Epilepsy, Split-Brain Patients & The Interpreter

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1 in 26 Americans will develop epilepsy in their lifetime. This affects young children and seniors more than any other age groups. An estimated 3 million Americans (211,000 Canadians) and 65 million people worldwide currently live with epilepsy. Each year at least 200,000 Americans (15,500 Canadians) are diagnosed with epilepsy. In two-thirds of patients diagnosed with epilepsy, the cause is unknown.

Bottom Line:

Epilepsy sucks.

While I (mostly) write about literary-related topics on this site, I also (occasionally) write about random things going on in the world that I find thought-provoking/disturbing. So imagine my joy when I came across the link below and realized I could knock a murder of crows out of the sky with one swift boot to a parliament of owls! Yipee! I screamed out loud into my new Japanese-designed Scream Jar. I’ll get to write about epilepsy, which now affects my family, the literature tied to it, and how severing the corpus callosum (called a corpus callosotomy) explains how and why the newest member of Outta’ Sync, Donnie T., does what he does. Ooh ooh ooh. This should be good.

As part of my mea culpa for missing the opportunity recently to post something on epilepsy on February 13, International Epilepsy Day, I thought I’d atone for my wicked sins and wax poetic about a fascinating article related to the subject.

Patrik Edblad (@Selfication) has written a thoroughly engaging piece on epilepsy, advances in neurosurgery and how it pertains to the majority of us who do not suffer from this horrific condition but can benefit from its empirical research and findings. Titled “This is the First Thing You Need to Do to Change Your Life,” Mr. Edblad is a certified mental trainer, writer and author of The Habit Blueprint.

Most of us know that we have two hemispheres to our brain. How they interact on a neurological level, however, was not well understood until a young go-getter named Wilder Penfield began carrying out groundbreaking research on the brain, specifically on epileptic patients, through McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in the 1930s.

The results of his work were staggering and would change the way we look at everything from how we think, perceive the world, and even open the door to contemplate whether there was scientific evidence for proof of a human soul.

But back to Mr. Edblad and how this pertains to the 99.1% of the world not directly affected by epilepsy and (or so we thought) its attendant neurological findings. Building on Dr. Penfield’s studies, cognitive neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry performed tests on split-brain patients in the 1960s, shortly after Penfield retired. How is this related to epilepsy, you ask? That is a goodly and fairly question. In extreme cases of the condition, patients will undergo brain surgery and have that Bosphorus-like bridge cut between the left and right sides of the brain, essentially severing all contact between the two halves. The question then becomes: How does this affect our speech, perception, cognitive abilities and rational thinking? By the 1980s, Dr. Gazzaniga conducted a new experiment on split-brain patients. Per the above-mentioned article:

In one example, he started by flashing a patient with two pictures. The left hemisphere saw a chicken foot, and the right saw a snow scene. Thanks to previous research, he knew that the left is where language skills are centered, and the right is holistic and sensual and has no words for what it sees.

Gazzaniga then asked the subject to choose related images for each picture from an array visible to both brain halves. These were things like a fork, a shovel, a chicken and a toothbrush. The patient chose a chicken to go with the foot and a shovel to go with the snow. So far, everything made sense.

Next, Gazzaniga asked the subject why he chose those particular items. The patient quickly replied: “The chicken goes with the foot.” The left hemisphere had seen the foot. It also had a good rationale for connecting it with the chicken and words to describe it with.

But his left brain hadn’t seen the picture of the snow, only the shovel. He had chosen the shovel instinctively with no conscious explanation for it.

When Gazzaniga asked him to explain his choice, the subject searched his left brain for the symbolic representation of the snow and found nothing. But instead of saying “I don’t know,” he looked down at the picture of the shovel and said: “And you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.”

The left hemisphere just threw out an explanation of what it could see: the shovel…The left brain takes the information it gets and tells a story about it to our conscious awareness. Gazzaniga refers to this system as “The Interpreter”, and it seems always to want to explain our moods and actions after they’ve occurred.

So how, the astute reader asks yet again, does this relate to the average person who neither suffers from epilepsy nor has had their Bosphorus Bridge cut? It’s all about perception, baby. And for Mr. Edblad it’s not all doom and gloom. Au contraire, he argues, this research proves “empowering” to us all (and perfectly explains how Donnie T. actually believes the verbal diarrhea flowing out of his rotten facehole on a daily basis):

We tend to take our thoughts very seriously. If a thought pops up and tells us about what’s going on in a particular situation, we’re likely to consider that thought an objective truth.

But it’s not. It’s just The Interpreter in your left hemisphere putting together yet another narrative to make sense of the world. And it does so with incomplete information, limited senses, and a ton of cognitive biases that distort the story…Accepting that we perceive the world inaccurately can be a tough pill to swallow…Because if there’s no way to know for sure what is going on, that means you get to choose what to believe.

And by becoming aware of The Interpreter, you can develop the ability to question the thoughts and narratives in your head. You can examine your beliefs, remove the ones that aren’t helpful, and put empowering convictions in their place. That practice can have huge implications for your life.

I encourage you to read the full article and the other related links if you’re interested in the subject. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a list of books about epilepsy, both fiction and non-fiction, here’s as good a place as any to start.

However, if you want a more general book on the subject of split-brain patients and perception – and easily the book with the bestestest title ever – check out The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks. It may just rock your world, er, hemispheres.


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