The Split Brain

“Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand.” Matthew 12:25

brainleftrightThe collective wisdom and knowledge of those who have studied the human brain and its wonders in depth is divided, just as the illustration at left is. A neurosurgeon’s brain is a mechanical brain. A neurosurgeon is familiar with every nook and cranny of the brain – he needs to be. One slip of the knife can mean the loss of the use of a limb, blindness or the inability to speak. A mystic’s brain is something else: to the mystic the brain as a mechanism, however sophisticated, is just a brain – useful for the everyday functioning of the body, but something of a hindrance to transcendent vision.

Who’s right, the neuro-scientist or the mystic? Can two diametrically opposed points of view – one that says we as individuals are simply a bunch of circuitry in the brain and one that believes we are each part of the unlimited ocean of consciousness – be reconciled?

Back in the 1950’s, Roger Sperry, who later shared the Nobel Prize with 2 other neuroscientists, started researching the mysteries of our dual brain. He was given the opportunity to study a man whose severe epilepsy was only treatable by severing the corpus collosum, the main bridge between the brain’s hemispheres. What Sperry learned was that our brain has a split personality – the left side being the thinking, reasoning, rational personality and the right side being the emotional side.

It’s much more complicated than that, of course, but basically, the 2 halves of our brain perform very different functions. This is illustrated by the diagram below:

rightleftbrain-mineWhen the two halves are working in sync, we are working at the height of our powers. The problem, as Sperry and others noted was that we have, generally speaking, become a left-brain dominant society and much of the intuitive richness of the right brain is now lost to us.

In 1976, Julian Jaynes published his controversial book with an almost book length title, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it, he hypothesised that consciousness as we know it – individual self consciousness – is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Until as little as 3000 years ago, we were not reflective, thinking beings, but rather more like semi-autonomons who got our instructions from “the gods” that occupied our then dominant right brain. The remnants of this earlier consciousness can be seen, he said, in the verbal hallucinations of schizophrenics and occasionally in the spiritual guidance received by functionally normal individuals.

Jaynes’s theory is by his own admission radical and the only way to do him justice is to read his work yourself. He is a very thought-provoking and compelling writer and even his critics are usually respectful of his ideas once they’ve read his work.

What this Soul Surfer came away with after reading Jaynes’s work was a question: “What would it be like to have a dormant or even non-existent left hemisphere?” My answer came from someone whose left brain stroke gave her the opportunity to learn first-hand what it was like to be completely without a left brain.

Jill Bolte Taylor PhD Is a Harvard-trained neuroanatomist whose life was dominated by her exquisitely developed logical left brain until a massive stroke destroyed it. It was then that she discovered the wonders of her right brain. This is what she had to say:

“Our right hemisphere is all about this present moment. It’s all about right here right now. Our right hemisphere, it thinks in pictures and it learns kinesthetically through the movement of our bodies. Information in the form of energy streams in simultaneously through all of our sensory systems. And then it explodes into this enormous collage of what this present moment looks like. What this present moment smells like and tastes like, what it feels like and what it sounds like. I am an energy being connected to the energy all around me through the consciousness of my right hemisphere. We are energy beings connected to one another through the consciousness of our right hemispheres as one human family. And right here, right now, all we are brothers and sisters on this planet, here to make the world a better place. And in this moment we are perfect. We are whole. And we are beautiful.”

These are clearly the words of a mystic, but they come from the mouth of a neuroanatomist with no previous knowledge of or interest in the various mystical traditions. Her only inspiration came from the virtual death of her left brain. In that moment, she said, “I felt like a droplet of water that essentially got reabsorbed back into the ocean.” When she re-emerged as a separate entity, she became an extraordinarily adept Soul Surfer. Her story is well-worth listening to or reading. Click this link – Shrink Rap Radio – and get to know her yourself.

It would seem then, that the case is closed. The Soul Surfer’s goal is to dive back in the Sea of Joy on the right side of the brain and then return, if he or she so chooses, to the left side spiritually transformed and help enlighten others.

But what happened to the frontal lobes? Were we surfing the wrong wave there? The interviewer asked Dr. Bolte that very question. Citing an extensive study of long-term meditators, he asked her for her thoughts about the evidence that showed a marked shift to the left frontal cortex in meditators.

“I’m very excited,” she replied, “because scientists are actually having individuals go into functional imaging machines and PET scanners to figure out what is actually shifting in the brain. The beauty of the brain is that we all have one, and it’s all very unique to who we are, so ultimately, variation is the rule, not the exception.”

These contradictory characteristics of brain behaviour have been a source of great embarrassment to some researchers, who have clung tenaciously to the idea that the brain is a compartmentalised construction and nothing more. There is plenty of evidence to support that theory: there are areas of the brain that are specific to certain functions, like speech, for instance. But there is also plenty of evidence to suggest that it’s not as simple as that.

The non-local nature of memory is one such phenomenon and it led one researcher to come up with an extraordinary new way of looking at the brain. It is here that we have to leave the lump of grey matter behind and start surfing the Holographic Brain.