Just The Way It Works

Back in the 1950’s, medical researchers discovered that when an epileptic is having a seizure, a ‘storm’ of electrical activity (think of it as a cluster of misfiring neurons) begins in one hemisphere of the brain, then jumps from that side of the brain to the other, then back again, over and over. Each time the storm jumps, it gets more intense, and the seizure becomes more severe.

This wasn’t terribly useful information for the vast majority of epileptics, but some people have a type of epilepsy that is so severe that it’s literally life-threatening. Seizures so intense, and so long-lasting, that you could die from them.

To try to help those people, doctors developed a new surgical procedure called corpus callosotomy, that involved cutting every connection between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The idea was that by severing the links, you could prevent that storm of electrical activity from jumping across, and so it wouldn’t grow more intense.

And it worked. Surprisingly, side-effects were mild, and the success rate was high. The procedure isn’t used much anymore, because we can map the brain and monitor electrical activity much better now, so doctors can be a lot more precise about the part of the brain they operate on – but from the 1960’s until the 1980’s, thousands of people had their brains cut in half.
Michael Gazzaniga is a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara. He’s considered one of the world’s leading experts on cognitive neuroscience – largely as a result of experiments he conducted with ‘split-brain’ patients in the 80’s and 90’s. Gazzaniga realized that these people presented a unique opportunity to study the differences between the left and right hemispheres, because each half of the brain was isolated from the other. Like having two brains (or two half-brains, basically) living in the same head.

As odd as it sounds, when you ‘see’ something with your left eye, the picture goes to the right side of your brain, and vice versa. Most of the time both of your eyes see the same thing, so you’ve got similar images going to both sides. If you cover your left eye, the image from your right eye goes to the left side of the brain, but the halves of your brain are wired together, so your whole head knows what you’re looking at. Gazzaniga realized that if he covered one eye of a split-brain patient, he could send information to one half or the other. In other words, he could communicate with one hemisphere at a time.

If you’ve been around long enough, you probably remember the left/right brain psychopop fad that exploded in the 80’s. Your left brain is creative and your right brain is analytical. If you’re a creative person but your desk is a mess, it’s because your left brain is dominant. Remember all that? A big chunk of that came from Gazzaniga’s research, but he says most of what the public got out of it was oversimplified bullshit. In a normal brain, most functions are integrated across both hemispheres.

Besides, the creativity vs. analytical ability stuff was probably the least interesting thing uncovered by his research.

You’d have to read one of his books to get the whole concept, so I’m going to be guilty of a lot of oversimplification here myself, but what he discovered is that most of the thinking (what you would think of as your ‘internal dialog’) happens in an area on the left side of the brain, and most of the doing happens in an area on the right side. Even in a normal person, these two areas don’t communicate all that much. In split-brain patients, they didn’t communicate at all.

The scientists would have a split-brain patient sitting there at the table, and they would send a signal to the right side of his brain: “Go to the water fountain down the hall and get a drink.” After seeing the message, the person would get up and start to leave the room, and the scientist would say “Where are you going?”

Now, the left side of the brain controls language, the vocal chords, and the concious ‘thinking’ this guy is doing. The problem is that the left brain didn’t get the message about the water fountain. It has absolutely no idea why the body just stood up. It doesn’t know where it’s going. So what does it do? It makes up an explanation.

The patient would reply “It’s cold in here. I’m going to get my jacket.” No pause, no confusion, instant rationalization. More importantly perhaps, the left brain was able to create, on the spot and in microseconds, memories of feeling a little cold earlier, then a little colder still, and making the decision to go get their jacket. The patient was utterly convinced that these memories were real, that their reasoning was sound, and that they’d come to the decision on their own.
One of the few things that separates human beings from animals is the ability to percieve patterns. You can see how that would come in handy for primitive hunter-gatherers, right? If you know where the antelope sleep, where the antelope drink, and where the antelope eat, you can put yourself in a good position to intercept the antelope and get you and your family some dinner. If you drop some apple seeds here, in a few years you’ll be able to come back and eat some apples. In fact, this mechanism was so successful it allowed our species to thrive, in spite of the fact that we don’t have the physical capabilities a lot of other predators do. Later, the same ability led directly to agriculture and making our own tools.

Not only do we still have this ability, but millions of years of evolution have honed it, refined it and expanded it to the point that it has become our conscious mind. This is who we are.

Think about it for a second. When that poor guy was standing there trying to answer the question, his left brain demonstrated the ability to create a perfectly plausible explanation, create memories that supported it, and believe it completely. And this wasn’t some huge event we’re talking about. It wasn’t traumatic or stressful. It was simply a very clear example of something that normal people do all the time.

In fact, this trait was displayed so often and so consistently during the research, that Gazzaniga ended up concluding that what we think of as our conscious mind is basically a narrator. The part of your brain that thinks conscious thoughts is pretty much just tagging along, watching what you do, and putting it all together into a pattern. It is telling the ongoing story of your life. It’s not important that it be true. What’s important is that it’s consistent. It all works. It all fits a pattern. If some pieces are missing that mess up the consistency of the pattern, the brain can simply create them after the fact. If some memories don’t fit the story, the brain can make them go away.

You could think of it as every person being made up of two people. One is directing the show, making most of the decisions, driving the car. It is driven largely by biological and evolutionary imperatives. It is focused almost entirely on the hierarchy of needs. The other person in there is the narrator. It’s creating a story, providing explanations, justification and supporting evidence, but it has almost no idea what’s really going on.

I know it sounds strange, but there’s actually a lot of evidence to support this. For example, I’m sitting at my desk typing right now, and I just reached my right hand across the keyboard, grabbed my cup of coffee, and took a drink. Studies have shown that the muscles in my arm started moving before my conscious mind made the decision to move them. I decided “I would like a drink of coffee” – but my arm was in motion before I decided that.

Who made the decision? Well, I did, but not the part of me that does the consious thinking. Did I actually want a drink, or did I do it because my hands are cold and I wanted to warm them on the cup? I don’t know, because my conscious mind decided that being thirsty was the most plausible, consistent explanation, and in the process it may have written in a few recent memories of my throat being dry.
So what’s the practical upshot of all this? Understanding Gazzaniga’s research has changed my entire outlook in a lot of ways, and this post is basically an attempt to explain why.

For starters, I spend a lot less time listening to what people say, and a lot more time watching what they do. Once you realize that most of what comes out of a person’s mouth is just after-the-fact justification, it becomes pretty easy to dismiss it.

I also stopped judging people based on what they believe. When you understand the way the system works, it becomes obvious that beliefs are nothing more than an expression of need. The stronger the belief, the stronger the need that creates it. If a person was trying to convince me of something, or explain what they thought about a situation, I used to try to sit back and judge their opinion based on the facts they presented. Do they make a good case? Are they right or wrong?

Now I understand that all of that is beside the point, because every person I’m talking to has the ability to create facts, dismiss facts, rewrite whatever didn’t fit, in order to support the opinion they need to have. They aren’t lying. They aren’t trying to decieve me or themselves. This is just the way the human mind works, all the time. So instead of judging the validity of the opinion or the person, I’m thinking “What does it say about this person that they need to believe this?”

But of course, understanding others is just the tip of the iceberg. It gets really fascinating when I start applying the same concept to what I believe.



1 comment to Just The Way It Works

  • Ever talk to a neurologist after someone’s had a brain injury? I have and it’s the most vague profession there is. “Wait and see.”, is about all the have to say about any questions you have. I came to conclusion that we really don’t know much about how the brain works or what to do if it’s damaged.

    What we do know or think we know turns out to be interesting though.