Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Darn Domineering Left Brains and Subversive Right Brains: The Science of Over the Edge

Many characters in the Over the Edge series are marsupial humanoids. Marsupials have the fascinating quality of lacking a corpus callosum, a structure that unifies brain halves in placentals. In Over the Edge this quality is most obviously expressed by giving each brain its own language. Characters' left brains use abstract symbols for writing and assigned sounds for verbal language while right brains use a hieroglyphic, picture based language for writing and sign language for "speaking."

Scientists have discovered that placental brains divide duties. The left brain is not only in charge of language, but also of math and logic. The right brain tends to spatial abilities, face recognition, visual imagery and music. For prosopagnosics, people who realize they're looking at a human face, but have no clue who the person is, not having this right brain ability is a problem. When a prosopagnosic doesn't recognize the person standing right in front of him, perhaps his wife or father, he also cannot link what he knows about the person to the human he sees--the beloved is a complete stranger until he or she introduces him or herself. This is the right brain showing its critical role in how well the whole person can function.

(See: http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/?main=fa/face-perception5 for more information and while there, take a face recognition test.)

In Over the Edge, the right brain operates on equal footing with the left brain. It's able to let its thoughts and ideas be known. In human beings, the right brain isn't given language and must do its work in the background, as "helper" to the dominant left brain. But in Over the Edge, the right brain can assert itself and potentially create all kinds of trouble for its domineering peer.

"Language seems to override an innate ability to understand spatial relations," says the Scientific American, January 2007 issue, page 28. Researchers compared Dutch adults and children with adults and children from a hunter-gatherer society in Namibia. When faced with five cups, one hiding a block, the Dutch could locate the hidden block when its location was described in relation to the speaker--for instance, "look to my right." The Namibians beat the Dutch under absolute geocentric conditions, using directions such as "look to the south." "When four-year old German children and great apes were tested, both preferred environment-centered processing." The testing "suggests language alters an innate preference."

It's that darned, bossy, controlling left brain. How to tone it down a bit and let the right brain speak? In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards, readers can practice many drills designed to put the right brain in charge--a useful skill if one desires to tap into its full potential. (Yeah, shut up you domineering left brain and let me have some of the limelight.) Her students exhibit dramatic improvement in artistic abilities when the left brain is pushed to the back and the right brain can shine. As an writer/artist who's experienced this power shift, the sensation is both a little unsettling and highly liberating.

In Over the Edge a couple of characters have some trouble with "warring brains," that is their normally happily, coexisting brains decide to feud. Talk about a really unpleasant situation. Try having a fist fight with yourself! It only works if each brain is equally in earnest and boy, when they are, it can really hurt! Note: this type of conflict has been discovered in human beings who've had their corpus callosums cut.

Surgeons may cut an epileptic's corpus callosum in an effort to provide relief from severe seizures. The corpus callosum is "a broad, thick mass of nerve connecting the cerebral hemispheres" (see: http://www.indiana.edu/~pietsch/split-brain.html ). In placental brains there's another bridge called the anterior commissure, which is also cut.

Dr. H. G. Gordon, a neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology believes connections at the back of the brain alone are enough to integrate both human minds. Thus, a new style of this operation leaves the rear part of the corpus callosum in tact. But early operations cut the whole thing rendering some patients into Jekyll and Hyde types.


Roger Sperry neuropsychologist and Nobel Laureate, called the brain, "Two separate realms of conscious awareness; two sensing, perceiving, thinking and remembering systems."

Michael Gazzaniga, who did his graduate work with Sperry, conducted psychological tests on early "split-brain" patients. "Gazzaniga made a startling discovery. If the patient held up something like a comb or a coffee cup in his left hand, he couldn't speak its name. Transferred to the right hand -- no trouble at all."

This interpretive bent first appeared in tests of split-brain patients shown two pictures simultaneously, one to each eye, that is, one to each hemisphere but unavailable to the other eye and hemisphere. Participants then perused an assortment of additional pictures and chose the item most closely related to each of the original pictures.

"For instance, one man had a picture of a chicken claw flashed to his left hemisphere and a picture of a snow scene presented to his right hemisphere. From the ensuing selection of pictures, he correctly chose a shovel with his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere (this would be the side without language)) and a chicken with his right hand (controlled by the left hemisphere (this would be the side with language)). When asked to explain his choices, he responded: "Oh, that's simple. The chicken claw goes with the chicken, and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed." Gazzaniga concluded that the left brain observed the left hand's choice of a shovel - which stemmed from the right brain's nonverbal, inaccessible knowledge - and proffered an explanation based its own fowl information," (see: http://pegasus.cc.ucf.edu/~fle/gazzaniga.html ).

Imagine how his mute right brain felt at having its selection so wrongly interpreted! "No, you overbearing, intellecutal moron, the shovel goes with the snow--the snow!"

In Over the Edge the marsupial, split-brain premise takes the issue to a spiritual level. The biblical book of James delves into this realm extensively, encouraging individuals to base their thinking on one thing and to bring their "warring brains" into compliance with that thing--the Word of God. "Anyone who listens to the Word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not fogetting what he has heard, but doing it--he will be blessed in what he does," James 1:23-25. "...a double-minded man, (is) unstable in all he does," James 1:8. Scientists have proved that one.

How many psychological problems do we human beings suffer because our brains are not in agreement? The right brain, denied language, might instigate depression or some other manifestation of its unhappiness or unease and the domineering left brain might never be able to understand what the heck is going on. Taking drugs to self-medicate or doctor-prescribed drugs in order to buy himself some peace, the person might only need to get in touch with his right brain to finally have it. Like the man who cannot recognize his own wife or father, or the woman who forgets her own face, the person whose left and right brains are not in agreement is a miserable soul indeed.

Image credit: http://www.brainconnection.com/topics/?main=fa/face-perception2

2 comments:

Woody said...

Persons with severed corpus callosum have reported the other brain as a presence not unlike that of a ghost or spirit. The experience is unsettling at best.

Woody said...

Interview with and web site of a person suffering "face blindness:"

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/blind.html

http://www.choisser.com/faceblind/