Like most people, I conceive of myself as a unitary individual with a singular identity. That’s how the government—and my family—looks at me (one social security number, one wife, one mom).
But there may be more to me than meets the I.
Researching my novel-in-progress led me to the book “The Future of the Mind” by physicist Michio Kaku. In it, he explores, among other things, the plight of “split-brain” patients. Bear with me as I try to give a brief overview of what that means.
The most fundamental of questions. and good listening as you read—it will make your right brain happy.
You’re no doubt familiar with the idea of left-brain vs. right-brain. It has been part of pop culture for decades. As Kaku explains, “Dr. Roger W. Sperry of the California Institute of Technology won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for showing that the two hemispheres of the brain are not exact carbon copies of each other but actually perform different duties. This result created a sensation in neurology (and also spawned a cottage industry of dubious self-help books that claim to apply the left-brain, right-brain dichotomy to your life.)”*
Kaku goes on to describe studies of patients in whom the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain, was surgically severed. (These were epileptics who had suffered life-threatening seizures caused by dangerous feedback loops between the two sides of the brain, so the severing served a purpose and had a benefit).
Interestingly, the studies showed that the two sides of the brain seemed capable of operating independently. When the two hemispheres are connected, the left brain (more analytical, the seat of verbal skills, often the final decision maker) dominates. But it turns out that the right brain, when liberated from the strictures of the left, may in fact have a mind of its own. “Dr. Sperry, after detailed studies of split-brain patients, finally concluded there could be two distinct minds operating in a single brain.”**
So where does that leave “me?”
What fascinates me most about this idea is the psychological comfort it provides me. I have written before on this blog of my struggles with anxiety and my search to feel less alone in the world. The thought that what I think of as “I” is not singular but composed of other consciousnesses makes me feel less alone. And it relieves “me” of complete responsibility for “my” well being. It means that there’s more than one way of being/doing/thinking.
The sad and terrifying thing is that my other brain’s voice may be completely drowned out by the somewhat commanding and authoritarian left brain, which makes me feel great compassion for the right brain. It also confirms my (?) intuition that intuition and non-verbal skills need more nurturing, particularly in myself but perhaps more generally in a population that values verbal gymnastics, rationality, and logic. So, recently, “I”—that is, the left-brained, dominant I—have begun consciously acknowledging the mute, imprisoned right-brained I. It has been a fascinating practice.
Given all this, perhaps the “editorial we” would be a more accurate voice to write in than first person.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief dive into neurobiology. We realize that talk of multiple consciousnesses in a single brain might be viewed in some quarters as cause for concern. We sincerely hope you won’t be calling the men in the white coats for us.
Interesting side notes
I am watching the fourth season of American Horror Story – Freak Show, which features the so-called Siamese Sisters: two heads who share a body (or a body with two heads, if you prefer).
A recent episode of the Hidden Brain podcast on keeping resolutions highlighted research showing that people did better at sticking with their commitments if they referred to themselves in the second or third person, rather than conducting their inner-voice discussions in first person. Related to the split-brain idea? You decide. Or you.
*Kaku, Michio, The Future of the Mind, 2015, p. 37 **Ibid., p. 38
And while you’re reading…
More new flash fiction shortlisted at Mash Stories: “So She Says.” Thanks for reading, and I’d love more kudos!