Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Left brain, right brain

The latest neuroscience book on my reading list is The Yipping Tiger, by Perminder Sachdev. (You may recall that he was on a panel with Lone Frank that I attended during this year's Writers' Festival.) In chapter two, discussing a man who chooses to have the two halves of his brain disconnected to combat debilitating epilepsy, Dr Sachdev writes:
The strange behaviour of Robert's left hand takes one on a long journey of the concept of the double-brain that began in its rudimentary form with the philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and reached its zenith in the debates of the classical neurologists of the nineteenth century.... The double-brain theory was a potent source of psychological theorising in the nineteenth century, some of which was the consequence of over-enthusiastic leaps of logic.

....Was there indeed a double consciousness or a duality of mind after all? Or was it more fruitful to conceptualise it in terms of specialisation in the brain, with the coordinated activity in these regions laying the foundation for an individual's personality and consciousness? Was the right/left difference the basis for the two dichotomies of existence: rational and emotive–intuitive, propositional and appositional, yin and yang, science and art? The debates that followed were fertile ground for a range of ideas on politics, culture, society, arts and philosophy, which I will not discuss here.
Many people express surprise when I talk about the Kingdom of the Blind project combining my interests in art and science, because the received wisdom is that those subjects are located on different sides of the brain and one must be dominant over the other, or possibly even preclude the other. I hope that one of the results of my work on this project is that it makes people reassess their assumptions about the human brain and how it works.

On a related note, you can listen to this week's Skeptoid podcast, in which Brian Dunning discusses the commonly used Myers-Briggs personality test and its attempts to divide people into two opposing categories (extrovert/introvert, rational/intuitive, etc). Food for thought!

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