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May 2008

Disconnecting Your Left Brain

DreamingmoiI've been interested in meditation and meditative (not altered) states since I was a kid. Probably growing up in the 60s and 70s influenced that, but I was never into getting stoned or high; I was interested in what my own brain could do in terms of its own normal functioning. Transcendental meditation was just becoming popular about then, and was considered pretty kooky where I grew up, but it piqued my interest anyway, and led to my occasional reading about Buddhist meditation practices, especially Zen. My house was a little on the chaotic side—not physically, but emotionally—and the sense of calmness meditation claimed to offer attracted me as well. As an only child, I spent a lot of time with myself, thinking about why people act the way they do, and what motivates them, so an interest in psychology wasn't surprising either. On my own, I studied dream analysis (I'm a vivid dreamer), read a lot of Oliver Sacks, and dabbled in psychology, including three years of Gestalt therapy. Neurology and neuroanatomy and psycho-neurology are all topics I keep up with pretty regularly as a "lay" reader, and I've got a good basic ground in biology that helps.

Lately, I've been more and more interested in Buddhist meditation, and both what it does to our brains and what it achieves on an individual basis. Because of the Dalai Lama's interest in science, there are more and more studies of "your brain on meditation," which I find a fascinating blend of spirituality and science. So when I ran across this article in the Times today on Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist working at Harvard who had a stroke that "disconnected" her left brain from her right for nearly 8 years, and experienced what Buddhists would call Nirvana as a result, I was fascinated. Turns out she's given a talk at TED that is literally mind blowing. Watch:

That the Times article is in the Fashion & Style section and not the Science or Health section says a lot about scientific fears of and misunderstandings about the non-rational. The brain has long been recognized to have two distinct functions and ways of processing the world (PDF). The shorthand is that scientists are generally left-brained and artists are right-brained, but we're all of us a bit of each,with one side more dominant than the other.

Thanks to the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution though, our culture has come to value the left brain's linear, strictly rational thinking over the right brain's more holistic, imagistic, intuitive and emotional ways of processing the world. The remarks of one of Dr. Taylor's colleagues from Harvard sums up that attitude nicely (or not so nicely):

“When I saw her on the TED video, at first I thought, Oh my god, is she losing it,” said Dr. Francine M. Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where Dr. Taylor once worked. Dr. Benes makes clear that she still thinks Dr. Taylor is an extraordinary and competent woman. “It is just that the mystical side was not apparent when she was at Harvard,” Dr. Benes said.

For "mysticism" read "irrationality," which is the cardinal sin of science. But if Dr. Taylor's experience shows anything, it's that that "mysticism" resides in all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. We completely discount the right brain at our own peril. Rationality is not everything. It has its own pitfalls, many of which reside in the refusal to see the influence of our own irrationality on our own behavior. And it's quite some insight to come to the realization that we are all inextricably interconnected, and experience it in such a visceral way. I agree with her that we need more of this. Rationality alone will not stop people from killing each other.


Signs of Intelligent Life

DreamingartI seem to be a little late to this party too, as usual, but I just saw the video of the elephant painting what looks to me like a self-portrait with a flower on Cute Overload. I got chills. It really freaked me out. In the background all the tourists are clapping and awww-ing like, "that's so cute." And all the while, this enormous trunk is delicately holding this tiny brush, hovering over the paper as though musing on the precise spot to start, stabbing down, drawing these perfect lines in one go to make a perfect cartoon of an elephant holding a bright flower in its trunk: a quick line for the ear, a dot for the eye, no tusks because she's too young to have any, four legs in perspective, a curvy line to suggest the ear. It's perfect. Perfect. The first thing I thought of was the cave drawings at Lascaux. The bison and horses there have the same clean lines. It wasn't people doing them. It was elephants. Wouldn't that be a good joke?

There are a number of painting elephants, apparently, and have been before this. Two Russian-born conceptual artists have been teaching Thai elephants, who are out of logging jobs due to deforestation, how to paint. You can buy their abstract doodles on Novica. Yeah, so elephants paint like cats paint. Watch this vid and see if you think it's the same thing.

Now take a look at those Lascaux paintings again. See any similarities?

Here's why this video terrified me: If Lascaux was one of the first glimmers of intelligence from genus homo, what does this painting say about genus elephas? Elephants are one of the few species besides humans who recognize themselves in mirrors. This suggests some kind of self-awareness. And art like this is deceptively simple.   Just getting the two legs in the proper perspective, behind the others, is a feat kids don't manage to master right off when they draw. It was the wavy line to suggest the ear that really chilled me though, because that seems to me to show a sense of abstraction, a higher cognitive function. Who's to say this isn't a self-portrait?

Watching this drawing being made was like watching ET trying to communicate, and Christy Brown drawing his first letter in "My Left Foot," and the recent video "In My Language," which gives the lie to the idea that all autistic people are mentally deficient. In all three cases, we find intelligence where we least expect it, revealed in an unexpected way. Which only makes me wonder how many other species, what other species, we've underestimated and failed to communicate with or even consider, in our tool-building arrogance.