Has the Theory of “Dual Personality” Been Disproved…, Really?
In the early 1960s, Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, Roger Sperry discovered that each hemisphere of the brain, the right and the left, has its own stream of consciousness, independent of the other.
In his work with “split brain” patients, he further demonstrated each hemisphere is intelligent in its own way, cognitively aware, uses different methods for processing information, has its own beliefs and preferences, and each experiences emotions such as frustration, irritation, anger, impatience, and… embarrassment—again, all independent of the other. Further, Sperry and other researchers have demonstrated that each hemisphere can carry out a different complex task—independent of the other—simultaneously—as if they are two people! 1
In these articles, I have put forward the idea, based on my experiences with many hundreds of clients, that Sperry’s findings have profound implications for understanding intrapersonal conflict—conflict within the mind—in a revolutionary new way. No one experiencing inner conflict need ever again feel they are strange—that how their mind works is some anomaly of nature—or feel flawed. Inner conflict is based in the very architecture of the brain, not in some aberration of mind.
Sperry’s work offers a never-before-possible glimpse into the actual mechanics of intrapersonal conflict. This new look at inner conflict opens the door to an also new and profoundly beneficial self-understanding for millions of people suffering with it… who have believed, in their inner confusion, that they were somehow defective. The way is open to anyone to create a personal strategy for resolving their inner conflict, and filling the gap by creating a new, peaceful, satisfying, and fulfilling inner relationship.
Sperry’s findings, however, have their detractors in both neuroscience and philosophy. In this article I’ll lay out the principal objections and demonstrate that, in the case of the two currently prevailing brain theories put forward as casting doubt on Sperry’s work, they do not contradict nor debunk Sperry’s discovery of dual streams of consciousness—one in each hemisphere of the brain. In the case of the philosophical objections from other neuroscientists and neurophilosophers, I’ll show they amount to opinions—lacking in supporting empirical evidence—yet they do offer a challenge to Sperry’s work worth respecting and considering because they force a useful, deeper look at consciousness.
What Was the Context of Sperry’s Research and Discoveries?
Coming back to Sperry’s work with split brain patients. These are folks who have had the corpus callosum in their brain surgically severed in an attempt to reduce or eliminate epileptic seizures.
The corpus callosum is a thick band of more than 200 million neural fibers located between the left and right hemispheres of the brain. These information-carrying fibers fan out from this central bundle between the hemispheres, reaching deep into the furthest reaches of both hemispheres. It is the conduit for information shared by the hemispheres with each other.
Sperry and his colleagues observed that after disconnection of the corpus callosum, these patients appeared normal and seemed to interact with others normally, but with cleverly designed experiments he found another story. He formulated a way to present visual and kinesthetic (touch) information—words, pictures, and objects—to only one hemisphere at a time, and then to observe the resulting behaviors in these patients. By the fact each hemisphere is isolated from the other, he was able to test and compare the individual capabilities and skills of each hemisphere in many different types of cognitive tasks.
The Beginnings of “Hemispheric Specialization” and the Ensuing Sensational Popularity of Right Brain/Left Brain Specialization Concepts
From this testing, Sperry and his colleagues developed a body of knowledge called “Hemispheric Specialization”—the idea that each hemisphere performs certain tasks somewhat better than the other hemisphere—each having its own grouping of tasks for which it is “dominant” or “advantaged” over the other hemisphere. Also important to note is what Sperry did NOT say. Sperry never proposed, for some examples, that the left hemisphere is the exclusive realm of logic, that the right hemisphere is the exclusive realm of creativity, that the left hemisphere is the exclusive source of linear thought, or that emotions come from the right hemisphere only. But, as luck would have it, as a popular concept, hemispheric specialization caught fire in the 70s. To this day, exaggerations like these fire up the imagination of many self-help authors, and their readers.
An advanced targeted search on the web site of bookseller, Amazon.com, using “right brain” AND “left brain” as the search term, will turn up over 1,500 items. A similar search on Google will turn up over 2,000,000 hits. Even with many duplicate hits, that has to mean half a million web sites with articles or books on the subject of right and left brain. Many authors, though meaning well and accomplishing some good for their readers, make claims for the capabilities of the right or left hemisphere that go far beyond the conservative and scientific boundaries Roger Sperry stayed within. They have turned good science into not so good pop science.
The hemispheric specialization aspect of Sperry’s work has been so popularized by massive media proliferation that it is hard to find anyone who hasn’t heard or read something about left/right brain phenomena. This will all be important to remember when I discuss the objections held by some current-day neuroscientists to Sperry’s work. It is this aspect of Sperry’s findings—hemispheric specializations—they most cite in their objections. Not so the following aspect of his discoveries…
The Overlooked “Diamond in the Rough” Within Sperry’s Findings
The biggest—and curiously unknown to the greater public—surprise that emerged during Sperry’s testing is that each disconnected hemisphere displayed itself to investigators as a unique personality. When I first, through serendipitous chance, discovered Sperry’s work in 1993, like a laser beam it focused my career and mission. I immediately saw the “diamond” in Sperry’s discovery of dual consciousness.
It was a once-in-a-career insight. The discovery of dual consciousness in the brain, and its positive implications for a new understanding and scientific explanation for the ages old mystery of inner conflict, and for, dare I say it, a new reality of human nature itself, would change everything for me. The ironic question that so puzzled me was, “How could the ‘diamond of dual consciousness’ have been so overshadowed by Sperry’s ‘right brain-left brain specializations’ discoveries?” Working with hundreds of clients with inner conflict, the application of the discovery of dual consciousness was instantly crystal clear to me, and of far more significance. Stay with me and consider.
Sperry and his team began to hear accounts from patients of having inter-hemispheric conflict in their personal lives. In the lab, during the testing itself, they observed occasional conflicts between the hemispheres during certain tests. And during some experiments, where the right hemisphere has been shown to have better than normal linguistic capabilities in certain split brain patients, they found significant differences in opinions, preferences, and personal styles of communication between the hemispheres.
Before I go into examples of these conflicts and test results, I need to add some supporting information so they will all make more sense. It has long been known, and long before Sperry’s work, that the capability for speaking is possessed only by the left hemisphere. Studies of stroke victims demonstrate it conclusively. But there is more to that story.
Wada test results tell us that ‘speech only in the left hemisphere’ is not a cut-and-dried fact. Broken down between left and right-handers, the stats go something like this. Of every 200 people, 180 are right-handed, 20 are left-handed.
- Of the 180 right-handers, 171 have speech in the left hemisphere—95%
- Of the 20 left-handers, 14 have speech in the left hemisphere—70%
- Special note, of the 6 remaining left-handers with speech capability in their right hemisphere, 3 have speech capability in both hemispheres
That means in 1.5% of the general population, and all of this percentage being left-handers, both hemispheres can speak. Advanced linguistic skills and in some cases speech capability in both hemispheres thus did show up in a few split brain patients, and a few developed it post-surgery. These few are the favorites for testing by investigators because they offer more interesting testing possibilities. In a moment I’ll come back to these few.
That leaves the majority of split brain patients speechless in their right hemisphere “personality,” while their left hemisphere counterpart personality can “talk up a storm” with investigators. The fact they cannot talk makes it much more difficult for the right personality to conclusively “prove” its consciousness is as valid as that of the left speaking hemisphere personality.
But even without the ability to talk, tests prove right hemisphere personalities have language capabilities. They understand words and pictures, and relationships between them. When shown a word, they can pick out the picture from an array that correctly corresponds with the word. From a picture, they can pick out the correct word for it from a set of choices. When they palpate, or feel an unseen object, they can pick out from a set of choices the correct word for that object, and they can follow verbal instructions. There is research demonstrating more linguistic capabilities of the right hemisphere I’ll cover in just a few moments.1
Testing also shows that right hemisphere personalities are in some ways more sophisticatedly intelligent than left hemisphere personalities. One example is noticing important nuances in interpersonal communication—such as someone’s nonverbal behavior and tone of voice, and their facial expressions—that mostly escape the attention of the left hemisphere. From this the right hemisphere discerns the intent of others, contributing that information to the left hemisphere’s verbal comprehension of the interaction. When integrated via the corpus callosum, both categories of information—nonverbal and verbal—are each essential components of emotional intelligence. Being mute and less advantaged linguistically does not validly deny the right hemisphere its own brand of intelligence or its human consciousness. More on that later.
Split Brain Experiences Shed Light on Intrapersonal Conflict
Some split brain patients reported difficulties at home, post-surgery. One reported trying to get dressed in the morning and finding the left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere) would unbutton their shirt as fast as their right hand buttoned it up. In another case, when a patient walked into her closet to pick out what she was going to wear that morning, her left hand (right hemisphere) would regularly pick something out by grabbing it. It was something “she” (left hemisphere) did not want to wear but she could not get her left hand to put it back until she called for help from her daughter. In another case, a man became angry with his wife, and his left hand went after her physically while his right hand did its best to restrain his left hand.
In the lab, the right hemisphere has been generally shown to be better at spatial tasks. Investigators observed an interesting interaction between the hemispheres when a patient was asked to put together a simple jigsaw puzzle (spatial task) with his right hand only (left hemisphere). Having difficulty with the task, investigators noticed by facial expression he was getting increasingly agitated. At one point, his left hand (right hemisphere) intervened to take over the task. Being told that was not in the instructions, he went back to his right hand working on it. Soon the agitation appeared again, and again his left hand took over. As one account goes, his left hand had to be restrained.
Do these accounts sound somewhat bizarre? Yes, they may. But not so bizarre to anyone who has experienced inner conflict, where choices they have faced seemed somehow to be equally unappealing; where the prospect of either was distasteful, and being stuck in the squeeze between the two deeply upsetting. Not so bizarre to someone facing anger and self-control issues. Not so bizarre to someone experiencing impatience and frustration with themselves and their performance. Many of us can identify with these challenges—they have a ring of human commonality to them.
These examples of seemingly bizarre behavior by the disconnected hemispheres of split brain patients mimic in caricature and comedic performance the everyday experiences of regular folks suffering with inner conflict. I see myself in them. You may, as well. And they shed a much-needed light of understanding upon how and why we sometimes have the difficult inner experiences that we do. We each have two conscious personalities, one in each hemisphere of the brain, that do not always agree. Hemispheric disconnection flushes these differences and disagreements out into the open for scientific observation and confirmation.
The Right Hemisphere Finally “Speaks Up”
Let’s come back to those few split brain patients whose both hemispheres have advanced language capability. They present fascinating evidence of each hemisphere having different likes and preferences, different values, beliefs, and personal styles.
By the 1970s, Michael Gazzaniga was carrying on Sperry’s experiments with split brain patients, and he carries on to this day. I consider him the most knowledgeable and intelligent man alive on the subject of “split brain” phenomena. In working with a split brain patient, P.S., who had advanced language skills in his right hemisphere (though not yet able to speak), he got some amazing results.
Gazzaniga and his colleague, Joseph Ledoux, asked a series of questions of each hemisphere individually, and found the hemispheres of P.S. differed significantly in some of their responses. When asked, “Do you like [the current President]? The right hemisphere responded, “No,” while the left said, “Yes.” When each was asked what job they would like, the right picked, “automobile racer,” while the left said, “draftsman.” In typical, carefully worded academic understatement, Gazzaniga and Ledoux wrote, “Consequently, it becomes useful now to consider the practical and theoretical implications of the fact that double consciousness mechanisms can exist.”2 Yes, they really did say what you think they said… two streams of consciousness in each brain, one in each hemisphere.
Some in the Establishment Did Not Buy Sperry’s Findings
From the latter 70s and into the early 90s, there was a good deal of literature supposedly discrediting Sperry’s theory of dual consciousness. Because there were a number of respected experts in both neuroscience and philosophy vocally saying it wasn’t so, by the 80s and early 90s,the result was a general impression the theory had been successfully dispatched, dusted and debunked. But even experts are human and can get it wrong for the wrong reasons.
Remember, Sperry’s theory and demonstration of an independent stream of consciousness in each hemisphere was spectacular, and at once incredulous to many. It seriously challenged the entrenched notion that each of us is a unified, singular consciousness. The implications of Sperry’s theory would be profound. Were Sperry’s dual consciousness theory to be true, the assumption of a unified consciousness in the brain held by most neuroscientists and philosophers would have to be rethought.
Such a sea-change in thinking would not be readily welcomed by those already invested in then-current theories of mind—most of which declared the brain to have a unified consciousness—and they vigorously resisted. Some argued the right hemisphere does not meet the test of “personhood,” or the possibility of dual consciousness was simply not “plausible.” More recently, others object because Sperry’s dual consciousness notion does not divide up the brain enough. These objections, though, have been weakly presented, and in terms of providing actual evidence to the contrary, they just do not deliver it up against the weight of Sperry’s observed evidence.
In my reading of them, the philosophical arguments did not hold up when examined in the light of the full evidence for consciousness in both hemispheres. Amazingly, in the so-called objections from the neuroscientific world, I discovered the evidence itself—at its most fundamental—turned out to present no disagreement at all with the concept of a dual consciousness in the brain, and in fact, fits nicely with it.
Considering the Evidence “Against”
I have searched the literature that relates to Sperry’s work, from the 60s up to the present, and have found nothing that mounts anything more than a non-evidentiary theoretical challenge to Sperry’s conclusions. Following are the two main and current theories of neuroscience, modularity and distributed processing, and several philosophical objections put forth by respected neuroscientists and a neurophilosopher, challenging and supposedly debunking the “two personality model.”
- The brain is modular. The Theory of “Brain Modularity” says that mental life is the result of the coordinated activity of many different modules in the brain, each of which engages in its own form of processing independent of the activity in others. In its current form, the theory has been around since the 80s, but is controversial, and admittedly, cannot be proven or disproven. For every theorist proposing modularity—as a theoretical organizing concept of mind—you can find another theorist who disagrees. Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor are well-known proponents of the theory.
Despite the vigorous ongoing debate, many neuroscientists proclaim the theory is now “generally accepted.” Even Michael Gazzaniga embraces the theory.
A major research tool used by proponents of modularity is modern brain imaging technology. PET (Positron Emission Tomography) and fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) are popular examples. Both PET and fMRI scans show differential concentrations of metabolic activity in the brain. As the picture illustrates, the red colored areas show higher levels of brain activity.
- PET scans of a normal, depressed, and schizophrenic brain
No one has successfully identified the specific circuits in the brain associated with any theorized module. Using brain imagery (PET and fMRI scans), however, general, amorphous areas can be located where brain activity potentially related to a certain brain function can be observed. According to modularity theory, once a brain function is linked to an area of the brain, that area is called a module.
Many such general areas have been localized or identified for certain brain functions. For example, Broca’s and Wernicke’s area, found in the left hemisphere, would be considered modules and have been confirmed to relate to speech functions.
- FFA in the Right Hemisphere
More recently, through brain imaging techniques, areas of the brain have been linked (though not conclusively, yet) to facial recognition (FFA—fusiform face area). This area is proposed as one module of the many-moduled visual system of the brain. There is an FFA in both hemispheres. MIT scientists have concluded the right and left FFAs are both involved in facial recognition but play different but complementing roles in that function. The right hemisphere FFA has been found to be larger than the left FFA.
Researchers are using PET and fMRI brain scanning, as well as EEG (Electroencephalography) to identify the location of many functional areas (modules) in the brain. Modularity has useful appeal, and the work itself is good science. However, the more global extrapolative interpretations—larger conclusions that go beyond the evidence—are not, as in the following…
Some neuroscientists have proposed that “modularity” theory, as an alternative model of the brain, displaces the “hemispheric specialization” theory of Sperry. I believe one could try to make that case, but it would not be a very disputive one, or really all that relevant. It would be like debating—beyond the fact you may like one better than the other—the merits of deep-sea fishing versus fly fishing.
First, Sperry’s work involved studying—through behavioral experiments—higher cognitive functions in the two largest and structurally identifiable (you do not need imaging to find them) “modules” in the brain, the left and right hemispheres. The fact he found each hemisphere to have degrees of “advantage” in certain higher cognitive functions over the other is well-documented and in little dispute by modularity theory. Second, modularity theory simply takes Sperry’s “two module” work to another level of granular detail or reduction—finding and studying ever smaller modules, on the hunt for the location of ever more specific brain functions. In comparing the two approaches, you could say that each is playing a different game on a different playing field with different playing equipment. And they each do not have much of substance, at least negatively, to say about the other except to declare each likes its own game better than the other’s.
- FFA in the Left Hemisphere
This level of detail, and reduction to smaller parts, makes modularity theory appear as a more complex, comprehensive view of brain function than a hemispheric specialization model. But this apparency is deceiving, and reduction creates a serious challenge for modularity theory to contend with, as I’ll explain later.
Modularity theory, though, has one major “ace in the hole” (from the game of poker—something that can supply a sure victory when revealed)—the glamour and seductiveness of its major tool—full-living-color brain imaging. We are amazed and our imagination kindled when seeing full-color images of brain activity in a PET or fMRI scan. In wonder, we think, ‘How do they do that?!?’
Frankly, I am seduced. I would love to have my own brain mapped out for love, inspiration, creativity, and my own inner conflicts. I’d love to see what’s “really happening” in there. Just the possibility of seeing a real-time scan of a client’s inner conflict in action I find incredibly exciting to imagine. I read one researcher say enthusiastically, “I’ve had my own brain scanned.” But I have not yet envisioned how knowing the location of a very discrete module in the brain, the FFA, for example, and working at this level of specificity, will help me in working with a client.
This colorful seductiveness gives brain imaging a cachet—a distinguishing mark—of scientific authority and prestigious credibility. But does this cachet make brain imaging techniques scientifically superior or more “advanced” than Sperry and Gazzaniga’s investigative methods and findings? Does brain imaging enable better—more accurate, precise, and useful—interpretations and understandings of human behavior? Let’s break out each of the two approaches, split brain experiments and brain imaging studies, for a closer look.
What is the Focus of Hemispheric Specialization Theory? And Where Does It Take Us?
Sperry’s methodology involved presenting higher level cognitive tasks to each hemisphere of the brain, in isolation from the other (made uniquely possible by disconnecting the corpus callosum), and observing the resulting different behaviors of each hemisphere in their separate attempts to accomplish the same tasks. When tackling the same tasks, observing these differences in behavior between the left and right hemispheres AND their concurrent behavioral interactions with each other has allowed for some very sophisticated and profound discoveries. I’ll note just one of them in a moment.
Sperry’s work leads to the realization it is no longer sufficient, nor near as interesting and informative to ask, “How does the brain process information?” than it is to ask, “How does each hemisphere process information differently from the other hemisphere, and how do they interact with the information thus processed?” That question is much more robust in terms of potential for eliciting useful insights that we can apply to enriching our everyday lives and improving our experience of each other as human beings.
Gazzaniga asked that question and discovered the existence of the “interpreter” function, and it only exists in the left hemisphere. In brief, the interpreter’s function is to make accurate interpretations and coherent sense out of its own processed information AND processed information it receives from the right hemisphere. As test after test in Gazzaniga’s lab (and others) has shown, accuracy of interpretation often suffers (see a previous article, “Part II” for details).
Many of us have intuitively suspected the “interpreters” existence—and its frequent inaccuracies, but Gazzaniga’s discoveries of how it functions provide us with a never-before-possible scientific glimpse into the deeper structure of… well, one aspect of human nature itself—how we search for and arrive at meaning in our lives. The usefulness, as I see it, is inescapable as evidenced in the following observation.
Most of us believe our interpretations are the “real truth,” and we’ll not be swayed from that conviction. And we “know” our’s is the “superior truth” when it differs from another’s. These convictions lead to many a hurtful and unresolved disagreement. Discovering the actual brain mechanics of how inaccuracies can creep into our perception of truth offers us each a golden opportunity. We can be moved to question and reconsider certain important interpretive assumptions we make every day about the intentions of others. For example, ‘Did my partner really intend to hurt my feelings?’ When we reconsider—prompted by understanding the implications of Gazzaniga’s discovery of the left-hemisphere “interpreter” function—and question our interpretation, and find the answer is actually ‘No,’ one relationship is bettered on that day.
The focus of split brain research—using its major “tool,” the split brain—is upon studying external behavioral output from higher level conscious processes in the two hemispheres of the brain. This is done by presenting cognitive tasks and then observing and assessing the behavioral performance of each hemisphere independently; and discovering what that tells us about differences between the two. Split brain researchers, with some exceptions, do not focus on lower level non-conscious brain processes.
What is the Focus of Modularity Theory? And Where Does it Take Us?
Researchers oriented around a modularity approach typically set up their experiments so that, while brain imaging equipment (PET, fMRI, EEG) is monitoring brain activity, a test subject is given a task to perform. The task could be to look at something (e.g., a picture or movie clip), concentrate on something (e.g., study a face), or do something (e.g., sing or read). Tasks are usually chosen carefully in an attempt to produce and map a particular and temporary brain state, like a pleasant, or an anxious state.
But equally, tasks can be chosen just to “see” what happens from a particular stimulus, like a movie clip, particular set of words, or just concentrating on something specific. Spectacularly, a few years ago, a series of functional brain images were made for the first time of a woman experiencing an orgasm. Brain states are typically defined to last only a few fractions of a minute, but in this case, the state of pleasure lasted considerably longer. Humorously, regarding men, one researcher noted their orgasms did not last long enough to get measurable images. While not true, the point was well-taken. So, brain states can be viewed as functional, like during reading, or be viewed as emotional, like fear.
Researcher are then interested in localizing in the brain, that is, finding where in the brain is the highest level of activity during the task (and sometimes noting where there is no activity). Such areas of higher activity are presumed to show the areas of highest brain processing supporting the requested task. It is thought that theses areas of highest activity may reveal a “module” that supports a particular brain function that, in turn, produces a particular brain state.
More specifically, in cognitive neuroscience research—the arena of science directly related to the subject of this article—the main purpose of functional imaging is to enable the visualization of a relationship between 1) activity in certain brain areas and 2) specific mental functions
Discovering the location in the brain of different “modules,” or areas, and their functions is beginning to enable a “mapping of the mind,” which can eventually lead to a topography of the brain—knowing in greater and greater detail the consistent locations of different functions of the brain, where they carry on their activity. Benefits include, but are not limited to, neurosurgeons having a better functional “lay of the land” in the brain areas where surgery is to take place, establishing module-specific diagnostic tests, assessing the involvement of individual modules in certain psychopathologies (e.g., schizophrenia) and mental disorders (e.g., depression), to better understand and help develop novel module-specific therapies, better prediction of future sensory-motor and cognitive deficits from brain injuries, development of more effective drug therapies from seeing their real-time effects upon modules in the brain, and bio-feedback benefits, just to name a few.
This “mapping of the mind” has produced some interesting applications. Cumulative brain imaging studies have produced a consensus regarding the accurate location of many “mapped” functions in the brain. Some interesting populations have been studied for this kind of mapping. Many criminal sexual predators have submitted themselves for brain imaging studies. Researchers hope producing these “maps” will offer a better understanding of the sexual predator mind. Such current mapping along with testimony from “expert witnesses” has even found its way into courts of law.
Modularity is a useful way to sometimes think about how the brain works. It’s important to remember, however—and no modularity theorist would disagree—that modularity is a theoretical construct we experimentally lay upon the brain. It is not the brain itself saying, ‘I have modules,’ and freely divulging its secrets for all to plainly see. Using brain imaging, it is impossible to determine precisely where one module “ends” and another “begins,” and overlapping of function and brain states is a fact of brain life, and a challenge for neuroimaging. It is also impossible to distinguish the difference between nonconscious and conscious processing. No brain scan has ever distinguished a “thought” or is able to distinguish between non-conscious processing and internal subjective experience.
But is it valuable? Absolutely. Its value, as with all better theories, and I include Sperry’s hemispheric specialization model in this, is it gives us an assumptive framework within which we can better understand, explain, and more accurately predict brain phenomena. To illustrate, with the advent of the theory of electro-magnetism, only then could we begin to predict the possibility of and build an electric motor. Getting useful results, like an electric motor, validates theories. As I noted in the earlier, very incomplete list of its accomplishments, modularity theory produces important and useful results and will produce more in the future, supporting its value and validity.
The focus of modularity theory—using its major tool, neuroimaging—is upon mapping the brain, regardless of hemispheres, to identify locations or “modules”—areas where specific brain functions consistently take place. It makes no distinction between nonconscious and conscious brain functioning because its major tool, neuroimaging, does not distinguish any difference between the two.
Problems With the Theory of Brain Modularity
One challenge the theory of brain modularity is up against is the fact it is a “reductionist” theory—an approach to understanding the brain by “reducing,” or dividing up the brain into smaller, more studyable components or modules. A further limitation is the majority of modules identified and studied carry out non-conscious processing functions. The difficulty with a reductionist approach is it develops little capability in studying the bigger picture of understanding interactions between modules, and little focus upon how—or the effect of how—these modules holistically interact with focally conscious, or subconscious, activities in the brain.
It is at this more macro, bigger picture level of the higher cognitive brain functions that include consciousness that the theory of modularity begins to break down. It cannot deal with the massive inter-connectivity and interplay of subtle influences—inhibiting, facilitating, or cooperating influences—between many modules, non-conscious and conscious, that is the larger realm of higher complex cognition and behaviors. Modularity thinking just cannot make these distinctions.
A good portion of this limitation is directly due to the limits of the technology of its major tool—neuroimaging. In the belief it conveys “truth” more accurately than words, we place higher value on visual information; so much so that we say, with conviction, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” and, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” But in the particular case of functional neuroimaging (e.g., fMRI and PET) we find a glaring exception to this rule.
When you look at a functional neuroimage (like those earlier in this article) you see unevenly diffused blobs of color gradients. In the PET scan earlier, you also see a color scale. Colors higher on the scale are said to indicate higher levels of brain “activation.” Colors lower on the scale indicate less. But you are NOT actually looking at neural activity (brain activation) at all. You are seeing a computer rendering of a given moment of metabolic activity—areas of higher consumption of energy, oxygen in the case of fMRI, and glucose consumption in the case of PET.
Why is this important? It is presumed the areas of higher metabolic activity (higher energy consumption) infers that correspondingly higher levels of brain processing (neural) activity are occurring. While this inference, for practical purposes, is accurate, it is misleading. It does not, and the limits of the technology mean it cannot, show other related neural processing that may also be occurring, but whose energy consumption does not reach a threshold high enough to show up on a scan. Therefore, in looking at a brain scan, the problem is, shall we presume the unlikelihood there is no relevant or related neural activity going on in the “darker” (lower energy consumption) areas? This is a significant limitation of neuroimaging that too often leads to simplistic, overly-strong inferences and over interpretations of areas of activity shown on brain scans.
It is not hard, however, to see how this can happen. The brain is very actively and complexly dynamic, meaning there are continuously shifting intensities of activity and interactivity of countless processing modules throughout the brain at any given moment. The output from these modules is also dynamically processed—in combination with selective memory access—at higher, cognitively aware levels by both forms of consciousness (subconsciousness and focal consciousness), producing interpretive thoughts and brain states. How does one interpret a scanned brain image given it will reflect a snapshot or series of snapshots in time of only a portion of all this activity? Very carefully!
The theory of modularity throws little light upon the matter of all the higher conscious activities dynamically occurring in the brain. From there it presents no challenge at all to Sperry’s finding of two streams of consciousness in the brain. And it does not offer any serious challenge to Sperry’s theory of hemispheric specialization.
Simply asserting, “We now know the brain is modular and Sperry’s findings of hemispheric specialization are now too simplistic and inaccurate,”—in the absence of any conclusive evidence supporting the second conclusion of that statement—does not make it so, no matter what my credentials are. There is already plenty of controversy modularity theory must deal with over just the first half of that assertion, before we would ever have need to seriously consider the second.
Modularity theory does take the study of brain function to a greater level of detail and complexity than does Sperry’s work, but complexity alone does not provide a basis for claiming it more accurate, valid or useful. That’s like saying that studying (non-conscious) performance issues in the modern, complex airliner is more valid than studying (conscious) pilot performance issues. They are just not the same thing.
Remember, the higher conscious functions of the brain that Sperry studied are “consumers” of the information output of non-conscious processes of smaller modules. The divide between conscious “consumer” and non-conscious “provider” of information is profound. To say non-conscious, information output “modules” inform us about conscious processes is like saying the encyclopedia I am currently reading has something useful to say about my identity. You could proclaim my choice of reading material might say something about my preferences, but my choice says nothing about how I decide what’s true or not, the values and ethics I use to decide what’s good or bad, nor about how I choose to act or not act upon what I read. Accurately interpreting complex, conscious thought processes is not the realm of modularity theory or neuroimaging.
The Conclusion of Modularity Theory vs Sperry’s Findings
Sperry’s work stands the test of time. It does inform us about our conscious processes, behaviors, and about the very architecture of the brain that subserves those processes. Modern neuroscientists are still fascinated by and write about his discoveries—not the least of which, his discovery of two separate streams of consciousness. I have found no evidence from modularity theory, nor any neuroimaging study that attempts, or could attempt, to dispute the existence of an independent stream of consciousness in each hemisphere of the brain. It seems to me abundantly obvious that modularity theory easily coexists with dual consciousness theory. Modularity theory, certainly, in no way disputes it.
- The brain utilizes “Distributive Processing (DP).” This theory takes modularity to another level saying there can be numerous inter-connected modules in the brain that process in parallel to ultimately perform a function. For example, in this theory there are about 12 non-conscious “modules” that work in parallel to produce sight. Thus the various processes that, combined, enable us to see, are distributed across multiple modules located in different areas of the brain. This aspect of the theory, that there are many massively interconnected modules carrying on functions throughout the brain, is what largely differentiates it from modularity theory. Once again by comparison, the dichotomy of the left and right hemispheres appears oversimplified. Proponents of this theory include Anthony McIntosh and William Uttal.
The inspiration for distributed processing theories of the brain springs from current computer models that, when applied, achieve awesome and dizzying computational power. The Human Genome Project’s success at sequencing 3 billion DNA subunits and identifying the 20-25,000 human genes several years ahead of schedule was due, in large part, to advances in parallel distributed computer processing. The idea is, if DP works so amazingly for supercomputers, it may well have some application for understanding how the brain functions.
Researchers embracing this theory, as do their counterparts in modularity theory, mainly depend on the same sophisticated neuroimaging techniques for brain mapping to advance understanding of human brain functions. However, they take modularity to an interactive, and even cross-functional level by pointing to interactions between modules in which they seem to mutually influence each other. When this influence is observable, especially between some modules that carry out different functions, DP oriented researchers believe this indicates interconnectedness and mutual influence.
One example of this cross-functional connectivity and influence has been a study of the relationship between auditory and visual modules of the brain. Subjects were presented an auditory sound followed by a visual image and then scanned brain images were produced illustrating activity in both modules. Then these same subjects were presented with an auditory stimulus alone, and brain scans this time demonstrated the visual module still activated itself, suggesting the auditory module influenced activation in the visual module, even in the absence of any visual stimulus.36 While such studies are interesting and may lead to tangible application, they do not yet do so.
If you were to begin, on your own, to research the theory of distributive processing in the brain, you would very quickly find the scientific concepts discussed becoming mind-numbingly complex. Unless you were very stubborn with a lot of time, you could be forgiven for throwing up your hands, giving up long before you achieved anything approaching a basic comprehension of the complexities involved, and saying, “I give up! ‘They’ must know what they are talking about. I’ll leave it to them and just accept what ‘they’ say.” But, once again, apparent complexity is deceiving. Its complexity does not work in its favor in terms of “trumping,” or improving upon the hemispheric specialization model, or in disputing the existence of an independent stream of consciousness in each hemisphere of the brain.
Consider that both theories, modularity and distributed processing, give little attention to the “elephant” in the room, as if it’s not there—the corpus callosum, the massive bundle of cabling (200+ million fibers of varying lengths) fanning out from its central bundle into the farthest reaches and deepest recesses of each hemisphere, profoundly connecting them—the largest information transmission system in the world. This lack of attention is noteworthy and significant in that it leads us to realize that Sperry was working on something different. Different in what way?
One significant difference between the theories of modularity and distributed processing, and the the theories of hemispheric specialization and dual consciousness could be compared to two groups of ecologists, one group (A) studying the ecosystems of both the north and south rims of the Grand Canyon, not paying much attention to the canyon that divides them, and another group (B) of ecologists studying the impact of the canyon itself upon each ecosystem individually. Each group comes from a different point of observation and concentrates its focus on different things.
My main point here is Sperry’s studies and experiments, along with current split brain studies, are simply of a different order from those studies and experiments carried out by modularity and distributed processing theorists. Modularity and DP enthusiasts use the tools of brain imaging and mapping to “observe” general brain functions, regardless of hemisphere, in an attempt to map them to brain states, while Sperry and modern split brain researchers use the never-before-available “tool” of the split brain to “observe” cognitive behaviors produced by each hemisphere in an attempt to discover asymmetries (differences) between the hemispheres.
From a scientific standpoint, one approach is no better or worse than the other. Each makes use of its chosen tools to study what the tools enable it to, in order to arrive at the understandings those tools can afford. Like binoculars and microscopes, each has its own optimal context for use and value, and need never “say” anything negative of the other.
Problems With the Distributed Processing Theory
Distributed processing theory, while more expansive than modularity—by including the interconnectedness of, and mutual influence of modules—is still susceptible to the same ”reductionist” concerns modularity theory is up against. By “reducing” brain research to the in-depth study of modules (even interconnected, mutually influencing groups of modules), neither theory—freely and honestly acknowledged by its own proponents—attempts to address questions about how modules form a mind, nor questions of consciousness. Both of these are bigger picture questions encompassed in Sperry’s work.
William Uttal, while a proponent of the theory, has acknowledged the limits of trying to even find the locations of cognitive processes in the brain. He says that current research, enamored with the seductive technological advances in brain imaging, has forgotten about conventional studies (like Sperry’s) based on behavioral observation. One of Uttal’s major concerns is over-assumptions and the overly-strong inferences of some researchers’ interpretations of these images.
Distributed processing theory, through reliance on neuroimaging, has so far looked mostly at motor and sensory functions and transitory brain states. It says little about higher cognition and complex human behaviors, the realm in which Sperry focused his work. It doesn’t tell me much about the complex thinking my 9-year-old went through culminating in him telling me, “Dad, my homework is done and both of my brains really want to go on YouTube.” This is the realm of cognitive neuroscience.
Consider what Karl J. Friston and Peter T. Fox, both distinguished neuroscientists and recognized authorities on brain imaging, had to say in their article, Distributed Processing; Distributed Functions? on the state of the art of distributed processing and brain imaging as of 2012:
“After more than twenty years busily mapping the human brain, what have we learned from neuroimaging? Despite remarkable advances and insights into the brain’s functional architecture, the earliest and simplest challenge in human brain mapping remains unresolved: We do not have a principled way to map brain function onto its structure in a way that speaks directly to cognitive neuroscience.”
By contrast, Sperry’s work and findings, right up to Gazzaniga’s (and other’s) current-day split brain studies do speak directly to cognitive neuroscience—the study of how mental processes form a mind that interacts with the world around it. In fact, Michael Gazzaniga, along with distinguished neuroscientist, George A. Miller, coined the term itself, “cognitive neuroscience,” in the late 1970s.
What Happens to the Theory of “Interconnected Distributive Processing Modules” When It Tries to Delve Into the Cognitive Realm of Consciousness and Human Behavior?
As with modularity theory, DP theory breaks down at trying to analyze higher levels of complex cognitive activity, as for example, attempting to analyze peoples’ ”political viewpoints.” In 2007, the New York Times published an article by Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at UCLA, entitled, “This Is Your Brain on Politics.” Iacoboni stated that, “Brain scans of subjects when presented with three words, ‘Democrat,’ ‘Republican,’ and ‘independent,’ showed high levels of activity in the amygdala, indicating anxiety.”
Further, Iacoboni said, “The two areas in the brain associated with anxiety and disgust—the amygdala and the insula—were especially active when men viewed the word ‘Republican.’ But all three labels also elicited some activity in the brain area associated with reward, the ventral striatum, as well as other regions related to desire and feeling connected.” Are you confused? Don’t worry, it’s not just you. Many were.
The results—conclusions about higher level cognition—are obviously completely inconclusive. To science’s credit, three days later, 17 neuroscientists from around the world published this response, also in the Times,
“As cognitive neuroscientists who use the same brain imaging technology, we know that it is not possible to definitively determine whether a person is anxious or feeling connected simply by looking at activity in a particular brain region. This is so because brain regions are typically engaged by many mental states, and thus a one-to-one mapping between a brain region and a mental state is not possible.”
Now, the foregoing is not an indictment of the distributive processing theory. Quite the opposite. It is an example of one enthusiastic researcher over-stepping the accepted limits of the theory (unintentionally highlighting these limits for all the world to see), and another group of integrity-minded researchers reeling him in. Over-reaching sensationalist claims in any field of science do it no good, leaving it open to accusations of “pop” psychology—anathema to almost every scientist in any field.
In the search for consciousness in the brain, the fatal limitation of both modularity and DP theories is neither can disprove nor prove the existence of two streams of consciousness, one in each hemisphere of the brain. To date, no brain imaging technique can distinguish non-conscious brain activity from subconscious, or focally conscious brain activity. Neither theory has anything to say, scientifically, about the complex activities of consciousness.
The Conclusion of Distributed Processing Theory vs Sperry’s Findings
Again, this theory presents no real challenge to Sperry’s work. It’s also important to note, Sperry’s concepts of hemispheric specialization and of a dual consciousness present no challenge to the concept of distributive processing. Neither the hemispheric specialization nor the dual consciousness theories rules out that each hemisphere makes use of processing in modules distributed and connected throughout the brain. The distributed processing theory and Sperry’s theories easily co-exist.
Philosophical Objections, From Respected Neuroscientists,
to the Dual Consciousness Model
When it comes to philosophy, we enter a different realm from the above discussion. Unique about philosophy is that everyone has one, whether we know it as such, or not. We all have a philosophy of life we live by. We develop theories about why we are here, values and ethics around what we believe we should and shouldn’t do, beliefs about the past, the present, the future, and the before and hereafter if you believe in one or both. But philosophers, in particular, dedicate their lives to really digging much more deeply than the rest of us into questions of consciousness itself, how we think we know something, and what is reality, really.
One of the most important services rendered by philosophers is questioning prevailing assumptions. They can and have, over time, helped whole cultures shift attitudes for the better. There was a time, in some cultures, when sacrificing children’s lives was assumed the “right” thing to do, that the gods asked it as a sign of loyalty. Over time, philosophers with courage questioned assumptions like these and we’re better off. Our sense of existence and life has become richer for them. Now, our assumption of a unitary consciousness in the human mind is worthy of questioning.
Roger Sperry’s Philosophical Conclusions
It is interesting to begin with Roger Sperry in this portion of the discussion. Some have maintained that Sperry, later in his career, discounted his original findings of an independent consciousness in each hemisphere of the brain. Sperry’s later philosophical thoughts can be encapsulated by the following.
A singular mind is the “emergent property” of the two hemispheres of the human brain profoundly interconnected by the vast number of neural fibers that is the corpus callosum. The idea of emergent properties is best understood by an example. Sodium and chloride, when combined, produce a salty taste. Neither alone, however, can produce a salty taste and thus a salty taste could not be predicted prior to their integration into a compound. This theory of an emergent mind has its roots in systems theory. Systems theory posits that any complex system can produce “behaviors” that are impossible to produce by any of its sub-systems, or any group of sub-systems, on their own. Roger Sperry himself, is the originator of this theory of an emergent mind.
Could this be a case of Sperry debunking or repudiating his own theory of a center of consciousness within each hemisphere of the brain? Is he back-tracking on his own words, “…there is no longer any reason to deny the consciousness of the mute right hemisphere?” In no way. It is, however, a very elegant way of describing the relationship of two complex systems—two centers of consciousness—within the larger complex system of the intact, whole brain.
It is a fact the vast majority of us have not had our corpus callosum severed—our two hemispheres and its connecting corpus callosum are intact. After many years of thinking through the impact of the split brain studies he pioneered, Sperry developed his own thoughts on what makes up a “mind” for the rest of us non-split brain folks—that the joining of these two centers of consciousness is what constitutes a human mind.
This notion of Sperry’s is a philosophical one rather than scientific, yet it has rich meaning for me. In my years of practice with many hundreds of individuals suffering from inner conflict, and helping them work through their inner conflict to reach an integrated state of mind, I have observed in them positive behaviors after integration that, previous to integration, would have been impossible, nor could they have been predicted given their previous limited behavioral repertoire within their formerly “dis-integrated” personal style.
Thus the peculiar specializations of each hemisphere of the brain, when “combined” by the corpus callosum, conceptually produce a “mind” capable of far more richness in human activity and experience than each hemisphere is capable of on its own. It is a great example of the systems theory maxim: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” This concept of mind is a useful construct of imagination, and, as such, is not a provable fact on its own, yet, for me, it has metaphoric validity to it. It fits my experience of clients who, after a resolution of intrapersonal conflict, become capable of subtly nuanced behaviors—previously impossible and now reflecting full engagement and contribution of the advantaged qualities and capabilities of both hemispheres—and these new behaviors produce outstanding results for them in their lives.
Sperry’s theory of mind in no way contradicts his more factual finding that each hemisphere experiences its own stream of consciousness. Without any intention of contradicting his prior conclusion of two independent centers of consciousness, one in each hemisphere, Sperry put this together as a useful way of thinking about and reconciling the focally conscious and subconscious interplay between the hemispheres.
Sir John Eccles and Donald MacKay
Australian-born John Eccles (1903-1997) may be the most formidable “opponent” of the concept of a center of independent consciousness in each hemisphere of the brain. I say formidable, in part, out of regard for his distinguished career as a neuroscientist—himself a nobel prize winner, and his later development of well-regarded philosophical ideas regarding consciousness— but more so for his even-handed and balanced approach to the debate.
I put the word opponent in quotes because he held Roger Sperry and his work in high regard and was gracious in all his comments regarding Sperry. He even defended Sperry’s dual consciousness concept against the likes of well-known and regarded philosopher Thomas Nagel. While Eccles acknowledged a “limited consciousness” in the right hemisphere, he concluded it was not enough for “personhood.”
In Eccles’ Gifford Lecture Series, The Human Psyche (1977), he said that, while Sperry’s conclusions regarding self-consciousness in the right hemisphere may be “rather optimistic over-interpretation…,”
“Nevertheless, there is remarkable evidence in favour of a limited self-consciousness of the right hemisphere.”
What was yet missing for Eccles? He said further,
“We can still doubt if the right hemisphere has a full self-conscious existence. …does it plan and worry about the future, does it make decisions and judgements based on some value system? These are essential qualifications for personhood as ordinarily understood.”
So we have, in Eccles view, planning, worry about the future, making decisions and judgments based on a value system, as necessary criteria for “personhood.” Eccles, though without intention on his part, actually proposed how these criteria could be demonstrated and thereby confirm the existence of a “…self conscious mind for the highest mental experiences… [a] knowing that one knows.” His “proposition,” if demonstrated, could affirm a personhood in the right hemisphere.
At this point, I would like to add in the criteria of Donald MacKay (1922-1987), distinguished Scottish neuroscientist who also had objections to Sperry assigning an independent consciousness to the right hemisphere. In 1972, he argued that unless it could be shown that each… [hemisphere] has its own independent system for subjectively assigning values to events and setting goals and response priorities, the split brain could not be viewed as a “split mind.”
Eccles’ method of demonstration would involve accomplishing something the right hemisphere had not yet (as of the mid-1970s) been shown able to accomplish—”linguistic communication.” Eccles said, “…by linguistic communication it can be authenticated that other human beings share in this experience of self-knowing. One has only to listen to [their] ordinary conversation….”
Is the Right Hemisphere Up to the Challenge?
Could the right hemisphere, though mute in most split brain patients, rise to the challenges of both Eccles and MacKay? Earlier in this article I mentioned the work of Gazzaniga and Ledoux with the split brain patient with advanced linguistic capabilities in his right hemisphere, P.S. Could the right hemisphere of P.S. meet the tests of personhood?
Since 1961, Gazzaniga has at various times worked with about 100 split brain patients, but 1976 was a watershed year—a turning point in Gazzaniga’s studies of these special folks. By that point there were nearly 50 split brain patients. In January of that year, P.S. underwent surgery to reduce or eliminate his intractable seizures. His corpus callosum was severed and he became a split brain patient. Just 15 years old at the time, to this day he participates in testing to determine what the split brain can tell us about the normally connected brain.
From the beginning, P.S. showed advanced linguistic capabilities in his right hemisphere, though his right hemisphere did not actually speak until later. Gazzaniga and LeDoux knew he was a unique case—presenting them, they believed, with their first opportunity to ask and actually get answers directly from the subjective experience of the right hemisphere.
Remember, in the early to middle 1970s, Sperry’s concept of a dual consciousness in the brain was taking fire from Eccles, MacKay, and others. Gazzaniga realized P.S. was the first split brain patient who might be able to give an answer to the “personhood” challenge. One could be forgiven for thinking the timing of the appearance of P.S. was serendipitous. So, Gazzaniga and LeDoux conceived their approach to testing P.S. They chronicled their results in a scholarly paper in the Annals of Neurology (in 1977) 26 and a book, The Integrated Mind,27 the following year. What they demonstrated was striking. P.S. passed the tests of personhood!
Gazzaniga and LeDoux designed a series of three extraordinary tests that would be presented to both hemispheres of P.S., but independent of and completely out of the awareness of each other—like interviewing each in a separate room completely out of contact with the other. The three tests would be given about a month apart.
Would the answers of each hemisphere to the questions posed during these three tests be identical, similar, or widely different from each other? While there has never been a doubt about the personhood of the left, speaking hemisphere, could they demonstrate a separate personhood in the right hemisphere?
The First Results Create a Mystery
In the first test, a series of sixteen words were presented to each of P.S.’s hemispheres. Each word was selected by Gazzaniga on the basis it was likely to elicit a strong subjective, feeling response. Each word was to be rated on a number scale of 1 to 7, one being “good,” four indicating neutral, seven being “bad.”
The results were… I hesitate here because, when I saw the results myself, I was, frankly, puzzled. P.S.’s answers varied widely and inexplicably. Here are a few examples (you can see all of the results yourself in this reference link: 26).
On the left, below is the word to be rated, followed by P.S.’s left hemisphere rating, then his right hemisphere rating. Remember, the ratings range was from a 1 indicating “good” to a 7 indicating “bad.” NOTE: Paul is P.S.’s first name, Fonz refers to Henry Winkler, the “Happy Days” television character he idolized, and Liz is his girlfriend.
Car: ………….. LH-1 RH-1
Mother: ……… LH-1 RH-6
Sex: …………. LH-1 RH-6
Vomit: ……….. LH-6 RH-6
Paul: ………… LH-1 RH-7
Fonz: ………… LH-1 RH-7
Liz: …………… LH-1 RH-3
Paul’s right hemisphere ratings were consistently and by far more negative than his left hemisphere ratings—a result I found exceedingly puzzling.
In the second test, a month later, another 16 words were utilized (a few repeated from the first test) on the same basis of subjectivity. This time the scale included just 5 choices, from LVM (like very much), L (like), U (undecided), D (dislike), to DVM (dislike very much). The ratings of each hemisphere were much closer this time with Mom, Dad, and Paul getting a “LVM” rating from both hemispheres. There was disagreement on TV, Drafting, Nixon, and Dope (the LH giving it a “DVM,” while the RH gave it an “L” rating). Reading the results of this second test—showing far more consistency—I was even more puzzled by the disparity from the first test.
My Puzzlement Resolved
Late in his write-up of this paper, Gazzaniga finally solved the mystery. On the day Paul took the second test, where Paul and, let’s say Paul II, equally valued himself, his family, and other matters, “he was calm, tractable, and appealing.” On the day of the first test, where Paul and Paul II disagreed on their evaluations, “the boy became difficult to manage behaviorally. … [showing] hyperactivity and general aggression.” Gazzaniga’s conclusion was that each hemisphere could read the other’s emotional “difference” on the day of the first test, creating anxiety.
May I say it with a little understatement… that seems quite like intrapersonal conflict, doesn’t it? This part of Gazzaniga’s paper caught my attention even above the rest. In an interview some years later about Paul and this series of tests, Gazzaniga said, “If one side liked something, the other one didn’t. And he was impossible that day—abusive, bad tempered…. A month later we had him do it again, and each side rated things [about] the same. That day he was calm, pleasant, engaging. We’re sitting here with two parallel mental systems evaluating the same stimuli differently.”28 While Gazzaniga viewed Paul’s behavior as quite remarkable, as well as the inner conflicts experienced by other split brain patients noted earlier, he did not see the larger significance as it relates to inner conflict phenomena within many of the rest of us.
I have observed and been told of similar behavior experienced by many clients during their bouts of inner conflict. One side, in disagreement, rebels against the other’s actions or repression. In the split brain patient we have compelling evidence that identifies exactly who the parties are in this conflict—the two independent centers of consciousness, one in each hemisphere of the brain. Thus we have the basis for intrapersonal conflict, in the very architecture of the brain, and it is squarely in the relationship between the two hemispheres.
The Test of “Personhood”
The third and final test involved asking questions mostly of the right hemisphere, Paul II alone, to determine if the right hemisphere could qualify for “personhood” as per Eccles’ and MacKay’s criteria: Did it (he) have a sense of self? A sense of the future? Goals and aspirations? Feelings? Personal preferences? The answer was “Yes,” to all.
While Paul’s right hemisphere personality, Paul II, had not yet developed the ability to speak for himself, he could arrange Scrabble letters to indicate his answers. The questions were seen only by Paul II. Following are the questions and Paul II’s answers.
- Who are you? “Paul.”
- Who is your favorite girl? “Liz.”
- Who is your favorite person? “Fonzi.”
- What is your favorite hobby? “Car.”
- What job would you pick? “Automobile race.” (Paul’s left hemisphere has frequently said he wants to be a draftsman.)
- What is tomorrow? “Sunday.”
- What is your mood? “Good.” (Later, Paul’s left hemisphere spelled, “Silly.”)
Paul II could name himself, had preferences (some different from Paul), had goals, aspirations (different from Paul), a sense of the future, and a sense of himself. It’s important to note that Paul II’s answers were self-generated from a set of infinite possible answers he could have created with the Scrabble letters. The results of all three tests show Paul II has a distinct consciousness and his conscious awareness is quite different from Paul’s, even to the point of experiencing contrasting and even incompatible moods—simultaneously!
Paul II, at least, met the criteria for personhood laid out by Eccles. At least two others of the 100, or so split brain patients Gazzaniga works with, V.P. (Vicki), and J.W. (Joe) could also be said to meet the criteria. Yet that leaves a big question. What of the other 97% of split brain patients not as advanced in self expression as these three?
What Do Other Studies Show Regarding
Right Hemisphere Linguistic Competence?
In 2003, Drs. Kirsten I. Taylor and Marianne Regard, both neuropsychologists, reviewed 16 studies, each focusing on studying the presence (or absence) of linguistic capability in the right hemisphere. The studies used different methodologies, yet amazingly, all support the existence of linguistic capability in the right hemisphere.
For Taylor and Regard, these differing methodologies represent “converging” evidence. This is a general scientific principle that says if differing methods of investigation reach the same conclusion, the conclusion carries extra weight and validity on the basis of this “convergence” of different types of evidence. For an analogous example, if a credible eyewitness places a suspect at the scene of a crime, courts consider that admissible and valid evidence. But if fingerprint and DNA evidence also place the suspect at the scene of a crime—totaling three separate forms of “converging” evidence—courts would consider that to be far more compelling and incontrovertible evidence that the suspect was there.
Revealing their assumptive definition of language, Taylor and Regard said “language includes the ability to realize the intended meaning [of spoken and written words] by taking into consideration contextual (situational, emotional) factors….” and also includes “…the ability to translate thought into a… meaningful series of [spoken] or [written] symbols.” In other words, they investigated what these studies showed regarding the question, “Can the right hemisphere make meaning from individual words and connected words, both spoken and written?” I would add the question, “Does the right hemisphere, even in the absence of being able to speak it, have linguistic capabilities of its own to contribute to the speech and linguistic capabilities of the left hemisphere?”
The studies included four methodologies to answer this question—studies from 1) split brain patients, 2) from patients with brain damage restricted to one hemisphere, 3) from patients experiencing temporary brain dysfunction from seizures, and finally, 4) from behavioral and functional imaging experiments with healthy individuals. I find this last one a bit ironic, given my earlier discussion of brain imaging techniques—that fMRI studies do their part in coming to the rescue of the right hemisphere in helping to demonstrate its linguistic capabilities.
Taylor and Regard’s overall conclusion was, “… each hemisphere plays a critical and, importantly, complementary role in language processing.”
Remember, there is no question the left hemisphere is advantaged for linguistic capability and speech. For many scientists (though not all), linguistic capability is the benchmark for human consciousness. If you accept that as the minimum benchmark, the question is, does the right hemisphere display enough linguistic capability to qualify itself as a human consciousness?
Here are a few things the studies showed. Where nonverbal (non-speaking) responses were required, such as selecting an object with the right hemisphere-controlled left hand, the right hemisphere demonstrated written and auditory word comprehension. The right hemisphere could also correctly match words, such as synonyms and category-related words (e.g., cat-animal), and functionally related words (e.g., pencil-writing tool), and—interestingly, better than the left hemisphere—understood metaphorical relationships (e.g., raining cats and dogs-raining hard). Even among the higher primates, these tasks are impossible. These capabilities are exclusive to human consciousness.
This better understanding of metaphors (an example of semantic processing wherein meaning is very important) by the right hemisphere is interesting. In studies of right hemisphere damaged patients and corroborated by split brain studies, a number of language deficits show up in the left hemisphere. Note the following list of left hemisphere (LH) linguistic deficiencies that appear when right hemisphere (RH) contribution is no longer present:
- They (LH) produce obscure responses on word association tasks
- They have difficulty categorizing pictures of familiar objects
- They are less able to cluster items from their memory into appropriate categories
- Impaired metaphor appreciation and difficulty understanding figurative meaning
- They have difficulty following indirect commands
- They have difficulty drawing inferences
- They have difficulty understanding jokes
- Their conversation is typically flat, non-emotional
Looking at this list of deficits and recognizing these represent linguistic capabilities normally contributed by the right hemisphere, what comes to your mind? The first thing that occurs to me is, ‘I wouldn’t be writing this article right now.’ Good creative writing would be impossible without good word association skills, without the ability to cluster items from my memory into useful categories, without a good sense of how to create persuasive metaphors, without a grasp of the figurative. And I think, ‘What would my life be like if I didn’t get jokes, or irony, or couldn’t laugh at myself?’ The worst thought, though, is, ‘What would my life be like if I couldn’t feel, live my life, express, or experience myself with all the passion I’m capable of?’ Are these not among the “highest mental processes” Eccles would have approved of? All of that is possible because of my language-rich right hemisphere personality. I am grateful for him.
Right Hemisphere Contribution to Expression of Affect or Emotion
Right hemisphere word recognition (lexical processing) is not as good as the left hemisphere’s. But its word recognition significantly improved when words carried extra semantic (meaning) content—where the words could elicit a vivid image (e.g., tree), or were nouns with “high emotional valence” (e.g., love), or words that included pictographic stimuli (e.g., word logos).
This comes as no surprise when many studies show that one of the most profound, in my view, contributions of the right hemisphere to overall personality is adding “emotional content,” called prosody, to left hemisphere speech. All people, at various times and in certain situations inhibit or repress this contribution. The classic example is the college professor delivering his lecture in the driest of monotone. When people repress right hemisphere emotional contribution to speech, their speech delivery comes across variously as monotone, slower, with methodical choice of words, sometimes with regular self-corrections, stilted, calm, dry, or boring.
This was touchingly brought home to me when a good friend, whose mother had a stroke damaging her right hemisphere, spoke to me nostalgically of her mother, “She could talk and carry on a conversation, but she was never the same person, never ‘herself’ again. She just wasn’t ‘all there.’” The right hemisphere brings color, passion, spontaneity and “personality” to left hemisphere speech. Without right hemisphere joie de vivre, we would be boring indeed. But more importantly, we would not fully be our complete selves.
More on the Associative Capabilities of the Right Hemisphere
In functional imaging studies using tests for word association skills, where the relationship between two words is obvious and arrived at quickly (e.g., fire-truck), the left hemisphere is primarily activated—with correspondingly little activity in the right hemisphere. However, when the word-pair is more distantly related, requiring a number of more sophisticated and complex creative associations, and more time to make the connection (e.g., fire-flu), the right hemisphere becomes significantly and simultaneously activated.
Did you get the connection? Fire-truck is easy, of course. Fire-flu goes like this: Fire-hot-cold-flu. There is other corroborative evidence for the associative processing superiority of the right hemisphere. But this one example of connecting distantly associated word-pairs is a simple yet remarkable illustration of a creative process (generative collaborating of the hemispheres) that’s worth pondering. The skill is central to creativity.
Now, just in case it occurs to you that associative processing and making connections between distantly related word-pairs is a trivial pursuit, remember this: associative brain processing in primitive man led to tool-making—considered a profound leap forward in man’s evolution—and associative processing in modern human inventors and scientists has made possible the creation of every useful invention known to mankind.
There is a natural progression from distantly related word-pairs to distantly related idea-pairs to distantly related concept-pairs. Groundbreaking science and hilarious humor depend on all of these examples of associative pairing. One time, legendary comedian Groucho Marx was having dinner out with a friend. A man, who was an admirer and fan of Groucho’s, and his wife walked up to their table. The husband asked Groucho if he would insult (one of his trademark skills as a humorist) his wife. Groucho said, “With a wife like that, you should be able to come up with a few on your own.” One wonders…, I wonder, if anyone would ever have heard of Groucho without his right hemisphere’s indispensable contribution to his joke-making skills.
Yet the point here, however, is distant word association is a sophisticated linguistic capability contributed by the right hemisphere when the left hemisphere is stuck and stumped in too narrow and too literal a view.
In the next article I’ll cover the topic: “The Theory of ‘Logical Types’ Just May Be the Most Profound Concept Ever Conceived!” The Theory of Logical Types is based upon a mathematical model so amazing that use of it can change your life, and it is utterly dependent upon making connections between distantly associated word-pairs, ideas, and concepts.
After assessing the 16 studies investigating language in the right hemisphere, Taylor and Regard concluded, “The findings… provide converging evidence of complementary hemispheric functions in language. Far from mere supportive tasks, the right hemisphere appears to be functionally dominant for some aspects of language processing.”
Some commentators have claimed the right hemisphere in most people “is as dumb as a chimpanzee.” Others have said as much, stating, “An intelligent chimp can demonstrate as much self conscious awareness as a right hemisphere.” I defy any test of a chimpanzee to demonstrate linguistic capability by successfully making a coherent connection between the words in a distantly associated word-pair. Of all the species of creatures on this earth, this is a unique aspect (of the extraordinary creative capability) possessed by human consciousness alone, and made possible by language. Right hemisphere linguistically-oriented associative processing is superior to the left hemisphere’s, and is a necessary and required contribution to whole-brain creativity
Going Beyond the Debate to Producing Practical Effect
One radical and mind-bending conclusion from the discussion I’ve presented thus far goes beyond establishing human consciousness and “personhood” in the right hemisphere—which I believe it does—into the little-explored realm of the practical reality of actually building a relationship with your right hemisphere personality. This pragmatic concept (that almost no one has ever heard of, let alone considered doing) is particularly relevant for those of us experiencing any of the four forms of inner conflict—the Repressive, Impulsive, Self abusive, or Compulsive variety.
Resolving inner conflict requires, first and foremost, a left hemisphere reconciliation and integration with the right hemisphere personality. But the opportunity I would like you to put in front of you, beyond that initial reconciliation, is extraordinary—to then evolve the creative and aesthetic potential in that relationship by producing better and better results in life and experiencing them with greater and greater satisfaction and fulfillment. And if you don’t have pre-existing inner conflict to contend with, you can skip the reconciliation part and go right to enjoyable evolvement.
In the next two articles I will present the differences in the nature of the consciousnesses of the right and left hemispheres, and a number of amazing methods you will not find or read about anywhere else—methods to communicate intelligently with your right hemisphere personality, discover his or her secrets, learn to recognize what and when she or he is communicating to you, and create agreements with him or her to accomplish tasks far more efficiently and amazingly than you ever have before. Several wonderful and aesthetic byproducts of your efforts, if you choose to make them, will be a growing peace of mind and satisfying sense of self.
The Conclusion of Philosophical Objections to Right Hemisphere Consciousness
Does the right hemisphere “pass” the final exam of human consciousness and “graduate,” earning a “degree” in personhood? Relative to the already “degreed” left hemisphere, I believe it has. He or she has demonstrated (certainly in the case of Paul) sophisticated linguistic capabilities, the capability of knowing itself, stating its own preferences, likes and dislikes, understanding the future and making its own plans for it, making its own value judgments, experiencing its own brain states and moods, and even getting into personal conflicts with the left-hemisphere personality.
Consider this further example of actual right hemisphere speech in Michael Gazzaniga’s latest book, Who’s In Charge? (2011). When one of his split brain patients developed the ability to speak from her right hemisphere, Gazzaniga said, “This presents an interesting scenario [for us], because it becomes a bit of a challenge to know which hemisphere is talking when she is speaking.”
Incidentally, in working with clients, this is a challenge presented to me many times—determining from their overall communications with me which portions of their conversation are coming from their left hemisphere alone, which portions are coming from their right hemisphere alone, and which portions reflect full engagement of both hemispheres. These distinctions are critical for identifying inner conflict and I will cover them in depth in the article after next.
In one example, Gazzaniga flashed a picture only to her right hemisphere, and [from her right hemisphere] she said, “On this side (as she pointed to the picture) I see the picture, I see everything more clearly.” As Eccles said, “One has only to listen to [their] ordinary conversation….” Clearly, this is an example of a “meaningful series of words” put together in a coherently understandable sequence someone would recognize as ordinary and everyday conversation.
All of these are abilities we have come to normally expect and take for granted in personhood and human consciousness. The right hemisphere has the capability to do them all, or it’s potential. Psychiatrist Norman Doige, in his book, The Brain That Changes Itself (2007), focuses on the plasticity of the brain—the ability of the brain to reorganize itself through experience or environmental demands to develop or change its capabilities. In the matter of speech, for most of us, the right hemisphere may be “saying” figuratively to the left, “Since you’re opening the door, I won’t need to.” But what if the left hemisphere doesn’t “open the door?”
Doige tells the inspiring story of Michelle, a woman born missing her left hemisphere. Though one might think she must be severely disabled besides not being able to speak, Doige tells us, “Michelle is not a desperate creature barely surviving on life support…. She speaks fairly normally… holds a part-time job, reads, enjoys movies and her family.”
Michelle’s inner life, Doige tells us, is alive with passion. While she has deficits, no one would know upon meeting her. She prays, loves, follows the news, basketball, and votes in elections. But to me most amazingly, she speaks fluently, especially of love and her caring for others. In the absence of a left hemisphere Michelle’s right hemisphere “opened the door,” demonstrating the right hemisphere has a built-in “plasticity,” or potential, for speech.
Following is a summary of what I have presented thus far:
- Converging evidence of linguistic capability in the right hemisphere,
- Evidence it has its own independent sense of identity, independent emotional experience, its own preferences, values, and aspirations,
- Evidence it can create conflict with its “skull-mate,” the left hemisphere,
- All this coupled with its demonstrated “advantages” over the left hemisphere—associative processing, understanding abstract metaphor, humor, and contributing emotional content to speech.
I can see no reason left to deny the existence of an independent human consciousness in the right hemisphere. The right hemisphere indeed is a center consciousness of a different order from and autonomous from the left hemisphere’s consciousness.
The Dynamics of the “Dark Side” of Neuroscience & Neurophilosophy
After years of studying the scientific evidence for it, and accumulating the experiential evidence of inner conflict in fully one third of my clients, I find the validity of a dual personality in each of us inescapable. Seeing the look of new possibility on my clients’ faces when they discover their inner conflict is rooted in the architecture of their brain, not in an aberration of their mind, has been an ongoing inspiration. So how is it not known far and wide? The scientific evidence is there. I find this state of affairs incredulous and unacceptable. I have so often struggled with the question, ‘How can this be?’ Was there some unknown (to me, anyway) obstacle—a “dark side” I was unaware of?
Neuroscientists and philosophers, while professionals all, still labor under the human psychological handicap of resistance to new ideas, especially if, by its sweeping originality, a new idea calls out for a radical reappraisal of the status quo theory it brings into question. Sperry’s new idea, that a mind is not made up of a singular, unitary consciousness, but a dual consciousness, was certainly spectacular, and challenging to the status quo. Adherents to a unified consciousness model of mind really did not know what to do with it. What is not understood is too often ridiculed and pejoratively dismissed.
Consider the long-accepted assumption dinosaurs were cold-blooded. In his book, Unsolved Mysteries of Science, John Malone chronicles an unfolding and, at times, acrimonious controversy. Since the late 1800s, scientists believed dinosaurs were cold-blooded, but by the mid-1900s, it was evident the theory had big holes in it. Yet the assumption persisted. Highlighting paleontology’s reticence to change, Malone wrote, “From time to time, some brave souls would suggest there might be a real problem here [with the theoretical underpinnings], but they were always cowed into silence.”
Then, in 1969, influential and well-regarded paleontologist John Ostrom—as Malone would say, “…someone with too much authority to be ignored…”—began arguing that at least some dinosaurs must have been warm-blooded. (In 1964, Ostrom discovered the fossil remains of a dinosaur he named Deinonychus—a raptor, considered one of the most important fossil finds in history.)
The controversy was on, and back and forth “sniping” continued into the 1990s, with enough acrimony to have had some bittersweet effect upon Ostrom. Were it not for Ostrom, the assumption dinosaurs were cold-blooded would still reign unchallenged. To Ostrom’s credit, there are paleontologists now on both sides of the debate, and it is classified an unsolved mystery of science. Considered the father of the “Renaissance of the Dinosaurs,” without Ostrom, there would have been no movie Jurassic Park.
After Sperry’s death in 1994, neurosurgeon Joseph Bogen, a friend, colleague, and ardent admirer of Sperry’s, who was there with him at Caltech right from the beginning of the split brain experiments in 1961, wrote a moving account of Sperry’s life and career. In it he spoke poignantly of a subtle, slowly evolving change in how colleagues viewed Sperry beginning about the late 1970s until his death.
The study of consciousness energized Sperry throughout his latter career. As early as 1965, in his boldly titled book, New Views of the Nature of Man, he wrote, “The Central Issue is the nature of consciousness, and a correct model of brain function cannot be constructed without including consciousness in the causal sequence.” For its day, this was a distinctly non-scientific view. To consider consciousness in the same conversation with brain function was not without professional peril.
After spending a month with Sperry in 1970, the premier English psychologist, Oliver Zangwill confided to Bogen, “I’m a bit concerned that if he [Sperry] goes on in this vein, it is likely to diminish the impact of his many marvelous achievements.” By the time Sperry won his Nobel Prize in 1981 for his 1960s split brain experiments, Bogen goes on to say, “Those who had not known him early on assumed that ‘he’s gone religious like so many old folks.’ By 1990, even older Caltech professors, friends of Sperry for forty years, had given up trying to defend or even understand ‘the philosophy of his later years.’” Sperry paid a price for his forward looking views on consciousness.
NOTE: For those of you familiar with Benjamin Libet, whose experiments would seem to discount the causal impact of consciousness upon decision-making, I will cover Libet’s work in another article and show it does not dispute Sperry’s viewpoint of the causality of consciousness.
The Split Brain Debate Becomes Personal and All-Too-Humanly Contentious
To give you an idea of the rhetoric and demeaning, distinctly unscientific phraseology used to discount Sperry’s discovery of an independent stream of consciousness in each hemisphere of the brain, consider the words of noted American philosopher and neurophilosopher, Daniel Dennett, in his book Consciousness Explained (1991), regarding “cross-cueing.” Of the philosophers weighing in on the subject, he is perhaps the most vocal critic of the split brain experiments and their finding of an independent consciousness in each hemisphere. First, let me set the stage for Dennett.
Sperry, Gazzaniga, and many other split brain researchers have observed in split brain patients and reported very creative methods of communication developed by the left and right hemispheres to communicate with each other, compensating for their now-disconnected corpus callosum. These behaviors are called “cross-cueing.” In the intact brain, such improvisations are unnecessary because the hemispheres communicate information to each other directly, through the corpus callosum.
For example, if the left hemisphere is asked to identify an object being held, out of sight by the left hand, it cannot do so. The right hemisphere controls the left hand (cross-lateralization). So the identity of the object is known (only) to the right hemisphere, but without speech capability it cannot say what it is, of course. However, it can give nonverbal “clues” to the left hemisphere as to the identity of the object.
In one case, a split brain patient was asked to reach into a bag with his left hand (controlled by the right hemisphere, RH) and palpate (feel) an object, still in the bag and out of sight of both hemispheres. The item was a pencil. When the patient was asked what the object was, he (left speaking hemisphere, LH) said he did not know (without the normal callosal connection and with the object out of sight, LH could not know). “Overhearing” LH’s answer, RH pushed the point of the pencil into his palm, causing understandable pain to both hemispheres (pain responses are experienced by both hemispheres and not affected by callosal disconnection). LH, feeling the pain, said, “Something sharp, perhaps a pen?” Hearing this, RH scrunched up the facial muscles it controls on the left side of the face, “cueing” LH his answer was incorrect. LH said, “Maybe a pencil?” Overhearing this time, and smiling with his half face, RH cued LH that his answer was correct.
Many other cases of cross-cueing behaviors have been observed and reported. In addition to the above, other examples reported have been the RH “fanning” the teeth of a comb to create a sound cue, fixating the direction of its gaze on a related object in the room, tracing the shape of an object with their head as a clue to help the left hemisphere identify an unseen (by the LH) object, the RH tracing a message on the right hand, and the LH making verbal requests of the RH.
However, demonstrating cross-cueing phenomena is not of great scientific interest to split brain investigators. In fact, while cross-cueing phenomena may suggest consciousness in the right hemisphere, it does not alone prove it. Far from proposing cross-cueing is evidence of RH consciousness, split brain investigators view it as an impediment to creating tightly controlled experiments for studying the split brain—when it happens it contaminates their results.
There have been no experimental studies I can find focusing exclusively on demonstrating cross-cueing behavior in split brain patients. Even if split brain investigators found it of scientific interest, designing such experiments would be very challenging. They report on it simply because it happens, they find it interesting, and accounts of it add literary interest to engage their readers.
Cross-cueing is simply a fascinating artifact (occasional byproduct) of many split brain experiments that researchers must watch out for and design their experiments to prevent. Sperry does not, nor any other neuroscientist studying split brain patients to my knowledge, cite cross-cueing as conclusive evidence of consciousness in the right hemisphere. Though I, as a very interested practitioner-but-non-scientist, do believe it to be very suggestively so.
It then becomes interesting that Dennett argues under the assumption split brain investigators actually submit cross-cueing behaviors as evidence of right hemisphere consciousness, when they do not. Dennett’s “rebuttal” to these reports is that they are merely “anecdotal”— short stories of interesting incidents used to prove a point. They are surely interesting.
“They might be what they appear to be: cases exhibiting the deftness with which the brain can discover… strategies to improve its internal communication in the absence of the ‘desired’ wiring. But they might also be the unwittingly embroidered fantasies of researchers hoping for just such evidence (italics mine). That’s the trouble with anecdotes.”
In the case of cross-cueing, Dennett makes a “straw man” argument—refuting an “empty” position—against a claim that Sperry and other split brain investigators have never made.
Speaking directly to the matter of dual consciousness, Dennett’s tone is dismissive:
“Standard philosophical legend (italics mine) has it that split brain patients may be ‘split into two selves’ …. This is an appealing idea, but it is a wild exaggeration of the empirical findings that inspire it.”
Regarding the possibility of a full-fledged consciousness in the right hemisphere, Dennett goes on to simply dismiss the idea,
“We know it is a fantasy… not because it couldn’t be the case… but simply because it isn’t the case that commisurotomy leaves in its wake… such a separate self.”
Dennett’s manner, and the manner of many critics of Sperry’s findings, is indicative of an understandably human response—our natural irritation with being presented new evidence that calls for an uncomfortable re-thinking of things we’ve become cozy with. I call it the “Do we have to talk about that again?” syndrome. However, any number of philosophers do “buy” and support Sperry’s evidence of dual consciousness. The late Roland Puccetti, former Professor Emeritus at Dalhousie University in Canada, was a famous supporter of Sperry and ”dual consciousness.” 3 Puccetti ardently refuted Dennett’s logic in his 1993 critique, Roland Puccetti: Dennett on the Split Brain.4
Sarcasm and Subtle Intimidation Dampen Healthy Debate
It is easier to default to debating new evidence with sarcasm, or summarily dismissing it altogether, than to, with curiosity, suspend judgment and give the evidence thorough, thoughtful consideration. Michael Gazzaniga tells of spending time with his friend and colleague, George Miller. Riding the elevator together at Rockefeller University, the great American psychologist, William Estes got on with them. Having met Estes before, Miller introduced Gazzaniga, “Do you know Mike? He’s the guy that discovered the split brain phenomena in humans.” Estes replied sarcastically, “Great, now we have two systems we don’t understand.” Oppositional response to Sperry’s work has had a distinctly more human flavor of contentiousness than scientific objectivity.
Iain McGilchrist, prominent English psychiatrist, doctor, writer, neuroimaging researcher, and former Oxford literary scholar, is a proponent of the idea the divided brain has had a profound impact upon Western culture. In his book, The Master and His Emissary (2009), he writes, “It follows that the hemispheres need to co-operate, but I believe they are in fact involved in a sort of power struggle, and that this explains many aspects of contemporary Western culture.” But he also writes of the challenges in the current controversial climate faced by neuroscientists in favor of Sperry’s hemispheric specialization and dual consciousness concepts, saying, “…it is no longer respectable for a neuroscientist to hypothesize on the subject.”
Are many of the neuroscientists who see the deep validity of Sperry’s work and findings “cowed” into silence? Is the vocal disdain of established neuroscience intimidating to the point where, as McGilchrist puts it, neuroscientists “don’t like to talk about ‘it’ anymore?” I think he is right. In this debate, however, the stakes are high. In my own small area of the universe I have discovered with hundreds of clients that there is deep existential pain associated with their inner conflict—they are dissatisfied with who they think they are. The pain is needless in the sense that when they learn the truth of the architecture of their brain, they discover a deserved escape from self-doubt and self-condemnation. Rekindled is their hope they are OK, and inner peace within reach.
Application, Application, Application!
What do I see that Sperry’s skeptics do not see? Application! With 25 years experience coaching thousands of business people, fully one third of them suffered in secret with problematic intrapersonal, or inner conflict. Sperry’s model of dual streams of consciousness is the only isomorphic (similarity of form) and satisfying explanation for their inner experience of themselves, and the only one that frees them to do something about it.
If I have my way, the notoriety and understanding of Sperry’s discovery applied to the dynamics of intrapersonal conflict will be as commonly known as the symptoms of the common cold—and—the integrative methods for curing inner conflict will become as widely known and available as the curative powers of a peaceful night’s rest.
I am not alone in seeing the profound implication and application of dual consciousness to inner conflict. Fredric Schiffer, prominent New England doctor, psychiatrist, and brain researcher on the faculty at the Harvard Medical School and attending psychiatrist at McLean Hospital, has worked for 35 years counseling Harvard students troubled by inner conflict using Sperry’s framework of dual consciousness. He has had amazingly positive results. His work was featured on ABC’s 20/20 news magazine in 1998. Interestingly, Schiffer’s empirical evidence of the incidence of inner conflict matches mine. His studies show about one in three people experience problematic inner conflict.
In his book, Of Two Minds (1998), he says, “Thus far the evidence is overwhelming for the existence of two autonomous minds in split brain patients.” And, Wada testing (which I featured in an earlier article) of ordinary people he says gives “…clear demonstration of two distinct personalities, one in each hemisphere…” of people who have not had split brain surgery. In Of Two Minds, Schiffer fervently and eloquently makes application of Sperry’s dual consciousness model to explain and understand intrapersonal conflict
I see for the future a much more robust and deeper exploration of the divided brain with profound implications for species-wide development; and the discovery of doors we did not even know were there—doors to breakthrough discoveries of human nature and, for many, a probability of finding the path to inner peace first, then a zest for the creativity, fascination, and enjoyment life as a human on earth can offer.
Standing in the way of profoundly understanding and explaining inner conflict is the oblivion of obscurity Sperry’s dual consciousness discovery finds itself in. The “dark side” of neuroscience and neurophilosophy is keeping a lid on the vast, unexplored possibilities Sperry’s work opened the door to. That will change.
Putting All This in Context
In working with people, they sometimes tell me, “I heard that scientists disproved the ‘two-brain’ idea long ago.” I ask them, “What did you hear?” and they say, “Well, I don’t know exactly. Just that scientists have proven it’s a myth.” I confess, I get irritated when I hear that, not at them, but at the state of affairs that would so dismissively, and without real evidence, dispatch a body of knowledge so pivotal to their future well-being.
If they are among the one in three people who experience inner conflict, when I present them with the evidence of their own “dual consciousness” they are jaw-droppingly amazed, and immediately relate it to their own personal experience as a match! They begin to understand themselves as never before, and are so relieved to discover, “I’m not crazy, I am not a freak.” They learn their inner conflict is “supported” and enabled by the very architecture of their brain. Dual consciousness explains their inner experience, making perfect sense out of their former confusion.
My purpose here was to aggressively take on the question, “Have Sperry’s findings of two independent streams of consciousness, one in each hemisphere of the brain, been disproven?” It is a challenge I would be derelict in not addressing head on. The stakes in the human costs of intrapersonal conflict are too high. It is my belief many conflicts between individuals, groups, and even wars could have been averted, but for the inner conflict of individuals and world leaders. Inner peace is the key to outer peace.
Understanding the application of Sperry’s discovery of dual consciousness to the lives of everyday people experiencing inner conflict is the key to its value. To use a, for better or worse, “crude” analogy, the combustible properties of petroleum have been known at least as far back as the 4th century. But a widespread understanding of its possibilities and the demand for it did not grow until a brand new application for its use came along in the early 20th century—the automobile.
Sperry’s discovery languishes for an application—intrapersonal conflict is that application. The existence of two streams of autonomous consciousness, one in each hemisphere of the brain, has not been debunked nor disproven.
I have demonstrated there is actually no substantial or scientific evidence that has been put forward disproving Sperry’s conclusions. What has been put forward is unsubstantiated opinion—opinion that does not take in the whole picture of the large bodies of converging research supporting Sperry’s work and conclusions. Those who look at the totality of evidence come away convinced.
I have shown that brain theories supposedly in opposition to Sperry’s do not oppose it at all, and easily co-exist with the concepts of hemispheric specialization and dual streams of consciousness. And I have shown that a major impediment to accepting Sperry’s findings is the inertia (unwillingness to move) of neuroscience, and the unintended prejudicial tendencies of current human nature. The future will see all of that changed.
My greatest desire for you, if you suffer with inner conflict, is that you have begun the realization that you are not defective, you are not abnormal, and you are not alone; that you are beginning to understand yourself in a dramatically new way and experience the relief that can bring. That a door you did not even know was there is now opening for you to repair, build and improve—with the greatest intentionality and commitment—the formerly invisible yet problematic relationship within your own mind. This relationship is between the two most important “people” in your life—the amazing consciousnesses of your left and right hemispheres.
If you do not suffer with inner conflict, I have two greatest desires for you. The first is that you also see a most extraordinary opportunity to get to know “your selves” far better than you ever have; to learn the individual contributions of each to your quality of life; to mold, shape, and grow that relationship into an experience of more fulfillment and satisfaction, and making more of an inspirational difference in your life.
You do know people, some intimately, who suffer with inner conflict. My second wish is you gain a new understanding of what they experience when their inner conflict is in full swing, and the challenges they face as “tortured souls.”
If you are a mental health practitioner working with clients, my greatest desire is you begin to see the endemic nature of inner conflict—that 1 in 3 clients walking through your door suffer with it, and that it is the single greatest impediment to their acceptance and love of themselves, experiencing a life of fulfillment, satisfaction, enjoyment, and making their positive mark and difference in the world. I encourage you to discover how to recognize inner conflict and develop for yourself the methodologies that enable your clients to free themselves of it.
In coming articles I will reveal the dynamics of inner conflict, how it works, how it gets started, how to resolve it, and much more.
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