks. The ability to speak, for example, resides predominantly in the left sphere, while the ability to recognize faces is one of the right half's specialties. These split brain patients are rare though; it's difficult to find the ones without other preexisting mental peculiarities and that also have a perfectly clean cut between the halves. About a dozen of them have been studied intensively, most notably by Michael Gazzaniga professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he heads the new SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind, and acknowledged as one of the leading researchers in cognitive neuroscience, the study of the neural basis of mind. His subjects' numbers are dwindling, having died, becoming too old for the hours long research-sessions and so on, and there are almost no new subjects to take their place as less intrusive treatments and medicine have been developed to treat previously incurable epilepsy.

What we've been able to learn by observing and studying these patients is astonishing though. We now know for sure that the left half of our bodies are controlled by the right hemisphere, and vice versa. We know that the left hemisphere is much better at reasoning, mathematics and science, while our creative, artistic and adventurous qualities find their home in the right hemisphere. It is amazing to watch these subjects when they effortlessly draw different images simultaneously with the left and right hand, as if a separate consciousness controls each hand; for "normal" people with an intact corpus callosum this is nigh impossible to do. It's amazing to see them see a word in their right field of sight, which is processed in the left hemisphere, and repeat that word without hesitation, but when a word is presented to their left field of sight, they claim they saw nothing, as the right hemisphere is simply not able to articulate what the left eye saw. But when they're asked to draw what their left eye saw, they draw a perfect representation of the word they saw.


Which Side of Your Brain Is Smarter?

In other cases we witness the left hemisphere's propensity to give an explanation of what the right hemisphere can't interpret. When the left eye sees the word "music" and the right eye sees the word "bell", the subject will point to a picture of a church-bell as the best representation of the word "music" he saw with his right eye, when the other pictures he could choose from were much better representations of the word "music", as the other choices were an orchestra, a musical instrument and a radio playing music. When asked why he chose the church-bell instead of the other, much more obvious options, he defends his right-brain bias with left-brain logic, and tells a story about he always hears bells ringing on his way over to the research-center.

All this, as well as other studies on brains that are physiologically altered or damaged, point to a strong, a very strong correlation between our consciousness and our brains. It seems logical, in other words, to point to our brains as the residence of our thoughts and consciousness. For a long time these split brain studies had scientists suspect that a split brain could house two separate minds, further cementing the correlation between the physical brain and the ethereal, the insubstantial consciousness. This creates the temptation to draw a causal link between the two; the physical brain is causing the emergent consciousness. But that's not necessarily true. The brain could also be an antenna that's tuned to one specific frequency, one personal station, in an omnipresent consciousness that's being broadcast eternally. Maybe the split brain receives two ever so slightly differing frequencies within a personal range of frequencies. Who's to say?

Now back to the external world; if we are, as a species, ever going to become "whole", we'll need left AND right, just like our brains do. So when you do the ridiculously simplified test in the above linked video, remember that the score is insignificant. I think we all basically want what's good for all of us, not just for ourselves. We all want to see a future that's better than the present, with less suffering and more happiness, less depression and loneliness and more cooperation and purpose. We create the meaning of our lives, but not just our own. We are not a brain-experiment, we don't need the corpus callosotomy we now see in our societies. Our collective brains have given us a world-society in which it's clearer than ever before in human history that all our lifes are closely interconnected and that we carry a shared responsibility for the future of our children and their children and so on. But you know this already ;-) I'll leave you with a video that shows the amazing effects of splitting a brain in two; enjoy!


Recent Interview with Gazzaniga and split brain patient 'Joe'


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