Author Gazzaniga explores the split brain
By Lou Fancher
Every brain in the room was engaged in civil war at the Feb. 10 Berkeley Arts & Letters presentation at the Hillside Club.
With Greater Good Science Center neurologist Emiliana Simon-Thomas in conversation with author and neuroscientist Michael S. Gazzaniga about his new book, "Tales from Both Sides of the Brain" (Ecco, $28.99), it was hard to pay attention.
After all, one's right hemisphere was performing fancy visual stunts and relentlessly fielding sensory input from the surroundings while the language-centric left brain flailed about, battered by terms like "hemispheric specialization " and planning a question for the Q&A.
Add to that the theory of mind that Gazzaniga has named "the interpreter," a kind of "Big Brother" overseeing the two spheres and applying meaning to everything said, done, touched, felt or thought. There were not simply two minds in every brain, it seemed, but three.
"The riveting discovery happened early in my career when I was 21," Gazzaniga said. "A surgeon disconnects two hemispheres on Monday. On Tuesday, the patient has two minds. What does the split-brain tell us? The mind is rooted in biology; it's not an abstract concept floating around."
And soon enough, Simon-Thomas had Gazzaniga explaining a video she described in which a split-brain patient's right hand fumbles in an attempt to create a pattern with red-and-white blocks while the left hand repeatedly attempts to sneak in and take over. In another study, the wordy left brain of a patient offers a theory for why a right brain action it has never witnessed occurred.
"The two brains are constantly listening and crossing information," Gazzaniga said.
In studies, he writes in his book, the interpreter would "guess, prevaricate, rationalize, and look for cause and effect but it would always come up with an answer that fit the circumstances. In my opinion, it is the most stunning result from split-brain research."
Gazzaniga, hailed as "the father of cognitive science" has been witness to and instigator of incredible breakthroughs in neuroscience for 50 years. Foundational ideas we now take for granted -- that the brain's hemispheres can act independently and have differing attributes -- find their origins in research he was a part of at Cornell and Caltech universities, and the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at UC Santa Barbara, where he is the director.
Compiling his decades-long journey into his 448-page scientific memoir, he writes with warm or sometimes prickly directness, revealing an emotional man behind the die-hard biology. He told the audience of nearly 100 that his book's winding tales, personal photos and stories about discoveries are meant to show that "a life in science is fun. It's grand and real and tangible."
It's also a life filled with outrageous characters, dinners, drinking parties, big egos, competition, scientific revelations, Gazzaniga's frequent relocations with six children and wife in tow -- and a 26-foot, $32,000 GMC Eleganza motor home he once had financed with National Science Foundation research dollars.
"We didn't get the research assistant and salary we'd applied for, but we got the Eleganza (Joseph) LeDoux had written into the grant," Gazzaniga said, laughing.
Despite leaps in understanding the human mind and its operations, Gazzaniga said questions introduced as early as 1967, like whether or not mindful, intentional practice can increase executive function, are "as alive today as then." A dangerous myth that he said is promoted by the media suggests that people recover from serious brain injuries.
"You can think that anything will get fixed," he said. "But anyone in a neurology ward finds this mystifying. There's no sudden rewiring. Plasticity is important, but it should be framed in a cautious way."
Asked if morality can be located in a specific hemisphere, Gazzaniga said there's work to do on where morals originate, but even infants understand fairness and reciprocity.
"There's seven billion people on earth and contrary to the evening news, most of us get along," he said. "There are dimensions of social behavior that are built into us, but there's a whole lot that's cultural. That cocktail is a mental and psychological challenge to figure out."